Those that are new to sewing will come across a lot of unfamiliar terms and some difficult measuring processes. So, it can be a little overwhelming when asked to choose a length from a bolt of fabric. What is a bolt, how wide are they, and what else do you need to know about these products?
There is no easy answer to this question. You have heard the term how long is a piece of string? Well, similar rules apply here. A bolt of cotton in a sewing store next to a bolt of polyester or wool could be a completely different width. There are some general rules to keep in mind, but it is still important to treat each piece of material individually and check the labels.
Because there is such confusion around bolts and rolls of fabric and their sizes, we need to start at the beginning. What is a bolt and what is a roll? From there, we can get a better idea of what to expect from sizes. However, there is more to choosing a length of material than understanding the width of a bolt. We need to know why width is so important and what to consider when asking for a certain size.
What Does a Bolt of Fabric Mean?
There are different ways of buying fabric either online or in a store. When shopping online, you can ask for a certain measurement and not have to worry about where it comes from. But, when you go into a store you will see masses of fabrics and patterns carefully packaged and display for you to choose from.
Many of these compact packages will be bolts and will consist of large pieces of folded material staff will then take cuttings from. The store will buy in bulk from manufacturers and take large pieces straight from the loom. It makes a lot more sense to store them that way and cut to order than to create smaller products that may not serve as much purpose. The exception to this is small fat quarters that are little squares for small sewing and craft projects.
Why Is It Called a Bolt?
The name bolt comes from an old-fashioned English term for the metal fixtures that were used to hold lengths of fabric. As with a lot of old sewing terms, the name stuck around when we switched to cardboard.
What Is the Difference Between a Bolt and a Roll?
You are sure to find plenty of guides that talk about bolts and rolls being the same thing. However, the term is not as interchangeable as you might think. There are differences in the presentation of the material and the purpose of the item.
There are two ways that fabric stores might display their materials. It all depends on the way that the fabric is shipped and whether it is then transferred to an alternative storage solution for convenience. Quite often when you go to a haberdashery or sewing store, you will find materials wrapped around pieces of card. This is a great way for stores to stack their materials on shelves as they are nice and flat. These items are also quite compact. You see enough of the design to know what you might want to buy, then you can have staff take the piece out and open up the fabric for a better look. These blocks are the bolts.
Rolls are different. This is where you have full pieces of fabric wrapped around a tube. These tend to showcase the full width of the material, as bolts are often half the width with the material folded in half. While harder to display, you can see rolls fixed to walls for a better look and feel. It may also be more convenient for providers to use the roll with the full width from the loom, just as it is when it arrives from the factory.
What Is the Standard Size of a Bolt of Fabric and Are Bolts Always the Same Width?
No, they aren’t. This is where things start to get very confusing while dealing with fabric bolts and rolls. First of all, you need to be sure that a fabric bolt is either a single or double to be clear on the full width. The doubles are the ones folded in the center and will probably be twice the width of the single.
There is some level of standardization when working with specific materials, however, because the width of the bolt relates to the size of the loom used to create the material. Any piece that comes from this tool, regardless of pattern, should have the same width. Still, machinery varies between providers, and you can see variations. Then there is the fact that different types of fabric have different widths because of how they are made.
How Many Yards Per Bolt of Fabric?
When talking about the yards in a bolt of fabric, we mean the length. The width is too small for this to work as a yard measurement. Generally speaking, a bolt of fabric is either 40 or 100 yards in length. You can ask for a certain number of yards of fabric from the seller, and they will measure across the length of the bolt and cut this for you.
How Many Feet in a Bolt of Fabric?
If you are more comfortable working in feet than yards, then the good news is that that there is a simple conversion process of three feet in a yard.
How Many Meters in a Bolt of Fabric?
If you prefer to work with the metric system rather than the imperial yard measurements, this equates to either 37 or 91 m. This doesn’t make much of a difference and sewing stores should be able to convert to meters for you if you ask them too.
How Many Inches in a Bolt of Fabric?
Once we get to the width of a bolt of fabric, you will see the measurement in inches. The width is usually either 45 or 60 inches and you should get a good indication of which it is from the label on the bolt.
Size Differences by Location
It is also helpful to know that this lack of standardization can also affect fabric sizes when buying online. If you get your material from the same store each time, you will get a good idea of their supplies and labeling and start to understand the widths of the bolt. You might find producers of 40-inch bolts that are consistently worth working with and that could make things easier. But, if you buy online, you might not have that same consistency. You also need to consider if the online seller is from a different market, such as the UK, where common measurements can be different.
How Does Bolt Length Differ Depending on the Fabric?
As mentioned above, the widths of fabric bolts will vary depending on the fabric used. You can stack lots of patterns of cotton together and find they are about the same width, and the same with wool. But, when you put the cotton one on top of the wool one, you will see a difference. Remember that the width of the bolt comes from the width of the loom as the material goes straight from the machine to a tube and onto the bolt.
If you want a nice bolt of cotton for a t-shirt, you should find that these are typically 42 inches wide, or 1.067 meters. There is a big difference when you get to wool because this is usually 60 inches wide, or 1.524 meters wide. You really start to see the difference that this makes when you calculate the square yardage of the bolt from the full width to the full length. With cotton, this is 116.667 square yards whereas wool is 166.667.
How To Measure the Width of a Bolt of Fabric?
Because there is such variation between these fabrics and their sizes, you can’t take anything for granted. Don’t go into a store assuming the piece you want is 60 inches when it is actually 45 and you end up shortchanging yourself. The best thing to do is to get familiar with the labels on the sides of the bolts.
Bolt labels should be a treasure-trove of information to help you make the best decision. You will find information on the materials, their origin, and the fibers used. But there will also be precise information on the dimensions. You can then see just how many inches you are working with and how to relate this to your project. At the same time, you can feel the material to check if it is a single or double bolt and get an idea of the quality.
This is also a good time to take advantage of the expertise of the staff instore. They are the ones that will take the bolt or roll of fabric down, head over to the cutting area, and then cut the right length for you. Don’t try and do this yourself because you might not be allowed back. The store doesn’t want you going wrong and messing up their merchandise. These interactions with the staff are also the perfect time to get clarification on the width of the project and to ask other questions about the material.
Why Is It So Important to Understand Fabric Widths?
You may be reading all this on the variations and lack of standardization and wonder why this all matters so much. When we buy fabric we ask for it in meters or yards by its length, not by its width. So, why should we bother figuring out the width of a bolt of fabric, a fabric roll, or anything else?
It is all about the surface area of the material. When we have a precise measurement for the length and the width of a piece of fabric, we know exactly how much we have to work with. This needs to match the dimensions calculated when working on pattern pieces for a sewing project. The pattern pieces, when adjusted for the right size for the wearer, add up to a complete surface area. You need the right width and length to arrange those pieces and cut them out with room to spare.
Therefore, a misunderstanding of the width of a bolt of fabric could make a massive difference in the amount of fabric you take home. A few yards of 45-inch-wide fabric compared to a few yards of a 60 inch one could be enough of a drop in surface area to leave you short for a whole pattern piece.
Calculate Width X Length and Get More Than You Need
It is also important to go for more than you think that you will actually use when buying a piece of material for your sewing project. You could be fine with precise calculation as long as you don’t make any mistakes along the way. Give yourself room to cut out replacement pieces. Also, you need to consider the excess fabric required for precise pattern matching. The more complex the pattern, the more fabric you will need. Then there is the fact that if you buy all your fabric in one piece, you can be sure of the same quality and tone throughout the garment. At least fabric on a bolt or roll tends to get cheaper the more you order.
To summarize, while you will see guides tell you the average width of a bolt of fabric, there are lots of variations to watch out for. That is why it is so important to understand the difference between bolts and rolls, as well as single and double bolts. Also, read the labels and don’t skimp when selecting the right length. Do this with every material you buy so you are never caught out.
I’m a stay at home mom with our two kids. I really enjoy doing crafts with my kids however, that is typically a challenge with how limited their attention span can be and how messy it gets. So, I’m always looking for ways to make crafting an enjoyable experience and creating fond memory for all of us.