Is there really a difference between fabric that is purchased in a chain store or purchased in a quilt store? As a quilter and having owned a quilt store for two years - I can profess that there IS a difference between chain-store and quilt store fabrics. Sometimes it's a big difference!
So why is quilt store quality fabric more expensive than chain store fabric? There are several reasons! Beautiful, heirloom quality, designer brand fabrics that most of us are familiar with are printed on high quality gray (greige) goods. Gray goods is the fabric that is in its natural state and ready to be printed on. High quality gray goods have thread counts of a minimum of 60 x 60. Higher thread counts give the fabric a silkier feeling. The weave is denser because of the thread count. That dense weave allows the fabric to live longer. It also allows the dyes to take better to the fabric. You'll find less fray, less bleeding, and your final quilt will last much longer.
Chain stores generally carry lower quality cotton fabrics. Because the fabric is lower quality, the stores can then charge a lower price per yard on their fabric. I've heard the following comment quite often: "I've found (designer's) fabric at (a certain) chain store for a really low price so it has to be good fabric!". Many fabric manufacturers will produce their same print design on several different qualities of gray goods. This way they can sell their lower quality of gray goods to chain stores and still make a profit.
When purchasing low cost cotton fabric for a quilt, you will need to wash the fabric before use to make sure it doesn't shrink and it doesn't bleed. The less expensive gray goods used in low quality fabric will often shrink and lay contorted afterward, and the colors may fade disproportionately. As in all fabric that is pre-washed, you will need to wash on the gentle cycle to alleviate excessive fraying and twisting. The excessive fraying is due to the loose weave that is used in low-grade gray goods.
Low-grade gray goods are often very stiff to handle as manufacturers use starch or sizing to conceal the fact that the fabric is of low quality. The sizing is unnatural and can give a shine to the fabric. This is why washing your fabric before use is important.
Two basic tests are recommended to try at the local chain store to see if your choice of fabric warrants being used in a quilt. One is to feel the fabric. Is it stiff or coarse? You will know immediately that what is in your hands is of low quality gray goods. The second test is to hold the fabric up to a light or the store window and see if you can see through it. The looser the weave - the cheaper the fabric.
The bolts of fabric you see in a quilt store or a chain store are manufactured and shipped from overseas! Did you know that there are only a few USA mills producing any type of fabric? Because of the cost of shipping to the United States, that also needs to be included into the end price of fabric per yard.
I sure hope that the quilts that I make for those I love, and for those folks that I donate to, are considered to be that of heirloom quality. I want them to be around for a long time. Don't you?