How to Shop for Fabrics

Making your own home accents can save you a bundle and give you a very put-together look. Over the years, I’ve made window valances, cornice boards, pillow covers, slipcovers, curtains, shower curtains, tablecloths, table runnersFabric aisle, and even a fabric-covered waste basket. And it’s saved me literally hundreds of dollars.

I was fortunate to have learned to sew in high school (I lost a bet with my mom that I could hem pants and ended up bringing back pedal pushers and getting enrolled in home economics!) and have found I much prefer home decorating projects to apparel.

But, the fabric store can be a daunting place for a home decorator. While making some of your own textile projects for your room can save money (and isn’t as hard as you might think), many people get overwhelmed and give up too soon. So many choices, not just in patterns but in types of fabric … where to begin? With just a few details in mind, your stress and overwhelm in the fabric store can be drastically reduced.


1. Know what kind of fabric your project needs.

If you’re working on home accents such as pillow covers, slipcovers, window treatments, etc., you’ll want to find the “home décor” department in the fabric store. There are several differences between home décor and apparel fabrics. Fabrics meant for home décor (“home dec”) use are typically heavier, especially if they’re meant for upholstery, and have been tested for wear and durability. If you compare the feel of a home dec fabric with an apparel fabric, the difference is apparent. Some are even woven from stain-resistant fibers, or have been treated for stain-resistance. Also, home dec fabric is 54 inches wide, whereas apparel fabric is usually 36 or 45 inches wide.

If you’re not sure what type of fabric your project requires, ask the staff at your fabric store. I’ve often been directed to even better options than I originally planned!

On this trip to the fabric store I was looking for outdoor fabric to make new covers for some existing lumbar pillows for my patio re-do. Outdoor fabrics are a specialty type of home dec fabrics that are meant to withstand the elements. They’re usually polyester or acrylic. They have either been surface treated with an ultraviolet protectant (so they won’t fade in the sun), or are woven from fibers that are inherently fade-resistant. There are definitely different levels of quality outdoor fabric, with brands like Sunbrella® and Outdura® leading the way.

Luckily, this store had a wide variety of outdoor fabrics clearly marked and this is where I focused my efforts.


2. Know your palette: compare, sort and eliminate.

I know my inspiration fabric for this project is a print, so I was looking for a stripe, or perhaps a smaller print, to complement that fabric. The colors of my palette—sea blue, lime and coral/orange—were also top of mind. Already the field of fabric candidates has narrowed.

All of the outdoor fabric was marked $19.99 per yard, and I had a 50 percent off coupon, so price was not an issue as I chose among the fabrics, but sometimes cost can be a factor in your selection.

The selection process is really a bit like the Goldilocks story: you just keep trying until something is just right.

Fabric #1

Fabric 1

This fabric drew me to this store, as I had seen it online at the store’s site. (Tip: Comparison shop online for sales and selection before getting in your car.) Once I found it in the sea of fabric bolts, I liked the muted tones of the stripes, but when I looked at the care instructions (printed on the end of the bolt), I saw that it was dry-clean only. (See “How to Read a Fabric Label” below.) Well, for me that took it out of the running. This fabric is going to be used next to a swimming pool, so it’s going to get wet! Plus, I need something I can hose off or throw in the washer.

Luckily, there were many other options.

Fabric #2

Fabric 2

This next fabric seemed like a good option. It had all three of my colors, and it’s machine washable. It’s made in Malaysia. I liked it, and it could be “it” if there’s nothing better.  So, I kept looking.

Fabric #3

Fabric 3

 Ah-ha! This next one had all of my colors, a smaller stripe, a bit of yellow, it’s more muted than the last one, and it would go really well with my dishes! It even has a thin brown stripes that relate to the bronze-colored patio furniture. This looked like it could be … oh, wait … “spot clean with water free agent/professional cleaning recommended.” Again, not good for my application!

Fabric #4

Fabric 4

OK – now we’re talking! This fabric had my key colors of sea blue and lime, with a dash of orange. It also introduces a bit of yellow, which I know will be used in the dining area, and a hint of cobalt blue which will tie in to some cobalt blue tiles in the table that will go between the chaises. (I couldn’t find turquoise tiles, and was worried the cobalt would be too dark. This fabric would be the perfect bridge!) Plus, this fabric is washable and made in the U.S.A. Winner! Here’s the label of my winning fabric:

 Fabric label 3


3. Know the yardage your project requires.

We’re not out of the store yet! After selecting the fabric, take it to the cutting table where a store assistant will cut it for you.

It’s important to know the dimensions of your project before heading to the fabric store, as these figures will determine how much fabric (yardage) you need to buy. The finished size of the pillows I’m working on is 21 inches by 13 inches. This fabric is 54 inches wide, so even with a seam allowance of 1.25 inches, I know I can get both pieces out of one width of fabric. And, with a yard equaling 36 inches, I can get by with just 1 yard of fabric (13+13+6 inch seam and overlap allowance).  I should have just enough left over to make tie backs on the outdoor curtains.

Hurray! Total cost for fabric: $10.

So there you have it! Three simple steps to conquering your fear of fabric. Good luck on your next home décor project!


How to Read Fabric Label

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Backyard Update: Inspiration & Organization

A room design—in this case, a backyard patio—often includes an “inspiration piece” around which the color scheme and mood can be created.

Backyard organize 009

Over the weekend I found these pillows, along with some coordinating seat cushions at Home Goods for a good price — $20 for 2 pillows and $30 for 2 cushions. (Shopping online, comparable pillows in outdoor fabric start at $20 each.) And, these are made in the U.S.A. I love the print and the colors! This print is my jumping off point for the color scheme for the backyard update.

Backyard organize 011

I have several metal accessories such as lanterns and candle holders that can use a new coat of paint, and that’s a perfect way to use color. By rummaging through my paint collection, I found a few metal primers and a metal top coat that I can use (saves me money!) and a spring green interior/exterior spray paint that pulls out the green in the pillows. I also like the coral-orange color and the sea blue in the pillows. I found the same brand of interior/exterior spray paint that I already had at Michaels craft store that pick up those hues so this is the palette:

Outdoor palette 001


Total cost for the paint: $13. As I shop for and create new accessories for the patio, I’ll keep both the print and the color palette in mind. If possible, it’s a good idea to carry your inspiration item with you and/or paint swatches.


Getting Organized

And this leads to the next step of the makeover: organizing.

In terms of my decorating strategy, to organize has two meaning: (1) to see what you already have; and then (2) assemble everything you need before starting the project. For the first part, simply shop in your house—see what you already have on hand that can be used or repurposed for the space you’re working on.

Look around your home for accessories you’re not using any longer – what would it look like with a coat of paint? Is it a durable finish that could go outside?

I collected everything that I currently use outside, or could be used out there, and put it in one place to see what I have. I included craft supplies and paint in additional accessories. This step helps the budget tremendously! (I’m sure I’ll come across more supplies, too.) Now with one glance, I can see the universe of resources at my disposal and create a more focused shopping list.

Backyard organize 005

I can certainly recover the red pillows (I swiped them from chairs on the front porch) to add some life to the chaise lounges, so I’ll look for some outdoor fabric.  I also have some great outdoor dinnerware and serving pieces in a bright aqua/lime color so I know I can re-use all of those accessories in the dining area.  I’ll look for some new placemats to bring even more color to the table.

Finally, I saw some outdoor nesting tables in a high-end accessory catalog that would go well in this space, but they’re a budget-busting $129! Instead, I’ll prime and paint some little-used outdoor tables and make a new tile tabletop for one. They’ll be “bunching tables” instead of nesting, but the cost will only be about $6 for the tile. (I already have mortar and grout on hand from a previous project.)

The next steps include prioritizing the various aspects of the makeover to make sure that the things that will have the most impact get priority both in terms of action and budget. Then, I’ll look at my schedule over the next few weeks and put my action plan on the calendar.

It’s coming along … stay tuned!

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Update the Outdoors for Under $250


Yard collage 1

OK, my backyard is looking pretty sad as the days get sunnier and warmer. Summer will be here before you know it, and it’s time to update and refresh some of the finishes. Over the next few weeks, I’ll share my plans and progress and ultimately the spiffy (hopefully!) new yard.

Because I’m focusing on finishes and accessories, I’m keeping the budget at a modest $250.


Yard and office 0413 028

In the main seating area, the furniture is still in good condition, it just needs a good cleaning. The area rug is from last season and is in good condition. The layout works.





Yard and office 0413 030

In the dining area, the table and chairs as well as the grill area are all functional. Placement and layout are good.






There is not enough seating in the backyard when I have people over, so one project will be to find more options for additional seating. Also, the main seating area could use another end table to make it more functional and more symmetrical.Yard and office 0413 044

The chaise lounges are functional but haven’t stood up to the beating sun very well. (They’re only 2 years old.) Painting the frames is not an option, and replacing them is out of the budget, so I’ll have to find a low-cost way to brighten up and freshen that area.

There aren’t enough accessories. Outdoor accessories must be weather-resistant, so metal works well. However, it can rust if not treated properly–and that has happened with several candle holders and lanterns. It’s a big space, with distinct zones for conversation, cooking and dining, and some relationship among those zones would be nice.

The biggest thing that’s not working is color. Everything is earth tones – brown, beige and  terracotta. My thoughts on that have changed! That was plan when I first installed the pool and new yard a few years ago — to keep everything earth tones to blend with the surrounding desert. While that’s certainly cohesive, there isn’t enough contrast with the hardscape pavers, the stucco walls and the surrounding desert.  The living areas need more life, more color and more softness.

I’m going to bring in color in several inexpensive ways: cushions, paint, accessories and plants. Several existing plants died or were severely damaged by a few colder-than-normal nights in January and these will need to be replaced. I’ve already met with my landscaper for my usual spring clean up (not included in the $250 budget), and we’re planning for more colorful plants around the fountain and flanking the seating area.


So here’s my plan for updating the outdoors:

1. Clean it up – cost: FREE

  • Clean all of the furniture per manufacturer’s instructions.
  • Sweep the patio.
  • Wash windows and screens.
  • Pruning and debris removal to be done by landscaper.

2. Find a new seating area – budget: $60

There’s a low retaining wall along the back of the property. I made it 18 inches so it could double as a sitting wall. However, brick pavers and rocks aren’t terribly comfortable, and I know I can do better.

  • Add cushions to sitting wall.
  • Add a drinks table.

3. Add color – budget: $120

All of the existing metal drinks tables and accessories can be primed and painted with exterior spray paint, and that will be just a few dollars. I’m allocating about $50 for plants and the remainder for pillows and new artwork and accessories. I’d love to splurge on some colored fire glass for the fire pit. We’ll see!

  • Find new pillows for settee.
  • Find or make pillows for the chaises.
  • Paint existing metal candle holders.
  • Paint lanterns to hang in trees.
  • Use colored rock or marbles in candle holders.
  • Plant colorful annuals in planters.
  • Repair and paint unused side tables.
  • Add colored fire glass to the fire pit?
  • Add more plants?
  • Make art piece?

4. Add softness – budget: $70

I’ve wanted drapes to set off the covered sitting area for years. I found some fairly inexpensive at Cost Plus World Market, so those are going in the plan!

  • Hang outdoor drapes to define main seating area.

The next step will be to find an inspiration piece and from there I can choose a c0lor palette. Then I’ll collect all of the accessories I currently use outside and shop my house for more pieces that could be used — or transformed for outdoor use.

For now, I can get started on the clean up and I’ll do some shopping over the weekend to refine both the decorating plan and the spending plan.

Stay tuned!

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Can glass tile be retro?

Ann Marie in Michigan writes:

I need some design advice!  I got retro pattern decals for my powder room and have a kind of retro light fixture.  I want to trim the boring mirror and I LOVE glass tile but I think that might look too contemporary.  But I would like to trim the mirror because it’s plain.  Now I’m thinking a metal frame would go the best with the retro look, but I’m OBSESSED with glass tile!  Thoughts?

Here’s the decals – I got them in orange, sage, and dark brown:



Ann Marie,

I agree – plain, boring mirrors need help! A few years ago I framed my guest bath mirror with fluted moldings, (see the before and after with instructions here) but I love your tile idea!

Glass mosaic tile is an ancient decorative art. (c) Koufax73/Fotolia

Like so many design elements, mosaic glass tiles are timeless, and can take on any era depending on what they’re paired with. Think about all the gorgeous mosaics, including glass tiles, that are still being uncovered from biblical times. It’s an ancient decorative art form!

Paired with modern metals and frosted glass and such, glass tile will look contemporary. But it’s also retro. I remember one of my favorite tables when I was a child had this wide band of mosaic tiles with polished beveled edges. It was from the ‘60s. The office where I worked in Paris was in an 1800’s apartment building; the walls of the former dressing room (which housed my computer station) were covered in small, iridescent glass mosaic tiles. I loved them and promised myself that one day I would have such a wall.

So with the decals (love them!), the color scheme and a retro light fixture, I think glass tiles will fit right in!

With retro colors and a retro pattern, modern glass tile will have a whole new look. (c) L.Bouvier/Fotolia

Work within your color scheme and search the Internet for inspirations on sites like If you can work in vintage tiles, great! But even brand new tiles, in the right colors and laid out in an authentic pattern, can pick up the retro vibe. Have fun and be sure to send me “after” pictures!

Hope this helps,


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Easy Sea-Inspired Home Decor

This season I found several beautiful bottles at one of my favorite home furnishings stores. Mixed with bright silver lanterns and mercury glass accessories, they added just the right nautical note for summer decorating.

Beachy Bottles

But at $20 to $40 each, the prices were too rich for my blood as they say. Topped with artificial corals, they had basic shapes and were not functional, just decorative. After spending too much time looking for similar corals to top my budget-minded versions, I remembered my personal collection of beachy finds – not just shells, but small bits of coral, broken sand dollars and the various things that wash up on the beach. The only item I purchased for this collection of sea-inspired accessories was a small flask-shaped bottle with cork; I had everything else on hand.  Total price: 99 cents at Michaels craft store.


  • Empty bottles
  • Jute twine
  • Decorative sand
  • Shells, sand dollars, beach finds

1. Wash and dry the bottles, removing any labels. Rub off any adhesive residue with a cotton ball soaked with rubbing alcohol. Here I used an olive oil bottle, a Thai chili sauce bottle and a purchased flask bottle. Keep the caps or corks intact. (Here I painted the cork with white craft paint, but it can be left natural depending on the look you prefer.)

2. Decide what sea item will be displayed on which bottle, keeping in mind the principles of balance, scale and proportion. I loved the shape of the sand dollar piece on the small flask bottle and thought it gave the bottle the look of an expensive perfume flacon. I chose a beach-claimed fragment that seemed to resemble a perching bird for the chili bottle. For the tall olive oil bottle, I found that a piece of hollow driftwood (purchased a few years ago from a craft store) fit the mouth of the bottle quite snugly and was the perfect height to compliment the bottle.

May June 2012 088

3. Wrap 1 to 2 inches of the bottle neck with the jute twine, securing each end with a bit of hot glue. For the chili bottle, I wrapped the bottle cap as well, winding the twine in concentric circles on the top of the cap.

Sea finial

4.  Attach the topper ornament with hot glue.

5. For the small flask, I filled it with decorative sand and carefully placed small shells and a tiny piece of driftwood inside.

Sand Dollar finial

6. Display your creations together or with other beach-inspired accessories and finds. Here I styled it on a silver tray with a layer of decorative sand, an interesting piece of something I found on the beach and votive that I decorated with more twine and a small shell.

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How to Create a Gallery Wall

Sher lobby 3

One of the places I find inspiration for my home decorating projects is a hotel or other public place that has been designed by a pro.  This weekend I attended a conference at the Sheraton Gateway in Los Angeles.

The lobby is a striking blend of black, white and gray with pops of red and modern chrome chandeliers. But my biggest takeaway from this lobby is the wall behind the check in desk where two long picture rails hold a variety of photos, drawings and prints. How versatile is that? The images are all different but it works. The frames are all different but they coordinate.

Here’s what makes this display work for me, and how to translate it for your home.

Quantity. There are a lot of images here which makes the display interesting without being distracting. Take it home: choose a longwall and use plenty of pictures! Find picture ledges that can be butted up against each other to create one long ledge (West Elm and Crate and Barrel both have a couple of styles that could work) or have a handyman install a custom ledge.

The left end ...

The left end …

Relative uniformity of size and shape. Notice that it’s not a jumble of large and small but most of the images are roughly the same size. To keep it interesting there are still some landscape and portrait orientations.

A strong background. The back wall is a solid dark color to make the art pop. Take it home: paint your wall or a large rectangle behind your ledges to make the wall even more of a feature in the room.

Harmonious color story. Most of the images are black and white with a few colorful images mixed in for interest. But even the color images are a limited mix of blues and reds to coordinate with the overall design of the space. Take it home: pick your palette carefully; convert color images to black and white and courageously mix family photos with pop art prints, maps and commercial photos.

Simple framing. Although the frames vary in style – some are plain, modern profiles and others are slightly ornate – again the palette is simple. Most are black, a few are cream, and washes of silver and a few touches of gold keep the look from being a jumbled mess. Also note the frequent use of wide white mats or images with a white background. Take it home: look at the frames you already have, and perhaps some you aren’t using right now. If they vary too widely in color, consider re-purposing them with a good spray paint to achieve a more coordinated look.

... the right end (in all, it's about 30 feet long!)

… the right end (in all, it’s about 30 feet long!)

This is a great solution for creating a family gallery, collecting years of vacation photos, or simply displaying a variety of images that you love and find inspiring.  For the holidays or special occasions, change out a few of the images to keep the look fresh and new.

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