Magnetic Swatches System (Free Pattern)

I am so tickled with my newly-completed magnetic swatch system for my Kona Cotton Solids fabric swatches! Read on for instructions and a downloadable pattern for making your own set, as well as a few other options in case sewing all those fabric envelopes isn’t your thing.

Colorful fabric swatch magnets attached to several fabric-covered magnetic sheets and a plastic box for storing them in
This portable, flexible swatch system doesn’t require a large magnetic whiteboard.

I have been admiring, and envying, the photos of quilters’ magnetic fabric swatches arrayed on giant magnetic boards for some time. I wanted that! But I don’t have anywhere in my apartment to mount a board large enough to hold all the swatch magnets, and I’m not thrilled with the idea of using a smaller board and keeping the extra swatches in a box where I have to hunt and peck for the colors I want.

So I’ve been using my swatch cards intact, which means I can’t put colors next to each other and there’s some guesswork as to which one I particularly want. I did cut the rows of swatches apart, which helped a little, but I wanted a better solution.

A box with strips of swatch cards stacked in it
A Kona color card cut into rows

Maybe a set of small boards that I could stack out of the way when I wasn’t using them… hmm. After spending about four hours on an internet research spree, I found something useful: a magnetically receptive vinyl sheet. It’s self-adhesive (which doesn’t matter for this project, unless you want the easy variation described below in option 3) and is originally intended to line trays for holding small metal gaming figurines. Perfect!

What makes these nicer than 8 1/2″ x 11″ magnets is that it’s easy to stick and release smaller magnets to these sheets. If you stick two magnets together, you have to pry a bit to get them apart, and I was concerned about wear and tear on my swatches. But with these sheets, they stick easily and remove easily.

I tried two different methods of using them before I hit on the fabric-covered option shown above. Option 1 or option 2, below, are both really easy to put together and they will work fine if you don’t mind the drawbacks.

Option 1. Put them in a 3-ring binder.

Materials needed: Sturdy 3-ring binder, heavy-duty page protectors, flexible steel magnetically receptive sheets, and (optionally) white copy paper.

A flexible steel sheet, a piece of copy paper, and a clear page protector for a 3-ring binder

Steps: Place the copy paper over the magnetically receptive sheet to give you a nice white surface to view the swatches against. Slip both into the page protector with the copy paper facing up. (It doesn’t matter which side of the flexible sheet is up; both sides attract magnets.) Place the page protector into the binder.

Magnetic fabric swatches in a three-ring binder
Option 1: Slip the boards in page protectors and place in a binder.

Drawbacks: I didn’t like the “feel” of the swatch magnets on the plastic page protector. They felt slippery and I was afraid they would fall out of the binder. Also, the magnetically receptive sheets are pretty heavy, and the pages were very floppy in the binder. Using a binder with a zipper closure would probably help.

If you choose this method, I’d recommend getting about 24 flexible sheets (I used 12) because otherwise you’d have to load each page very full to fit all the swatches on them, which would make it difficult to turn the pages without losing swatches. (The first photo on this post shows how full my color-family boards are.)

Option 2. Put them in dry-erase pockets.

Materials needed: Dry-erase pockets, flexible steel magnetically receptive sheets, white copy paper (optional), a sturdy single binder ring (optional). I chose black-edged pockets, but they also come in rainbow colors if you want to match them to the swatches for your color-family storage boards. I wanted a neutral border, so I stuck with black.

A dry-erase pocket, a sheet of copy paper, and a flexible steel sheet

Steps: Place the copy paper over the magnetically receptive sheet to give you a nice white surface to view the swatches against. Slip both into the dry-erase pocket with the copy paper facing up. (It doesn’t matter which side of the flexible sheet is up; both sides attract magnets.) Collect all the dry-erase pockets onto a binder ring using the reinforced hole at the top of the pocket (optional).

a magnetic sheet inside a dry erase pocket with four gray swatch magnets on it
Option 2: Slip the boards in dry-erase pockets.

Drawbacks: Like the page protectors, the pockets have a plasticky surface that doesn’t feel nice under the magnets. The pockets I found were also really reflective, so any light caused a lot of glare on the surface — see my reflection taking the photo above? And I was afraid the swatches would fall off if I just hung the binder ring on a hook for storage.

Like option 1, I’d recommend getting about 24 flexible sheets because otherwise you’d have to load each page very full to fit all the swatches on them.

Option 3. No-sew fabric method.

Full disclosure: I did not try this method (thus, no photos). Use at your own risk.

Materials needed: White fabric, about 10.5″ x 13″; flexible steel magnetically receptive sheets; washi tape; glue (optional).

Steps: Press the fabric piece. Peel the liner off the sticky side of the magnetically receptive sheet. Center the sheet on the wrong side of the fabric, sticky side down against the fabric, and press to adhere. Turn the excess fabric to the back, corners first for a finished look, and tape the edges down with washi tape. For extra security, glue the fabric to the back of the sheet before you cover the edges with the tape.

Drawbacks: I imagine that you’d have a little shadowing of the magnetically receptive sheet behind the fabric, unless you use really thick, opaque fabric. Also, once that fabric is stuck, it’s stuck. But it would be quick to make the boards this way.

Option 4. Sewing fabric envelopes (the method I used).

This pattern is available as a free download. The downloadable one has illustrations rather than photos of each step, so refer to the photos below if it helps.

Tips: I recommend making one envelope all the way from start to finish before cutting and sewing the others, just to make sure the board fits with the seam allowance you’re using. Also, the placement of the opening on the back of the envelope is important. I made an unusable envelope on my first try because the opening was near the middle of the back and I couldn’t get the flexible sheet in.

Materials Needed for a Set of 12 Boards

  • 12 fabric pieces, each cut to 9 1/8″ x 24 1/2″ (one per board — note that the short dimension is nine and one-eighths inches)
  • 12 “Flexible Steel” Vinyl Magnetically-Receptive Sheet (0.025in Thick)
  • Small square self-adhesive magnets, 20 mm x 20 mm (3/4″ x 3/4″ — I used four packs of these ones from Amazon)
  • Thread to match the fabric
  • Fabric swatch card of your choice (I used a Kona Cotton Solids card)
  • A plastic snap-top case to store the finished system in (optional; the one I had is an Iris scrapbooking case measuring 10″ x 14″ x 4″ but my system of 12 boards would fit in this one too)
  • Scissors or a rotary cutter and ruler
  • Thin, flexible gloves (optional, but recommended if you use scissors to cut your swatches apart)
  • Straight pins
  • An iron and a sewing machine
a fabric swatch color card, a pack of small square self-adhesive magnets, some folded white fabric, and some flexible magnetic sheets
Materials needed

Step 1. Hem the short edges of the fabric.

Turn each short edge 1/4 ” to the back and press.

the tip of an iron pressing the first fold of a quarter-inch hemline on white fabric
Turning the first 1/4″

Turn each folded edge 1/4 ” to the back again and press. Pin each edge in place.

the tip of an iron pressing the second fold of a hemline on white fabric
Turning the second 1/4″

Stitch along each short edge to hold the folds in place.

a sewing machine stitching down a double-folded hem along the edge of white fabric
Stitching the hem in place

Step 2. Shape the envelope.

Place the hemmed fabric strip on a work surface with one short edge toward you, right side up. Since I used solid fabric, the right side became the side that I had turned the hemmed edges away from.

Lay the magnetically receptive sheet on top of the fabric so its top edge is 2 1/2″ down from the top edge of the fabric. Fold the top edge of the fabric down over the top edge of the sheet. The fabric showing on top of the sheet should be 2 1/2″ long and it should be the wrong side of the fabric.

a piece of fabric being folded around a flexible magnetic sheet
Top edge folded down 2 1/2″ (ignore the bottom edge)

Fold the bottom edge of the fabric up over the flexible sheet, overlapping the top edge of fabric that you just folded down. The overlap should be about 1″ but as long as there is a little space between the two hems, you’ll be fine. You should now have the sheet enclosed in the fabric with the wrong side of the fabric showing.

a piece of fabric folded around a flexible magnetic sheet
Bottom edge folded up, enclosing the flexible sheet and overlapping the top edge by about an inch. Don’t stress if your overlap is a little more or a little less; as long as it’s close, you’re fine.

Step 3. Stitch the envelope.

Hold one side of the folded fabric while you carefully slide the flexible sheet out the other side without disturbing the folds. Straighten the edges of the fabric so they are aligned, but don’t change the position of the top or bottom fold at all.

a folded piece of fabric with a flexible magnetic sheet partially inside the fold
Slide the sheet out one side… carefully…

Pin the sides in place. I ended up using three pins per side, not two as shown here. I placed one at the top just under the fold, one at the overlap of the top and bottom edges, and one at the bottom just above the fold.

a fabric enveloped pinned along two sides ready to be sewn

Stitch a scant 1/4″ seam along each side, from fold to fold, right over the overlapped hemmed edges. Backstitch at the start and end of each seam (at the folded edges) to lock it in place.

a sewing machine sewing a scant quarter-inch seam along one edge of a fabric envelope
Use a scant 1/4″ seam to sew each edge from fold to fold. Backstitch at start and end.
a fabric envelope, stitched along both sides but not yet turned right side out
Both sides stitched.

Step 4. Turn and fill the envelope.

Turn the fabric envelope right side out through the opening. Gently poke the corners out so they are neat and crisp. Smooth out the envelope and press it.

a fabric envelope that has just been turned right side out but not yet smoothed or pressed flat
Turn it right side out.
the finished fabric sleeve, seen from the back
A quick press and it’ll be ready to fill. This is the back.

Take one of the flexible magnetically receptive sheets and gently curve it lengthwise. Slip it into the bottom part of the envelope (the larger pocket). I chose to place the side covered with the white film toward the front of the envelope to minimize the dark sheet shadowing through the fabric.

a flexible magnetic sheet being inserted into a fabric envelope
Curve the sheet slightly to ease it into the pocket.

Once the bottom part is all the way in the envelope, release the curve so the sheet lies flat. The top part will be sticking out of the envelope. Very gently, bend back each of the top corners and slip them one at a time into the top part of the envelope (the shallower pocket). Smooth out the opening, and your board is done!

a fabric-covered flexible magnetic sheet seen from the front
The completed magnet board!
two fabric-covered magnetic sheets with swatch magnets on them, one white and one off-white
I made some from white fabric (left) and some from Kona Snow (right), because I use both white and Snow in my quilts. This way I can see my swatches on the background I’ll use in the quilt I’m planning.

Making the Swatch Magnets

This is the tedious part. I used a rotary cutter to separate my swatch card into long strips first.

Then I used scissors to cut each strip into individual swatches. After the first two dozen strips, I went to find my thinnest winter gloves, and I wore those the rest of the time to save my poor hands.

I used scissors instead of a rotary cutter because I found that some of the swatch names, which I wanted to keep with the swatches for obvious reasons, were longer than the width of the swatch. So, some of my swatches have irregularly shaped bottom edges. I don’t mind.

several fabric-covered flexible magnetic sheets with colored swatch magnets on them
The last swatch in the third row down has a little divot because the name on the swatch next to it was a little longer than the swatch was. No biggie.

Once you have cut the swatches apart, turn them over. Peel one self-adhesive magnet away from its backing paper. Align it on the back of the swatch, adhesive side down, and press firmly.

I chose to put the magnets in the top part of the swatch so they are behind the fabric sample, rather than in the vertical middle of the swatch. This makes them feel a little like tiddlywinks when you press on the bottom part of the swatch. They pop right off the magnet board and I find it fun. Your mileage may vary 🙂

I sorted my swatches by color and arranged each color family on one of the boards, leaving one board empty. That’s where I’ll do my color play when I need to choose colors.

fabric-covered magnetic swatch boards with gray and blue swatches on them

I keep the whole stack of boards in a plastic craft case with the label from the fabric swatch color card and the fabric sample that came attached to it.

a closed plastic case with a swatch of fabric, a card with the fabric manufacturer's name, and a stack of magnetic swatch boards inside

And one last idea…

If you have the space, it might be neat to make a large fabric-covered magnet board. Get some matboard from a framing store (or any other stiff, lightweight board), cut it to size, and cover it with the self-stick magnetically receptive sheets. Cover the whole thing with fabric, pop it in a frame (no glass), and you’ve got a beautiful swatch board with a lovely fabric surface. Maybe for my next quilt studio…

For now, I just want to go play with my swatches. If you make a swatch system like this, let me know how it goes!

What do you think?

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