Learn to Sew Series-How to Buy Fabric

This is the last pre-lesson in my Learn to Sew series. The series itself starts Monday, but before it does, let’s talk fabric. Or more specifically how to buy fabric.

I’m a sucker for fabric. Totally and completely. You can never have too much fabric. And I love to buy fabric. But I understand that it could be overwhelming to walk into a fabric store if you don’t have a lot of experience there, so let me walk you through it.

A Guide to How to Buy Fabric: Understanding different types and how to find your way around the fabric store

How to Buy Fabric In Stores and Online:

OK, you walk into your fabric store and you will see rows and rows of fabric. What are they all and what do they mean? Let’s take a little tour of the store shall we?


Understanding the Fabric Store:

Typically the most prevalent fabric is going to be your basic cotton. Also sometimes called Calico in the fabric world. Along at least one wall of the store you are likely to see fabrics arranged by color something like this:

Kind of pretty looking isn’t it? Those are arranged like that for the quilter’s sake-so that they can easily find for example a purple to go into the quilt they are making. Often these calico fabrics will have small all over prints like dainty little flowers, but you can see that some of them have more bold prints like large polkadots. At the close end you can also see solid colored fabric.

Throughout the store on shelves you will probably find many more cottons in a variety of styles. You may find a baby section, a designer fabric section, seasonal prints, etc. Just browse for what you are looking for. These are going to be great fabrics for many of your sewing projects like bags, aprons, quilts and blankets and so many, many things. This type of fabric make up probably at least 75% of my collection.

On another wall of the store you are likely to find fleece and other plush fabrics typically used for blankets and pajamas and other cozy things. These fabrics will also be more expensive, so make sure to bring a coupon. (All the major chains have printable coupons if you just google it.)

An overlook of the rest of the store might show you something like this:

You’ll see shelves and shelves of fabric and at the top a sign indicating what type of fabric you are seeing. Shown above are specialty type fabrics that you would use for fancy dresses, clothing and other special occasions.

A few other, possibly more hidden parts of the store include home decor fabrics-typically on large rolls that are very wide:

In still another section you will find trims like ribbon and lace that you can buy by the yard. Just take them up to the cutting counter just like any fabric and have them cut it for you:

And there will be a corner with interfacing:

And then the rest of the store will be filled with things like thread and notions and any other sewing supplies that you might need:

OK, so you browse and find something you want. Now what?


Understanding the Fabric:

First of all, take notice of the end of the bolt. You are going to find information there like the width of the fabric (This one is typical at about 44″ wide. Some fabrics will be wider-like 60.”), the type of fabric, washing instructions and pricing:

Take your fabric or trim or interfacing up to the cutting counter and tell them how much you need. Typically the smallest cut they will make is 1/8th of a yard and then you can do any increments beyond that. Try to figure out ahead of time about how much you are going to need.

They’ll cut it for you and then you will take it, along with a ticket they will give you, up to the register to pay. (Remember your coupons!)


Shopping Online for Fabric:

Now, if you are shopping online it’s similar, but a little different since you are browsing online. Let’s use one of our sponsors, The Ribbon Retreat as an example.

Say I want to buy some nice cotton fabric there to make a baby dress. Well, I like this fabric. (Seriously-that’s cute! Might need to make something with that!) So I am going to click on that fabric, read the description at the top and then decide how much I need and select that from the drop down menu and then add it to my cart.

They also offer accessories like ribbons and trims and some notions online as well. Pretty easy right?


Types of Fabrics:

Let’s have a quick overview of types of fabric you will find at the store.

Cottons or Calicos: 100% cotton fabrics (that will probably shrink and ideally should be pre-washed) and are going to be very plentiful at most stores. Available in many different styles including designer fabrics with bold and trendy prints, baby fabrics, quilting fabrics, seasonal fabrics and lots more. Use: most basic projects like bags, aprons, quilts, items for around your home, and many more.

Heavyweight fabrics like duck, canvas and denim: These will be heavier thicker than your basic cotton calicos and more sturdy, so they will hold up longer, making them great options for outdoor projects or things that need a little weight to them. Use: Can be great for things like throw pillows, outdoorsy type things, tote bags, or anything else you want a heavier weight for.

Plush {like fleece and minky}: Soft and cozy and perfect for things like blankets and pajamas or all things baby. They will be a little more expensive. They may pill a little after washing. Some will have a nap to them as well which you will need to be mindful of while sewing. Use: Perfect for baby blankets or any blankets really, pajamas, stuffed animals or anything that needs to be snuggly.

Flannel: Usually you will find a flannel section with lots of baby prints as well as other prints. It won’t be nearly as thick as the fleece, it’s more like a basic cotton, but one side of it will be soft to the touch. Soft and snuggly but will most definitely shrink and pill after it’s washed a few times. Use: Pajamas, blankets, things that you want to have be soft but not bulky.

Special Occasion Fabrics: You will find a section with things like satin (soft and silky), tulle (like netting) and silks. These are usually used for dresses and other fancy things. One warning-they are quite a bit harder to sew on than regular cotton and will take some practice because they are so slippery. Use: special occasions, dresses, clothing.

Jersey Knits: Soft and stretchy like a t-shirt. Also can be a little harder to sew on because they stretch, but not too difficult. they often come in wider sizes than a typical bolt of fabric so pay attention to that. You may need less fabric because of this. For more details on types of knits (because they vary) see my ebook. Use: skirts, shirts, and other apparel.

Home Decor: On large rolls (see above), wider and more expensive than other fabrics but also much higher quality so it will hold up better and also won’t let light through (if it’s curtains for example) as easily. Use: curtains, rugs, pillows.

OK, what do you think? You ready to go fabric shopping now?

how to buy fabric in stores and online

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Hey there! I'm Amber, mom of 4 crazy boys, wife of 1 and non-stop, always busy, crazy project doer. (There's a reason why we call it *Crazy* Little Projects.) I love chocolate, reading, sewing and being with people!

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  1. Julie says

    Hi! So I sew and purchase fabric all the time… I’m not sure of why I read this! But I just wanted to say that it was fantastic and very helpful! A great overview of the overwhelming fabric store. I’d like to add that if you are holding a pattern and it gives you a fabric measurement, it might be helpful to add an extra 1/4 yard for mistakes (and for making cute bows/flowers/embellishments). And don’t forget liners! Anyway, I love your blog and check in all the time! Kudos!!

    • Amber says

      Well, I was trying to get it done in about a 45 minute window and that included uploading and editing the pics. So, it was kept short by that. :)

  2. Valerie Chavez says

    I found this great store near my house called the ” The Calico House” now I know why they have such a cute name!
    This post is so good and to the point! I am so excited to start your classes on monday!

  3. says

    Way to represent Hobby Lobby! I love the wide selection of fabrics they have and they are always on sale! I’d love to know more of your online fabric shops!

  4. Margaret says

    Great post. You might mention that at most of your local quilt shops if you are having trouble choosing fabrics, they are always very helpful in matching color combos for projects. That is one of my favorite things about working in a fabric store. I love to mix and match fabrics for people.

  5. says

    Hello Amber. I’ve been reading and following your blog for some time now simply because I love the way you write and your great ability to explain things. I’ve sewn my entire life (50 years) but I have still found things on your blog that have been helpful. I’ve also referred you to friends that I have that are learning to sew. I’ve made several of your hooded animal towels and they are PRECIOUS and EASY!!! Thanks for your great blog, your great FREE ideas and tutorials! I think I’m going to follow along on your Learn To Sew series, simply because I love your style of teaching!!! :-) Thanks!

    • Amber says

      Wow! You make me feel amazing. I am still completely new to this blogging thing and to hear that people love it feels so great. Thanks so much!

  6. Jess says

    Thank you SO much Amber! I am always so overwhelmed when I walk into my fabric store. I’ve wanted to learn to sew for a long time and am excited to start your learn to sew series. Question for you about the fabric I purchased for the burp cloths…do I need to do anything to the cut edge of the fabric before washing it? I don’t want to end up with a mess after it’s washed. Thanks again for your blog and free lessons! I’m excited to learn a new hobby!

    • Amber says

      Nope, just wash it. It will come out all wrinkly which is sad and the raw edge will have all kinds of strings you’ll need to cut off.

      • Rachael says

        Is there anything you can do to prevent this? I have been wondering about that too… When I have washed mine to get ready there are always tons of tangled strings? Should i use pinking shears first or anything?

        • JoAnn says

          I haven’t tried it but I just read recently that if you use a wide zigzag and stitch the ends then it won’t ravel. You do have to cut the ends off then so add a couple of inches onto the total yardage you get.

          • Sondra H says

            A little late to the convo, but, yes a simple zigzag stitch along the raw edges will prevent the thing from fraying! I’ve lost at least 1/8th of a yard or more on each of my fabrics from the strings unraveling before I figured out this trick.

  7. says

    I have a question – you mentioned that the fabric comes in different widths… when we are reading a pattern it shows the yards needed soooo how will we know which width we should purchase?


  8. Heather says

    I bought some fabric today to make my niece’sbirthday gifts – hopefully I have enough scraps to majestic one of your items! I’m excited for Monday!

  9. says

    Hi Amber! I am revisiting sewing after many years. I have sewn VERY little in the past, and I suppose because I am a fairly new grandmother, I’m busting at the seams to make her lots of pretty things!! However, I need classes!! ha I am so eager, but get frustrated trying, just from lack of knowledge. I thought of starting with some burp clothes just for practice as my grandaughter is 2 already and doesn’t use them anymore, but ran into not being able to find the gauze I saw in a tutorial online. I bought some cloth diapers to just add a strip down the middle, and they balled p and looked awful after washing. (Bird’s Eye from Walmart), so I stuck them in the back of a drawer. I am so excited to have found this lesson you have posted all about fabrics and can’t wait to go back and read all the Learning to Sew lessons I’ve missed! This was so very helpful and I’m eager to read more on your site!!! Thank you for keeping me from throwing in the towel!!! haha I’m adding you to my favorite blogs and am excited to see what all I can learn!

    • Amber says

      It’s so funny that you mentioned this when you did. Wait till you see my post tomorrow. It’s all about not getting frustrated when sewing. :) Thanks for your kind words!

  10. Liz says

    Thank you Amber for the great post. Just wanted to add a hint. When you are shopping add your name to their mailing list. Many stores mail or even e-mail specials and coupons.

  11. Jessica says

    So I read this and went to the ribbon retreat to see what they had. I found a pattern for a girly tool belt and was looking for the fabric..it said I needed 1/3 yard but they didnt have that option when you go to put how much you want….

    • Amber says

      Oh that’s true-they only sell in 1/4 or 1/2 or full yard increments so you would have to go with the 1/2 and then have scraps. Don’t forget to use the code Crazy15 for the discount!

  12. says

    Great post!! I’m a new sewer and really excited to get started. I was wondering, when you’re buying fabric online and you want 100% cotton, how do you know if it will be appropriate for clothing? Sometimes 100% cotton feels very soft, and sometimes it’s really heavy and wouldn’t really feel good on your skin. I’m so confused!

    • Amber says

      I guess I would say just use your best judgement bases on that particular fabric. And remember that it will get a little softer once it is washed.

  13. Dawn says

    Hi Amber,

    Great blog post. I told myself I was going to finally learn the sew. (I mean, can fix a hem and sew on a button.) But, I want to learn to sew maybe a top for myself. Can’t wait to follow your blog.

  14. Crafty Grandma says

    What a great article! Sadly, we have one fabric store some 50 km away! We also have a small fabric store that doesn’t have nicely labeled shelves and the people working there don’t have a clue of the names of the fabric in English. So before leaving to shop there, I have to look up the French equivalent then get stared at as if I were from Mars. LOL! oh well, my mom left me some 20 bins of fabric (leftover from her store she had) so I should get through those beforehand although some are dated back to 1967!!! Nevertheless, great practice material. Of course, I wash everything beforehand although everything was stored in tissue paper in a special closet. Thanks for the post was most interesting.

  15. says

    Enjoy your post, I am a self taught grandma sewer. Growing up we wore a lot of solids with a matching print or ect. Today, everything goes in the same project, how do you get the eye to adapt? I have a hard time with quilting and getting a good balance to a project. Please, keep up the little projects, as I have used manys of them.

  16. Melinda says

    I just discovered your site and your amazing sewing tutorials and info pages! You have no idea how wonderful this is for a novice like me. I love fabric shopping and all things sewing I just don’t actually know how to do it. I have a 1 1/2 year old daughter and would love more than anything to make her lovely things. I try my best, and some thing work, some things don’t. So this is going to help me along my path of educating myself! Thank you so much for sharing!

  17. Wade says

    Hello Amber! Where would I find the poly-rayon blends of fabric in a fabric store? I looked for this earlier this summer and the staff was utterly unable to assist me. When I enquired about them special-ordering this blend of fabric for me, they told me that they could, but that the onus was upon me to perform all of the research necessary, on-line, for them to order me the precise bolt of fabric that I required, which, they said, required not just looking into the specific weave that I want, but ultimately locating the precise SKU# from the chain’s website! And, even then, there were no guarantees that this chain’s website would even have what I was looking for.

    • says

      I’m honestly not sure. It probably depends on the fabric store. I do probably 75% of my fabric shopping online and the only fabric I buy local usually is from Hobby Lobby so I’m not much help! Sorry!

  18. Viki says

    I am so glad to find this blog!! I sewed very little in the past, and now that my children are grown I have the time to get back into it. So much to learn, and a wonderful website to go to for help! Thank you so much!!

  19. Lucille says

    Thanks for the interesting article. I am self taught and have tried lots of new things since my retirement. It helped that we had a grandchild soon afterwards…so your site provided me with lots of ideas. I have had GREAT luck at Joann’s online…I have signed up and get regular emails for sales, etc. I love the free shipping….I have not bought at any other online sites, but may try that soon….just to get a variety. I love the fabrics you use!!!

  20. Joan says

    I love your blog on teaching me different things that I didn’t know about sewing. My daughter-in-law is getting a new sewing machine and i will show her this site to help her. I am also going to be teaching her somethings and your post is amazing. I have one question though, I am making your angry bird hooded towel for my Grandson and when i sewed the back seam together of the face part, it seemed shorter then the regular hooded towel, I made earlier for both Grandsons. It’s the part where you sew the bottom of the back seam of the half towel with the face on it to the big towel. This is really got me baffled and need to know, since i am going to make the Elmo and the bunny one for my Grandson and Granddaughter. Love your site. Thanks Joan
    Thanks, Joan

  21. says

    Hi Amber,
    Thank you so much for such a nice post. I found your site through pintrest and I feel like I hit a jackpot. I just started stitching and I am self learning. Your posts are really teaching me alot. Thanks once again.

  22. Kian says

    Hi, you mention the word ‘nap’ and a link to the dictionary but I cannot see the word in there. Please could you advise what this means?

    Plush {like fleece and minky}: Soft and cozy and perfect for things like blankets and pajamas or all things baby. They will be a little more expensive. They may pill a little after washing. Some will have a nap to them as well which you will need to be mindful of while sewing. Use: Perfect for baby blankets or any blankets really, pajamas, stuffed animals or anything that needs to be snuggly.

    • says

      Oh shoot! I thought I had that in my dictionary. Guess I should add it. Nap means that the fabric texture has a direction to is. Think about suede for example-you know how you can rub the suede one direction and it gets smoother but if you rub it the other it make the small fibers stand up? That’s the nap. So you would want to be careful in that situation because you want all the nap to be going the same direction. Does that make sense?

  23. says

    Just wanted to say you are a great teacher. ;) I’ve been teaching myself how to sew and I think your blog is the best one I’ve seen! It helps so much. Thank you!! And four boys!! Go you! Ha!

  24. Gail says

    thanks for much for posting this. So glad I ran across it. I sewed some when I was a teenager and in my 20’s but hardly at all since. That has been 3 kids and 9 grandkids ago. LOL! I am wanting to try my hand again and this will help me.

  25. Carissa says

    How do you know which type of fabric is best For instance, if you want to make a top, how do you know what which fabric will suit that purpose?

  26. says

    I also loved reading this post. I wanted to know if you have any information for someone like me, an experienced fabric shopper who is trying to make things to sell (but NOT to necessarily make a profit) and who is tired of all the lesser quality fabric you find in most of the chain stores. So, where can I purchase on sale, if not, wholesale, higher end fabric like Kaufman, Andover, without breaking the bank. Any suggestions? Have you heard of coupons for these fabrics or online sellers that will make it more affordable. My bottom line is that I want fabric the quality of, say, Kaufman, but I don’t really care about trendy prints. And, I want to be able to charge a reasonable amount to cover my cost of the fabric. I hope I explained myself well.

    • says

      Most specialty quilting stores (where you’d find Kaufman, Moda, Timeless Treasures, Alexander Henry, etc) will give a discount if you buy by the bolt. They also often do end of bolt discounts (buy what’s left and get 30% off), fat quarter deals, clearance fabrics as seasons and styles rotate out, and sometimes do holiday sales.

  27. Loredana says

    Hi, what a wonderful fabric store. Where I live most of them have closed. It hase become really hard to find such a Store.

  28. says

    What a lovely tour! I was looking for a quick overview to send to a friend and this is just perfect. As the daughter of a professional quilter, and a former fabric dept. manager for JoAnns, I want to add in a tip: cottons come in many different thread counts that are suitable for different types of projects. The less expensive calicos that are available at chain craft stores are great for craft projects, and sometimes kid projects or clothing, but If you want to create a quilt that will withstand washing or have fabric that holds a precise shape after cutting (like complex quilt designs or applique) you’ll need to purchase higher quality cottons from an online or local quilting store. They’re often more expensive because they’re a higher thread count and better overall fabric with less shrinkage and no color bleed, so I use it often for baby blankets and accessories that will be washed many times. Think of it as the difference between luxury hotel sheets and Walmart dorm sheets – you pay extra for the higher quality stuff, and you won’t be disappointed later. Anyways I thought that might be useful to someone to know as people were often complaining about the higher price of the “nice” fabric and the shape and color loss of the “discount” fabric when I worked in the store. :)

  29. Bonnie says

    It is not correct that cotton is also referred to as Calico. Calico refers to the small print on the fabric.

  30. Hasna says


    I always attempt to buy fabric but I alwats leave empty handed! Its very overwhelming! I can get very confused when shopping for cotton fabric…the bolt says 100% cotton but there are literally 100s of different textures of cotton. How do I know which ones would make a good skirt or pajama lets say? Would any cotton material work? Does each type of cotton texture have a name? Is quilting cotton the stiff kind of cotton and is it only good for quilting and such and not for apparel? This is especially difficult to figure out when shopping online for fabric. Sorry for the truck load of questions :) hope you can help me out! Thanks for the article by the way!

    • says

      Yes there are all different types and I don’t know all the names. Quilting ones with the tiny little prints are called calicos. Basically though, if it feels to the touch like it would make good pajamas I would say go for it!

  31. charlotte says

    Hello! I loved this I was wondering if you had anything on pre washing on the types of material? I pre washed some flannel and it dulled and frayed so bad. Is there a better way to pre wash fabrics?

  32. Diane says

    Thanks for your information. It will be useful. I’m trying to be brave and start sewing. I want to make some napkins for Thanksgiving. What type of fabric do you suggest I use?

  33. Ale says

    Amber I’m new to your blog. And to sewing my husband just purchase a nice sewing machine for me that is computerized like yours. And I been afraid to even touch it, I tend to break electronics easily :(… but as I been reading your first post on how to thread and the dictionary for sewing. I’m feeling motivated to give it a try.
    I love your way to explain everything you make very simple for beginners like me to understand and not feel overwhelm….. I especially love this post because every time I have been at that fabric store I just looked and leave empty handed and feeling super overwhelm. Thanks again for explaining it solo well. I just start following you pinterest and can’t wait to keep reading your lessons.
    thanks so much Ale

  34. Yolanda says

    I just really, really love your blog, and this is the post I have been looking for since I first started sewing. Thanks so much for sharing your knowledge – can’t put a price on that! I appreciate your thorough but simple explanations and the fact that you’ve actually replied to your followers! Peace and blessings to you, and keep it up!!

  35. Jessica says

    So when you buy a cut of material just because you love it but have no project for it at the time, how much is a recomended amount to buy with no project?

  36. Char says

    You didn’t mention anything about “brands” and being careful of buying “cheap” stuff. If I’m spending a few hundred dollars on a quilt, I don’t want the fabric to fray, run or fall apart after the first washing. I am careful about “brands.”

  37. Kim Helm says

    First off I like this article its very helpful second what kinda fabric would be best to make like yoga pants or leggings and also would you buy the cotton based fabric for makin your own sweat pants im new to the sewing world lol

  38. amber says

    Thank you so much! This is very helpful. I
    For Christmas I ask for a sewing machine (not knowing a thing about sewing) and of course I had to go shopping for fabric as soon as the stores reopened, I really wish I had read this before hand,I was so overwhelmed and tried asking for help but no one really wanted to offer a “how to buy fabric for dummies” class….thanks so much! I have a lot of learning to do but I love crafting so I’m dedicated

  39. Debbie says

    Great Blog!!! Do you have any certain way of knowing your good fabrics from the cheaper ones, other than feel and see through of the fabrics?
    Also, the Quilting & Educational Store I help out at is doing a Ladybug Quilting Academy. A 10 week course on sewing, fabrics, notions… with an end product of a rail fences. Would it be ok to use your blog on the Fabrics for our class?

    • says

      You can definitely tell the difference in fabrics when you feel them. The designer ones are so much heavier and nicer! Of course shopping online makes it harder to tell but if you shop designer like Riley Blake, Michael Miller, etc you know you are getting the good stuff. And yes, you can use it!

  40. Judy says

    i have a hard time picking fabric. What type of fabric do you suggest for summer dresses that are not see through so I wouldn’t have to wear a slip?

  41. Kissie says

    I am so glad I read this. I recently started sewing, mostly just repairs of things as home. I went into Joann Fabrics the other day and was just so overwhelmed by the amount of fabrics and threads and well, just stuff. Thanks for the info and tips. Excellent help for the newbies. :)

  42. Claudia B McAfee says

    50 years ago sewed (very well) for my 2 girls. Now granddaughter wants vintage clothes for expected daughter.

    A lot has changed in 50 years. Thanks to on-line tutorials, I now know what to do with all those attachments my mother had that we never used.

    I am looking for material like , “stay little til your Carter’s wear out”. Need help deciphering the online description.

  43. says

    So glad I came across this page on Pinterest. Thank you for your clear, thorough & organized descriptions. This is helpful!

  44. Vicki says

    I am delighted I came across your post on pinterest. It’s encouraging to read about others interested in sewing crafts and other fun project s. I have sewn, embroidered,quilted for 45 years. Always interested in new approach especially to these arts.

  45. Di Scarrott says

    WOW! I wish we had fabric stores like this in the UK!! That looks like heaven. And $6.99 a yard??? Woah how wonderful we pay on average $21 a yard!!! Seriously. You are all so lucky to have such wonder at hand and at the prices they are. Happy shopping and thanks for sharing xx

  46. Leslie says

    Extra tip, I don’t think I seen here is, when picking your bolt pick the one with the least amount on in (Unless you need big piece) Most fabric stores will give you a GREAT deal on what’s left on the bolt. And who does not want extra of most fabric…

  47. Kelley says

    Hi, visiting from Pinterest :) So glad I found this! My sewing experience is practically zero. I “helped” my Grandma sew things when I was little and thought I did so much. It wasn’t until later in life I realized basically just pushed the foot pedal. I just got a sewing machine for Christmas and I’m looking forward to learning how to use it. I bought some fabric for throw pillow covers and can’t wait to get started. I have to admit, looking through all the fabric was intimidating. Reading this has already helped me and I can’t wait to buy more!

  48. Leslie says

    Thank you, Amber for providing this great online resource! I am very green when it comes to sewing. I’ve actually had a sewing machine for 2 years now and have been afraid to work with it, because I had not taken any ‘classes’. Your site has encouraged me that it is possible to learn without a teacher right in front of me. I’m excited to get started and work my way through your Learn to Sew Series.

    So, I already have my first question. :) I’m i reading the comments correctly? Should I wash the fabric before I sew it?

    Thanks again… Keep up the great work! Please know that you are providing hope and encouragement to a following of fans who appreciate you.

  49. Joan Gray says

    Hi! Amber, I love your sewing tutorials and I had written you before about the hooded towel, well I figured it out after reading your tutorial again, and have been sewing all kinds of character hooded towel for my Grandchildren and hooded poncho’s too! Whatever there favourite character is. Thank you so much for all your tutorials and sewing lessons. Your explanation on sewing is so easy to figure out. I have sewn several other things as well.I also love getting all your daily new ideas on my e-mail.
    Thanks again. Joan

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