Guide to Fabrics

How should you choose a fabric for your next dressmaking project?

Which should come first, the fabric or design?  Should we buy fabric with a pattern design in mind or buy the fabrics we love the look of and decide what we’ll make with it later?  Sometimes you just fall in love with a print at the fabric store and you just need to have that fabric in your stash!!  A seamstress can never have enough fabric, it’s just storing it that becomes a problem.  I have been guilty of buying fabric that I like but have no idea what I’ll make with it.  Before I started dressmaking I kept buying fat quarters (a precut piece of fabric that is a bit more than 1/4 of a yard, you see them in fabric shops folded into small neat squares and grouped together in a really pretty and tempting display!) thinking I’ll make something with this but never seemed to use half as much as I’d buy…

fabric guide

Anyhow having done a dressmaking course you learn that fabric and design go together.  For example, I want to make myself a skirt, I’ll give thought to the following:

  • design & style of skirt – mini, long, pencil, A-line etc and do I want it to be clingy, draped or tailored, heavyweight or light fabric?
  • the season – I wouldn’t make a summer skirt in a heavyweight woollen fabric
  • colour – again for me this is decided by the seasons as I tend to wear dark colours in the autumn/winter and switch to brighter fabrics when the sun comes out
  • plain or patterned fabric – this is a personal choice but for beginner’s sewing you should bear in mind the need to pattern match so it might be an idea to stay away from plaids, checks & stripes for now
  • woven or stretch fabric – stretch fabrics behave differently to woven and require a different sewing machine needle, again probably not for beginners
  • can it be machine washable? Although with modern washing machines you can wash delicate garments on special cycles but personally I would avoid dry clean only fabrics.

So with the above in mind, if I wanted to make a long drapey summer skirt then I would choose a lightweight fabric such as cotton lawn, lightweight chambray or broderie anglaise but a tailored A-line skirt for winter then I would choose a woollen mix,  tweed or corduroy for example, a fabric with a bit of stiffness to hold the A-line shape.  I hope this makes sense?

When you buy a ready made pattern it will give you a suggested fabric guide, I’m looking at a pattern now for a child’s skirt and it suggests cotton blends, corduroy, denim or georgette, these are the recommended fabrics that the design will work with, if you choose a completely different fabric then you run the risk of the finished result not being as you imagined.  The right combination of fabric & design is such an important  consideration.

So with that in mind, what are fabric choices?  There are so many different types of fabric it can be overwhelming when you walk into a fabric store, I have a lovely local fabric shop in a nearby town and the staff are more than happy to point me in the right direction.  Take your pattern with you, show them the design and fabric recommendations and let them point you in the right direction.

There is so much information you could read about the different types of fabric but basically it falls into three main categories:

  • Woven – these fabrics have long threads running along the length of the fabric (vertically) known as the warp, with another set weaving horizontally across known as the weft.  The edges of these fabrics are known as the selvedges and they do not fray (they often have information regarding the fabric printed on them)
  • Non-woven – these include felt and interfacing (see further guide on Interfacing)
  • Knit (or stretch) – these are made by threads looping around each other and this is what gives the fabric its stretch.

Then we have a further distinction between natural & man-made fibres.

Natural fibres include cotton, linen, wool & animal fibres and silk.  Man-made fibres are fabrics that are not 100% natural and include acrylic, acetate, nylon, polyester, spandex and rayon.  Often fabrics are made by mixing the natural and man-made fabrics and you’ve probably all heard of polycotton which is a polyester/cotton mix.  Below are some of the fabrics you will probably have heard of, this is only a mention of the more common ones, I have a book that lists at least 80 different types!

  • Natural fabrics:
  • Cotton – the most versatile and popular of all fabrics and includes:
    • Cotton voile – a lightweight, semi-sheer fabric with a great drape
    • Cotton lawn – lightweight, very similar to cotton voile but is slightly crisper
    • Chambray – a smooth lightweight fabric that has a coloured warp and white weft thread
    • Denim – a heavy-weight twill-weave fabric often mixed with elastic for stretch
    • Corduroy – a soft pile fabric with stripes woven into it (called wales or ribs)
    • Gingham – a two colour fabric featuring a series of checks
    • Towelling – a fabric with loops on the surface, highly absorbent, used for bathrobes & beachwear
    • Broderie Anglaise – this is embroidered in such a way as to make small holes and is often used for babywear & summer clothes
    • Velvet – a pile-weave fabric made by using an additional yarn  that is then cut to produce a pile.  Difficult to handle.
  • Linen – linen is a medium-weight fabric which is very tough, absorbent and cool to wear.  Pure linen does crease but blending with man-made fibres means crease-resistant finishes are available.
  • Wool – a natural fibre primarily from sheep, ideal to tailor as it can be shaped with steam and often blended with other fabrics and can be woven into the lightest crepes or heavier garbardine
    • Flannel – a wool fabric with a lightly brushed surface, soft and lightweight it works well for PJs, shirts, trousers and jackets
    • Tweed – a mix of chunky and nobbly yarns, ideal for jackets, coats, skirts & dresses
    • Garbardine – a hard wearing suiting fabric with a distinctive weave.
  • Silk – considered the most luxurious of fibres but requires careful handling.  It is lightweight, delicate and drapes well with a lustrous quality.  Silk can be slippery and difficult to work with, not a fabric for the beginner
    • Satin – made from silk fibres and used often for special occasion wear
    • Chiffon – a strong, fine and transparent silk, again difficult to  handle
    • Crepe de chine – a medium-weight fabric with an uneven surface due to twisted silk yarns being used
    • Georgette – a fine crepy fabric with a slight transparency.
  • Man-made fabrics
    • Acrylic – easy-care and crease-resistant, closely resembles wool but does not shrink
    • Nylon – extremely strong with inherent elasticity, crease resistant and popular for men’s shirts
    • Polyester – a strong fibre often found blended with cotton or wool
    • Viscose Rayon – very widely used fabric often referred to as ‘artificial silk’.  Often blended with other fibres.

A couple of other things to mention, patterns give fabric requirements based on two different widths, 115cm or 150cm (or 45″ and 60″ if using Imperial measurements), you’ll need more length of the shorter width fabric and less of the wider width.  How much you’ll need will also be affected by nap – this is where fabric has a direction either due to the fabric pile, such as velvet and corduroy, or a one directional print.  In both cases these fabrics will need to be cut in the same direction and you will therefore need slightly more fabric to allow for this (the pattern will advise you of this).

So this is a bit lengthy but I hope it has given you some knowledge of the importance of matching fabric to the design.  I have some fabric lined up for the next two projects I’ll be doing tutorials on, the white broiderie anglaise is for a sleeveless button-back blouse and the bicycle chambray fabric for a floaty skirt for my daughter.  The russian doll fabric, not sure yet but it’s such a gorgeous print….

fabric guide


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