Fabric in Sewing: What You Need to Know

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I love watching the Great British Sewing Bee. As the show recently returned to our screens for an eighth series, I thought I’d write about sewing as it can be a fun and relaxing hobby. Over the years of watching the show, I’ve gathered that one of the most important decisions you can make is what fabric you use.

I thought it would be fun to explore various fabrics and what you might make with them. That way, the next time you’re foraging for fabrics you’ll know exactly what you’re looking for and can start coming up with cool ideas for what to sew.

Fabrics are made from various fibres, which can either be manmade or natural. The fibres affect how each fabric behaves. Whether a fabric is non-woven, woven or knitted impacts the drape, stretch and weight of the material. You can buy many fabrics in different weights.

Read on to find out more about some of the most used fabrics in sewing so you can create a beautiful garment that will be just as you imagined. Later, I’ll explore the characteristics of fabric that you might want to think about when making your selections.

First, though, let’s talk about different types of fabric and textiles.

Types of fabric

You can easily be foxed by the sheer number of fabrics available. Usually, it’s the pattern and colour of fabric that attracts us, but that is only one characteristic of fabric. It’s equally important to consider how it will feel against the skin, how easy it will be to work with, and how the fabric will drape against a person’s figure.

Textiles fall into two broad categories: synthetic and natural. Natural textiles include cotton, silk, hemp, leather, wool, denim, linen, flannel, and velvet. The main synthetic textiles are polyester, spandex, rayon, nylon, acrylic, polar fleece, and acetate. Either type of fabric can be used to make clothes, as can a blend of both natural and synthetic textiles.

Of course, some fabrics are favoured more than others.

Woven fabrics are particularly suited to making tailored garments and knits are excellent for making active wear and form-fitting clothes.

You can further classify fabrics by determining if they are woven, embroidered, printed, stitched, dyed, or weighted. If you work with a loosely woven fabric you will end up with a see-through piece of clothing that may also not be very durable or strong. You can line thin fabrics to create more wearable garments.

It’s time to find out more about the various characteristics of fabric — from its colourfastness to its suitability for what you want to make.

A spool of black thread on pink and red patterned fabric.
Photo by J Williams on Unsplash

Choosing fabric

There are many things to think about when you forage for fabric. Here, I’ll tackle key characteristics so you can find great material for your next project in no time at all.

Colourfastness

You’ll want to ensure that there are no streaks or spots on your fabric where the colour is fading. Check the colour is even and that the fabric has not been unevenly dyed. Pay particular attention to the fold line. If there are lighter colours in areas which are not part of the design, I wouldn’t buy it because it might mean it is likely to fade with repeated washing.

You can test the colourfastness of a fabric before you buy it by taking a white handkerchief, dampening it, and rubbing it on the fabric. If it is of high quality and has a good dye job, the colour will not rub off onto your handkerchief.

Shrinkage

You’ll need to think about the way a fabric is likely to shrink after it’s washed. Different fabrics will shrink in different ways. A good rule of thumb is to always buy 10% more fabric than you need.

If you can get pre-shrunk fabric that’s best. Labels will usually indicate whether something has been pre-shrunk, using words like “mercerised,” “pre-shrunk,” or “sanforised.” Pre-shrunk garments like t-shirts are shrunk by the manufacturer in a controlled process before sale. After you buy pre-shrunk material, it can be washed and dried and will usually retain its original form and shape. There will be minimal stretch and shrinkage.

Look out for the label “anti-twist” or “anti-sag” if you want material that won’t twist out of shape or stretch and lose its original form.

Suitability

You must make sure you will be working with a fabric that is suitable for the garment you’re making and where you intend to wear it. There’s no point in making a bikini out of wool, for instance.

You’ll also need to think about what you are going to be doing when wearing something. If you’re going to be exercising in it, you’ll need to consider your comfort.

Remember:

  • Natural textiles are typically suitable for warmer climates.
  • Silk can be too hot in warm temperatures, especially if it’s lined.
  • Lightweight cotton is good for warmer weather. Choose densely woven cotton if you want to get maximum UV protection from your clothes.

Now you have an idea of what to wear for the weather, let’s highlight which fabrics are best suited for specific garments.

Trousers – You’ll need materials which aren’t overly rigid or hard if you want to be comfortable in them. Linen, flannel, and denim will all work well. If you live somewhere with colder weather, you can use wool and wool blends. If you want a fitted trouser, go for wool or wool blends with rayon. Corduroy is a fantastic material to choose if you’re making trousers.

Skirts – When sewing skirts cotton is marvellous. A lovely pattern on cotton lawn works well. If you want an alternative to cotton, silk jersey or rayon are great too. You can create fine skirts with knits in microfiber, rayon, and silk. Soft wool and stretch velvets are also excellent choices for skirt fabric.

Children’s clothes – When sewing for children, avoid using synthetic textiles. Plump for cotton satin, cotton twill or lawn. Knit fabrics are wonderful for kid’s clothes too, especially wool knits. If you want to make dresses for children use interlock knits that have stretch.

Jackets – Wool crepe, wool tweeds, flannel, and linen all give sufficient structure for making jackets. Velvet also works well. If you want to make a free-flowing jacket, pick out a lightweight knit.

Fabric for lining garments – Rayon Acetate and cotton are often used to line the inside of clothes.

Blouses – Cambric, lightweight cotton, twill, chintz, faille, lightweight woven broadcloth, and satin are all perfect for creating blouses. Your choice will depend on personal preference.

Scarves – You can use soft, luxurious cashmere to make a super comfortable scarf. Use classic, sturdy lightweight cotton, or cool linin to make a scarf to wear in warmer weather. For winter, you might want to choose wool that should last for years or delicate silk for a touch of class.

Dresses – Taffeta, velvet, lace, chiffon, raw silk, and satin are all great choices of material if you’re going to be making dresses. The type of fabric you end up going for will depend on the sort of dress you want to make. You’ll want to buy a medium weight fabric if you wish to make a form-fitting dress. If you’re going for a looser fitting, drapey dress, choose lightweight fabrics suited to that style, such as charmeuse.

Soon, I’ll look at how colour affects your choice of fabric. Next, let’s discover how dimension impacts your selection.

Dimension

The majority of fabrics are around 44 inches wide. You’ll need to estimate how much fabric you’ll need when you go to buy it.

If you’re buying an expensive material, you might think about buying some mull cotton first, so you can make a muslin before you cut the more expensive fabric, especially if it’s the first time you’re making the pattern.

I’ll use dressmaking to give an example of dimension. When buying the material for a dress, we purchase it by the meter or yard. In a quarter of a yard of fabric, you’ll get a piece that’s 9 inches by 44 inches. It is always better to get a wider piece of fabric. Single width fabric is usually anything up to 49 inches, while double width is anything up to 60 inches.

It’s time to turn to colour.

Colour

Make sure the colours you choose go well with your skin tone. Different tones of the same colour can look wildly different against the skin.

It’s better to shop for fabric in daylight when you can because artificial lighting can distort the colour of the material. This is vital if you are trying to match fabrics to add trim or a lining. A good trick to make sure you have the colour you want is to bunch part of the material up to see if it looks different like that. If it does, you may want to make another selection.

Construction

As with all purchasing decisions, you need to note the quality of the fabric you choose. Keep an eye out for tears, or imperfections in the print, pattern, or dye. You should also consider the gain of the fabric, the thread count, balance and weave, the weight, and the finish.

Thread count – High-quality fabrics usually have a high thread count.

Balance – There should always be a good balance in the proportion of the weft and warp of the yarn used in the weaving of the cloth.

Grain – The grain of the fabric affects the way it will hang and thus impacts the overall look of a garment, so if the grain of the material is not right, it won’t matter how much you like it.

Weight – Bear in mind that a higher weight of fabric does not denote higher fabric quality. It’s an indication of the fabric’s suitability for a given project. Knowing the weight is useful if you’re comparing the same types of fabric.

Finish – The finish refers to any processes used to improve the performance and look of a fabric.

Patterns and prints

When buying patterned fabric, you must think about the way the pattern repeats as this will influence how you cut the fabric when working with it. If you notice irregularities in the print, so the pattern cannot be matched with seams without distorting it, you may want to choose another fabric.

Beginner fabrics: A quick guide

If you are a novice who’s just getting started, here’s a quick rundown of the best fabrics for beginners and what they are commonly used to make.

FabricDescriptionUses
AcetateShiny fabric that seldom shrinks. Not strong but has a nice drape.Linings, evening wear, and bridal wear.
AcrylicStrong, warm, washable and has a wool-like texture.Jumpers, upholstery, and sportswear.
BatisteHas a good drape and is delicate and sheer. It is also lightweight.Baby clothes, handkerchiefs, blouses, and lingerie.
BrocadeRich, woven with a raised design. Crisp.Formal clothes and evening wear.
BroadclothA strong, soft, tightly woven material.Skirts and shirts.
BoucléFabric that has a knotted or looped surface. It is usually made from wool or wool blends.Jackets, suits, and coats.
Short on time? Check out the above table for the best fabrics to start with.

Next, let’s look at some of the most common fabrics used in sewing in more detail.

Cotton

This natural fabric is comfortable and one of the best fabrics to make clothes with. It is breathable, durable, easy to clean and is great to wear in hot weather. It is also inexpensive.

Superior quality cotton will feel smooth to the touch. You’ll need to make sure it is not too starched.

Bear in mind that cotton is also prone to shrinking in the wash and will crease easily. Cotton lawn is the best material for making baby clothes and nightwear. Medium weight cotton is a popular choice for making dresses.

Silk

Silk is luxurious and beautiful. It boasts an attractive lustre and is fabulous for making dresses. It is more difficult to sew than cotton and harder to maintain, but the sheer number of different kinds of silk is overwhelming and you’ll be spoilt for choice. Silks with the highest thread count are the most durable and soft. Keep silks away from moisture and heat.

Linen

Linen is cool, crisp, and durable. If it’s high quality it will be soft, but it’s not the best fabric if you want it to drape the figure nicely. It is prone to wrinkle and might feel scratchy if it’s too crisp. Dresses made from linen will look classy and neat. If you’re looking for a cheaper option, go for a linen blend fabric.

Polyester

Polyester has qualities that are unique to synthetic fibres. It has a great drape and a good amount of stretch. Make sure the polyester you buy is of high quality because low-quality polyester doesn’t look great.

Satin

Satin is usually the fabric of choice if you’re making something for a special occasion. There are different weights of satin. You can use a thicker satin fabric if you want to make something with more structure to it.

It’s worth noting that satin can be a tricky fabric to sew.

Lace

Lace has a feminine, ethereal look, which makes it perfect for women’s clothing. Often you need to line lace because the open weave of this material makes it sheer. If you choose the ideal fabric to line it with, you can make gorgeous dresses

Knit

Knit is a construction, so knitted fabrics have great stretch, are comfortable and drape well. Remember to look for higher gauge fabrics to ensure you get your hands on the finest quality. Jersey is a good fabric for making lightweight clothing.

You’ll need to use a special ball-point needle if you want to machine-sew your garment.

Wool

Finer wool is used to make clothes, while coarser wool is used to make rugs and blankets. So, if you want to make clothes with wool, seek out soft fine wool. It can be expensive, but its luxuriant softness makes it worth it.

It’s a warm, thick fabric that’s well suited to winter garments.

Rayon

Rayon is a very light fabric that drapes the body well, making it a popular choice among dressmakers. It’s not the best material for beginners, because it’s not easy to work with. Normal rayon wrinkles a lot too.

Wrapping up

The best way to choose fabric is always to go and see and feel it to make sure it’s the right material for what you want to create. There are so many tempting online options for buying that you may not always get the chance.

Now you know what characteristics to keep an eye out for and have some idea about what fabrics best suit beginners, all that’s left is for you to get creative. Refer to this guide and you won’t be befuddled by fabrics anytime soon.

Published by Lizzie

Lizzie here. I'm a freelance copywriter and editor based in the UK. I'm also passionate about volunteering and hold a MA in History from the University of Warwick. I've written for a multitude of fantastic websites and companies, including a legal automation software company, a dog training site and more. Check out my reviews on Fiverr and Upwork for more info!

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