How To Choose The Right Fabric For Your Sewing Project
There are some things only experience can teach us. Choosing suitable fabric is one of those things and is among the most essential skills for developing sewers. Luckily, in this modern day of websites and tutorials, you can get at least a jump on head knowledge. But understand there’s no substitute for looking and feeling fabrics up close.
Points to Ponder
Beginning sewers should consider investing in a reliable reference book to help gain in-depth knowledge about the many types of fabrics and their best uses. So when you are reading pattern recommendations or considering your own garment design or a home decor project, you’ll at least have an idea of which fabrics to consider and which to avoid.
A sewer’s skill level dictates fabric choices. Absolute beginners will want to choose fabrics that are easy to work with, from cutting out the pattern to adding buttonholes and hems. After some experience, sewers can begin to add more challenging fabrics, always carefully researching what to expect from each.
Consult the Pattern
Patterns will include a list of recommended fabrics for the best results. However, those recommendations can sometimes vary widely. And there may be even more variables when you reach the fabric store. Still, pattern fabric recommendations are an excellent place to start and might even indicate if a particular design will match your skill set.
If you have a mental picture of how you hope your sewing project will turn out, one way to supply a reality check is to go window shopping. Looking at similar garments to determine the type of fabric used to meet your goal will help you make an appropriate choice at the fabric store. It will also, once again, reveal the necessary skill level.
Purpose or Use
What style of garment are you considering? How or where will it be used? These are questions to ask before choosing a fabric. An article of clothing that will be worn often will need to be constructed of sturdy, durable material.
Garments used for physical activities required quite different fabric than those used for business meetings or formal gatherings. Research the difficulties of working with the necessary material before starting a project that might not be finished anytime soon.
Some fabric properties to consider include:
- Washing instructions
- How the fabric drapes (hangs or holds its shape)
In the next section, I’ll give the properties of some of the most common fabric types, but you’ll want to double-check before making a purchase. Some information can often be found on the end of regular, flat fabric bolts. But other types of bolts may have no labeling whatsoever.
Garment fabric is most commonly available in 36-, 45-, or 60-inch widths. Check the pattern for the necessary width to accommodate all pattern pieces. It is nearly impossible to work around fabric that is too narrow, especially for novice sewers.
Although matching printed patterns doesn’t seem important to mass clothing production for retail, the practice is still evident in higher-quality fashions. Learning to match patterns is a skill better tackled by sewers with at least intermediate skills. But for casual wear, if it doesn’t bother you, it probably won’t bother anyone else.
Probably one garment that required more print matching is a man’s patterned shirt. Side seams and pockets are often matched for a more professional look. These garments require some experience with collars, yokes, and button plackets. They are made from workable woven materials but still should be avoided by beginners.
Does It Need a Lining?
You may desire a lightweight garment that drapes and flows freely. However, too sheer a fabric may require at least a partial lining to be presentable and sturdy enough for ordinary wear. Such a requirement definitely ups the needed skill level.
Also, professional outfits often require complicated linings. Even a simple lining is usually constructed from fabrics not easily worked by beginners. Read pattern requirements carefully to avoid such surprises.
Overbuy Your Fabric
Always buy more fabric than you think you’ll need, especially if the material may shrink in a prewash. And for beginners, a little extra yardage can redeem unrepairable errors.
Purchasing Fabric Online
Beginner sewers should not buy fabric online. It takes time and experience to understand how different types of materials behave. The best classroom is the fabric department or store, where you can touch and become familiar with thick and thin, stiff or flowing variations among fibers.
That said, some fabrics are harder to find these days. As you gain knowledge, you may begin using online sources for more challenging to find materials, such as linen, silk, or wool varieties.
Common Fabrics by Skill Requirements
Beginner Skill Level
Cotton: 100% cotton and some cotton blends are excellent for beginner sewers. Cotton is a woven fabric available in a wide range of weights for casual to dressy projects. Lightweight cottons move and flow easily, while heavier cottons are stiff and hold their shape well.
Cotton properties to know:
- Very breathable for outdoor clothing, especially in hot weather.
- Cotton is one of the most comfortable natural fibers on the market.
- Cotton must be pre-washed to minimize future shrinkage.
- After pre-washing, cotton can be washed/dried using normal settings.
- Most cotton is classified as having a moderate draping capability.
- Use cotton for simple tops, dresses, skirts, bedding, or furniture covers.
Linen: Linen is lovely to work with but more expensive and often harder to come by for regular garment making.
Linen properties to know:
- Like cotton, linen is a highly breathable natural fiber.
- Linen rivals cotton in comfort.
- Linen does not shrink.
- Linen can be washed using normal machine settings, though either linen or cotton may wrinkle, especially when new.
- Linen is classified as having a moderate drape, although it’s often a bit stiffer than lightweight cotton.
- Linen is excellent for dressier summer tops, professional wear, bedding, draperies, and upholstery.
Moderate Skill Level
Polyester: Polyester is a non-woven, synthetic material that may or may not have stretch capabilities. The fabric has more tendency to slide apart while cutting or sewing. Although polyester materials are tremendously popular in mid-class retail outlets, it is not as sought after by experienced sewers who know the advantages of natural fibers.
Polyester properties to know:
- Polyester has low breathability, making it less ideal for outdoor summer wear.
- Polyester has a low to medium comfort rating.
- Most polyester falls into a medium drape classification.
- Polyester does not shrink.
- Polyester can be washed on normal machine settings, though some may be heat sensitive, so hanging to dry will extend the life of the garment.
- Some polyester fabrics or blends are highly economical.
- Polyester is often used for pants, skirts, suits, and bedding.
- Polyester may pull easily, making it unsuitable for active wear or high-use areas of the home.
Jersey: Jersey is non-woven cotton, polyester, or a blend thereof. For the most breathability and comfort, cotton is a better choice.
Jersey properties to know:
- Jersey is a four-way stretch material that is sometimes called T-shirt fabric.
- Jersey has moderate to high breathability, depending on the percentage of natural fibers.
- Jersey has a high comfort rating.
- Jersey has a moderate to high drape rating.
- Some jerseys will shrink and so require pre-washing
- Research to find the washing instructions for a specific type of jersey.
- Jersey is used for T-shirts, leggings, undergarments, and insulating winter wear.
Wool: Wool is unique among natural fibers. It can be made into fine thread or chunky yarn. The fibers allow air circulation, yet they are highly insulating, retaining their warming properties even when wet. Hince, wool has been a staple material for centuries for those regularly exposed to the elements as well as those who combine high fashion and function.
Wool properties to know:
- Wool is highly breathable.
- Wool rates moderate for comfort, partially because some find the fibers irritating.
- Finely woven wool fabric offers moderate draping capabilities.
- Wool does shrink, so it must be pre-washed.
- It is still possible to experience some shrinkage during future washings. So wool should be washed with cold water only and hung to dry. It can also be dry cleaned.
- Because of possible irritation for some, wool suits and other garments are often lined as a barrier against the skin. The need for a lining increases the needed skill level even more.
- Wool is most often used for outerwear, suits, and durable upholstery.
Rayon: Rayon is a unique fabric in constitution and texture. It’s made from cellulose fiber—usually wood pulp from eucalyptus, bamboo, soy, flax, hemp, etc. The cellulose is dissolved and regenerated into thread, earning rayon a place in the synthetic category.
Rayon properties to know:
- Rayon has moderate breathability, somewhere between polyester and natural fibers such as cotton.
- Rayon is very comfortable to wear, having a soft and pliant feel.
- Rayon offers moderate draping capabilities.
- Rayon can require careful laundering. Research proper washing instructions and pre-wash to avoid shrinkage.
- Some rayon uses include summer blouses or dresses, activewear, bedding, and curtains.
Advanced skill level
Silk: Silk’s slippery, silky texture makes it a challenge to work with. But its beauty makes it a worthy goal for progressing sewers. Silk is also a more expensive fabric, and it may be necessary to explore online sources to find greater color and texture choices.
Silk properties to know:
- Although it is considered a natural material, silk offers only moderate breathability.
- Silk is fabulously comfortable to wear.
- Washing silk in a regular machine is out of the question. Most silk garments are labeled dry clean only. It is also possible to hand wash silk with a gentle detergent. Wash only in cold water and never put silk in a dryer.
- Yes, silk will shrink if not correctly handled.
- One of the most appealing properties of silk is its fluid drape. Few other fabrics can match it.
- Silk is popular with designers of high fashion (couture) and ladies’ formalwear. It’s also used for high-end suits, bedding, and upholstery.
Brocade: Brocade is a heavy, textured fabric produced in both natural and synthetic varieties. The patterns may require matching, and the material can tend to fray easily. Still, brocade’s rich colors and textures make gorgeous unique fashion statements.
Brocade properties to know:
- When used for garments, brocade has moderate breathability, depending on the original fibers.
- Brocade is a dry clean only fabric.
- Since brocade is a heavier material, its drape will be very straight or very voluminous, depending on the garment’s cut.
- Brocade can shrink. Pre-washing is not an option. The material must be cleaned carefully to avoid any shrinkage issues.
- Use brocade for upholstery, outerwear, suits, or heavier tops or dresses.
Besides the above-mentioned fabrics, many specialty materials are available in most fabric stores. I’ve only touched on the tip of the iceberg regarding the plethora of choices at the fingertips of sewers.
One example among specialty options is fabrics with water resistance properties for outdoor furniture, tents, or backpacks. These fabrics include rip-stop, waterproof upholstery, or vinyl/plastic sheeting. Rip-stop is relatively easy to work with, but most outdoor materials require a moderate skill level.
There are also many varieties of home decor fabrics not usually used for garments. Research carefully to ensure you choose the appropriate material for your project.
The most popular lining materials include rayon, silk, viscose, cupro, and cotton blends. Lining fabrics should match the outer layer’s color and be lighter in weight unless you’re lining a coat with fur or fleece. Standard lining fabrics are often found grouped together in the fabric store.
Advanced skill levels are required for sequined or otherwise embellished fabrics. Research what kind of thread and needles to use for these challenging materials. Although you may envision a fun result, be careful not to bite off more than you can chew with unusual materials.