An Absolute Beginner’s Guide: Choosing Fabric

Welcome to the second week of my new series: An Absolute Beginner’s Guide to Sewing. Last week we talked about how to choose a pattern and this week we are discussing fabric – what to look for when buying it and how to know guess what it will look as a garment. Please chip in your ideas too!

Cambie Dress

First Things First

Turn your pattern over and have a look on the back on the back of the envelope. I am going to use Sewaholic’s Cambie Dress (view A) as an example here. On the back there is a recommended fabrics sectionwhich gives a broad category, light to medium weight woven fabrics, and then specific suggestions, linen, wool blends and cotton sateen. Clearly these are only suggestions and you can use absolutely whichever fabric tickles your fancy. So what is a light to medium weight fabric? If we say likes of denim, corduroy, velvet and upholstery fabrics are heavy weight then everything else is light to medium weight. So that still leaves you with lots of options right? Perhaps too many options!

Suitability

There’s a reason why some fabrics are called ‘suiting’ and ‘shirting’ – because that’s what they’re designed for! If you’re sewing a blouse you’re fabric will, mostly likely be lighter than if you were sewing a pair of trousers. When you look at a bolt of fabric what do you imagine it being? A summer dress? A pencil skirt? A coat? Go with your instincts. You’re probably right.

Cambie Dress Product

Fabric Properties

Fabric properties are things like the weight of the fabric, whether it has any stretch, whether it has a nap, how sheer it is and how it drapes. If you are an absolute beginner I would suggest a very stable fabric – that is one with very little or no stretch. Non-stretch fabrics are a lot easier to work with because they don’t stretch way out of shape when cutting (resulting in totally warped pieces) or sewing together (which can create bumpy seams and hems).

Ok so let’s narrow it down a bit more. With the Cambie Dress you’ll need a fabric that works well with the fitted bodice, can be gathered for the shoulders and will sit nicely as a skirt. Because the shoulders straps are gathered at the front you’ll need to choose a fabric that can be gathered evenly and in a non-bulky kind of way. So what do I mean by that? Well if we went with a thick or stiff fabric the gathers would be very thick to sew through and create a puffy look like a Disney princess. So a thinner fabric like a crepe would work really well.

Unless you’re going to colour block, you also need to think about how that same fabric will drape as a skirt. Some people refer to this as the fabric’s bodyDrape or body is how the fabric falls. Fabrics are displayed vertically in shops with the end tuck in the top to demonstrate the drape. Is it stiff and unmoving or will it flutter nicely in the breeze?

Cambie Dress Grey

Fabric Design and Nap

The design printed on the fabric and the nap are other things to consider for your garment. A fabric has a nap if there is clearly an up way and a down way for the fabric. This is particularly important if you’re working with novelty prints but also with velvets, plaids and stripes. It’s important because you need to have them all lined up the right way and because you will need to match them up at the seams. Matching at the seams is kinds tricky (something I’m yet to achieve at least!) so if you’re working with a print I’d recommend something really busy with an irregular design so that it doesn’t matter which way around it goes.

What’s your best tip for choosing fabric?

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7 thoughts on “An Absolute Beginner’s Guide: Choosing Fabric”

  1. I’d say start with a stable cotton that is pre-washed prior to cutting and sewing (otherwise your garment will shrink when you wash it), as cotton is not easily ruined like some (all?) synthetics can be when they meet with a too-hot iron. Or a nice woven wool that is pre-steamed (or even washed) before cutting and sewing. Just be careful with pressing the wool, as it can literally be pressed flat even at seams where you’ve added shape to a garment. Fabrics like dupioni silk is nice to work with, but you can make them fray just by looking at them. Glossy and slippery fabrics are better left alone at least until one garment is completed IMO.
    Otherwise I find the “wine glass test” good for deciding whether a fabric has body or drape (picture from the book Weekend sewing can be found here: http://www.blogforbettersewing.com/2010/01/picking-out-dress-fabrics.html).
    Though I’m no beginner any more, I like your series of posts on this topic!

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    1. This is all such good advice! Wools are good and I didn’t even think to mention them – they are very stable and easy to work with. I’m glad you’re enjoying the series and I’m enjoying your input too!

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  2. Great tips! Besides the appropriate fabric weight, my priority is fabric that gives a good finish– meaning you can press the seams really flat. (Pressing properly is, in my opinion, one of the hallmarks of a professionally-made garment.) So I tend to avoid things like 100% polyesters, because most of the time, I just can’t get the finish I like with them, especially the thicker ones.

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