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Choosing fabric and fabric types
29th June 2017

Choosing fabric can be overwhelming, there’s often too much choice. When I can’t decide, I ask for small samples that I take away, so I have time to think - even if its just while I have a cup of coffee. Try not to buy on price alone, some of my ‘bargains’ have never been used.

Here is a brief overview of the types of fabric used and some tips on working with them.

Woven Fabric

Basic woven fabric is constructed with threads interwoven at right angles to each other. The threads running down the length of the fabric are called the warp and the threads that run across the width are called the weft.

This form of construction usually creates a fabric that is rigid or non-stretch in the warp or weft direction although flexible on the bias – an angle of 45 degrees to warp or weft.

There are also stretch woven fabrics where Lycra or Elastomeric yarns are included in the weave construction. These fabrics can stretch in one or both directions depending on how the stretch yarn is added in the weaving process.

The other form of stretch woven is called a mechanical stretch. This is when a chemical finish is applied to the flat fabric causing it to shrink creating a stretch when pulled. The stretch quality in a mechanical stretch fabric is not as strong or long lasting and will not keep bouncing back. For example if a tight fitting skirt is made in a mechanical stretch fabric it will ‘seat’ and not bounce back until it is washed again.

Terms such as denim, canvas or twill, refer to the type of weave pattern.

To sew with woven fabrics is fairly straightforward. Use a universal needle and straight stitch setting on your sewing machine. Vary the size of needle and stitch length to suit your fabric weight.

Knitted or Jersey Fabric

Knitted fabric is more complex in construction than woven fabric. In its most basic form it is made from a series of interlocking loops formed by a single thread continually looping through the last row of loops created. The resulting fabric is much more flexible than a woven fabric and can stretch in any direction.

In a similar way to mechanical stretch woven fabrics, if there is no Lycra or elastomeric content in the yarn used, tight fitting garments will ‘seat’. T-shirts are often made from basic jersey with no added stretch content. The fabric used to make leggings will usually contain 4% - 6%stretch fibres whereas performance sportswear and swimwear require a high percentage approximately 18%.

Terms such as single or double jersey refer to the looped construction created by the needle bed set up of the knitting machine. Single jersey is knitted on one bed, either flat or circular, so the loops always fall to the same side, creating a right and wrong side.

Double jersey is knitted on a twin bed set up so there is usually two right, though sometimes differing, sides to the fabric. It is generally thicker and more stable to work with.

To sew with knitted fabrics use a Ballpoint or jersey needle, these are designed to push the threads aside as they stitch. This prevents any laddering resulting from broken stitches.

Selecting the best stitch for jersey fabrics is dependent on the amount of stretch required. Too little stretch and the sewing thread can break when the seam is stretched.

For most side seams I like to use a plain straight stitch however I apply a little tension to the fabric as I feed it under the machine foot. For waistbands and hems I use a zigzag stitch to allow for more stretch.

If my jersey fabric splays out, I generally use a steam iron, without pressing the fabric, to relax the fabric back into shape. In the Stretch Pencil Skirt project there are a number of alternatives given for tackling hems in different ways.

Fine silky fabrics

I find these the trickiest to work with but sometimes I can’t resist because of the luxurious delicate handle.

Always use a finer needle whether it’s a Universal or Ballpoint. You can also get specialist needles for Microfibre that I have used on natural silks as well as synthetic silky fabrics.

For buttonholes try using a stick on fabric stabiliser as used by embroiderers, I use Stitch and Tear. This will stop your fabric puckering up.

Technical Fabrics

 

This is a term that refers to either woven or knitted fabrics that are coated or bonded with a chemically produced fabrication.

PU and PVC are terms used for imitation leathers – PVC stands for plastic Polyvinyl plastic coated woven fabric with a high sheen like patent leather.

PU is a Polyurethane coated jersey fabric with a sheen finish and stretch qualities.

Neoprene or scuba fabrics are bonded imitation rubber like fabrics with a jersey backing for increased flexibility.

For technical fabrics with a jersey backing I’ve found I get the best results from using a ballpoint or jersey needle. For woven backed technical fabrics I use a Universal needle but if that has difficulty puncturing the fabric I use a leather needle. I also lengthen the stitch length to get a smoother result.

The shiny surface of these fabrics can stick when in contact with the presser foot or machine plate. To avoid this happening use a Teflon foot and make a template of non-stick baking parchment to place over the machine plate, secure this with tape.

For some PVC fabrics It can be impossible to pin your seams in place before stitching so try using a double-sided basting tape or alternatively hold the pieces together with small bulldog or paper clips.

Always keep your technical fabrics rolled rather than folded this will stop any permanent creasing.

Leather

When sewing with leather select skins that are reasonably lightweight and flexible. If you have never sewn with suede or leather, but would like to have a go, most suppliers have off cuts or part skins at reduced prices, so you can try out before investing in the materials for a whole garment.

As leather is neither woven nor knitted fabric it has a tendency to tear at the seams, if there are too many stitch perforations. To avoid this increase your stitch length and always use a leather needle, its spear like point cleanly cuts the stitch hole.

Try out the strength of your seam on an off cut.

As with technical fabrics, leather can be impossible to pin the seams in place before stitching so try using a double-sided basting tape or alternatively hold the pieces together with small bulldog or paper clips.

As with technical fabrics, keep your leather or suede rolled not folded.

 

Before you start making -

Once you‘ve bought your fabric always wash it before sewing. If you are not sure it’s washable, cut a 20cm square and place it in a 30-degree wool wash. Then when it’s washed and dried re-measure to check shrinkage and also to review the handle of the fabric. If you don’t like the result, make sure you only dry-clean the garment you are going to make.

Before washing lengths of fabric, unfold them and iron out any creases. Loosely load into your machine and use a liquid detergent. These steps should avoid any unevenness in the colour fading especially with indigo and pigment dyed denim or coloured linens.

The reason for pre-washing fabric is that during the manufacturing process, fabrics are often ‘stentered’. This is when they are pulled into a uniform width and length and a finishing chemical applied. The problem with this is, that when the fabric is subsequently washed, it ‘relaxes’ back or shrinks. So by washing it before making, you can make sure what you make doesn’t shrink.

Do not wash suede, leather or PVC. I have washed PU not because it would shrink but because it can have an unpleasant chemical smell.

 

This article is taken from the book The Makers Atelier - Essential Collection available HERE