CHOOSING THE RIGHT FABRIC

There is such a tremendous selection of fabrics available; the job of choosing fabric can be overwhelming. As you peruse the different fabrics, you may be drawn to the bright, splashy colors at first. Then, the subtle colors, interesting textures and weaves present you with more possibilities. It is essential to be informed about fabrics, so that your project is successful. But, it is still important for you to fall in love with the fabric!

We will begin by breaking down the types of fabric into categories, then sub-categories. You will want to know what the fabric is made of, how it will drape (flow), and what the care instructions are. One thing is for certain – it pays to invest in quality fabric, as you are going to put a lot of your energy into the project, and you want it to be a success.

TYPES OF FABRIC BY FIBER CONTENT

The fiber content of a fabric will determine the comfort of the garment when you wear it, and how you will need to care for the garment. Usually, in a store, the fabric content will be on the end of the cardboard form that the fabric is wrapped around. Be sure to ask the sales people, as sometimes the form is re-used and does not match the fabric. If purchasing fabric from a web site, the information should be displayed with the fabric. In case you find fabric that the fiber content is unknown, it can be tested by burning it. More about fabric testing later.

  • Natural Fiber Fabrics
    • Cotton
    • Linen
    • Ramie
    • Silk
    • Wool
    • Specialty Hair Fibers
  • Man-Made Fiber Fabrics
    • Acetate and Triacetate
    • Acrylic
    • Nylon
    • Olefin
    • Polyester
    • Rayon
    • Spandex
  • Leathers and Suedes
  • Synthetic Suedes
  • Vinyls
  • Furs

NATURAL FIBER FABRICS

Natural fiber fabrics are made from materials that grow in nature. Fibers come from animal coats, silkworm cocoons, and plant seeds, leaves, and stems. Natural fiber fabrics are biodegradable and also can be recycled. In recycling, the fabric is shredded back to fibers, respun into a coarse yarn, and then rewoven or knitted. Wool is the most common recycled fabric, but cotton can be recycled and made into industrial wiping cloths, mattress filling, and carpet backing.

COTTON

Cotton is known for its comfort, appearance, versatility, and performance. It is available in many fabric weights, colors, patterns, weaves, and prices. Cotton comes from the seedpod of the cotton plant. It is grown in warm climates that have plentiful rain. The cotton fibers are taken from the boll (seed pod) and vary in length. They can be as long as 2 ½” and as short as 3/8”. The long fibers are the more costly, and are harder to produce. Once the cotton is picked, it is separated by a process known as ginning (remember hearing about the cotton gin?) and the long fibers are made into thread. The short fibers are used to produce rayon. The quality is determined by: a) fiber fineness; b) color; c) foreign matter. To figure out the fiber length, peel a thread and untwist. Look for fibers longer than ½”.

Enough history lesson, now on to what is so great about cotton. Cotton has many admirable characteristics and a few less-than-admirable characteristics:

  • Comfortable year-round. In hot, humid weather, cotton will absorb perspiration and release it on the fabric surface, and the moisture will evaporate. In the cold weather, cotton will help retain body heat.
  • Easy to clean: usually, cotton garments can be laundered, and even stand up to hot water, but cotton can also be dry cleaned, if the garment calls for dry cleaning. Some factors for determining if the fabric should be dry-cleaned are the dyes, finish, trims, and design of the garment. If you have a doubt, wash a small sample of the fabric first. Cotton garments should be cleaned frequently. The fibers soil easily.
  • Shrinks: Oh, yes, cotton fabric shrinks. It is a must to pre-shrink cotton fabric before you begin the sewing project. You may want to wash the fabric more than once. Looser weaves shrink more; closer weaves shrink less. Cotton shrinks more when washed in hot water. Wash it in the same way as you will the completed garment.
  • Wrinkles: cotton does wrinkle when washed. Many times the cotton fibers are blended with another fiber to achieve wrinkle free fabric. Cotton blended with polyester makes a wrinkle-free, easy care fabric. Although the cotton/poly blend fabric is easy care, it is not cool as cotton and also pills. Formaldehyde is sometimes added to cotton to create “easy care cotton”.
  • Durable
  • Doesn’t build up static electricity
  • Drapes well

There are many cotton fabrics, which range from lightweight sheers to heavy velvets. Some examples of cotton fabric are: batiste, broadcloth, calico, canvas, chintz, corduroy, denim, flannel, muslin, gauze, percale, pique, plisse, sateen, velour and velvet, to name a few. The list goes on and on. There is, of course, different qualities of cotton. The highest quality cottons are made from the longer fibers, such as Pima, Egyptian and Peruvian cottons. Look for fabrics that the fibers are closely woven. In general, better quality cotton fabrics are softer than the lesser quality cottons. The lesser quality cottons often have sizing added to make them seem to be firmer and heavier than they are. Once you wash it, the sizing will be gone, and you will be left with a fabric that will not wear well or last very long. Buy quality! To figure out if the fabric has heavy sizing, rub the fabric against itself. If it softens, or it gives off a powdery feel, that is heavy sizing. If you hold it up to the light, you may be able to see the sizing between the threads. Mercerized cotton is stronger and more lustrous, which it retains after many washings. Mercerizing permanently straightens the fibers, and makes it smooth.

Fabric Prep
Pre-wash or dry clean, and iron before you lay out for cutting. When you pre-wash, wash the fabric the same as you will wash the garment.

Pressing
There is a cotton setting on irons, which is high heat, and a pressing cloth should be used. If your cotton is very lightweight, or is a cotton blend, use a lower heat setting. It is a good idea to press the fabric when it is damp. If the fabric has a permanent press finish, use a warm setting and steam.

Layout/Cutting/Marking
Although many types of cotton do not have a nap, some have a print that only goes in one direction. Also, velvets, corduroys, velveteens and some other cotton fabrics have a nap. Keep this in mind when laying out the patterns, as they have instructions for both with and without naps. When cutting lightweight fabrics, use serrated (pinking) shears. For most of the cotton fabrics, regular straight shears or a rotary cutter will work just fine. Use fine pins, as some of the fabrics will have a mark if you use large pins.

 

Fabric Weight Needle Size Stitch Length
Very Heavy 100/16 to 120/20 6-8 stitches per inch
Heavy 90/14 to 100/16* 80/12-90/14 8 to 10 stitches per inch
Medium 70/10 to 80/12 10 to 12 stitches per inch
Light 60/8 to 70/10 15-18 stitches per inch

 

South American and Thai Cottons

  • Firmly woven
  • Produced in smaller widths than normal
  • Shrink quite a bit
  • Vegetable dyes can bleed – set with ¼ cup vinegar per gallon of water
  • Small flaws in the fabric

COTTON FABRICS

  • DUCK: heavy, durable cotton that is tightly woven.
  • FLANNEL: comes in either a plain or twill weave; it has a slight nap (a soft, brushed look) on one or both sides. Since this fabric shrinks quite a bit, machine-wash and machine-dry, both hot. Use a with nap layout, double thickness. Use an 80/12 needle. Steam iron on cotton setting.
  • FLANNELETTE: soft, with a nap on one side.
  • GAUZE: sheer, lightly woven fabric. There is also silk gauze.
  • GINGHAM: checks, plaids, stripes, very lightweight.
  • LAWN: lightweight, plain woven, this fabric is soft, combed with a crisp finish.
  • MUSLIN: runs sheer to coarse; plain woven; comes in “natural” color or dyed.
  • BRUSHED COTTON: the fibers are teased apart to make the cloth fleecy, creating air pockets between the fibers, and feels warmer; is more flammable. Sometimes comes with flameproofing. It is strong, stronger when wet, stands up to hard washing, which makes it ideal for tablecloths, napkins, sheets, pillowcases. Resistant to heat, can be washed at high temperatures.
  • MATELASSE: raised woven designs, usually jacquard, with a puckered/quilted look.
  • MOIRE: a finish given to ribbed cotton or silk, achieved by passing the fabric between engraved rollers which press a watermark pattern into it.
  • ORGANDY: transparent with crisp finish.
  • PIMA: from Egyptian cotton; excellent quality.
  • PIQUE: cotton pique has a small embossed design, achieved by using two warps with different tension. It is very expensive to produce.
  • PLISSE: crinkled effect, produced on cotton by printing it with a stripe of chemical, which causes raised buckling by elongating fibers of the printed parts.
  • POLISHED: plain or satin weave; shiny due to chemical finish.
  • POPLIN: plain weave with a cross-wise rib.
  • SEERSUCKER: lightweight fabric crinkled into lengthwise strips of different colors. Traditionally woven with two types of warp, one under heavy tension, to give the variation in surface. These days, chemical methods are more often used to produce the crinkle. It does not need ironing after washing.
  • SWISS: sheer, fine fabric; plain or dotted with possible other designs.
  • TERRY CLOTH: looped pile, woven or knitted, and absorbent. French terry is looped on one side and sheared pile on other side.
  • VELVETEEN: short pile resembling velvet.