Fabric: A Crash Course

How do you go about choosing fabric? 

You may show up at the fabric store be overwhelmed with options.  Cotton?  Polyester?  Heavy? Light?  What is sateen and what is satin?  Which fabric goes with what pattern?  Not knowing what to buy can sometimes lead you to wind up with disappointing results.  Fortunately, a little know-how makes it much easier.  Here is a intro-guide to tell you everything you didn't know you wanted to know about fabric!

Selection and general types

  • Pay attention to how much the fabric drapes when selecting a fabric for a garment.  To check fabric drape, put your hand under the fabric near the middle and see how it falls off your hand.  Drape is somewhat correlated to thickness, but not as much as you think.  Some very light, sheer fabrics, like organza, have very little drape - they are crisp and will fall from the hands in thick folds.  Some heavy knit fabrics still have a fair amount of drape.
  • More structured garments should have non-draping fabrics.  These garments generally fit more precisely to the body.  Draping fabric would mean sagging, which you don't want
  • Less-structured garments and looser garments need fabric with a little more drape.  Some designs, like cowl necks, need fabric with substantial drape (soft jersey, for example).
  • FIBER is not the same thing as FABRIC.  A fabric is defined by the way the cloth is constructed, and generally falls into two categories: knits, and wovens.  A fiber is the raw material the fabric is constructed from.  For example, knit jersey can be made from cotton, wool, silk, rayon, or polyester fibers, and each behaves, wears, and sews differently.
  • Knit fabrics will have rows of tiny v's, as the fabric is formed by wrapping loops of thread in much the same way as hand-knitting is done (except in this case it's done on a large machine, of course!). Knits can be found in a variety of fibers and weights.  They may have subtle or substantial stretch.  They tend to be comfortable to wear, and allow for a lot of ease on the body.  Many knits are good for soft, draping designs, although some have more structure.  Natural fiber knits (cotton, silk, and wool, and the semi-natural rayon) tend to be more breathable and comfortable to wear.  Polyester knits, even if lightweight, are less comfortable (see fiber information below), and may stick to the skin in warm weather.
  • Woven fabrics are made by weaving the threads over each other in a variety of patterns.  Most woven fabrics have a simple criss-crossing pattern to the threads: over one, under one. Some woven fabrics, like denim, have a diagonal pattern known as a twill weave (just look at a pair of jeans to see what I mean), and is constructed not by weaving on the diagonal, but by weaving over and under different numbers of threads.  Fabrics may have a tighter or a looser weave. 
  • Tightly woven fabrics tend to drape less and also fray less.
  • Loosely woven fabrics tend to have more drape (not always), and they have a certain design aesthetic because the threads tend to be larger and more visible, giving a textural look, but they fray badly and need special preparation and seam finishing. 
  • Stretch woven fabrics have a bit of spandex woven in with the other fibers.  Stretch woven fibers have hardly any drape, and you don't want them to drape.  They are useful for pants, skirts, and form-fitting dresses.  They are useful even if you don't want your clothes to be tight, but simply to fit, because not only do they provide comfort when wearing, they tend to keep the fabric "in shape", making it snap back to position, so there tends to be less sagging over time than with plain woven fabrics.  Considering the design carefully when buying stretch fabrics.  They are good choice for anything form fitting, but anything that is a little looser on the body should not be sewn in stretch fabric, or it will not drape properly. 
  • Fibers are divided roughly into two categories: natural, and synthetic.  I almost always prefer natural fibers, but each has some properties it is helpful to understand.
  • Natural fibers include cotton, linen, silk, wool, and *sort of* rayon and acetate.  Cotton fiber comes from the cotton plant, and wool is the hair from sheep, as most people know; linen comes from the flax plant; silk is spun from silk worms; other animal fibers include cashmere from the cashmere goat, alpaca (from alpaca), angora (from a disturbingly long-haired rabbit), and camel hair, from . . . camels.  These animal fibers tend to be mixed with wool or other fibers for stability and cost. 
  • Rayon and acetate are semi-synthetic fabrics, made from
  • Natural fibers tend to absorb more moisture, making them comfortable to wear.
  • Natural fibers also need more steam when ironing and pressing and wrinkle more, again because they absorb more moisture.
  • Natural fibers tend to behave better when sewing than synthetics (perhaps some would disagree, but this is definitely my experience).  I remember toiling for hours and hours when I was in high school sewing a simple bias cut skirt from polyester satin (which I will no longer buy under almost any circumstances).  The fabric was very pretty, but was incredibly slippery and shifted constantly when cutting and sewing.  By contrast, I sewed an entire wedding dress from silk charmeuse, which is a much lighter more delicate satin, and the silk charmeuse behaved much better than the polyester ever did.  This isn't a hard fast rule, but better "behavior" when sewing tends to save time, and is well worth the added cost when sewing.  Moreover, if you put that much love and time into a garment, you want it to last, and to be comfortable!
  • Some natural fabrics need to be handled more carefully in washing.  See fabric care for more information.
  • Synthetic fabrics are man-made and include polyester, acrylic, nylon, and elastane/spandex (Lycra is a specific brand of spandex fiber).  Synthetics are handy for certain things, but I rarely use them.  I do buy stretch woven fabrics, like cotton sateen, that has a little spandex woven in.  In this case the spandex comprises around 1-3% of the total fiber content, so it adds a nice stretch and stability.  Synthetics have special properties, such as they tend to melt rather than burn.  This makes them handy when making fabric flowers to seal a cut edge of fabric.  They also need less pressing and ironing.
  • However, synthetics do not breathe well.  They tend to stick to the body, and even the lightest weight synthetics can feel hot in the summer.  Acrylics in particular tend to hold body odors, as do other synthetics - ever wonder why your deodorant suddenly doesn't work when you wear that cheap sweater?  Now you know.  I had a beautiful silk sweater that I wore until it wore itself out.  I had to remind myself to wash it because it would never smell, no matter how much I wore it!  Synthetics, on the other hand, tend to start getting perspiration smells within five minutes, even if you just showered. 
  • The fact that synthetics absorb little moisture, while making them easy to iron, also makes them very susceptible to static cling - your favorite!  It also means they tend to pill.  Ever bought an inexpensive knit top and found that after less than six months of washing it had little pills all over it?  Yep. 
  • Polyester and acrylic are both made from the same substances as plastic - which is why some polyester is now being made from recycled plastic bottles, for example. 
  • Some synthetics are useful for specific purposes - fleece, for example, is a good use of synthetic fibers, because it's warm and inexpensive. 

Rachel Blackmon

Rachel Blackmon is an artist, writer, and teacher in New York City.