Sunday, March 10, 2013

Sewing 101: Fabric Selection

This is my personal way of thinking of fabrics and fabric selection.  It is by no means an end all be all, just a compilation of what I've learned and currently adhere to :)

Fabric Shopping:
I am a fabric molester.  When I visit a fabric store, I touch every single bolt that looks interesting and from there, I decide on whether it's suitable for me.  When feeling, I'm looking for:
  • Stretch
  • Thickness
  • Structure
  • Opacity 
  • Skin feel - will stay away from itchy or rough
  • Weave (if applicable)
  • Overall quality
The feel of these help determine what the fabric is appropriate for.

For example:
  • Stretchy + thick + semi-structured = comfortable dresses with a sculptural element
  • Thin + see-through + lightweight = dress / top with some kind of flow to highlight the fabric
  • Non-stretch + thick + coarse/rigid = pleated skirts since it holds structure and shape so beautifully
Knit dress with structured sleeves
Bow neck chiffon top
Pleated full skirt with stiff cotton

Non-conventional Fabrics:  Don't shy away from drapery / bedding / etc - I've found the prettiest prints there!  For drapery, make sure it is machine washable.  Some fabrics only allow spot treatment.

Drapery fabric made into map peplum skirt and sailboat dress
Bedding made into shift dress

Best Fabric for Beginners: Cotton - easy to cut, straight-forward, sews well, relatively inexpensive.  You can purchase 44-45" wide cotton at any fabric store for roughly $3 a yard

"Difficult" Fabrics:
  • Chiffons - can be difficult to cut.  I generally sew this while holding it semi-taut.  It's worked for me, though I'm not sure that's the correct way to do it.
  • Silkies - can sometimes slip during sewing.  I use the same semi-taut sewing style as with chiffons and make sure to guide it while sewing.
  • Satins & Shinies - can pucker easily and show mistakes.  
  • Jerseys - can be difficult on regular machines because you need to adjust your stitching to account for the stretch.  Otherwise, your stitches will pop.  To rectify, use a twin needle or zigzag stitch.  Very easy on serger where the stitches have built in stretch.
Structure vs. Drape:
I once tried to make a drape-y shell out of satin.  This was a horrible idea.  The satin had so much structure that the shell wound up looking like a tent.  Belting / tucking made it worse because the gathered areas wound up looking like it had very poofy wrinkles.  Lesson learned - don't try to "drape" a structured fabric.  Structuring a drape-y fabric (think knits) is doable, but don't expect it to hold any rigid shapes.

How much to buy?
The most accurate way to determine how much you need is to go by your sewing pattern.  The back of the envelope will always tell you the amount of fabric / notions are needed to create the garment.  If you're buying without a specific style / pattern in mind, here are some basic amounts and what you can create with it:
  • 1 yard = suitable for sleeveless tops and some skirts (think A-line)
  • 1.5 yards = short or 3/4 sleeved tops, pencil skirts (I always purchase extra yardage for pencil skirts in case of mess-ups)
  • 2 yards = knee length fit & flare dresses / sheaths / shifts (buy a little extra if going for a long-sleeved garment, sleeves take up much more fabric than you'd think - as do pockets!), cropped jackets, full pleated skirts
  • 2.5 - 3 yards = floor length maxi dresses, knee-length coats, boyfriend blazers
  • 4+ yards = Ball gowns, entire outfits (dress + jacket)
Collecting Fabrics:
I am also a fabric hoarder.  I used to buy anything and everything that looked interesting to me.  For the most part, fabric is considerably less expensive than clothing so it's also easy to get carried away with buying.  As a result, I have a giant bookcase and several storage bins jam-packed with fabrics.  While useful if there should ever be a fabric apocalypse, it's not very practical, hogs way too much space, and I wind up with a bunch of what-if fabrics that could possibly be suitable for something at some point, but not right now.  

My current approach when buying is to always think of at least one or two projects I could see myself actually doing with the fabric.

I hope this was helpful!  Questions?  Please feel free to leave them in the comments :)


  1. more sewing 101 posts please! for the sewing dummies like me!

  2. I will be bookmarking this! :)

    1. Am looking fwd to hearing about your sewing adventures :)

  3. Fabric molester! LOL! This is a great post for people like me. I just know how to use the sewing machine and do some minor alterations on my clothes but nothing beyond that..

  4. Thank you so much for this. Don't mind if I pick your brain a little more, new neighbor!

  5. Very informative, S! I definitely will keep this post in mind when going fabric shopping. So far, I've only worked with cotton. Hopefully, my sewing skills will get better overtime so I can experience with other types of fabrics.

  6. Thank you for the information. I hope that I will find the time and patience to learn how to sew.

  7. I like the guide on how much fabric makes what. Really helpful. Seriously, I can't sew a straight line. What's the trick? Do I hold the "back" and "front" ends of the fabric as the needle runs across it? Let the "catch" (the thing underneath the needle that moves fabric backward) do the work? Thanks!

  8. Thank you for this guide, S! Saved this post :D

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  10. Maybe there is someone who can help me on this blog. I found this skirt on pinterest under Lauren Conrad's blog. Scroll down to image #4 and please tell me what type of fabric this skirt is made out of. I am in love with this skirt and can't figure what the material is.
    Thanks all!!

    1. Hi Mona, it looks like a medium weight fabric with some structure. It could be a neoprene or a thick knit like a ponte, but it's hard to say for sure without seeing it in person. Hope that helps a little.

  11. Hi, I would like to tailor a structured peplum top. What material would you suggest that I buy?

    1. Hi! I would recommend a medium or heavyweight fabric - you can either do a 100% cotton (easiest to deal with), a heavy ponte, or even the scuba / neoprene fabrics that are now popular. Each should be able to hold structure - good luck!


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