When reviewing the types of fabric to buy, either for dressmaking or for home sewing, you must choose one which is of a suitable fibre (either natural or synthetic) and a suitable weave.
It is these two considerations which dictate the “handle” of the fabric.
Fibers and Yarns
The fibers which make-up fabrics are spun into yarns and woven on various types of looms, or knitted by machine to make jersey fabrics. The way the fibers are spun has a great effect on the texture of the fabric: looped and boucle yarns for example produce textured fabrics, and some methods of spinning produce extra stretch.
The natural fibers are cotton, linen, silk and wool. Cotton is probably the easiest fiber to work with and is a good choice for a beginner. It is available in a wide choice of weights and weaves, from fine cotton lawn to heavy home furnishing fabrics.
Linen, like cotton, comes from a plant and is fairly easy to handle. Yarns often have a slightly slubbed or knot-like finish, which makes them slightly more tricky to deal with.
Silk is a strong fiber, which can be spun into very fine yarns for very fine fabrics. However you will also find heavier silks, for both tailored garments and home furnishing.
Wool has a more natural ‘give’ than other natural fibers, particularly after spinning. For this reason, it is often used for jersey fabrics, where the stretch of the fabric is used in the construction of the garment. Garments made from woven wool fabrics should be lined, to prevent them stretching out of shape (particularly around the ‘seat’of a skirt of pair of trousers and at knees and elbows).
Synthetic fibers include acrylic, modacrylic, nylon, polyester and several types of rayon. Most are spun and woven to imitate natural fibers, so that, for example polyester is often used for sheeting, traditionally made from cotton or linen, and rayon acetate is used to imitate silk. Different manufacturers have their own ‘ingredients’ for man-made fibers and give them different names.
Always try to find out the exact fiber content of a fabric when buying and always check the washing, ironing and pressing instructions.
Weaves and Knits
The weave or knit of a fabric also affects the ‘handle’. Woven fabrics are constructed on a loom, with several vertical and horizontal threads (warp and weft). The way the threads interweave affects the appearance of the fabric and can make many patterns on the surface, even if only one tone of yarn is used.
Knitted fabrics may be constructed from a single yarn as in hand-knitting on a circular of flat-bed machine. This gives a very elastic fabric, and the patterns produced are as varied as those provided by hand knitting – plain knit, rib jacquard, etc. Double knits are made from two threads and two sets of needles, producing a fabric with a smooth finish on both sides. These knits are known as weft knits.
Warp knits are constructed on flat bed machines. Multiple yarns run vertically down the fabric and are manipulated into interlocking loops. Warp knits are generally firmer and flatter than than weft knits. The most important point when choosing fabrics is to know how much they will stretch and to test how they will handle before starting to sew.
Finishes and Patterns
Many fabrics are given special finishes to improve their wear, make them crease resistant or stain resistant. In some cases, this may affect the way they handle – for example, with PVC coated cottons.
As well as considering the fiber and the weave or knit, you must choose a pattern which suits the item you are making. For example vertical stripes are difficult to work with if you are making a closely fitted garment with lots of darts and seams. Patterns always give suggestions for types of fabric and designs to choose.
Type of Weave
Plain weaves are the simplest and most common: the weft threads pass alternatively over and under successive vertical threads. Muslin and taffeta are two well-known examples.
Twill weaves such as Gaberdine, are closely woven and given a diagonal rib on the face of the fabric. A common variation is the herringbone or flamestitch effect.
Satin weave is made by floating one set of threads over several of the opposite threads, to give a smooth, lustrous finish, as in cotton sateen. Leon weave is a porous open looking weave, used to produce a lightweight gauze-like fabric. Jacquard weave is an intricate weave with a pattern produced by varying the type of weave as in damask and brocade. Dobby weave is a simpler weave than jacquard, but still produces a small geometric pattern. Pile weaves such as velvet and corduroy have a third set of threads interwoven between the warp and weft threads, which are cut from a dense, fur-like surface.
Types of Knit
With a plain knit, which is often made up in a tubular piece, yarns run across the fabric. A warp knit is made up of several yarns, running down the fabric but twisted and looped to make a firm knit. A raschel knit is made from rows of plain knit, like chain stitch, which inter-lock with insertion yarns to form a lace-like or looped surface pattern.
Flannel, denim, sailcloth, cotton, wool, corduroy, stretch fabrics and knits.
Shirts and Blouses
Shirting, madras cotton, cotton/wool mixtures, denim, chambray, seersucker, polished cotton, silk, voile, chiffon
Dress for Daywear
Cotton and blends (including poplin, gingham, batiste, pique, seersucker), fine wool, wool or synthetic crepe, linen, silk, corduroy, velvet, needlecord, gaberdine, jersey, cotton/wool mixtures. For softer styles use very fine wool and wool crepe, soft silk, voile, chiffon and lace.
Dresses For Evening
Silk, stain, moiré, taffeta, brocade, lurex and metallic fabrics, lace, chiffon, net, velvet, velveteen.
Suits And Skirts
Linen, wool, seersucker, heavy cottons, tweed, gaberdine, worsted, corduroy, velvet, silk and synthetic blends.
Coats And Macs
Wool broadcloth, flannel, camel, vicuna, corduroy, velveteen, fur fabric, jersey coating, worsted, tweed, gaberdine, cotton drill, PVC.
Stretch toweling, brushed cotton and wool/cotton mixtures, woven synthetic fabrics.
Woven cotton and drill, needle cord, brushed cotton, synthetic fabrics for easy care.
Furnishing cotton, velvet, silk
Heavy furnishing cotton, cotton/linen mixture.