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Choosing fabrics for dressmaking

Choosing fabrics for dressmaking

This guide to choosing fabrics for dressmaking is an extract from Dressmaking: The Easy Guide by Helen Rhiannon, published by Search Press.  Read our review of this title here. 

Your choice of fabric will be key when choosing the type of dress you want to make. There is a huge array of fabrics available to buy these days and it can all seem very overwhelming, so let me guide you through the basics in this section.

Your choice of fabric will completely change the look of a dress. When selecting your fabric, you will need to consider the following qualities: type of fabric; cost; pattern; width; ease of handling; washing; comfort; structure and drape.

Type of fabric

Natural This means that the fabrics are created from natural sources, for example: cotton, denim, silk, linen and wool.

Synthetic This means that the fabrics are created using man-made fibres, for example: polyester, nylon, acrylic, Spandex, jersey and microfibre.

Fabrics are either natural, synthetic or a combination of both so the qualities of the fabrics are combined. For example:

Cotton is natural and is cool to wear, yet creases easily.

Polyester is synthetic and is hot to wear, yet is crease-resistant.

Polycotton is a mixture of the two to combine both qualities, so is cooler to wear than polyester and is more crease-resistant than 100% cotton. It is a very common fabric choice for clothing.

The structure of fabric

Cost

As with most things, you get what you pay for. Cheap fabric can be quite thin or stiff/starchy so is not always the best choice for clothing.

At the same time, you don’t want to buy an expensive fabric and not get the fit right first. Choose a cheaper fabric such as calico to make a sample, or toile, first. Then, when you have your pattern adjusted and ready to cut, you can measure exactly what you need and can then purchase your fabric.

You can buy fabric online but nothing beats going into a fabric store and seeing and feeling the fabric for yourself. You can take along a drawing or picture of what you have planned, and ask for help and advice on what is best.

Pattern

When choosing fabrics, you will obviously be considering the colour and maybe print of a fabric. When starting out in dressmaking, don’t give yourself a hard task by choosing a pattern that you will want to ‘pattern match’ at the seams, like stripes or a repeated pattern. If you do need to do any pattern matching, you will usually require additional fabric, which is another thing to keep in mind.

I advise that you go for quite abstract patterns, such as florals. Start simple and you can then progress to more complicated ideas.

You will also need to consider if there is a direction to your pattern. You will need to make sure your pattern pieces are all placed on your fabric the same way up for continuity.

How to choose the right fabric

Width

You will need to know the width of fabric when purchasing it, to allow you to buy the correct amount for your garment. The most common widths of fabric are 115cm (45in) or 150cm (60in). Wider cottons are sometimes available.

◆ If you buy a narrow fabric, you will need to buy more of it than if you were to buy
a wider fabric.

◆ When positioning a full dress pattern on fabric, it is useful to create a layplan, which is a plan for the positioning to get the most out of your fabric. Making sure you are economical with your fabric will save you from buying too much.

Ease of handling

When starting out sewing, I would avoid anything shiny, stretchy or with sequins or beads. Keep it simple and then progress onto other fabrics as you get more confident.

◆ You want the fabric to be easy to handle when cutting out and also when sewing.

◆ You want to be able to lay your fabric easily without it moving too much when placing your pattern on top.

◆ You will want to be able to pin it easily when placing patterns and when pinning the seams together.

◆ Woven cotton and cotton mixes are usually the easiest fabrics to work with.

Washing

Think about how your fabric will wash and how it will be after a wash. Most fabrics will be washed at 30–40° C (86–104°F) in a washing machine. The 100% natural fabrics will crease so you will need to be prepared to iron them once dry. The synthetic and mixed fabrics will need less ironing after a wash.

◆ It is advisable to wash and dry your fabric before you cut out and make a garment, as some fabrics can shrink after a wash – not ideal once you’ve perfected the fit of your dream dress!

◆ The colour can run on some fabrics so a prewash will determine that. This helps if you plan to mix a few coloured fabrics.

◆ To be honest, I don’t prewash everything as I mainly use high-quality printed cottons but it is your own choice.

If you do choose to prewash your fabric, make sure you wash an uncut length. Whatever you do, don’t cut out your pieces and then wash them as they may shrink and most likely fray in the machine.

Ironing Your Fabric

As a rule, I suggest setting your iron to 2 dots (medium temperature). Don’t go any higher unless you are working with a natural fabric that needs the extra heat. I iron everything on 2 dots with steam to get any creases out. If you set the iron any higher, you may melt your fabric if it is synthetic, or burn it if it is natural.

Comfort

When choosing your fabric, feel both sides of it and hold it against your skin so that you know you will be comfortable when wearing it. Some fabrics can look beautiful but may be a bit harsh against your bare skin. Think about under your arms and around the neckline.

You can line a dress but it becomes a more advanced garment. I have kept it simple in this book and not included linings, so do make sure your fabrics feel comfortable.

 

Structure and drape

If you hold a piece of fabric out in front of you, it will hang in a particular way depending on how firm or soft it is (see below).

When you decide which style of dress you want to make, you should then pick
your fabric to suit that shape and the drape you want.

Firmer fabrics

Firmer fabrics will be quite stiff and hang quite straight, therefore they will allow you to make a more structured garment which will hold its shape well.

Firmer fabrics work well for fitted styles, box pleats, A-line shapes and statement sleeves.

Softer fabrics

Softer fabrics will be more flimsy and sometimes floaty, therefore they will allow you to make a garment which drapes more softly.

Softer fabrics work well for soft gathered pleats, full circle skirts and floaty sleeves.

Fabric drape
Tips for dressmaking

My key fabrics

I have chosen to focus on seven fabrics that I recommend for dressmaking, as this will help those of you who are starting at the beginning. I’ve provided information on the most important qualities to look for to help you make an informed decision.

Calico fabric

Calico – the perfect practice fabric

Before you even think about which fabrics you want to use to make your first dress, I advise that you buy a small supply of a cotton fabric called calico. Calico can be used as a practice fabric as it is relatively cheap to buy, comes in a few thicknesses and you can easily manipulate it and draw on it. In the clothing industry, a practice/sample garment is called a toile and is made using calico. I highly recommend that you always make a sample, or toile, first to get the perfect fit to your dress. 

A mediumweight calico is ideal as it can be manipulated to fit the body and will hang nicely. It is the perfect weight to start you off, whichever style of dress you choose to make.

Best fabrics for sewing a dress

Cotton

Cotton comes in lots of thicknesses, giving you a few options as to how soft or structured you want your dress to be. It has some excellent qualities, which makes it one of my favourite fabrics to use for my style of dresses.

Type of fabric Natural. Comes in a range of thicknesses.

Cost Very affordable and readily available.

Width Available in both 115cm (45in) and 150cm (60in).

Pattern Available in all types of colourways and prints.

Ease of handling Easy to handle and iron.

Washing Easy to machine wash but will crease easily.

Comfort Cool to wear. Soft against the skin and very comfortable.

Structure and drape A lightweight cotton will allow you to make a soft summer dress whereas a heavier cotton will give you a more structured look for a fitted-style dress.

Tip

Lightweight cottons are great for the softer style dress with a more floaty finish but be careful not to go too thin or the fabric will be see-through and harder to manage.

When to sew with demin

Denim (a type of cotton)

I adore denim as I just love how easy it is to handle. It usually irons beautifully and if used correctly, can allow you to create a beautifully structured dress.

Type of fabric Natural. Comes in a range of thicknesses.

Cost Very affordable and readily available.

Width Available in both 115cm (45in) and 150cm (60in).

Pattern Denim is traditionally blue and grey but is readily available in a wider range of colours these days. Denim is also available with prints on and embroidery.

Ease of handling Easy to handle and iron.

Washing Easy to machine wash but will crease easily.

Comfort  Cool to wear. Very comfortable and traditionally durable.

Structure and drape A lightweight denim will allow you to make a softer style dress whereas a heavier denim will allow you to make a structured, fitted-style dress.

Tips

Be careful not to get too thick a denim as it can be hard to sew thick layers with some domestic sewing machines.

Colourful threads will allow you to sew a highlighted row of top-stitching along the seam.

Sewing with crepe

Crepe

Crepe is one of the softer, more floaty fabrics I would recommend. The right weight of crepe will allow you to make a dress which drapes beautifully and still has good body to it.

Type of fabric Natural and also a mixed fabric. Comes in a few thicknesses.

Cost Affordable and relatively easy to find.

Width Available in both 115cm (45in) and 150cm (60in).

Pattern Available in various colourways and prints.

Ease of handling Easy to handle but seams can be a little bouncy when ironing and may not sit totally flat.

Washing Easy to wash but will crease easily if 100% natural.

Comfort Cool to wear if natural. Soft against the skin
and very comfortable.

Structure and drape A lightweight crepe will drape beautifully and a heavier crepe will still drape but will have a fuller feel to it.

Tip

Make sure your needle is sharp, as crepe can snag easily.

How to sew with wool fabric

Wool

Wool is a lovely fabric to work with for dressmaking. Heavier wools are commonly used for outerwear but if you find a lightweight wool, it can make a beautiful dress for the
winter months.

Type of fabric Natural. Woven wool will be more suitable for dressmaking. Knitted wool can be more stretchy.

Cost Usually more expensive than cotton.

Width Available in both 115cm (45in) and 150cm (60in).

Pattern Available in a wide range of colours and patterns.

Ease of handling Easy to handle but care must be taken when ironing. Iron on a low heat with a damp cloth if needed.

Washing Needs to be prewashed to allow for shrinkage. Hand-washing or dry cleaning is recommended.

Comfort Cool to wear if lightweight. It is best to line a wool garment as it may be a little scratchy against your skin.

Structure and drape For dressmaking, I suggest a lightweight wool, which will give you an elegant drape.

Tip

Use a ball-point needle as it has a rounded tip which slips easily through the fibres, so avoids snagging. You can try a normal needle also but sew a test piece first.

Sewing with poly cotton

Polycotton

Polycotton is a perfect fabric to start your dressmaking journey with. A mixture of cotton and polyester, polycotton is durable and crease-resistant, meaning less ironing than 100% cotton! It is easy to handle and to get hold of and is available in an array of colours and patterns.

Type of fabric Mixture of natural and synthetic. Comes in a range of thicknesses.

Cost Very affordable and readily available.

Width Available in both 115cm (45in) and 150cm (60in).

Pattern Available in all types of colourways and prints.

Ease of handling Crease-resistant, very easy to handle and iron.

Washing Easy to machine wash.

Comfort Soft against the skin and very comfortable to wear.

Structure and drape Depends on the weight but it is usually used for a more structured style than floaty.

Tip

Polycotton is very easy to manipulate so is perfect for pleating and shaping a garment.

How to sew with polyester satin

Polyester Satin

If you would like your fabric to have a silky sheen, you do not need to get silk as it is expensive and difficult to handle. Polyester satin is an easier fabric to handle and will still give you a beautiful finish. I would avoid starting your dressmaking journey with satin, due to it being slippery to handle, but don’t be afraid to try it once you get going.

Type of fabric Mix of natural and synthetic. Comes in a range of thicknesses.

Cost Very affordable and readily available.

Width Available in both 115cm (45in) and 150cm (60in).

Pattern Available in all types of colourways and prints.

Ease of handling A little bit tricky to handle as its shiny surface makes it a bit slippery. It needs to be pinned well when sewing. Care must be taken when ironing also. Never more than 2 dots (medium temperature). Can be left with watermarks so beware of leaky irons!

Washing Easy to wash but will need ironing.

Comfort Soft against the skin and comfortable to wear.

Structure and drape Depends on the weight, but polyester satin can be used to create a really stunning effect. A lighter weight satin will be harder to use but will drape well for a softer look, whereas a heavier ‘duchess satin’ will create a fabulous, well-structured dress.

Tip
Always test your needle before sewing satin as a blunt needle will snag your fabric. Even better, always put a new needle in when starting a new project.

A word about stretch fabrics

Stretch fabrics are fantastic to work with as you don’t have to worry so much about the fit: your fabrics will stretch around your body. However, I don’t recommend using stretch fabrics if you are new to sewing. It is best to fully understand the processes of pattern cutting and making a dress to fit you while using a fabric that is easy to handle.

If you are used to using stretch fabrics, I would recommend that you use a thick stretch fabric, so you can still make up the garments using the patterns in this book.

Order your copy of Dressmaking The Easy Guide from the Search Press website.   

Find out more about the author, Helen Rhiannon, at www.allsewnupwales.co.uk/

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