One of the greatest challenges when it comes to learning how to sew your own clothing, is understanding fabric drape, weight and which ones to choose for a particular design. This is certainly a skill that is learned through experience and trial and error. In fact, you should expect to make lots of mistakes (and learn form them) in the beginner stages of learning how to sew. The most important thing to remember is not to give up and that it is normal to feel uncomfortable with certain techniques or make errors that force you to start again- it's all part of the process! Luckily, there are some concepts you can learn beforehand that will save you from making some of those frustrating mistakes. When it comes to fabrics, theory and practice work best together. In this fabric tutorial, we'll give you the fundamentals on some basic types of fabrics and their best use. We'll also include physical characteristics like drape, sewing difficulty and ironing practices.
Distinguishing between blouse weight, dress weight, shirting, bottom weight, suiting, and coating:
To master the basics of fabric, it is important to gain a better understanding of the various weights available. Fabric weight refers to how heavy and thick a fabric is. Sheer, thin fabrics are usually very lightweight while bulky, thick coating fabric is one of the most heavyweight. To make it easier, textiles are divided into the following basic categories according to weight, thickness and structure:
Blouse weight: The lightest of all the weights, blouse weight fabrics are usually very thin, drapey and could be sheer or semi-sheer. As the term suggests, this category is used for various styles of tops like blouses and lightweight shirts. As you'll soon learn, blouse weight fabrics are not appropriate for styles like dresses (unless used in combination with a dress weight) because their sheer lightweight nature usually can't withstand the wear and proper drape necessary for a dress' functionality.
Shirting: This is usually a cotton fabric that is thinner and lighter weight but has a higher thread count. A higher thread count creates a more smooth, lustrous cotton fabric with better draping capabilities. Shirting fabric can also be yarn dyed which creates a chambray-like effect. While shirting can sometimes be used for dresses, it is found more often with classic button down tops. While some shirting fabrics can be categorized as dress weights, some thinner, semi-sheer shirting may not always be appropriate for use with dresses.
Dress Weight: This category includes a variety of different fabric types (and contents). Dress weight fabrics fall in the category of light to medium weight fabrics and are usually carrying a little more drape. Depending on sheerness and durability, blouse and dress weights can intermingle, but dress weights are usually not sheer or semi-sheer and can withstand more wear. Some examples of dress weights are charmeuse, crepe de chine, rayon challis, and most cotton and linen medium-weight plain weaves.
Bottom Weight: Bottom weight fabrics are used on a number of bottoms from various pant styles to shorts and skirts. They are called bottom weight because they have a medium-weight thickness and provide more structure and durability. Functionality and durability is an important factor for bottom weights especially when used for constructing pants and shorts which need to withstand lots of pulling at the seam and maintain proper stability around the waist and hips. Some bottom weights can have more drape than others depending on the fabric type and content, but most importantly, they are almost always medium weight and never semi-sheer or sheer.
Suiting: As the name suggests, suiting fabric is used to construct a variety of different tailored items, from business suits and trousers to a number of structured skirts and blazers. Suiting fabric can be anywhere from medium to heavy weight depending on the weave of the fibers. The main characteristic for suiting fabric is that it has to have enough structure to achieve a more tailored cut. It is not drapey or flowey but rather used in straight, more linear silhouettes. The suiting category includes a variety of different fabric types like twill, jacquard, boucle, etc. Fiber contents range from wool to silk, cotton and linen, to name just a few. The content can be a blend of different fibers or consist of a single content fiber throughout.
Coating: Just as it sounds, coating fabric is mostly used for outerwear like jackets and coats. It is usually a heavier weight fabric but can sometimes be more medium weight depending on fabric weave and content. Wool, acrylic and synthetic/natural blends are most commonly used in coating fabric. Some basic examples include tweed, boucle, medium-to-heavy weight wool crepe, and thicker/heavier plain weave fabrics. Coating fabric is usually more structured, less drapey and appropriate for more tailored styles. Coating is usually more suitable for fall/winter clothing and is a warmer insulator and windbreaker than other fabrics (depending on weave and content).
Difference between fabric content and fabric type:
As a beginner, differentiating between fabric content and fabric type can be a bit confusing. Even years after sewing, you may still be misusing the two unwillingly. The good news is, if you get a strong initial understanding of what these two terms mean and how to use them correctly, you'll make it much easier to shop for fabrics and even be able to order basic fabrics online before actually getting your hands on them. So what is the difference between fabric type and fabric content? As the terms suggest, fabric content has to do with fiber composition while fabric type pertains to the weave and construction of the textile. For example, cotton or silk refers to the content while jacquard and lace relate to the type of fabric weave. Often times, these two terms are used together. For instance: "100% Cotton Jacquard" describes the content and the weave of the fabric giving you all the information necessary to understand it thoroughly. In this post, we'll focus on the basic fabric types you should know as a sewing beginner. If you want to learn more about fabric content check out our previous post on fibers and basic fabric content.
Basic Woven Fabric Types You Should Know
1. Plain Weave Fabrics
A plain weave is the most basic and common of all fabric weaves. In a plain weave the weft and warp threads intersect in a criss-crossing pattern, each one going under and over the other. Plain weaves are divided into two major categories: basket weave and balanced plain weave. Balanced plain weaves are woven with threads of the same thickness while a basket weave is constructed using threads that are double the thickness in the warp or weft. Plain weaving is the most versatile way to construct textiles creating a finish that is suitable for both apparel and upholstery. The great aspect of a plain weave is that you can control density, content, and thickness thus achieving a variety of different types of textiles from heavyweight and dense like duck cloth to very lightweight and sheer like chiffon.
Challis is a lightweight fabric that is made of a single fiber type, usually rayon. Originally, it was a silk and wool blend but today it is the most attainable in man-made fibers like rayon. Challis is easy to recognize by it's fluid draping capability (especially when made out of rayon). It is soft and has a great swing but when constructed from rayon it is not the most durable. Rayon challis is more affordable than other challis content which is why it is commercially used in summer dresses, rompers and blouses.
Rayon challis irons beautifully but it wrinkles very easily as well. It can be a little difficult to manage while cutting due to its very fluid, soft drape. You should use a sharp, thin needle at a shorter stitch length when sewing rayon challis.
Duck or duck cloth is a durable canvas fabric made of a plain weave usually with a cotton fiber content. Duck fabric is exceptionally durable and more heavyweight, making it suitable for sneakers, uniforms, work wear, duvet covers and window treatments. It is also commonly used for more industrial purposes like tents, sails and sandbags. Duck is much more tightly woven than regular canvas which makes it more wind repellent and extremely resistant to wear and tear. It's weave is composed of 2 yarns in the warp and 1 yarn horizontally in the weft which gives it a textured quality. Duck fabric has a very structured, stiff drape and is not usually appropriate for dresses and loose blouses..
Depending on its weight and thickness duck cloth requires use of heavier equipment such as a sturdier pair of scissors, thicker needles and a more heavy duty sewing machine. It requires more sturdy finishes like flat fell seams or top stitching in order to keep the seams flat and stable. Ironing should be done at the highest setting (depending on content) but because it is such and industrial textile, ironing alone may not be enough to keep the seams flat.
Chambray is different than other plain weave fabrics because it is a yarn dyed textile. What this means is that the weft and warp threads are dyed or processed individually before being woven together. The warp threads are colored and weft threads are left white which creates a denim-like pattern. In fact, chambray and denim are often confused for one another but the difference is in the type of weave: Chambray is a plain weave fabric while denim uses a twill weave. That being said, chambray has a thinner more light weight draping quality than denim which is usually stiffer, has more structure and is more durable. Chambray is used a lot in both menswear and womens wear for casual button down shirts, dresses, shorts and lightweight trousers for year-round wear. It is usually constructed of cotton, sometimes featuring a cotton/polyester blend.
Chambray is a fairly easy fabric to sew and cut due to its matte surface and more structured drape. As it is true for most cotton fabrics, chambray is easy to iron and handle but it does wrinkly quite easily.
Chiffon is a plain weave fabric featuring a lightweight, sheer quality. It is most commonly found in silk, nylon and polyester, the latter being one of the most inexpensive and commercially available. Chiffon fabrics, especially those made of silk, can sometimes be constructed of a crepe plain weave which gives it more surface texture and a slight stretch. It has a flowing drape that works beautifully on evening wear, bridal, lingerie and elegant loose blouses and dresses as overlays or sheer cut-outs.
Chiffon is one of the most difficult fabrics to work with due to its very lightweight nature and fluid drape. It requires a special method for cutting in order to keep it stable and more manageable. If you are working with chiffon at home, make sure you cut very carefully along your pattern. When it comes to sewing, you will need a very sharp, thin needle and a shorter stitch length, making sure the tension on your machine is properly adjusted. If your needle is not sharp or thin enough, some threads will pull during stitching. Since it is an easily-fraying fabric and a serging or zig zag stitch might be too rough for chiffon's gentle structure, a french seam is suggested for finishing raw edges.
Eyelet is usually made of cotton plain weave fabric featuring cutouts that are reinforced with a dense loop stitch and arranged to create a decorative pattern. Flower and geometric motifs are the most common in eyelet fabrics. The cutouts can either be positioned on the entire surface of the fabric or just along the edges. Eyelet fabrics have a more structured, crisp drape due to the fact that they are usually made of plain weave cotton. It is used a lot in womens wear to create summer dresses, skirts and blouses and can sometimes feature a combination of embroidery detail.
Eyelet is not a difficult fabric to cut and sew and it usually irons beautifully due to its high cotton content. It is a breathable fabric that creates comfortable and feminine spring/summer wear.
Satin is a type of weave that features each warp thread interlacing over 4 weft threads creating a lustrous, shiny finish on the face side. Because it is not a balanced weave, satin fabrics are more prone to raveling when cut. A higher thread count is usually a lot more durable and wind repellent while a lower thread count can be weak and more slippery. Satin fabrics are very common in silk and polyester blends. They come in different weights and are used for making lingerie, linings, drapery, and more formal dresses and blouses in the evening wear and bridal categories.
Because of its very shiny surface, satin weaves can sometimes be difficult to work with under the presser foot due to the fact that the layers of fabric slip away from each other in the stitching process. Pin more densely to ensure that the fabric is kept even throughout. Use a shorter stitch length and check your sewing machine tension balance to make certain that the seams don't bulk or pucker as this can show more easily on the face side of satin fabric. For silk satin, make sure to use an ironing cloth and make sure your iron is at the correct setting or the fabric content.
Charmeuse fabric is constructed of a satin weave which means that the warp threads cross over the weft threads at a larger ratio (4 or more threads). This creates a lustrous finish on the face side of the fabric and a matte finish on the back side. Charmeuse fabrics are usually made of silk or polyester. Just like silk crepe de chine, silk charmeuse is used for higher end dresses and blouses featuring a beautiful, fluid drape and soft hand. Charmeuse fabrics don't have a lot of structure but more of a slinky, clingy fit. It is used for evening gowns, loose dresses, blouses and lingerie. Charmeuse is especially suitable for bias cuts (cutting diagonally on the fabric) which creates a very soft, beautiful drape with a slight stretch.
Charmeuse can sometimes be difficult to work with due to its slippery, difficult-to-handle characteristic during cutting and when pinned. You should be careful when stitching it on your sewing machine by making sure your tension is properly adjusted and your stitch length is a shorter length. Because of its slick, shiny finish, charmeuse fabric (especially if made of polyester) can pucker and bulk at the seam creating an unprofessional, uneven finish- make sure you use proper care when working with it.
9. Crepe De Chine
Crepe de chine is a light-to-medium weight fabric mostly used for blouses and dresses. It has a matte finish and it is most commonly found in silk or polyester fibers. Its weaving creates a crinkled, crimped effect featuring a soft hand and elegant drape. Silk crepe de chine is suitable for more expensive, elevated styles creating more high end garments. Polyester crepe de chine (or Poly CDC) is used quite often in less expensive, easy-to-wash blouses and lining.
Silk crepe de chine can be a little challenging to work with if you are a sewing beginner due to its very fluid draping capability. The fabric shifts around underneath the pattern when being cut and pinned so being careful and gentle when handling it is required. We recommend working with a polyester crepe de chine initially to get a feel for it first. Polyester fibers are not as fine as silk fibers which will make a poly crepe much easier to work with and a lot less expensive. Care must also be taken when stitching this fabric on your sewing machine. Make sure you use a very thin needle for lightweight fabrics, a shorter stitch length and properly adjusted tension on your sewing machine.
Boucle fabric has a unique texture which is achieved by intertwining two threads together one of which is at a looser tension thus allowing the two threads to twist together creating textured loops on the surface of the fabric. This is a very common fabric used with acrylic and wool fibers and especially common in the suiting and coating categories. It can be medium-to-heavy weight depending on the fibers, weave and thickness of the threads. Because it usually creates a thicker more bulky finish, boucles are often used for suits, jackets, blazers, coats and cardigans. The boucle technique can also be woven into a knit fabric which is used on a variety of different thicker knit sweaters and dresses.
Boucle fabric is easy to sew and cut because it is able to maintain its structure and alignment. It is easy to stitch due to the fact that it's texture allows for the layers to connect together and not separate during machine stitching. Because of it's busy weave, boucle fabric is also able to hide certain tension and stitching errors. If working with a wool boucle (or any wool fabric) always use an ironing cloth and set your iron at a lower setting when pressing the seams. Boucle fabrics may also unravel quite easily so taking appropriate precaution to clean finish all the seams durably is a must.
Lace can be made of thread or yarn and features a web-like woven pattern. There are a variety of different techniques for making lace as well as a number of different lace styles. To list just a few, there is: crochet lace, needle lace, machine lace, embroidered lace, and even chemical lace. The types of lace available has to do with the techniques used for making it. The most commonly found lace nowadays is cotton and polyester content which can often be mixed with nylon fibers for a durable weave. Silk and wool lace is also available, although these were more commonly used in the past. The most inexpensive and easy to find lace is machine lace which comes in a variety of different patterns, weaves, textures and weights. Lace is used a lot in bridal wear, as overlays in blouses and dresses, and drapery. Laces can be stretch or non-stretch depending on the weave and added spandex content.
Working with lace ranges from very easy to extremely challenging and it all depends on the type and content of the weave. If it is thin, stretchy or beaded it will be a lot more difficult and time consuming to sew and manage. When lace fabrics are cut, you should be very careful not to stretch the rounder areas of the garment being made (neckline, armholes, etc.). You should always stay-stitch promptly after cutting out your patterns making sure not to pull on the vulnerable curved edges in the process.
Twill is a type of weave that is characterized by diagonally positioned lines which are achieved by overlapping the weft thread over one or several warp threads then skipping a steps down between each row to create a unique diagonal pattern also known as wale. A twill fabric can be even-faced or warp-faced. An even-faced twill fabric means that the threads are woven so that both the face and back sides are reversible and essentially look the same. In an even-faced twill, there is the same amount of warp and filling on both sides of the fabric. Examples of even-faced twills include houndstooth and herringbone. A warp-faced twill has more pronounced warp threads creating more raised diagonal lines (wales) on the face side of the fabric and is most commonly used for denim, gabardine and chino fabrics (to name just a few).
Twill fabric is very durable and used a lot in everyday bottoms like jeans, khaki pants, and a variety of different trousers and functional skirts. It is also common in outerwear, usually creating a more casual look. Twill fabrics are found in a number of different fiber contents but are most common in cotton, wool, and polyester, sometimes featuring a spandex blend.
Depending on the weight and content, twill fabric is usually easy to work with and it irons well.
Houndstooth fabric is characterized by a broken checkered print constructed from an even-faced, 2:2 twill weave. Houndstooth is a classic print used traditionally in tailoring for both mens and womens suiting and coating items. The traditional houndstooth print has also been successfully adopted by the accessory and upholstery/bedding industries. Houndstooth is also known by the name of dog's tooth.
Like houndstooth, herringbone is also characterized by a specific pattern/print which displays a series of V shapes resembling a broken zig-zag arranged symmetrically on the surface of the fabric. A herringbone print resembles the V-shaped print created by a regular knitting stitch (although it is not a knit fabric). It is an even-faced twill woven fabric usually consisting of wool content and used most commonly for suiting and coating styles.
Note: Tweed is a type of wool fabric that is very often woven in a herringbone pattern.
Tweed is a textured, usually woolen fabric that is woven in a more tightly woven plain or twill weave displaying a mix of color tones. You might know tweed fabric from traditional English countryside clothing used for hunting, shooting and riding horses. It is a wearable fabric that doesn't soil easily and is just as warm as it is comfortable. Tweed is often constructed in a herringbone pattern and very commonly found in neutral colors like shades of gray, brown, black and white. Tweed fabric is used most often for coating and suiting items due to its fall/winter weight and thickness. Tweed is very common in the use of outerwear and blazers as well as fall/winter bottoms like tailored trousers and skirts. It is available in medium to heavy weight options depending on it's content and construction.
Due to its more structured, stable drape, tweed fabric is easy to pin and cut. It is fairly easy to work with under the presser foot and its textured woolen characteristic is able to hide minor sewing errors at the seam. Since it is usually made of wool fabric, precaution should be taken when ironing it by making sure your iron is at the appropriate setting and an ironing cloth is layered on top. When working with wool, it is recommended that you also pre-shrink the fabric in the dryer before cutting out your sewing patterns.
Pique fabric features a type of weave which forms cord-like, raised structures on the surface of the fabric. This pattern comes in a variety of different geometric shapes including birdseye, cord, honeycomb, and waffle. It is usually woven out of cotton, linen or a cotton-polyester blend, and most commonly found in men's dress shirts, women's dresses, drapery, upholstery and kitchen wear. Pique fabric is very often used for kitchen towels and kitchen drapery. Because of its textured pattern and absorbent nature, pique absorbs and retains starch much better than other textiles, allowing for a more crisp, firm structure. Pique ranges in weight from very light to much heavier waffle cloth.
It is a fairly easy textile to work with and cut. Like any cotton or linen fabric, pique is easy to iron and stitch on the machine. The end result is usually a structured product that is crisp and lacks a fluid drape like that normally found in silk fabrics.
Gabardine is a warp-faced twill fabric that is woven very tightly creating a durable, tough textile. Gabardine is used for making uniforms, trousers, suits, and windbreakers. Due to its very tightly woven structure, gabardine is moisture wicking and a wind repellent but is not a particularly warm or breathable fabric. It is most commonly found in polyester, worsted wool or cotton blends and comes in mostly medium-weight options. It has a crisp drape that is most suitable for structured items. In addition, gabardine does not wrinkle easily making it perfect for everyday work wear.
Gabardine is easy to work with due to its structured nature. It is stable to pin and sew and irons well. However, you should make sure the tension balance on your sewing machine is adjusted properly and that you are using a medium length stitch so that the fabric doesn't pucker at the seam.
As the most commonly used twill woven fabric, denim is durable, comfortable and withstands daily wear over a long period of time. Denim is a warp-faced fabric that looks different on the face side than it does on the back. It is made of 100% cotton or a cotton/spandex blend for added stretch. As the most versatile fabric, denim is a staple featured in many different weights. It is used for trendy jackets, jeans, dresses and button down shirts both in menswear and women's wear. When denim became available, it was used as a comfortable, durable fabric for miners in the 18th century. Its breathable and durable nature provided (as it does nowadays) for a suitable fabric able to withstand long wear while maintaining maximum amount of comfort and flexibility.
Denim fabric can also withstand a variety of different finishes from bleaching to tumbling and various chemical surface treatments. It is that versatility that adjusts to any style and casual setting.
Denim is a fairly easy fabric to work with and is usually finished with flat fell or top stitched seams. When working with a heavy, industrial-weight denim using more heavy duty supplies and sewing machine works best. A longer stitch length should also used for thicker denims.
Jacquard fabric is woven on a jacquard loom and is unique in the fact that the design, however intricate it may be, is woven directly into the fabric during the manufacturing process instead of being dyed or printed on. Jacquard fabrics can be woven or knit and include a variety of different patterns and designs, from picture-like prints to geometric shapes. A jacquard weave has a textured, raised quality and is available in different weights and drape capabilities depending on the content used. Speaking of content, jacquard fabrics can be found in almost all basic fibers including silk, cotton, wool, polyester and various blends. It is one of the most universally used fabrics, especially for suiting, coating, casual to formal sportswear, upholstery and window treatments. In addition, its tightly woven structure offers a durable weave making it appropriate for everyday apparel and other industrial uses.
For the most part, jacquard is easy to work with contingent on its structure and content. In many cases, jacquard fabrics can fray easily so finishing the raw edges properly is a must for a quality finish. Its textured nature allows it to be a lot more forgiving in the sewing process, hiding small stitch errors. Depending on its content it is usually easy to iron although precaution should be taken when working with delicate fiber jacquard.
Seersucker is a puckered, usually 100% cotton fabric that features uniformly raised square/rectangular and sometimes oval shapes. This is a achieved by strategically loosening the threads during weaving to create a puckered surface. It is most commonly found in a striped or checkered white print and used for spring and summer wear. In addition to its cotton content, seersucker fabric wicks away from the body when worn due to its crinkled texture. It usually doesn't require surface ironing because it's weave already has a naturally wrinkled quality. While seersucker is a light to medium weight fabric it does not have a fluid drape like challis or charmeuse for example. It is a more structured fabric used in the construction of shorts, summer trousers, dresses, and casual suits. It is also commonly found in drapery and some upholstery.
Due to its structure, seersucker is easy to work with and manage during the sewing process. The fabric puckering creates a texture that is forgiving to small sewing errors and it irons beautifully at the seams due to its mostly cotton content. The layers of fabric are able to stay in place easily during stitching because of its textured, matte surface.
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