Adventures in Dressmaking: Sewing Circle: Good fabrics for beginners

Friday, April 1, 2011

Sewing Circle: Good fabrics for beginners

Welcome to Sewing Circle!

In this feature, I love to answer your sewing questions as best I can, and then let the rest of you wonderful and talented readers out there chip in your ideas!  We all have something different and interesting to offer, regardless of our individual skill level.

Today I'll answer a question from Dominique, who asked...

Hi Suzannah!
First, I would like to mention that I really enjoy your blog! I learn how to sew when I was very young but unfortunatly, I put these skills aside while being a teenager... I just recently come back to sewing and looking at your procjets is very inspiring!

Taking the space that you offer through Sewing Circle, I would like to ask you a short question about fabric. I feel like I never know which type to pick and finally getting the one that doesn't fit with the pattern I'm looking for. Do you have any suggestions of easy and simple fabric for dresses and skirts? (Why are there so many types of cotton? And wool?)

Great, great, great question, Dominique!!  So often I see that the choice of fabric makes THE difference in a project, especially for things like clothes or throw pillows that get a lot of usage and wear.

It's really hard to tell you exactly which fabrics are best for which styles, but I can give you a few things to think about.
  • First, almost all clothing patterns will tell you on the back what the recommended fabrics are, although they're not always helpful.  Always read the back of the pattern if you're concerned, and look at those types of fabrics while you're in the fabric store.
  • The biggest differences in fabric are in weight, I feel--you can't make a heavy coat out of a sheer chiffon.  Duh.  So think about fabrics in terms of the garment you'd make out of it, and stick to that.  Some fabrics, like "shirtings," are great for blouses and tops, but not great for pants or shorts.  A nice linen with an embroidered pattern is good for a skirt or maybe a dress, but too heavy for a shirt.  And, of course, a knit fabric is best for patterns that are meant for knits (they will tell you on the pattern).  And alternatively, don't make a pattern that's meant for a woven fabric out of a stretchy one.  It won't work.
  • Generally, the fabrics that are best for apparel are in the front of the fabric store.  They are often seasonal colors or named for the types of things they're best for ("suitings," "bottomweights,"...).  You can take the recommendations of the store displays!
  • Quilting fabrics, often near the back of the store, come in super cute prints but are not meant for clothing.  They can work for clothing, with a lining or appropriate finishing, but they are best for quilts or shower curtains or little home dec projects.  I know, some of the prints are sooooo cute, but it is hard to make them durable and wearable.  I don't use them for clothing myself, although some people I know do.
  • There are so many types of cottons and wools and silks because each of those words just describes a material--it's like talking about a food made of wheat flour.  There are a million foods you can make from wheat flour.  Cookies, bread, pasta... it depends what you do with it and how you shape it!  Same with fibers.  The cotton, wool, and silk fibers are very versatile and can be woven with other things or woven to specific textures and thicknesses for different uses.  You can go around the store and feel different types of cotton--sheer lightweight ones, waffle-weave knits, corduroys, twills, piques, seersuckers, quilting calicos... all kinds of choices.  Polyester and nylon can be used for many things, too, but they will always feel different than a natural fiber.  They are great for clothing, too, especially when you don't want to spend a lot of money on silk or wool, but they are a little more difficult to work with than cotton.
  • If you want to test out a pattern, make a "muslin" out of whatever cheap fabric you can find--an old sheet or a thrift store find or a fabric that you got on sale for less than $1 a yard would be great!  This way you can test out the pattern without spending too much time or expensive fabric.  You don't have to finish the edges of the muslin or add fastenings or anything.
Fabric choice is essential for a good project, but the things that go along with it make it work even better!
  • The other very important thing to consider are the accessory fabrics that you'll need to use: linings and interfacings, mostly, that will make the difference.  A very lightweight but crisp cotton is lovely for a lining, but poly/nylon linings are cheap and easy to find.  I use lightweight fusible interfacing on pieces of the garment that need reinforcing.  Don't skip the lining and interfacing!  
  • And sometimes, a pattern may not call for lining, but will be nicer with it.  Sometimes I line things instead of giving them self-fabric/interfaced facings.
  • Use the right buttons, zippers, and trims--no point in spending lots of time sewing something just to throw on whatever zipper you have.  Buy the right one for the project (right color and length, and type. I use invisible zippers, but many people use regular nylon ones).
As for my personal preference, I like natural fibers better than nylon, polyester, acrylic, fleece, etc. any day.  I do use artificial fibers for many linings, and for some silk tops.  But I loooove a good cotton dress!  Just makes me so happy.

Hope these thoughts have helped!!  Readers, please chip in your ideas about the best fabrics for beginning sewists!  Thanks for reading, and everyone feel free to send me an email with your questions for Sewing Circle.  Until next time!
=)

14 comments:

Leaving a comment is easy, and I love to read them! No annoying word verification required. =)

  1. Cotton/poly seersucker is a GREAT fabric for beginners. Seersucker naturally has a bit of a wrinkle to it, so it doesn't require a whole lot of ironing because, well, it won't "flatten" like other fabrics do. And because it's naturally wrinkly, it's more forgiving of mistakes than, say, silk.

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  2. Thanks for the tips! I am a quilter-turned-seamstress (though I use that term loosely!) and I also avoid quilters' cottons for clothing (except for some of my kids' clothes.) You're right that it doesn't always work but I can't figure out why...if it's 100% cotton why doesn't it work as well as 100% cotton specifically made for clothing? I'm assuming it has something to do with the weave or thread count?

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  3. Great post! I too agree with not using quilting cotton for clothing. I have an ill-fitting shirt to go with learning that lesson. I LOVE working with linen blends and cotton blends!! Super easy, and great results! Thanks for the helpful tips!

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  4. Great! This is so helpful because I'm starting some dressmaking lessons next week! Thanks for sharing! xoxo

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  5. I have so much trouble picking out fabrics for making clothing. I know what fabrics to use, but I'm not particularly drawn to pattern for clothing (love it for decor), so I like either patternless fabrics or simple patterns (stripes, tartans)without a million colors, and I have a lot of trouble finding that. I'm very picky!

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  6. @Maggie, Seersucker is super fun! Especially for summer dresses.

    @Jacqueline, Quilting cotton fibers are more coarse than finer shirtings and twill fibers, so they pill and brush up more easily, for one thing. And they tend to be more loosely woven. Quilting fabrics aren't as bad for kids' clothing, you're right, partly because their clothing fits more loosely on their little barrel-shaped bodies!

    @Magpie Shinies, I know what you mean about appreciating solids and simple patterns; I also find those things are more wearable. However, the prints and patterns are so much fun and often cute styles that come in prints (like at Anthro, or the rare print at Banana or J.Crew) are expensive! So you can make your own! I suggest looking at magazines and stores you like and finding a couple print or patterned garments you like, then emulating them with another fabric you like.

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  7. i look forward to all your blog postings, and i LOVE this sewing circle!! i am very new to making clothes, and i guess i just don't really understand how to make a lining for a dress. i know what fabric to choose, but how is the lining constructed, and how do you invisibly sew it in? a pattern i recently followed offered no guidance for this. i have lots of reading and learning to do, so maybe this is the dumbest question ever, but maybe you can take some the mystery out of it for me.

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  8. My favorite fabrics are cotton, linen, and wool. I do occasionally use quilting cottons for clothes. I have two kids and love the Oliver+S patterns and they often list quilting cottons specifically. I've found that they work brilliantly and the dresses I've made from them have held up well. I also love simple summer wrap and a-line skirts from quilting cotton and they too have held up well and are cute and comfortable. I don't think I would try them for a blouse though, they just don't seem to have enough drape.

    I don't like synthetics and while I will occasionally use them for a lining, Rayon is about the only one I use regularly.

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  9. Suzannah,
    I wanted to invite you to a themed month I'm having at Grosgrain but everytime I try to send the email I get an undeliverable message back. If you could please send me your email address to:

    mytumtumtree@gmail.com

    I'd really love to have you!

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  10. i like using quilting cotton for easy bias cut, a line skirts. i use kwik sew pattern 3003 and the quilting cotton works great. i've tried using that fabric for other clothing items but it doesn't really work that well. i think it might work for really structured shirts but i haven't tried it yet.

    at the moment, i'm completely in love with cotton lawn. it's my most favorite fabric to work with.

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  11. More great ideas and comments!
    I will do something soon about how to line things...

    Rayon is actually a natural fiber, made from wood pulp. Because it’s “natural,” it absorbs perspiration and lets air through better than nylon or polyester, so it’s cooler to wear. Rayon linings cost a little more than poly, but they are much nicer.

    Linings for jackets and coats (need to be smooth, to slide over sweaters,) are different than linings for dresses, which can be thin cotton or lightweight stuff. Traditionally china silk was a standard lining in better dresses and skirts. Lots of fun details...

    Cotton lawn is amazing. mmm....

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  12. Wooo! Finally posted a Sewing Circle about linings.

    @Rachel, hope I answered your questions... check it out here: http://www.adventuresindressmaking.com/2011/10/sewing-circle-what-is-lining.html

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  13. I enjoy reading websites like these. It has been an great source of info. I could not locate sites like these. Thanks once again.

    kids clothing manufacturers

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  14. Hi Suzannah! Im just started to sew, and just finished a blouse for my 1 yrs old daughter :) I did buy quite a number of fabrics even before i read up on anything abt how to choose fabrics. My sewing friend told me to just choose cotton because it's easy to work for beginners, so I did.
    But after i finished my first clothing project (it is a simple peasant blouse with elastic opening for neck & sleeves, and at the waistline), i think it's kinda stiff and doesnt really look comfy :( Do u have any advise on what fabric i shall choose for a comfy kids clothing? Or, how to choose/identify that kind of fabric if i cant have a shop assistant to ask at fabric store.

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