A beginner’s guide to fabric

Confused about woven, non-woven & knitted fabrics ? What is the difference?!

Want some tips on choosing fabric if you’re a beginner sewist?

In the past I’ve written quite a number of fabric guides  but none have really gone back to the very basics.

For some of you this post will be teaching you to suck eggs, but for those less experienced I hope this is a useful resource to help you demystify some of the terminology and help you choose the right fabric for your next project.

Fabric Composition

Manmade vs natural fibre fabrics

Fabrics are made of fibres and these fibres can be either natural or manmade. Natural fibres are derived from plants or animals and will biodegrade, making them a great choice for the eco-consious Seam-Star!

Examples of natural fibres are cotton, bamboo silk, wool and linen.

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Natural fibre fabrics are comfortable to wear as they are breathable.

Be warned though – hey may also shrink when laundered and could lose their colour… Talk about giveth with one hand and taketh with the other! Pre-washing is always recommended for natural fibre fabrics, particularly if you are dressmaking.

There is nothing worse than investing your precious time in to sewing your mater piece only to have it shrink in the first wash

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Boring Legal Bit: If you follow any tutorial or guidance found in this post, or on this blog, you agree to be bound by our disclaimer which can be viewed here

Manmade fibres on the other hand are usually produced by some kind of chemical process and  include fibres such as polyester, spandex or nylon.

Mostly, but not always, manmade fibres are more affordable that natural fibres. They also tend to be more hardwearing and less likely to shrink or lose their dyes through laundry. They are less likely to be breathable fabrics so are likely to keep you warmer if you make clothes with them.

What about fabric blends?

Just to mix it up a little, fabrics can be combined together giving you the best of both worlds. – these are called blends. Polycotton is a good example of a blend – here you have the easy care of polyester added to the comfort of cotton – it’s a cheaper fabric than 100% cotton too. There are literally endless varieties of blends and each will have their own unique characteristics.

Then there’s viscose, which is kind of a half way house. Viscose (or rayon as it’s better know in the USA) is made from wood pulp but it’s very heavily machine processed to turn it in to fibres for weaving. It’s breathable like a natural fibre and has a great drape so is a perfect fabric for dressmaking, but one can’t ignore the heavy processing to turn it from wood to cloth. Read out full guide to viscose fabric here

What Is Fabric Hand?

Ever heard people describing fabric as having a “lovely hand” and wondering what on earth they were going on about?!

No, fabrics are not sprouting limbs & digits – all it means is how the fabric feels against the skin and how it drapes. Is it crisp or soft? Does it crease? Does it stretch? Is it heavy or light? It’s quite a subjective term and a good hand for one project might not be the best hand for another.

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Fabrication: Woven, Non- Woven & Knitted Fabrics

Fabrics are also classified by fabrication, this means simply how they are constructed. If you’ve ever wondered what the difference between woven, non-woven, knit or stretch fabric is then read on…

What Is Woven Fabric?

Woven fabrics are literally strands of fibres woven together so they interlock and form the cloth. The most common woven fabric is a plain weave construction, like cotton poplin.

Woven fabrics have warp and weft threads which interlock in different ways to create a different surface look, feel and strength, see the diagram below. Most quilt cottons are poplins which are stable and easy to sew.

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Denim is an example of a twill weave, which runs diagonally (if you’re interested you can read my denim fabric guide here)

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Or a cotton sateen fabric is a satin weave which makes the fabric feel smooth and has a sheen. The weave differs as four or more shafts of the warp floats or weft floats in a diagonal.

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Woven fabrics can be made up from wither natural or manmade fibres.

What Is Knit Fabric?

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In a woven fabric there are two threads – the  warp and weft which are woven together to form the cloth, whereas in a  knit fabric there is only one thread which is literally knitted together, just like you would if you were knitting with yarn & needles. 

There are lots of types of knitted fabric and the one thing the all have in common is that they stretch. Knit fabrics include jersey, interlock, or fleece.

They will all differ depending on the type of knit-stitch  used to construct the fabric (it’s literally similar to knit one row, purl one row)

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Knit fabrics can also be made up from either natural or manmade fibres.

What Is ANon-Woven Fabric?

Non-woven fabrics are made from long fibres which are bonded together by chemical, mechanical, heat or solvent treatment. Felt is a good example of a non woven fabric. Interfacing is also an example of a non-woven.

Tips for choosing fabrics if you’re a beginner

When you start sewing it’s always a good idea to start with fabrics which behave themselves and are easy to sew.

  • Choose a woven fabric – Woven fabrics with a  plain weave are a good choice for beginners as most do not require complicated seam finishes or special handling. Cotton poplins for a medium weight fabric or canvas, Oxford cloth or broadcloth if you need a heavier weight.
  • Think about the fabric’s pattern – It’s a good idea to choose a plain fabric or one with a small print or stripe. If you don’t pattern match this type of print it, won’t be so glaringly obvious.
  • Choose dark colours – Dark colours will hide stitching imperfections
  • Choose stable or moderate stretch fabrics like a double knit or interlock – you can get away without seam finishing these fabrics and the less they stretch the easier it will be to sew. They will also curl less than a lighter jersey.

I hope that was helpful and might have cleared up any questions you may have been too afraid to ask. If you have any further questions don’t hesitate to leave a comment and I’ll do my best to help out.

8 thoughts on “A beginner’s guide to fabric”

  1. Thankyou! What a great basic explanation. I already knew most of it but reading it again helps me understand it just that little bit better.

  2. Hi Kellie,

    Do you know what “quality weight” means in relation to jersey/stretch Fabrics? I’ve tried googling it but it’s too universal in meaning. I gave up after 143 websites!

    Thank you for your informative posts. The restoring Minky one really helped me out.

    Vikki

    1. Hi Vikki,

      I would say they are just trying to stress that the fabric you choose should be of a higher quality, so no cheapies from China! Glad the minky post was helpful.

      Thanks
      Kellie

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