You’re in your element…
You’re surrounded on all four sides by dreamy, luscious, lovely lengths of fabric. There is so much choice. Where should you begin?!
Then, you spot it…
The colour is unforgettable, the print begs to be noticed, or the texture screams at you to get right on over there and touch it!
You’re unable to deny the siren call, so you go over.
And you touch it. And it is confirmed: You’re in love! And you must have some even if you have absolutely no idea what you’ll make with it.
Please place your hands in the air. Now, take a deep breath in and a deep breath out. And step away from that bolt!
Here’s the truth…
Before you buy your first length of fabric or your next, you need to have a firm grasp on the characteristics of wovens to make wise fabric choices.
By the end of this article, I promise you that you’ll have an idea of which woven fabrics most appeal to YOU and how to choose the right woven fabric for your project. Because we haven’t got time for project failure foolishness.
Now, let’s learn how to buy woven fabric wisely…
NOTE: This article may contain affiliate links. Please read my full disclosure HERE.
Rules for Making Smart Fabric Choices
Rule #1: Fabric choice will make or break your project!
Rule #2: If you don’t love the colour, the print, or the texture, leave that fabric right where it is.
Rule #3: To choose the correct fabric for your garment silhouette, you must understand the characteristics of stretch, weight, body and drape, especially body and drape.
Rule #4: Quality rules! Buy the best you can afford. Because sewing is a labor of love and time! Love and time are precious–don’t waste your labour of love sewing with cheap fabric or fabric that leaves you cemetery headstone cold.
Rule #5: Once you become a master dressmaker, you can break free and live dangerously using fabrics not suggested on the back of the pattern envelope.
How to Choose the Right Fabric
First, begin with you! Yes, YOU!
You need to know what fabrics delight YOU and make YOU feel really lovely.
And you also need to know what fabrics make YOU go, “Oh, that would be a hell, no!”
So here’s the assignment…
Start by taking a look in your closet. Take out the articles of clothing you turn to time and time again. And ask yourself the following:
- Do your favorite garments have quite a bit of body, so it stands away from your body? Or do they fall into lots of soft folds that swirl close to your body?
- Are they light-, medium-, or heavyweight?
Now, take a trip to your local fabric store and touch every bolt that seems interesting to you. Unroll a length of fabric from the bolt and pinch it and examine how it hangs and folds. And ask yourself the same questions again.
In my case, I am irresistibly drawn to drapey fabrics! For example, while I like the look of denim, especially with red patent heels, I would NEVER be caught dead in blue jeans (too tight, too stiff, too rough) or herringbone (too structured and too boring).
But in the presence of a gorgeous length of charmeuse, my knees buckle and I swoon.
The beauty of this assignment is that…
YOU get to decide what you prefer and then own it!
Once you know what types of fabric make you very ecstatic, the next step is to look at the back of the pattern envelope.
The back of every pattern envelope provides a list of suggested fabric. Please take the time to read this list and try to determine what fabric properties they have in common.
Next, look at the line or technical drawings and see if you understand why the designer made those specific fabric suggestions. For example, in the image below, all those lines in the skirt of this dress, tell us that the designer wants us to use a fabric that has a heavenly drape like the very yummilicious and drapey charmeuse.
By determining what qualities the suggested fabrics have in common, we ensure that we end up sewing an insanely pretty garment that we can’t wait to flaunt.
Planning Your Project
When planning your project, you can start one of two ways:
You find a pattern that inspires you and then choose the appropriate fabric.
Now, if this is where you start, decide on the feature that most speaks to you, and then choose a fabric that will bring that feature into 3D life.
You fall in love with some delicious fabric and then must decide on the best silhouette to showcase it.
In this case, ask yourself what is it you love about the fabric and then choose a pattern with a silhouette that will flaunt that quality.
Okay, let’s break this down further…
For example, if the fabric you love has a big, bold pattern, then maybe a simple silhouette with few seams and darts will showcase it best.
Or, let’s say you’re dreaming of something flowy and cool. Then, a lightweight woven in a natural fibre is the obvious choice. Maybe a voile or lawn.
Only ONE feature should be the center of attention. Because a busy print + busy silhouette = A hot mess express!
Purchasing Fabric Locally
Frankly, unless you live in New York City, Los Angeles, or somewhere in Japan, it can be impossible to find quality fabrics locally.
But if you’re lucky enough to buy locally, then here are some tips to assess fabric quality:
- Crush and release a section of the fabric. Does it wrinkle excessively? If so, you might want to walk away unless you find ironing meditative.
- Rub a small area between your fingers about 20 times? Did it pill or fade? Then, you know what do.
- Rub the back of your hand against the fabric, or if you dare, rub it against your cheek. Is it rough and scratchy? Then, trust me, you definitely don’t want this crappy fabric!
- Check the cut ends. Are they fray crazy? Then, it will be a nightmare to sew. Do you really want to sew a nightmare?!
Finally, if your desired fabric passes all of the above, then fold it in half so that the selvages line up with each other. Now, check the crosswise threads or pattern along the length of the fold to determine if the fabric is on grain or straight.
You only have about a ½ inch of off grain forgiveness (we’ll be covering this later in the series). If the pattern or crosswise threads are more than a ½ inch off grain (wonky), place the fabric where you found it, turn around, keep shopping or go home.
Pro tip #1: While some off grain wovens can be straightened by pulling on the bias, fabrics labeled easy care, no iron, wrinkle resistant, or wash and wear have been chemically treated and they cannot be straightened!
Purchasing Fabric Online
If you’re purchasing fabric online, you might want to get a fabric swatch before you commit.
Fabric swatches are small. But they allow you to touch it and get a sense of the fabric’s properties BEFORE you make a full commitment to multiple yards of it.
Most online fabric stores are happy to provide swatches for a nominal fee.
Pro tip: Start to examine labels in your favorite ready-to-wear (RTW) garments. And then, use this information to guide your future fabric purchases.
Fabric Has Width & Length
Fabric has both width and length.
The width is measured from one selvage to the other selvage and is predetermined. The most common apparel fabric widths are:
So when you take that bolt of fabric up to the counter to be cut, the width is already predetermined.
But you get to choose the length based on the needs of the pattern or garment you’re making. Do you need one, two, or three yards or meters?
Pro tip #1: If you don’t have a specific project in mind. If the fabric is 44/45 inches, buy three yards. And if it is 52″ or wider, two yards will probably do. This is a good amount to allow you some flexibility to dream.
Pro tip #2: Keep in mind that once selvages are removed, the actual usable width could be two to four inches less!
A top chef knows that fresh, high-quality ingredients are the key to a spectacular meal.
And as dressmakers, our main ingredients are fabric and thread. So we need to choose well.
Because as I’ve said before and I’ll say it again:
Sewing is time-consuming and it is not easy on the body. So why in the frack would we want to waste our time sewing dresses in cheap fabrics?
Truth is, nowadays you can buy clothing cheaper than you can sew it.
So those of us who choose to sew must be sewing for other reasons…
Maybe it is for ethical reasons. Maybe it is the pure love of the craft. Maybe it is about expressing our true inner divaliciousness. Maybe it is all of the above.
But the bottom line is this:
It only makes sense to buy the best quality fabric you can afford once you’ve mastered the skill of garment construction.
Which brings me back to Rule #2:
If the colour isn’t unforgettable, the print show-stopping, or the texture swoon-worthy, leave that fabric right where it is!
Pro tip: Better quality fabrics are also less likely to be off grain. Just another reason to buy the best you can afford!
Best Starting Fabrics for Beginners
You have three choices…
As a beginner, you want to start with cotton, because it is easy to wash, cut, and sew.
You want to avoid anything that is too anything: Too heavy. Too light. Too fuzzy. Too slippery. Too sheer. Too maddening!
Choosing cotton (or good cotton blends) for your first projects is the best way to save your sanity and build your confidence!
As a clueless beginner, I was easily seduced by fabrics way beyond my current skill level. Silly me had no clue about grainlines or body and drape.
So I ended up with a fabric stash of very beautiful fabrics that were too light, too slippery, too fray happy, too maddening. Yes, I’m looking straight at you my beloved charmeuse and peachskin!
So for now, take my advice and stick to cotton, cotton, and more cotton.
And if you think you will get bored… Trust me, you won’t.
Just like there are a variety of styles to Country music — Smooth, Tex Mex, Honky Tonk, Bakersfield, rapified, popified, and more — there are also quite a few truly lovely apparel cottons to choose from, such as…
- Cotton Sateen
- Swiss dot
So be patient. And choose a project and a cotton you love for your first project. Or two. Or three. Whatever it takes.
Caring for Your Handmade Garment
After you’ve invested so much hope, time, labor, and money into making your insanely pretty garment, I know you want it to withstand your washing machine and live a long life.
Therefore, make sure to check the end of the bolt for care instructions at the time of purchase.
In fact, if you have a cell phone, take a picture. If not, take the time to jot down the care instructions.
And if you’re purchasing online, take a screenshot or a snippet of the fabric care instructions. And if you can, include a bit of the fabric in the image you snip to make your life easier. Because, trust me, your memory will fail you.
Pro tip: Personally, I ALWAYS wash my handmade (and store-bought) clothes in COLD water on a DELICATE cycle. And then I hang them to dry. My lovely clothing never sees the inside of a dryer.
A successful project depends on understanding how much body or drape the garment silhouette you have chosen needs.
And the three characteristics of quality fabric are:
- It is beautiful to look at.
- It feels luscious next to your skin.
- And it behaves well when you wash and wear it.
Okay, a harsh fact:
Even after you’ve chosen the perfect fabric and sewn it with the greatest skill, you might still fail epically, which sucks.
But I promise you two things:
- There is always more gorgeous fabric to buy. So be brave enough to cut!
- And each failure is a lesson that brings you closer to becoming a master dressmaker.
Life is the ultimate red carpet event. Dress it!
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