Whether you have lost the tag that came with your fabric or found pretty dress from a flea market, it is useful to be able to recognize the material. Fabric language can be sometimes very confusing and misleading. Sewing pattern instructions may tell you to use silk or crepe the one of which is a fibre type and the other is a type of a weave. If you are a beginner at sewing or have used only a few different types of fabrics, here are the most important things you’ll need to know.
Selecting a suitable fabric for a dress – the whole complicated process
This is the pattern envelope of the Amelia Tea Dress I made this spring. The backside of the envelope says “Light to mid-weight cotton, lawn, viscose, crepe and silk.” The first in the list specifies a fibre type and a weight but does not tell the weave. The second on the list, lawn, is a type of cloth made out of very high thread-count yarns. Although cotton lawn is very common, also other types of lawn exist such as linen lawn. Viscose is a type of fibre that can be anything from jersey to upholstery fabric. Crepe goes back to the “lawn” category it being a type of fabric and then finally we go back to the fibres with silk. To conclude, this makes no sense!
As the pattern manufacturers continue confusing us, it’s a good idea to develop a way to approach these confusing instructions. So, let’s start by imagining a dress that you might be able to make out of all of them. Try narrowing the type of fabric down that way.
Let’s start with something crazy that fits one of the criteria: viscose upholstery fabric. Could you make a similar kind of dress out of a viscose upholstery fabric and silk? Yes. There is such thing as silk upholstery fabric! What about crepe? No. Crepe is always drapey and the upholstery fabric is stiff. So, we can ditch all the fabrics that don’t have enough drape.
Would silk, cotton or viscose jersey do? Well, those do have enough drape but the listed two fabric types (lawn, crepe) are woven. The way the garment is constructed (for instance, there’s a zipper at the centre back seam) it looks like the pattern is meant for woven fabrics. The same dress made out of jersey fabric might look too big due to the stretchiness of the fabric.
Let’s try once more, let’s take heavy triple crepe. Can you make the same dress out of that and lawn? No. Lawn is lightweight and triple crepe is very heavy. The short sleeved summer dress might look odd made out of heavy crepe. Furthermore, the shirring might not work with a thick fabric.
With this process of elimination, we can now say that the suitable fabrics are light to mid-weight woven cottons (such as lawn or voile), lightweight woven viscose (such as challis or crepe) and lightweight woven silk (such as satin or crepe de chine).
However, the process described above is almost impossible to go through, if you don’t know your fabrics beforehand. So I made a list of 10 fibre and fabric types that you definitely should learn to recognize. If there is a fabric that is new to you, take the list with you to the nearest fabric store and look for the fabric that you didn’t know. Check the feel of the fabric. Does it feel coarse or smooth? Is it warm or cold? Does it wrinkle? How does it drape? Can you find other fabrics that feel the same?
The list of 10 fabric and fibre types you need to be able to recognize
Feels a bit “hairy”, is warm and drapes well. Is usually more expensive a fabric and may need dry cleaning. Is warm and makes quality clothes. Wool clothes often require lining since the raw wool may feel itchy against skin.
Feels crispy and sturdy. Can be both knit or woven. Doesn’t drape as well as wool or viscose. Creases easily. Makes great everyday clothes and it’s easy to care for. Cotton shrinks so always wash it before use. Sometimes elastane is added into cotton to make the fabric more stretchy.
Feels rustic and creases very easily. Drapes better than cotton but worse than viscose. Makes nice summer garments. Can stand high-temperature ironing but is much easier to iron when wet. If you want your clothes to stay wrinkle free, forget using linen.
Feels warm and luxurious and has a clear sheen on it. Sometimes silk satin is hard to separate from polyester satin but silk doesn’t feel as “cold” as polyester and it is more expensive. Often requires dry cleaning or at least hand-washing. Always check the care instructions before buying! Also, remember that there are different kinds of silks that rance all the way from jersey to tulle and velvet!
Comes in many different kinds of styles from jersey to suiting. Can withstand wear and washings very well and is crease resistant. Not as warm as natural fibres and may feel sweaty when the weather is hot.
You can make almost any garment out of polyester if you choose a right kind of polyester. Polyester suiting makes nice trousers and skirts and polyester satin (check the picture!) makes pretty blouses.
Is also called rayon. Viscose is somewhere between natural and man-made fabrics since it is made out of wood with chemical processes. It is not as breathable as cotton or wool but it drapes beautifully. Viscose tends to shift and cutting it on grain may be challenging. Sometimes it is hard to tell viscose fabric from very soft cotton or polyester. Try washing the fabric! Viscose shrinks and feels oddly hard when wet. It is also heavier than cotton or polyester.
Viscose jersey is a good choice for draped tops and dresses.
Crepe is again a type of weave and thus crepe can be, for example, wool or polyester. Crepe fabric is made out of a highly twisted yarn that results in a pebbled surface in which it is hard to see the weave and the weft. Crepes come in different thicknesses but the common thing to all of them is the drape. Crepes suit for drapey dresses, blouses, dressy trousers or skirts. Use a thin and sharp needle with crepes, especially printed ones. If you pull a thread the ugly line will be impossible to remove due to the twistiness of the yarn that makes crepe.
Jersey isn’t a type of fibre but a way the fabric is made out of yarn. Jersey is knitted while most of the fabrics are woven. The interloped stitches make jersey fabric stretchy and comfortable. However, the properties of the jersey fabric greatly depend on the fibre content. Cotton jersey is crispier and less drapey than viscose. Linen jersey is uneven and breathable and silk jersey still has its sheen.
Jersey is great for relaxed everyday tee shirts, leggings and dresses. There are lots of pretty prints available that are great for children.
Chiffon is a sheer and lightweight fabric type. It can be used for scarves, sheer blouses or lined dresses. Chiffon can be difficult to work with so don’t take chiffon project if you are a complete beginner. Chiffon tends to shift when cutting making it difficult to cut pieces on grain and it frays very easily. Since the fabric is sheer the French seams are a must.
Here I’m confusing my Finnish readers. So, sorry! The fact is that the fabric names have a lot of history behind them. How the fabrics are grouped depends on where you are from. Lawn is quite similar to voile and batiste which may be more familiar to you.
Lawn is very fine fabric that is made out of high thread-count yarn. It is very smooth and silky and makes lovely shirts and summer dresses. Many woven summer pyjamas are also made out of lawn. Light coloured lawns are a bit sheer so you should be prepared to line them. Otherwise, lawn is very easy to work with since it is not shifty and does not fray badly.
I hope you found this post useful! Thank you for reading and do subscribe to get notified on new posts! Happy sewing!