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Avoid some common fabric problems

The best way to learn about fabric is really through trial and error. We have written several posts on fabric types in an effort to help your learning process, and of course there is an entire chapter in my book all about fabric. There is an awful lot to know about textiles.

But just reading about it isn’t enough. It’s important to get out there and touch the fabric, sew with it, and iron it. Actually combining real experience with the things you read an help establish a firm base of fabric knowledge.

One thing I’ve found helpful is to identify a few common problems related to fabric choice. Then, when I’m at the fabric store actually looking at a fabric, I try to imagine if any of these problems could arise. It’s sort of a loose mental checklist.

Common problems:

  • Paper effect: When a fabric is too thin and crisp for a garment style, it can look like you’ve made it out of paper. Think about what a garment made of paper would look like. It shows every wrinkle and lump, and just ends up looking cheap. If you think it’s a possibility with your garment, you probably want to go with a fabric that’s either a bit more drapey, or heavier.
  • Sagging effect: When a fabric is too drapey for a garment’s style, it can tend to sag rather than flow. Flowy garments need flowy fabrics, but tailored garments need more crispness.
  • Bubbly seams: If a fabric is all or mostly polyester, the seams might not press as nicely. You get that odd look to your seams where they bubble up rather than blending into the garment.
  • Bulky seams: This is another problem that sometimes shows up with seams. If a fabric is too thick, you can get added bulk around the seams from all the seam allowances.
  • Poor print matching: This is mostly a challenge with stripes and plaids. If a garment has too many seamlines, it can be impossible to match up prints, and you can get a really dizzying effect.
  • Prints cut off: Again, if a fabric has a lot of visible seamlines, consider print carefully. A large scale print can get cut off, making it much less attractive than you imagined.
  • Busy print: If a print is too busy, it can hide the design lines of the garment. This is something you may or may not want.
  • Too sheer: If a fabric is sheer or semi-sheer, consider whether you’ll need a lining or underlining.
  • Shrinkage: Will the fabric shrink a lot? Will it continue to shrink (like wool)? Will you need special cleaning for it?

I’m sure I’m missing some here. Do you guys have any common problems with fabric choice that you’d like to add to the list?

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On , didyoumakethat said: | didyoumakethat.wordpress.com

How it’s going to be to work with? If you can see raw edges fraying like no one’s business in the store, how are they going to be to work with? Great list! Fabric knowledge is such a key (and never ending) lesson.

On , Francesca said:

As an add-on to didyomakethat – if it’s slippery – it’s going to be hard to work with – so I wouldn’t use that kind of fabric for anything with too many seam lines/complicated patterns…..

On , Juliette from Sewing And Style Den said: | sewingandstyle.blogspot.com

Great article!!!!

May i just elaborate a little on some of the points above.

A common way to get around the shrinkage is to always pre-treat the fabric before cutting and sewing- wash it or dry clean it as you would the ready made garment (depending on care label/recommendations) . Shrinkage mostly occurs in the first wash, so if it shrinks, you will be working with that fabric with much less chance of losing your new creation’s great shape. There is a lot of information online on how to pre-treat different types of fabrics.

Bulky seams are a nuisance – trim one side of the allowance very close to the seam to reduce the bulk. Also consider balancing the darts working with thick fabrics- it will give much cleaner look.

Working with prints do choose simpler patterns, unless a print chaos is what you are going for.

And slippery fabrics are tamed by lots of pins and sewing between two layers of tissue.

On , dana said:

I’m always so disappointed when a print is off-grain.

I recently ordered a beautiful fabric online and when it arrived I realized that the print was so off-grain that I would never be able to make a garment I wanted to make with it.

So disappointing!

On , Nina said: | toftsnummulite.blogspot.com

This isn’t really to do with the practical business of sewing a garment, but top of my list of considerations is a fabric’s environmental and human impact. How much pollution has its production caused (e.g. pesticides and fertilisers for natural fibres, crude oil extraction for synthetics, dyeing and processing)? Were the people working in the supply chain all adults, and did they have safe conditions and fair pay? How well will the fabric last – will my garment be wearable for many years, and will the fabric be re-usable after that? And later still, will the fabric bio-degrade safely and cleanly? The ‘special cleaning’ issue you mentioned, Sarai, is also an issue here: if the fabric needs to be dry-cleaned, that’s an extremely toxic process for the planet, the dry-cleaning workers, and me. Of course, you can’t always be sure about all these factors without making a full-time job of investigating fabric sourcing. But you can buy certified Fairtrade fabrics, and/or certified organic fabrics; Fairtrade certification includes some environmental regulations, and organic certification has social criteria. You can ask about where things were made – if the answer’s aren’t readily available, it shows the seller isn’t concerned.

On , Nina said: | toftsnummulite.blogspot.com

[Sorry about that stray apostrophe!]

On , Sarai said: | colettepatterns.com

Nina, these are all really excellent points. The manufacturing chain and the effect on the environment are really important considerations, I agree.

On , Francesca said:

It’s hard to buy organic in my country unless I buy on line which is then leaving a carbon footprint. But when it comes to drycleaning, long before we became aware of how harmful it was to the environment and even to us (for drycleaners to tell you to air things on a balcony before putting them in a wardrobe or wearing says something!) I was always anti the process. I don’t feel things are really clean unless they’re washed. So I wash everything. Wools, silks, everything – even if the fabric shop tells me they have to be dry cleaned. Once you wash them once, you can wash them again. They might lose some texture, but I’d rather lose texture then have chemicals against my skin.

I also try to minimise drycleaning on things that are hard to wash, like lined heavy winter coats and jackets. I wear them on clean clothes, of course, and protect the collar by wearing scarves, always. If you keep your hair spanking clean and do all that you can get away with very rarely dry cleaning these items. And what aI also do is something I learnt from a neighbour who’s now around 95. She told me that with her husband’s suits and their coats she never sent them to dry cleaning – just did what her mother used to do – brushed them regularly, sponged them in certain areas and let them dry in the fresh air, and before putting them away for the winter, hung them out on the balcony overnight on very humid nights and then let them really dry in the sunlight. She never had a problem with moths even though she only used cedar protection as she hated camphor (luckily, as it’s poison!) and so they must have ended up pretty clean!

On , Nina said: | toftsnummulite.blogspot.com

It’s true, Francesca – I like to experiment with ‘dry-clean only’ clothing, and I’ve successfully hand-washed a wool-mix skirt and a pure wool one, as well as machine-washing a vintage velvet jacket with no ill effect. Your neighbour’s advice sounds excellent, too!

On , Leah said: | strugglesewsastraightseam.wordpress.com

Maybe this is a duh kind of thing, but the texture of the cloth can really effect how comfortable the garment is! I have made really cute things with really cute fabrics that I would never actually wear because they are so uncomfortable.

On , Daughter Fish said: | daughterfish.com

How’s it going to wear over time…that’s been one of my biggest issues lately, and I’m not sure how to resolve it. I’ve made several really pretty dresses from very nice-feeling rayon, but after a few months, the fabric has pilled, and the dresses are starting to look prematurely old. Not sure if this is just an issue with synthetics (like rayon and bamboo fabrics) but it has definitely frustrated me.

On , Francesca said:

It is a sad fact that some really nice fabrics pill. Wool pills, whether it’s knitted or woven, and in pants, unless you have a nice gap betweenyour upper thighs it’s going to pill big time – some rayons pill – and BTW, rayons and bamboo aren’t synthetic, they’re man made – so they breathe… organic cotton pills sometimes – even jersey can pill, depending on what it’s made of. I still use these materials, but try to think ahead and make items that will take more wear – that isn’t very well explained, but I won’t use certain wools for pants, for instance – unless they’re gabardine or twill weaves….

On , Gaidig said: | gaidigt.blogspot.com

Pilling is caused by the breakage of fragile fine fibers, which is why a heavy, course wool coat is less likely to pill than a fine merino sweater. Certain fabric weaves can combat that fragility, such as twill, as can certain ays of spinning the fiber. Generally, softness and fragility go hand in hand, so you ave to think about the fabric and the pattern in combination. If a garment will be subject to more wear and stress, a fine fabric won’t be able to stand up to it.

On , Sew Little Time said: | somanypatternssewlittletime.blogspot.com

I’m about to take my first steps into sewing with knits (following lots of helpful tutorials on here and elsewhere!) and I have taken as a good tip to stretch the fabric in store to see how well it goes back into shape. And also to look at how curly the cut edge is to see how easy it will be to work with.

On , paige p @ luxperdiem said: | luxperdiem.com

I take a bit off the bolt and squish it. If it wrinkles fairly easily I tend not to purchase it. I made a beautiful linen skirt before I knew that linen is amazing, but wrinkles deep and often.

On , Elizabeth said:

On the wrinkling note, I always grab a handful of the fabric in my hot little hand squeezing it for a few seconds. When I open my hand, I’ll get an idea of how much the fabric will wrinkle with wear.

On , Torrilin said:

Plain cotton muslin is a pretty good example of a crisp, tailored fabric. A lot of quilting cottons are even crisper/stiffer than it. If you hate how cotton muslin looks in clothes, or if you hate tailored clothes, you’re probably not going to like firm quilting cottons. Silk taffeta would be another crisp fabric, and wool twills like gaberdine and polyester imitations of it are also common. Cotton sateen tends to be superduper crisp.

Plain cotton lawn (like Liberty’s Tana lawn, or the approximately gazillion lawns meant for heirloom style sewing) is a good example of a drapey fabric. Right now, a lot of sheer cotton commercial sundresses are made from lawn (it’s been a growing trend for the last 3-5 years). If you hate the drapey or floaty look, you probably will not go nuts for Liberty’s Tana lawn. Silk habotai or china silk is pretty similar.

The more crisp and suited to tailored clothes the fabric is, the better it will tend to wear IME. This doesn’t mean a cotton lawn will wear out immediately, but a thin and light sheer fabric just plain isn’t as sturdy as a heavier one. The commercial clothes I have in lawn are pretty much all double or triple layers of fabric, and they wear fine… but they obviously take 2-3 times as much fabric as a pattern might claim.

On , jen said: | thefabledneedle.com

The first 2 bullets took me years to accept. While quilting cotton comes in a dizzying array of prints and is relatively inexpensive, it doesn’t usually make the best garments (it can make cute, strappy sundresses though). I’ve learned that I like styles that have lightness and drape and therefore I need to stick to garment fabrics like cotton-silk voile (which is a lot more expensive!).

On , maddie said: | madalynne.com

I feel like the greatest strength a sewer can develop is having a “hand” for the fabric – knowing how to handle it gently during sewing and pressing. It’s a really hard trait to develop but once mastered, it really makes a difference as to how the finished garment will look.

On , Jen said: | mommymadebyjen.blogspot.com

For me, quality is so important. Yes, higher-quality fabric is expensive, but you usually get what you pay for. When I want a garment that will last for years, I need to consider it an investment. If it’s something I purchase, I know that, generally speaking, the more I pay the better-made the item is and the longer it will last. The same goes for fabric. When you look at a garment and consider the cost per wear, it’s almost always worth it to spend the extra up front, rather than buy something that is produced much more cheaply and which will need to be replaced in a year or so. Of course, the sale rack/table can always yield some beautiful deals. I once got wool jersey in 3 different colors for $1.99/yd. I still have the dresses I made from it.

Pre-treating is a must, as well as making sure that you’re using the correct method of cleaning for your fabric. Some fabrics CAN be machine washed but will hold up better if hand-washed or dry-cleaned. For example, I pre-wash and dry my rayon knits in the machine but after the garment is made it gets hand washed or washed with my delicates and laid flat to dry. Pilling and wear often occur in the washing machine, from simple agitation with other clothes. Reducing the agitation can help prevent this in some cases. And delicate fabrics or those with lycra do better hung up to dry, as the heat from the dryer is often warmer than necessary.

On , Francesca said:

Jen, I totally agree with you as per quality and pre-treating. But I never use a dryer. It’s probably a culture thing, or maybe a weather thing, but here in Malta we hang clothes outside, dryers are hardly ever used, except maybe for sheets and towels in winter – and even then, we have enough sunny days that we can usually hang outside. As for machine washing, I never ever wash certain things in the machine, and except for jeans, the clothes I do wash in the machine get washed in the hand wash program on cold with a low spin, and the more delicate ones go in net bags. The most delicate get hand washed, and they are either line dried on blow up hangers or dried flat depending on the fabric and weight.

HAving said all the above, I met an Indian fabric manufacturer a while back – he provides Monsoon with all their silks – and he told me that all silk can be washed, obviously most of it by hand, with the proviso that the very first time it should be dry cleaned – he said it helps it keep its body and colour better. I took his advice with a couple of very special silks….

This is such a great discussion. Thanksf or starting it, Sarai.

On , Carat said:

I work in a fabric store and I’ve noticed that a lot of our beginning and intermediate sewers have problems with patterns that use knit fabrics. I find my self explaining the difference between our knits to customers almost every day. Knowing if your pattern is sized for a knit fabric is important. I recently had a customer chose a woven cotton for a fitted dress pattern that called for a knit, I though she was going to cry when I pointed out that the fabric was not going to work for the dress because it was made with negative ease.

We always recommend that our customers wash their fabrics before cutting and sewing. If you don’t have a washer and dryer that will fit a 6 yard cut of 60″ fabric most washeterias have large washer and dryers meant to wash three or four loads all at once.

On , Rebekka said:

I was going to add stretch and ease to the list, but you’ve touched on it here. And it’s not just knits, as some wovens are also stretch fabrics. It can be difficult to judge whether the directionality (two-way/four-way) and extent of stretch is appropriate for the pattern you want to make.

On , Theresa Jennings said:

I pre-shrink most of my fabric by steaming it before cutting. The heat and moisture from this process seems to work for me in shrinking most fabrics i’ve used. Obviously, you have to take care with delicate fabrics and reduce the heat accordingly. For delicates, i hover the steam iron above the fabric so as not to scorch it. Sometimes you can actually see the fabric shrinking before your very eyes!

On , Rebekka said:

The quilting cotton effect! Argh.

On , Tasha Miller Griffith said: | tashamillergriffith.com

Ok, so this is a little nit-picky, but I have been working with wool and felt a lot the past few years, and I think it’s important for sewers to understand how the process works.

Wool doesn’t shrink the way cotton does, where the fabric keeps basically the same characteristics but gets smaller. It felts, actually the tiny scales on the fibers engage each other and draw in tighter and tighter, so not only will the fabric get smaller, it gets denser and stiffer, like the sweater you may have accidentally put in the washer.

What makes wool felt is agitation, a little heat and moisture help too. You can avoid the whole felting process by hand washing your wools, mostly let them soak clean and just squeeze the water out gently. I have learned the hard way that even if a wool fabric is super densely woven and sturdy, it will start to felt if you wash it the machine enough times, though it may take years, eventually needing a remodel.

All that said, I want to put in a vote for wool as the loveliest, easiest to work with and shape, beautiful to wear fabric I know of! Totally worth a little extra hand washing.

PS I pre-wash my wool fabrics in the bathtub!

On , Jenny said:

You can, in some cases, “fix” a sagging drapey fabric by underlining it with a crisper fabric. I know I mentioned this in a comment on a post some time ago, but I made a skirt a while back with some heavy sueded kimono silk – which had been a big splurge purchase. It had been sized or starched when I bought it, but after hand-washing and air-drying (which was what the salesperson had suggested) – it became incredibly drapey. The skirt looked awful, and not having much to loose, I took the garment back to the fabric store (which was almost undoubted Britex in SF). I found one of the salespeople there that I liked, and she took one look at it and told me to underline it with organza. Which worked beautifully in that circumstance. It would probably work less with with a sheer drapey fabric.

On , Jane Elise said: | timepoorsewer.blogspot.com

This is my weakest point as a sewist. I often choose unsuitable fabric despite having many years of sewing experience. It really does make an otherwise well-sewn garment a complete wadder.

On , LadyD said: | stitchintimeandspace.blogspot.co.uk

Instead of fabric shrinking…for some reason my skirt waists seem to grow as I wear them? Is it a fabric choice problem? I generally sew with cottons and poly-cottons and don’t pre-wash….I know, living dangerously. ;)

On , Jane Elise said: | timepoorsewer.blogspot.com

Do you use a good interfacing to stabilise the waistband? Also sewing cotton tape along the waist edge will stop it stretching out. Things I’ve learned from having my waistbands stretch out too :)

On , Amy said: | clothhabit.com

Definitely one of the hardest things to learn from experience is how fabric behaves after pre-treating or continual washing. I try to do a lot of experiments now with scraps to see what happens. Like most people, I’d prefer not to have to professionally clean, but there are some fabrics that just change their hand too much for my liking after being in water. Like silk crepe de chine–I love how it just has this slight, smooth sheen before washing, but even after just a handwashing it gets more pebbly and rougher-feeling (and I don’t like that feeling on my skin). On the other hand, I love how linen just keeps getting softer after washing.

On , Rebecca said: | kolkko.tumblr.com

Do you think you could share more of your experience with silk at some point Sarai? I know you seem to use it a lot and it’s quite an expensive learning curve for most of us! Any further tips on cutting and sewing it would be much appreciated.

On , Sarai said: | colettepatterns.com

Certainly! Just added it to the post ideas list. :)

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[...] I love sewing with a sort of disdainful loathing because I tend to make every mistake under the sun. On Coletterie, they keep the frustrated sewer in mind by posting really useful posts like this one on how to Avoid Some Common Fabric Problems. [...]