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Choosing fabric: weight vs. drape

{click to enlarge, and feel free to repost!}

Weight and Drape

Most of us understand the concept of fabric weight. Even neophyte seamsters can tell the difference between a heavy fabric like denim or a wool coating vs a light fabric like silk crepe or chiffon. You can feel the weight of a fabric easily by the thickness when you feel the fabric in your hand: it feels either light or heavy.

I think the concept of drape is a little more elusive. The drape of a fabric is the way it flows over things. Stiff fabrics have less drape, and fluid fabrics have more.

But drape is often confused with weight. This makes sense, because the two are highly correlated. In other words, heavy fabrics often have less drape and light fabrics often have more drape. BUT (1) this is not always the case and (2) the relationship may not be proportional. It’s often the case that a light fabric can be stiffer than a heavier fabric. So when choosing a fabric, be sure to consider both drape and weight.

To illustrate, I made the chart above of several natural fiber fabrics. It is admittedly unscientific*, but I think it illustrates the concept. You can see that fabrics like organza and organdy, even though they are light and sheer, are quite stiff, whereas a light fabric like chiffon has a great deal of drape. Denim is usually both stiff and heavy. There aren’t many heavy, fluid fabrics, but wool crepes and suitings can be.

Choosing Drape and Weight

When you choose a fabric for your sewing project, ask yourself these questions to decide on an appropriate weight:

  1. Should my fabric be sheer or opaque?
  2. Will a light fabric be difficult to sew for this project?
  3. Will the fabric be sturdy enough to tolerate stress on the seams?
  4. Will the heaviness of the fabric cause bulky seams?

And to decide on an appropriate amount of drape:

  1. Will the fabric have enough drape to flow the way I want?
  2. Will the fabric have enough stiffness to have the structure and crispness I want?

Test for Drape

To test for drape, unroll a little fabric from the bolt and gently drape it over something (other bolts of fabric work, or you can drape a little around your neck or waist if your fabric store has a mirror). Examine the way it flows (or stands out), how the folds of the fabric lie, and the general appearance to get an idea of how it will look in garment form.

I’m interested to hear whether drape is a big concern in your sewing already. Are there other questions about drape and weight you ask yourself before deciding on a fabric ?

* The placement of the bubbles in the chart isn’t exact, so no need to quibble! I placed things based on their most common weight/drape in my experience, but some of them vary considerably.

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On , Nadia said: | smaboutique.wordpress.com

Thank you so much for such a useful post! I’m really looking forward to reading more in the fabric series.

On , Hillary said:

Thanks for this- this is absolutely my downfall, but I am learning. Definitely experience is the best teacher, and wow have I made some highly regrettable fabric/pattern pairings in the last year to learn from! I’m very consciously trying to improve in this area.

I’ve found that a contributing factor in my biggest mistakes has been getting fabric over the internet and having preconceived notions that are hard to throw out once the fabric arrives. Being able to honestly assess what a fabric actually *is* rather than what I have planned/projected can be a real stumbling block for me.

On , Susan said:

Fabric drape is critical. The key is figuring out if you need a stiff or a drapey fabric based on the pattern design. Drape can be altered, though via underlining or interfacing. you can make drapey fabrics more stiff, but you can’t go the other way.

On , Sarai said: | colettepatterns.com

That is a good point, Susan.

On , Jessica said: | stitchywitch.wordpress.com

Thanks for this! I do try to take into account drape (or lack therof,) but I have the occasional failure, especially as I must buy my fabrics online (no local sources except Joann and Hancocks.) I was just trying to figure out what fabric to use for an early 60s dress – something with some body but not too stiff. I saw your chart and knew right away – dupioni! So thanks for helping me solve a fabric dilemma.

On , LadyKatza said:

So my main concern in drape has been with some vintage 1940′s patterns that were originally mail order. Nowhere on the pattern does it tell you what kind of fabric to use and I’m unsure what to pick. I guess they just assumed you would know what you were doing or maybe it was in the catalog but not the instructions? Help?

On , Branka said:

Thank you sooo much for posts like this one, I’m a beginner sewer eager to learn as much as I possibly can… you explain everything so well, it is much appreciated!

On , Rebekka said:

Excellent post! Love this. I’m totally printing it and hanging it on the wall.

Linen in particular, in my experience, varies greatly in drape according to its weight, and I for one cannot figure out how to translate linen weights into anything usable unless I can feel it. Linen/viscose or rayon is also really fluid.

For me I’ve been trying to pay more attention to choosing the right KIND of fabric instead of just the right color/print, which just makes everything more difficult. It’s still an outrage that there is so much darling quilting cotton out there and not so much darling anything else. If I were going to put quilting cotton on the map there, I’d stick it smack dab in the middle – and as it’s taken me YEARS to figure out, it’s totally unsuitable for (most?) clothing.

On , Amy said:

Thanks for the article, and your graphic really helps to illustrate your point. It’s a great reference, I think I’ll put it on my phone for trips to the fabric store.

On , Ali said: | wardrobereimagined.blogspot.com

Thanks for this post! I’m still learning a great deal about fabric and I’ve made many a mistake regarding drape along the way. I’ve decided I really like things that drape, they just both feel and look better on my body and I haven’t bought anything over the internet for fear that I can’t feel the fabric before I buy it. But it’s limiting, especially when I’m looking for print. So your chart will definitely come in handy as I embark on fabric buying :)

Also, on several of my vintage patterns, they recommend broadcloth (say, for a blouse) — what do folks think? My instinct is it’s too heavy and, in my experience, wrinkles heavily.

On , Rena said: | renakatinas.wordpress.com

I have the same problem, my few experiences with broadcloth were disasters (too stiff, or too cheap looking), and I also have a lot of vintage lutterloh patterns, and I’m never sure what to use.

On , Rena said: | renakatinas.wordpress.com

Thank you for this excellent post and chart! Is there any chance you might expand the chart, adding more fabric types? (Maybe include some of the more common polyester/natural fiber blends.)

So many of us have ONE option when physically looking and touching fabrics, and that choice is JoAnns (grrrrr) which has such a limited amount of apparel fabric, it’s hard to get firsthand knowledge of different fabric types. Unless we are looking to create a wardrobe made of fleece and quilting fabric (seriously, WHO needs THAT much fleece?!) we must shop online.

I’m never sure what the drape is like with the online selection, it can be so frustrating. A lot of times fabric is just classified as “cotton” and I never know what I’m getting until it arrives. I usually google something like “linen poly blend skirt” and hope I can find shopping result images of clothing made of that fabric to get a clue to the drape, but sometimes the results are less than helpful.

On , Tilly said: | tillyandthebuttons.blogspot.com

Thanks for this post, Sarai – I’ve bookmarked the very helpful chart. My problem is not being able to match up fabrics with their names – when bloggers talk about different types of fabric, unless it’s denim, chiffon or gabardine (learnt that one!) I don’t know what they’re talking about! Any tips on how to learn these things without spending the whole day in a fabric shop getting dodgy looks from the sales assistants?

On , Sandy said:

Go to the fabric shop, pick a sales assistant who looks approachable, and tell her (it’s usually a her) your dilemma. Ask for quick primer in what some of the fabrics are, that you’re considering. (Not every fabric in the store, all on one day, of course.) Hopefully, the shop assistant will look on you as a potentially very good customer, and be an enthusiastic teacher.
Most of the people working at fabric stores have some knowledge – if nothing else, they can say, here’s the dupioni section, yep, this label says dupioni and this one says crepe!

On , Fuggles said:

I agree with Tilly! I can never match the ‘suggested materials’ on the back of patterns with ones that I recognise. I’ve had a few disasters using cotton, as that is what I have in my stash, but just doesn’t work for the pattern!

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On , Sandy said:

I would like to create a pattern I could use from a 1930′s publication. It shows a flowing skirt with a straight line jacket with very little fitting on the jacket and a charming long fabric loop from one side of the jacket to the other, which loosely keeps the jacket in place.

In the drawing the drape is obvious and really along with the design, a great deal of the charm, but I am sure that this is a pattern for a little heavier fabric.

So I am on the lookout for fabric that is substantial (can stand up to wear and tear) and still soft and flowing.

Any ideas? Thanks.

On , Nelle said:

Hi, I’m working through fabric options as I saw my first business shirt. I’m looking for a fabric that’s:

- long lasting (it will be regularly washed)
- wrinkle resistent (sitting at a desk all day, hate the way shirts wrinkle at the elbows)
- not transparent (especially if it’s white / light colour)
- high quality, feels amazing on.

I’m a little overwhelmed by all the cotton / cotton blends out there. Any advice on how I can best work through my options?

Appreciate your experience!

On , Kat said: | engineersotherlife.com

Poly-cotton poplin ticks your first three boxes, but I wouldn’t say that it feels “amazing” on… a good quality cotton sateen also meets most of your needs, but it could be too heavy, and it will wrinkle somewhat.

On , Eds said: | califia.wordpress.com

for those stuck with online pickings, maybe see if using a service like taskrabbit in san francisco is available to you (there is another but i forgot)

like i dunno how much it would be but, you could hire someone to go to a sf store (which has more than joannes) feel fabric, buy and send it to you. of course this really works well if the person doing the shopping has a sewing background too.

On , Ummi said:

This is just the explanation I’ve been searching for! One more question, though: How would you classify challis or some other rayon? Thanks!

On , Carol Randall said:

I am starting a fabric blog about fabrics in Singapore and I saw this fabulous bubble chart about drape and weight. I would love to have your permission to use it ( would give full credit to your site of course.

On , Jean said:

I want to buy some natural linen for drapes which will be 96 inches long and hung on a rod with back hidden tabs. My understanding is that I will need twice the amount of width for pleats.

I need the drapes to be opaque without lining them, as I want to hide a defect on the wall.

What weight of linene would you recommend please?

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[...] Coletterie has an excellent post discussion on fabric weight that’s helpful in deciding which fabric to use for draping:  Choosing fabric: weight vs. drape [...]

On , Rita said:

Sandra Betzina has a book called Fabric Savvy, which gives information on different types of fabrics. I think she has a second book out now called More Fabric Savvy…These give lots of information on different fabrics…

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[…] the folks over at Colette Patterns have created a wonderful chart that helps with understanding fabric weights for […]

On , Tiffany said: | cheetahprintnlipgloss.blogspot.com

I just shared this on my blog! This is so cool. I took a class, but there is no way I could remember every type of fabric!