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Portrait of a Fabric

Probably because of this painting, I’ve always felt compelled by muslin. Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun painted the portrait of Marie Antoinette in 1783. Word on the street is that it thoroughly scandalized Antoinette’s public, who said the casual, breezy garment wasn’t appropriate for a queen. Muslin still seems like a rather humble fabric — it tends to be used for important-but-less-glamorous functions of designing and sewing, like draping and testing patterns. It’s even given its name to the process of making a mock-up prior to cutting fashion fabric.

What factors do you consider when you’re choosing fabric? Any basic sewing book worth its salt should touch on this subject, describing the concepts of hand and weight, giving us examples of various weaves, and warning us not to make a pair of pants from a turquoise paisley print.

But there’s so much more to learn, from how to keep silk charmeuse from skating all over the cutting table to the capricious but powerful demands of fashion and style. I couldn’t begin to be definitive in a blog post; in this one, I’m profiling a few fabrics that I like, and hopefully that will start a discussion about fabrics you all like! Look for later posts on other fabric specifics, such as wovens vs. knits.

For each fabric, I’ll say a few words about what it is, how to use it, and where it came from. This last is something I often wonder about. I’m not sure I can think of a practical reason to know our fabric’s history, but it still seems important… I wonder if every yard we buy carries the weight of its past, just as the words we speak are weighted by their origins.

Velvet. How can I wear velvet and not feel like a queen? The soft pile and generally deep colors spur thoughts of sensuous, storied luxury. Velvet results from a dizzying array of fibers, both natural and synthetic. There are many different velvets, and they are all finicky and challenging to some degree, and so there are approximately seven million tips to help you deal with them. (For a concise version, check out “35 Secrets for Successful Velvet Sewing” in Threads Issue 116.) The overall message is: get to know your velvet before you cut in. Buy in a fabric store or order a swatch online. Think carefully about how you’ll care for the garment and whether or not pre-washing is necessary; even with those velvets that are machine wash- and dry-able, a trip through the Maytag will still affect the pile. Always test a small portion before you wash the entire piece. Mark the direction of the pile on the wrong side. Make your seam allowances just a bit wider for ease in sewing.

A bit of personal history on this one: in my childhood, the two most beautiful things were a) the shiny tap shoes that my sister wore for dance class and b) a velvet dress. I remember the first one I had, which was black and came from Kohl’s in St. Paul. I can’t quite shake my love for velvet and consequent desire to sew with it, but I had a long, hard time figuring out what to make that wouldn’t end up looking like Eight-Year-Old-Me’s midnight mass dress, circa 1991. Now, I am aching to make a black velvet Oolong.

Corduroy. Supposedly, we can thank the French for corduroy, with the word deriving from corde du roi, or “cord of the king.” However, this may be a myth — it’s more likely that corduroy originated in 19th-century England, and the word, too, may be English. Like velvet, corduroy has a soft pile that stands up from a base fabric, but it’s much more casual. I won’t go on too long about what corduroy is… since we all know what it is. However, it does require a certain amount of care and consideration when selecting and sewing. Look for wider wales (fewer cords per inch) for pants, narrower ones for jackets. Again, test a small piece when washing, and consider hanging up to dry. Don’t use a tracing wheel on corduroy, as it will squash the pile.

Bamboo. Perhaps this doesn’t quite fit in this list, since bamboo is not a fabric but, like cotton and silk, a fiber from which fabric is produced. It is a recent and seems to be a very positive innovation in textiles, as it’s soft but strong, hypoallergenic, and even antibacterial. I find bamboo jersey to be especially lovely, and I’d highly recommend it to anyone who wants to venture into stretch fabrics.

Bamboo fiber was first used for clothing in China in the twentieth century, and it seems to result in sustainable, “green” fabric. Bamboo is quick-growing and doesn’t require pesticides, and fabric can be produced from it with little chemical treatment.

What fabrics do you like? How do you decide what to use for your projects? What sources have helped you learn about fabric?

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On , LeahR said:

I have found bamboo knits to be lovely, but short lived. The lycra content, even at 8% is not enough. The recovery is lost very quickly and the fabric gets pilly. When you first wash them to prep them for sewing, it ages them. After that you should not machine wash them or dry them. You should also never dry clean them. Also, when you are making your garment, it is a good idea to size down one or two sizes for proper fit. — Lovely stuff, but very high maintenance in my opinion.

On , Rebekka said:

I wonder if muslin didn’t mean a finer and more lightweight fabric back in the day. The dress in the painting looks more like it’s made from batiste or even voile than the muslin you’d get at a fabric store now.

On , Reader said:

I’ve wondered the same thing about muslin. Or when Jane Austen characters are wearing “printed muslin,” it’s hard to imagine it’s the same fabric as draping or sewing muslin.

On , Gaidig said:

“and fabric can be produced from it with little chemical treatment.”

Sadly, bamboo fiber has been the subject of much green-washing. Actually, almost all bamboo fiber is “vicose from bamboo” or “bamboo rayon”, which is a chemically-intensive fiber production process. Most manufacturers use lye to break down the bamboo, and bleach the fiber. Different manufacturers use different chemicals or re-use the solvents in a closed-loop fashion, so some manufacturers’ bamboo is better than others. A quick search for more extensive information gave me these sources:

http://greencotton.wordpress.com/2007/10/12/bamboo-processing-considerations-ii/
http://greencotton.wordpress.com/2007/10/02/bamboo-miracle-plant-vs-troublesome-fiber/
http://organicclothing.blogs.com/my_weblog/2007/09/bamboo-facts-be.html
http://www.bamboosa.com/bamboo.php?PID=63

On , Gauss said:

I must disagree with your review of bamboo. While the bamboo itself might be grown sustainably, without pesticides, the fiber and fabric are anything BUT green or sustainable. They are very heavily processed products!

The Federal Trade Commission has recently looked into this and their conclusion is that the textiles, actually made of rayon, are not antimicrobial, made in an environmentally-friendly manner, or biodegradable. Here is the link to the FTC page: http://www.ftc.gov/opa/2009/08/bamboo.shtm .

On , Carrie said:

Thanks so much for the links. I’m sorry for the less-than-accurate review of bamboo. I still believe that the fiber *can* be produced sustainably, but I think I’ve probably been seduced recently by the softness and shine of fabric that’s labelled “bamboo” on the shelves. So, again, I’m sorry for errors and especially for omissions, and I really appreciate you all weighing in! I started to sew partly in the hope of becoming more socially and environmentally conscious, but, unfortunately, the necessary research/googling is something I sometimes miss.

On , Holly said: | etsy.com

I am so glad I came to comment. My original comment was going to be also about Jane Austin’s muslins (a “spotted”?) and how I would love to read post about the differences in muslins, manufacture and use, then and today.

I am particularly chagrined to learn about the harms in the production of bamboo fiber. I too was seduced by the softness and had almost decided on it for my first line. Teach me to do some research first! Also the pilling….I had never heard this about the fabric.

On , MLB jersey said: | fashionspaceonline.com

GOOD.
Very good.

On , Annette Siverson said:

I am commenting quite some time after the original post, but wanted to say, I have learned a lot! not only from the article itself, but from everyone’s comments after. Esp. re: bamboo. Thank you so very much!