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A Fabric Guide for Sewers

At one time or another, sewers of all experience levels seem to make the same mistake. And that’s choosing the wrong fabric for a project.

They might choose a fabric that’s not suited for what they’re trying to make. (Silk usually isn’t the best choice for a pair of pants.)

Or the garment they make from a particular fabric might turn out to be stiff, hot or itchy. Or they’ll buy a fabric and discover, after the fact, that it wrinkles easily, is dry clean only, or shrinks when washed.  

Truth is that the world of fabric can be confusing and overwhelming. But choosing the right fabric for your next project doesn’t have to be a crap shoot.

Here are nine of the most popular fabrics and fibers, along with a brief overview of some of their properties. These aren’t the only options you’ll find at your local fabric store, but they’re a good place to start.

1. Cotton

Cotton is a natural fiber that can be used to make just about anything, from garments, to undergarments, to upholstery.

Items made with cotton are usually cool, comfortable and absorbent. Cotton garments can stand up to multiple washings, and are usually pretty color fast (so the color won’t be quick to fade due to washing or sun exposure).

On the con side, cotton usually takes longer to dry than other fabrics, and tends to wrinkle pretty easily. Cotton can also shrink, especially when it’s washed for the first time.

Still, cotton is a pretty strong fabric that’s easy to work with, and easy to take care of.

2. Linen

Linen is another cool, comfortable and absorbent natural fiber. This material is often used to make garments like blazers, shirts and pants. It’s also used for outerwear. Clothes made with linen will help you stay cool during warm summer months.

On the down side, linen garments can feel a bit stiff. Linen also wrinkles pretty easily, and it can be difficult to get those wrinkles out.

Like cotton, linen can shrink when you wash it. But while you can usually take care of cotton garments at home, dry cleaning is often recommended for items made with linen. Yes, you can wash linen at home. But don’t be surprised if a linen garment loses its shape after a tumble in the dryer. 

3. Rayon

Rayon is an artificial fiber often used to make women’s blouses and dresses. It’s also commonly used as the lining in suits.

Rayon has a lot in common with cotton. This material is both cool and absorbent, and garments made with rayon can be extremely comfortable.

Rayon is affordable, color fast, and can often pass for a natural material.

On the downside, rayon can be extremely prone to wrinkling. Like cotton, rayon can shrink in the wash. However, rayon isn’t as strong as cotton is.

4. Polyester

Polyester is a strong, synthetic material that can be found in all kinds of garments, including sportswear.

Polyester is pretty close to wrinkle-proof, and garments made of this material won’t shrink or lose their shape when washed. This fiber dries pretty fast, and is often pretty cheap.

On the down side, polyester isn’t absorbent. Form-fitting garments made entirely of polyester can clingy, clammy, and uncomfortable to wear. However, garments made of cotton/polyester blends can be very comfortable, fitting closely but providing enough give so that the wearer doesn’t feel confined or restricted.

5. Nylon

Nylon is often used to make things like underwear and, of course, stockings. This synthetic fiber is relatively strong and extremely stretchy.

Nylon isn’t easy to wrinkle or shrink. However, it also isn’t very absorbent, and smells that set into nylon can be hard to get out. And, if you’re wearing nylon, static can definitely become an issue.

6. Spandex

Spandex is probably best known for its use in workout clothing and swimsuits. But this synthetic material can also be used in everyday garments.

Spandex is a very stretchy, elastic material. And garments made completely of spandex aren’t always the most comfortable. But spandex can be blended with other fibers with great results. For example, a garment made using a cotton/spandex blend will have more give and flexibility than garments made of 100% cotton.

7. Wool

Many people think all wool is coarse, scratchy, itchy and uncomfortable. But quality wool can be as soft, comfortable and flexible as any other material.

Wool is a natural fiber that can be used to make anything from coats, to suits, to socks.

Wool has a lot going for it. It’s a strong material that doesn’t wrinkle easily. Like cotton, wool is absorbent and breathable. And if you want to make a garment that will keep the wearer warm during chilly winter month, wool can be a great choice. In fact, wool is pretty much known for its insulating properties.

Good wool can be a bit pricey. And in many cases, it’s strongly suggested that you dry clean items made of wool. If you don’t wash wool correctly, you can almost count on it shrinking.

8. Acrylic

If you want an alternative to wool, consider using acrylic. This synthetic fiber, which is often used in knitwear, is strong, can look like wool, and it isn’t prone to wrinkling. It’s also machine washable and, unlike wool, you don’t have to worry about acrylic shrinking.

But acrylic isn’t breathable or absorbent. And once an odor has set into acrylic, it can be hard to get that odor out.

Acrylic is also highly flammable, and can actually melt if exposed to high enough temperatures.

9. Silk

Silk is a natural fiber known for being luxurious…and expensive. That’s because silk is harder to produce than most other fabrics.

Silk is extremely cool and comfortable, and feels great against the skin. It also doesn’t wrinkle all that easily.

However silk can also be easily damaged. Many know what it’s like to brush against something and end up with a snag on your silk shirt, skirt or tie. And if you wash a silk garment, there’s a good chance it will lose its shape. 

Most things made of silk, from clothes to home décor, are “dry clean only.” So not only can buying the fabric itself be pricey, but taking care of it properly adds to the expense.

The fabric you choose can make or break your sewing project. And if you keep this quick fabric guide in mind, you’ll increase the chances of your next project being a sewing success.

sewing to the bank

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