Dressmaking Fabric: Choosing the Right Fabrics

It is easy to feel disoriented or lost when looking for the right dressmaking fabric. With so many different types of fabrics available, your eye usually attracts a familiar color or pattern. But that is just one of the many factors that come into play when choosing the right fabrics.

You’ll see shelves of fabric and perhaps a sign indicating what type of fabric you are seeing. But don’t wander the store letting such signs direct you. Let Isa Fabrics help you shop like a fashion pro by knowing what considerations to take into account when choosing the right dressmaking fabric.

What To Consider With Dress Fabric Types

Specifically, when choosing dressmaking fabric, it’s important to think of:

  1. How the fabric feels against your skin. Remember those itchy gowns you wore for your baptism or first communion? Avoid those and stick to fabrics that feel smooth on the skin and that you will want to wear for long periods of time.
  2. How it will drape against your body. Drape is essential to a proper fit. Most of what makes us shy away from a particular article of clothing is how it hangs on our bodies. Anything can look good on a hanger – but on your body, it’s completely different.
  3. How it will behave when sewing. And we don’t mean “behave” like will it throw a tantrum in the cereal aisle of Publix and embarrass you in front of other moms – but more along the lines of will it clump together or how it holds it’s shaping once sewn.
  4. The quality of the fabric. Does it have any tears or imperfections in the print, loose fibers, weird dye spots, etc. Those imperfections sometimes even become exacerbated when being sewn together.

Understanding Fiber Types

Fibers fall into three basic categories: plant-based, animal-derived, and man-made. The fiber content establishes many of the characteristics of a particular fabric. Having a basic understanding of fibers will make choosing fabric for any project easier.

  • Plant-Based Fibers: Plant-based fabrics include cotton, linen, hemp, and ramie. They are strong whether wet or dry plus they take dye easily and are easy to launder and press.
  • Animal-Derived Fibers: Animal-based fibers include silk, wool and hair fibers such as angora, cashmere, and alpaca. Fabrics made of these fibers tend to be light in weight relative to their bulk. They are naturally elastic, resist wrinkling, and take dye well.
  • Man-Made Fibers: Man-made fibers include rayon, tencel, acetate, and triacetate, acrylic, nylon, polyester, and spandex which sometimes improve upon properties of natural fibers. For example, synthetics make fabrics elastic, durable, colorfast, and insulating. Most man-made textiles are easy to care for and to wear, but unfortunately, have a heavier cost to the environment.
  • Fabric Types/Structure: All fabric types are either knit, woven or non-woven made of fibers and yarns. Some fabrics are made of fibers bonded together by heat, mechanical or chemical treatment. When you understand how these fabric types are formed you’ll be able to recognize them. This will help you correctly match fabric to a project which will minimize sewing and fitting frustrations. It will also improve the overall look, comfort, and fit of your final creations.

What Fabric is Best for your Project

For the most part, when making clothes, fabrics with natural, synthetic or a blend of both fibers are typically preferred. Woven fabric is ideal for making tailored items, while knit fabrics are the best fabric for dresses, for form-fitting clothes, undergarments, or activewear.

When you’re considering a more upscale and special occasion type of garment, the best fabric to make a dress will be any of these options: raw silk, satin, taffeta, velvet, lace, silk chiffon, or organza. For a fitted bodycon type dress, you can buy medium weight fabrics with some spandex/elastane added. For drapey dresses, you can choose lightweight fabrics such as jersey, crepe, challis, and charmeuse.

Here is a quick breakdown of these fabrics and what should know when deciding between things like; good quality fabrics for dresses or skirts, fabric for a summer dress versus a winter coat, or fabrics that drape well versus having a stretch.

  • Cotton comes from the cotton plant. It’s cheap, easy to clean, and comfortable. Unfortunately, it easily stretches and loses its shape. It’s also susceptible to wearing out over time.
  • Denim comes from cotton fabric that has been woven in such a way as to produce a diagonal ribbing making it very stiff and sturdy. It fades and wears well, which is why it’s so widely used in jeans.
  • Flannel is lightweight and soft which is great for cold-weather garments. It’s often made from wool, cotton, or synthetic fiber and can be brushed to make it softer.
  • Hemp is made from the stem of the marijuana plant but does not contain narcotics. Its texture is similar to linen, so does well with water, but has a tendency to wrinkle.
  • Linen is a lightweight fabric that breathes well in hot weather. It can look both casual and neat. It’s a natural fiber that comes from the flax plant. The downside is that it wrinkles very easily and requires gentle washing.
  • Nylon was invented as a synthetic replacement for silk to make women’s stockings. This is where the term “nylons” came from. Nylon is strong, inexpensive and is easily washed which is why it was used in WW2 to make parachutes and tires.
  • Polyester tends to be very comfortable, washes well and doesn’t require special care. We tend to use many polyester blend knits because they take color extremely well, they’re durable, and the dyes don’t fade. Because polyester blends are man-made, they don’t breathe as well as cotton but, for a twirly dress, it doesn’t matter.
  • Satin can be lightweight or heavyweight. It tends to be glossy in appearance and is smooth, silky, and flowy.
  • Silk has been around since ancient China. It’s incredibly smooth and lustrous and comes from the cocoon of the mulberry moth. It’s very lightweight, flowy and, of course, silky! Silk is ideal for draping and lining.
  • Rayon drapes well because it is lightweight but still heavier than cotton. Rayon is part manufactured fabric and natural fibers making it part natural, and part synthetic. It’s soft, comfortable and smooth, making it ideal for hot and humid climates. The downside is that it requires careful washing and is not very durable.
  • Wool comes from sheep and goat hair. It’s very warm, but it can also be itchy. Mohair is a variation of wool that comes from Angora goats.

Other Considerations for Dressmaking Fabric

Ensure that the color of the fabric is even, without any lines or spots. You can very easily identify any signs of uneven dyeing. There may be some light spots or color fading on areas, especially on the crease line or fold line. This is completely normal and may not affect the dressmaking process.

Unless it is part of the design, light-colored areas may indicate that color will fade with washing. Another suggestion would be to take the fabric outside to natural light and inspect the coloring thoroughly for any imperfections.

The occasion and the geography of the place where you will be wearing the dress will play an important part in the choice of the fabric as well. You do not want a woolen garment for a trip to the desert in the summer, however, that might be the best fabric for a winter holiday dress in New York. Nor would you don a chiffon dress for your friend’s February winter wonderland wedding in Canada.

Those natural light textiles are more suitable for warmer climates. A wedding in Miami in May may be the perfect occasion to wear that flowy chiffon dress!

Color is another factor that many people do not often fully consider. How does the color look in artificial light, natural light – or even bunched up together? Does the occasion call for bright summer color or more of a darker fall hue?

These are all important factors to keep in mind before having the fabric cut. Many times, you are not able to return the fabric after it is cut, so do not even try to bring it back after going home and realizing that it is a different color from what you saw in the store.

Isa Fabrics, Your Local Dressmaking Fabric Shop

A cool hack to consider when buying a very expensive fabric, be it designer fabrics for dressmaking or even vintage dressmaking fabrics, is buying some mull cotton (muslin) to make a test model before cutting the more expensive fabric, especially if you are venturing into this for the first time.

This is what some of the best designers in the world use when designing a custom dress for their most high-end clients. It allows you to make drastic changes to the design during an initial first fitting without damaging the fabric that will ultimately be used on the final dress.

Although it’s virtually impossible to categorize fabrics as suitable or non-suitable for dressmaking, knowing some of the characteristics and the advantages of choosing a certain type of fabric makes the process of sewing a lot easier.

The right type of fabric for your project can make a big difference in the way the final garment looks, so be patient and trust the process when it comes to selecting dressmaking fabric and remember to contact Isa Fabrics or feel free to stop by so we can help every step of the way.

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