Choosing a Fabric

Sometimes we find a fabric we love and go in search of the perfect pattern. Other times we find a pattern we know will look fabulous on us and go shopping for fabric that will be perfect for the style. But no matter which direction we come from, the fabric always wins so choosing the right fabric is the key to making the perfect garment.


Fabric is made using two distinctly different methods. Some fabric is woven on looms. It has warp threads and woof (or weft). The warp threads are longitudinal and are the straight grain of the fabric. The woof or weft are the horizontal threads and are the crossgrain. Most pattern pieces are cut on the straight grain of the fabric because it’s the most stable direction. Pieces cut on the crossgrain may “droop’ over time. This isn’t an issue with small pattern pieces like yokes, collars, and cuffs, and we can play with those pieces by cutting them on the “cross”. It’s really only an issue for things like floor length skirts and pants made from heavy fabrics. The line of the fabric at a 45 degree angle is called the bias. This is only cutting line on a woven fabric that has stretch. Cutting a garment out “on the bias” can give dramatically different results.

The second type of fabric is knit. Some knit fabric is made on machines that knit back and forth, and others are knit on circular machines. While the fabric looks different, either one will work for a pattern designed for knits. The more important thing is how many directions the fabric will stretch in and how much. Knit fabrics are labeled two-way or four-way stretch. A two-way stretch knit will stretch across the fabric and is stable on the length. A four-way stretch will stretch in both directions, but not necessarily the same amount each way. With a four-way stretch, the crosswise stretch provides fit, and the lengthwise stretch provides mobility. You can use a four-way stretch when the pattern only calls for two-way, but not the other way around. The amount of stretch is usually listed as a percentage. Ten inches of fabric that will stretch to 15 inches has 50% stretch. Knits will have names like jersey, interlock, ity, and ponte. They refer to the “stitch” that’s used in the knitting process. Lycra and Spandex are brand names for elastane. Elastane in a fabric helps it recover after it’s stretched.

Can You Substitute One Kind of Fabric for the Other?

Patterns are drafted with something called “ease’. Ease is the difference between the finished garment measurements and your body measurements. There are two components to ease. The first is called “wearing ease”. When we put our clothes on, we need to be able to breathe, walk, sit down, raise our arms, etc. The amount of wearing ease in a garment depends on how the garment will be worn. Typical wearing ease in a garment to be worn everyday is about 2″.

The second kind of ease is called design ease. That’s all about style. You can add or subject ease from the style to make the garment look the way you want it to look on you,  but you can’t take away wearing ease in a woven garment. In a garment designed for knits, sometimes some of the ease comes from the stretch in the fabric. Because the finished garment measurements of a knit garment can be smaller than a person’s body measurements, it’s not possible to make a woven garment from a pattern designed for knits. You can make a knit garment from a pattern designed for wovens, but you might want to size down to get the right amount of design ease.

A Fabric Has “Hand”, “Drape”, and “Weight”

This is the hardest part of buying fabric online, but it’s pretty easy to figure out when you’re shopping in a brick and mortar store.

Patterns will usually tell you what weight fabric the pattern works best for. It will stipulate whether you’re looking for a heavyweight, mid-weight, or lightweight fabric. When you’re shopping online, the description might use those words or it might tell you how much a yard of the fabric weighs. Fabrics like denim and polar fleece come in lots of different weights.

The hand of a fabric means just what it sounds like. What does the fabric feel like in your hand? Does it feel soft to the touch, a little scratchy? The hand of a fabric might help you decide how close to your skin  you would like to wear it. Will it be a jacket or a blouse?

A fabric’s drape will determine how closely it will fall from your body. You can see how much drape a fabric has by laying it out flat. then pick it up and see how  its shape changes or stays the same. A fabric that holds its shape has little or no drape. Fabric that hangs in soft folds has a lot of drape. Structured garments like suit style jackets or A-line dresses and skirts look best made from fabric with little drape. Flirty skirts, pants with elastic waists look best made from fabrics with good drape.

Solids vs. Prints, Stripes, and Plaids

For the purpose of matching a fabric to a pattern, a small print and a solid color are interchangeable and can be used to make any pattern you like. For a professionally made look to your garment, you should always match your stripes and plaids. The fewer seams your pattern has the easier it is to match them. You can add interest to your garment by cutting the stripes or plaids going in different directions for pieces like collars, cuffs, and pockets. It also means less matching. Some patterns will say they are not suitable for stripes and plaid or diagonal prints. That means you will not be able to match them. Large prints present their own problems. Be sure to buy some extra fabric so you can do some strategic planning when you cut so you don’t end up with an “unfortunate” placement of the print on your body.

Fiber Content

It might seem strange that I left content for last, but most fibers can be woven or knit into many different weights of fabric with very different drape and hand. Silk and polyester charmeuse have more in common when it comes to choosing a pattern for them than silk charmeuse and raw silk have. Both the silk and the polyester charmeuse have a soft drape, a smooth hand, and are similar in weight. Either would make a lovely blouse. Raw silk, on the other hand, has a rough hand, more weight, and little drape. It would not make a blouse, but would be a nice choice for a suit. When choosing fiber content, the important considerations are fabric care, breathability, and cost.  Silk, wool, cotton, linen, and rayon are all natural fibers and will never go out of style. While polyester used to be kind of icky, newer polyesters are quite lovely to sew and to wear. I always let my fingers guide my choice.






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