Oh, how I love to sew! Through a lot of sewing over the years – everything from duffle bags to bras to my wedding dress – I have realized how important finding the right fabric is. And believe me, there are SO many types of fabric. So, where do you begin?
So, you want to get started sewing?
You have your machine, a pattern picked out, and all that is left is to pick out the perfect fabric.
Time to head on over to your nearest fabric store, one of the greatest places on earth. After walking through the door, it hits you – complete overwhelm.
There are large print patterns, soft fabrics, heavy fabrics, and everything in between.
You discover names like cotton, silk, wool, polyester …
How do you know what type of fabric to get for your sewing project, especially if you are making something to wear?
I’ve learned a lot about what fabrics work and which ones don’t for certain projects throughout the years. And finding the right fabric is key to a successful sewing project.
So, let’s dive into choosing a fabric, specifically for clothing!
Types of Fabric: Natural vs. Synthetic Fibers
At a very basic level, fabrics fall into two categories: natural fiber or synthetic fiber. Of course, there can be fabrics that are blends of the two – which we will get to later.
Just as you would assume, natural fibers are created from plants, animals, or minerals. Whereas, synthetic fibers are made artificially through various processes.
Some examples of natural fiber fabric include cotton, silk, wool, and linen.
Synthetic fiber fabrics include polyester, spandex, and rayon.
Every fabric, whether made with natural or synthetic fibers, has its pros and cons. In general, I try to stick to natural fibers for everyday wear, if I can. They just feel better to me! But you can decide what you prefer to wear.
For now, let’s talk about some of the most common fabrics used for sewing garments – one of my favorite things to make!
Types of Fabric: Woven vs. Knitted Fabrics
Another key difference between kinds of fabric is whether it was woven or knitted.
Take a look at your t-shirt: if you look closely, you’ll see how the horizontal threads of the fabric are actually looped around each other, forming very tiny V-shapes in vertical columns.
That is knitted fabric. (Think like a sweater but very, very tiny!)
Woven fabric, on the other hand, is made of overlapping threads going perpendicular to each other (the warp and weft, as they say in the manufacture of woven textiles).
If you’re wearing jeans, they are most likely woven. The threads going vertically and the threads going horizontally are different, and go over and under each other in a pattern to make the fabric.
What Should I Use for My Project?
Let’s explore the primary kinds of fabric and their best uses!
A Word of Caution: Quilting Cottons
Quilting cottons are those wonderful, super bright, colorful fabrics that you see right when you walk in the fabric store.
This fabric tends to have small scale patterns on them.
Now, I love many of these beautiful patterns, and I have sewn with this fabric before.
So, why the warning?
Quilting cottons are 100% cotton and of a medium weight, and are not well suited to making clothing.
If you are making something that is not a garment and won’t be washed often, like pillow cases, a makeup bag, or (obviously) a quilt, quilting cotton may be okay.
The trouble is that quilting cotton is very stiff and doesn’t drape well, even after washing. It will also be VERY wrinkly after washing and will require a LOT of ironing.
Of course, I have made clothes with quilting cotton before. I have very fond memories of one dress I made that had masquerade masks on it.
You CAN work with it if you have to. But it’s not the best for clothing.
So, my advice is to start with a fashion fabric that’s designed for clothing, especially if that’s what you want to make.
Natural Fibers: Cotton and Cotton Blends
There is a place for 100% pure cotton. But cotton blends can be a solid choice for clothes thanks to their increased durability and soft-to-the-touch feel. A bit of polyester or spandex will give your garment better drape and cut down a LOT on ironing.
Available in weights from light duty to heavy weight, denim is a great choice for jeans, tote bags, jackets.
This woven fabric is available in 100% cotton as well as cotton blends to add some spandex for durability and stretch.
Readily available for a multitude of projects, jersey is a good option for all kinds of garments.
The purer the cotton blend, the stiffer and more durable your jersey will be. For a more drapey effect on dresses, skirts, and blouses, pick a jersey with some spandex or rayon in it.
Watch out for see-through-ability though! High stretch factor can make jersey extremely transparent.
Cotton poplin is a wonderful woven fabric for dresses and skirts, as it keeps it’s structure well when pleated but is not too fussy to need lots of ironing.
The light shine to the fabric can also make poplin feel a bit fancier for projects that could be worn day or night.
Ginghams and Calicos
These woven fabrics are extremely popular fabrics for clothing and housewares.
Ginghams are that checked fabric you’ve most likely seen before, and are made with alternately white and colored stripes on the warp (vertical) threads crossing with white and colored stripes on the weft (horizontal) threads.
Calicos are also woven, but the usually floral pattern is printed onto the fabric.
Both are widely available in cottons and cotton blends of various mixes, and are wonderful for all kinds of garments.
Natural Fibers: Silks, Linens, and Wools
The Luxury of Silk
Whether or not you are new to sewing, you’ve probably heard of silk.
Silk is a natural fiber like cotton, except it is made from a worm instead of a plant. Pretty cool, huh?
Silk is going to be a more expensive fabric choice, and it does require some special laundering.
This makes it great for special occasion items, but can be difficult to care for for regular wear.
The only garment I willingly took the silk plunge on was my wedding dress. I used silk charmeuse for the outer dress, and it was absolutely luxurious. But it was definitely a challenge.
Linen is an extremely common fabric, made from the flax plant. This fabric is typically woven and 100% linen.
It’s great for breathable clothing, as well as tablecloths, napkins and bedsheets (that’s why we call them our bed linens, even when they’re made of cotton!)
There are LOTS of varieties of wool, so choose your wool based on the weight, the feel, and, of course, the price!
Coming in on the “semi-manufactured” end of the spectrum, Viscose is considered partially man-made. Wood pulp doesn’t usually become fabric, but when treated chemically, the resulting fabric is drapey and surprisingly soft.
In the US, you’ll most likely find viscose called rayon.
Hello, athlesiure! Spandex is that stretchy material that gives so much of our clothing today the give that makes it comfortable.
You may have heard it called Lycra or Elastane, but what ever you call it, in it’s pure form, this fabric is good for work out clothes and bathing suits.
Polyester is a big of a generic term for any fabric made using synthetic fibers. It’s derived from petroleum products, so bear that in mind if environmental impact is a big consideration for you.
It’s also notoriously non-breathable, so this material is not recommended for hot, sweaty days.
Some fleeces are available in cotton forms, (like in your favorite snuggly hoodie).
But most fleeces are man-made from petroleum products. These are extremely insulating fabrics and are very good for keeping warm when outdoors. Fleece is a popular choice for cold-weather clothing and outdoor performance gear.
Want to Learn More About Fabrics (and Sewing)?
Now, this blog is not even close to an exhaustive list of types of fabric. I’ve mainly hit the highlights.
If you are looking to dive more into the wonderful world of sewing and types of fabric, you may be a perfect fit for my new course – Sewing for Beginners: Everything You Need to Get Started Sewing!
If you’ve been around for awhile, you’ve probably noticed I have a love for sewing. I sewed my own wedding dress, for goodness sake!
It all started when I was in college and taught myself how to sew. It was one of my first forays into self-sufficiency.
And I want to help others learn to sew and see how enjoyable it can be!
In the course, you’ll learn how to pick your machine, find your fabrics (think this blog, but turned up a thousand notches!), and get to sewing beautiful finished products you’ll be proud to wear and display.
Like this “perfect for sipping sweet tea on the front porch” dress that we will be making together!
(Don’t worry if you don’t like it … this is just what I’ll be making as an example. But how could you not love it?!)
I am sew excited for this course. I love to sew, and I hope I can inspire you to love to sew, too!
Ready to get sewing? Click here to join now!