Home » Sewing Techniques » Fabrics and threads

Fabrics and threads

In this section I have listed fabrics (and other materials) used to create the samples in the book, as well as many others that are of particular interest for fabric manipulation. For my samples, I have used fabrics that are mostly easy to use and visually clear, and generally I find natural fabrics preferable to synthetics.

wool-fabrics-include-thick-wool-felt-fine-suiting-or-sateen-and-wool-melton-often-used-for-coats

Wool fabrics include thick wool felt, fine suiting or sateen and wool Melton often used for coats.

Fabrics: natural or synthetic?

My preference for natural materials is partly ecological, partly practical. Silk, wool and cotton behave in a more predictable way; they shape with heat and steam, they hold a crease, they iron flat most of the time. Synthetics are often harder to sew; they may be slippery and often don’t hold a crease, which is why they are so popular for garment making.

There are some synthetics that work well with particular techniques and I have mentioned these below. Synthetics can often be ‘set’ by steam which is an exciting technique: try gathering or smocking a polyester fabric then steaming thoroughly; remove the stitching and the puckered shapes should hold. (Similar effects can be achieved with wool if stitched then felted.)

Your own experimentation will uncover many more variations on the techniques, using radically different fabrics, or substituting a synthetic fabric for my natural one. You will discover that many of the techniques will come out completely differently, worked on fine silk chiffon compared to thick wool tweed, for example.

There are hundreds of types of fabrics with specific names based on their yarn, construction or finishing technique. Some fabrics have different names in different parts of the world to add to the confusion.

Many fabric names (such as satin or velvet) refer to the production technique not the fibre, which can lead to confusion in fabric purchasing, where a synthetic (polyester satin) may be confused with a natural silk (satin).

Wool

For me, wool is the best fibre in the world. It can be as soft as cashmere or as coarse as carpet wool, with many grades in between.

Lightweight wools and light suit-weight wools : From vintage Viyella to fine wool Melton (a woven wool with a fine felted surface, which frays very little but hangs beautifully), there are some beautiful fabrics to work with, including English worsted or wool sateen fabrics. All of these will take a crease well and would be suitable for many Pleat & Fold techniques.

Wool crepe : This is a very fine fabric, particularly that made from merino sheep. It drapes well and is particularly suited to Stitch & Gather techniques.

Felt : Most commercial craft felt is actually made from acrylic or recycled polyester rather than wool. Better quality wool is now being produced with about 70 per cent wool combined with acrylic or viscose and it is this that I prefer to use. Wool Melton also acts like fine felt and can be felted even more by washing to produce a denser fabric if required. Boiled wool: Sold by the metre/yard, this is usually knitted wool fabric, which has then been shrunk or felted. It can be used in the same way as felted jumpers.

silk-fabrics-from-top

Silk fabrics from top : dupion, habotai, chiffon, light dupion, silk/viscose velvet, taffeta, satin, crepe, and dupion.

Silk

Silk is probably the best fabric for use in most of the manipulations in this book, as it is so versatile and beautiful. Some of my favourite types of silk are listed below. Silk saris, vintage or new, can be a good source for fine quality silk fabric, but beware as many are actually synthetic.

Silk organza : This is a very finely spun silk woven into a gauze-like cloth, which is quite transparent. It holds a crease perfectly, it is very resistant to heat and its natural stiffness lends it to manipulations such as Box Pleating. Its transparency and limited fraying (particularly in the finer versions of the fabric) make it ideal for Shadow Work. Silk organza should not be confused with synthetic organza, which is a very different thing. Coarse organza makes a good pressing cloth.

Silk dupion/dupioni : Dupion silk is woven with fine silk in the warps and slubby silk in the weft to create a slightly lumpy, raw-looking fabric. It is popular for wedding and evening gowns because it is quite crisp and holds a shape, making it ideal for manipulations. Its crispness is partly due to fabric finishing treatments and these can be washed out to create a softer fabric that still has the crease-holding properties but less of the stiffness. As dupion frays very badly, it is not ideal for raw-edge applications, but works well bias-cut.

Satin : The term satin refers to a weave, which produces a diagonal or twill effect on the front face (similar to denim). Silk satin comes in a variety of weights with Duchesse being one of the heavier. A light silk satin is ideal for many of the gathered manipulations (see Stitch & Gather), while satin weave fabrics are ideal for techniques that rely on the play of light on the fabric’s surface, such as Trapunto.

Silk crepe : This is another weave that is available in many different fibres, with polyester being the most common. Like wool crepe, silk crepe is a luxury fabric that has a beautiful drape and is ideal for gathered manipulations (see Stitch & Gather).

Silk velvet : Most commercially-available silk velvet is usually a combination of silk and viscose. Viscose is an engineered natural fibre that shares many characteristics with linen and silk, particularly in terms of drape. Silk/viscose velvet is a fine fabric that works well for Stitch & Gather techniques.

Chiffon : Available in silk or synthetic versions. Silk chiffon is expensive and troublesome to use in garments, but works well in manipulations where its transparency and light weight can be put to good use.

Habotai : This usually refers to a lightweight opaque silk, commonly used for linings or for silk painting. Habotai is one of the less expensive types of silk and it is a staple in my fabric stash. It takes a crease, is not too slippery, and works well in gathering techniques (see Stitch & Gather).

Taffeta : Silk taffeta is a crisp, stiff fabric, much copied in synthetics although originally made in silk. Silk taffeta is often ‘shot’, which means the warp and weft threads are different colours, making the fabric look different depending on how the light hits it (in the 19th century this was known as ‘changeable’). Synthetic taffeta is a good alternative to silk taffeta in many situations, and I like to use vintage rayon taffeta from the 1940s and 1950s for crisp, pleated manipulations or for smocking.

Silk ribbon : Pure silk ribbon is hard to buy (I often have to buy vintage if I want one more than a few centimetres wide) but it gathers and drapes much more effectively than synthetic ribbon.

Plant-based fabrics

The main plant fabrics are cotton and linen although bamboo, hemp, ramie and other bast fibres are becoming more common, and viscose is just one of a range of engineered natural fibres.

Linen : This comes in a range of weights, from lightweight to very heavy. It has a natural stiffness to it, which can easily be enhanced with starch. It takes creases well for Pleat & Fold techniques, and when pre-washed it softens up making it ideal for Stitch & Gather techniques. Linen frays considerably, even when cut on the bias, which makes it ideal for a fluffy Stitch and Slash technique.

Handkerchief linen : This is very fine, lightweight linen that works well for smocking and pleating, although it is at risk of crushing making it difficult to use in American Smocking or any technique with a 3D effect.

Cotton : Like linen, cotton comes in a range of weights. Plain weave, medium-weight shirting cotton or light quilting cotton is my favourite type of cotton, and best of all is organic cottons, which will have no finishing or stiffening treatments added. Fabrics such as these take a crease effortlessly but also drape and gather well. Many finely spun and woven cottons will not fray excessively, and one of the finest cottons readily available is cotton lawn, made popular by Liberty, but also widely available in plain colours.

Cotton organdie : This is generally a fairly coarse weave using stiff threads, and the fabric is also stiffened after weaving. It is very crisp making it good for structured pleats and 3D shaping.

Cotton sateen : This is a twill weave (see Satin), which has a soft sheen and a smooth surface. It is a great all-round fabric in place of silk satin.

Bamboo : This is available in a range of weaves and knits. It can be extremely soft and is good for Stitch & Gather manipulations. Calico and muslin: These cheap fabrics are great for experimentation. Calico is generally quite stiff although it will soften with washing and handling. It is ideal for Pleat & Fold techniques as well as Stitch & Gather techniques once softened. Muslin is loose-weave cotton that drapes well, making it effective for Stitch & Gather techniques. Finer quality versions of muslin are also available, such as voile.

Hemp : This is a good alternative to linen and it is available in a range of weights; hemp-silk mixes are beautiful fabrics.

Cotton jersey : Knitted fabrics for clothing are made in a range of fibres including polycotton, wool, viscose and synthetics to the less-common silk. Jersey is a great fabric to use for hand-stitched Stitch & Gather manipulations, but machine sewing can be more difficult as the fabric can stretch.

Cotton velvet : This has a shorter pile than silk velvet, but it should not be confused with thick, synthetic-mix upholstery velvet, which is very hard to manipulate. Cotton velvet drapes well and is ideally suited to many Stitch & Gather techniques, as long as you work with large pieces and keep stitches large to create big gathers – it will bunch up unattractively if you try to use small stitches.

a-selection-of-plant-fibres

A selection of plant fibres including linen, lawn, flannel, velvet, muslin, bamboo, organic cotton and organdie.

Other fabrics

Fleece : Polyester fleece is an interesting fabric to experiment with. Compared to what is available in the shops, buying old garments yields a greater variety of thicknesses and qualities.

Net and tulle : Cheap netting is usually nylon and its inherent stiffness can be useful in many applications. Tulle usually refers to a finer version that is less stiff and more drapey, although still usually synthetic. Silk tulle is the finest of all, but it can be expensive and difficult to buy; it can be found more cheaply in the form of damaged vintage wedding veils.

Leather and suede : Fake animal skins look very much like leather but do not behave in the same way, and often have the problem of synthetic slipperiness. The finest suedes and leathers can be manipulated with great success, particularly for gathering and smocking techniques (see Stitch & Gather). If ethics or price are a concern, look for old suede skirts, which can yield a large amount of good fabric.

Polycotton : This is generally the cheapest and most readily available fabric around. While is it hopeless for anything requiring a crisp finish and a fold, it is great for Stitch & Gather techniques. As with all fabrics, there are different qualities; a heavier, more expensive polycotton made with good cotton will be best to work with.

Rayon : I like to use vintage fabrics and find that vintage rayon is a good place to start. It comes in matt crepe, satin and taffeta weaves and generally holds a crease well (as a consequence it can be hard to iron). The satin version is good for Stitch & Gather techniques.

from-top

From top : vintage rayon shot taffeta, polyester crepe, polycotton gingham, polyester chiffon, polyester satin, nylon tulle, viscose, vintage rayon satin, and acrylic felt.

Threads

Sewing threads

I prefer to use good quality pure cotton general sewing thread as I like the thickness and the matt surface of the thread. Cheap threads should be avoided as they will be poor quality and liable to snap and snarl up in the sewing machine. In addition, there are a few other threads that will come in useful.

Polyester thread : This is vital when the stitching is under a lot of strain such as tightly pulled gathering. Polyester thread is generally finer than cotton and has more sheen. It should always be used with real leather and for anything with stretch. Avoid poor-quality cheap threads. Silk threads: Available for hand and machine sewing, these are ideal for use when the stitching shows on a silk fabric as it should disappear into the surface.

Quilting thread : Specially spun threads for machine and hand quilting have a high twist and are less likely to fray and tangle. They are excellent for any hand sewing where you are working with very long lengths of thread.

Embroidery threads

Both natural and synthetic embroidery threads are available, with natural threads being more matt and synthetics more shiny, on the whole. Silk and rayon are the most common fibres used for embroidery threads after cotton, although you can also buy wool as either a fine crewel thread or chunky tapestry wool. Two popular types of embroidery threads are :

Stranded cotton (floss) : This is made of six threads loosely twisted together, and you can separate the strands and use as many threads as you like.

Cotton perle : This is a twisted thread not suitable for separating. It is less likely to go fluffy than stranded cotton (floss), so it is ideal for Direct and English Smocking where the thread is visible.

a-selection-of-the-sewing-threads-i-used-regularly

A selection of the sewing threads I used regularly.

Stuffing and wadding (batting)

Techniques such as Trapunto require a stuffing material. The choice of stuffing depends on the finished use of the project. Where an item will need to be laundered, a polyester toy stuffing is the best to use. For the finest details wool stuffing, ideally merino, which is very fine and readily available for needle felting, is better. Other natural and engineered stuffings are available too, such as lyocell and cotton wadding. Quilt wadding is available in a huge range of fibres and different weights. The cheapest is polyester and thinner cotton wadding is becoming more common. Wool, silk, bamboo and recycled polyester are just some of the newer waddings that are now available. Some waddings also have heat-activated glue on the surface for ease of layering quilts together.

Ribbon

Most commercially-available ribbon is made from polyester although some rayon and blends are available. Satin ribbon that is shiny on one side only is the best for pleating techniques, while double-side (double-faced) satin is hard to get to hold a crease. Pure silk ribbon is great for pleating although wide ribbon is hard to source. For more details on sourcing, see Suppliers. Vintage ribbon often provides a good alternative. I use a lot of vintage rayon grosgrain for pleating techniques as it is often quite stiff, holding a crease well, and it is quite easy to buy. Modern cotton or synthetic grosgrain is also good, but you may struggle to get it to hold a crease. Every ribbon is different so experimentation is vital. Gathering techniques require a soft, draping ribbon, which can be hard to source. Vintage rayon or taffeta ribbon is good, as are the top quality modern ribbons from specialist suppliers.

vintage-ricrac-ribbon-and-haberdashery-from-my-collection

Vintage ricrac, ribbon and haberdashery from my collection.

Fabric Manipulation
150 CREATIVE Sewing Techniques

Ruth Singer