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A small guide to fabric basics

Let’s talk a little bit about fabric basics. Getting to know the way they’re made and their properties can really help you choosing the best fabric for your projects.

First of all, the two broadest fabric categories are wovens and knits.

Woven fabrics are made of a series of threads (yarns) running vertically (lengthwise) within the fabric and creating what is called the warp. Then you also have threads running horizontally back and forth going under and over each of the warp thread and creating the weft. Based on the kind of yarn used, we can have a wide range of different wovens with different textures and weights. For an overview of all different types of fabric, their features and how to use them you can have a look at this post.

Knit fabrics are made with one yard creating a series of intersecting loops going back and forth within the fabric. This is what makes knits stretchy, in contrast to wovens that are typically much more structured.

So the question now is: woven or knits? Well, of course the answer is it depends. First, you have to look at what your pattern instructions say. Typically patterns are made either for wovens or knits (even if in some cases they are suitable for both). The reason is simple: patterns designed for knits take into account the amount of “give” that a knit fabric has, so they will have less, none or even negative ease for very fitted garments. On the other hand, patterns made for wovens account for both the size of your body and a certain amount of ease to add in order for you to be able to move and breath! So, if you used a knit pattern for a woven fabric you might not be able to wear it as it’s just too tight. Similarly, if you matched a knit with a pattern made for wovens you might end up with a garment that is way too loose for your body. Of course, there’s lot of middle ground in that. Perhaps your knit pattern has a looser fit, so you might succeed in using a woven. Just use your best judgement and have a look at the final garment measurements on your pattern to check the amount of ease included by the designer.

Woven and knit fabrics also require slightly different approaches when sewing a project. People tend to think that knits are actually much more difficult to handle and sew than wovens. In my experience that’s actually not true: it, of course, depends on the kind of fabric. For example, most cotton jerseys are just lovely to work with, they are quite stable and easy to cut and they don’t fray at all, so you don’t even have to worry about finishing your seams if you don’t want to! Moreover, it is absolutely wrong to think that for sewing knits you need a serger. You can actually make beautiful knit garments using your standard sewing machine. You just need some extra care on how to handle knits, such as the best needle or the most suitable stitch types.

So… now that you know a few tips on how to distinguish wovens from knits and that you’re confident you can actually tackle any project, go to the fabric shop and have fun!

Just one more tip before you go… another thing you really want to know about fabrics is what the grainline is and how to recognise it. As a sewist, you hear a lot about grainlines and you always see them marked on your sewing patterns but usually you never get to really understand what they’re for until you use them the wrong way! The grainline defines the way you have to lay your pattern on the fabric in order to cut it. But why do we have to take care of that? We said textiles are made of warp (vertical) and weft (horizontal) threads. Because of the way they are twisted together, the warp thread is always more resistant and it doesn’t stretch as much as the weft thread. This gives all woven fabrics somehow a preferential direction to work with. The straight grain is the direction that goes with the less stretchy side, i.e. the warp, whereas the cross-grain runs parallel to it. An easy way to recognise the straight grain is by looking at the selvedge, i.e. the self-finished side of the fabric which runs parallel to the warp. In knits you can easily recognise the straight grain as the side with less stretch.

Grainlines are typically marked on patterns as double-arrows. In order to correctly place the pattern properly onto the fabric, you need to make sure the grainline is parallel to the selvedge. If your pattern piece says something like “cut on the fold”, then the grainline coincides with the fold line. In this case, fold the fabric lengthwise with the two selvedges matching and place the piece exactly on the fold.

Choosing the grainline for each garment piece is part of a designer’s work and strongly affects the way the finished garment lays on your body. For instance, you don’t want your skirt to stretch out of shape lengthwise but you do want it to have some give at your hips for you to be able to seat! So, typically the grainline is chosen based on how much a garment piece has to hold its original shape and how much strength it has to have. Sometimes grainlines are also moved around as a design choice to achieve a particular style. An example are garments cut on the bias grain, i.e. at an angle of 45 degrees with respect to the straight grain. The bias grain is the most stretchy grain in wovens, so cutting something on the bias gives it the chance to be more flexible. A typical example are bias cut skirts in which the bias grain creates those nice and flattering waves.

So… I think that’s pretty much all I have to say about fabric basics and pattern grainlines! If you want to know more you can have a look at Sandra Betzina’s article, an easy-to-follow guideline on cutting out fabric.

If you liked this post and you want to say a word or share something you know about fabrics, drop a line in the comments below, I’ll be happy to hear what you think! Oh, and of course stay tuned for my future posts on understanding and using your favourite sewing patterns!

Ciao ciao!

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