Fabric know-how

Fabric know-how: sewing tips for cottons, silks, wools and linens

Fabric know-how
What am I going to learn?

In this section we’re going to build up our fabric know-how: from the main features of cottons, silks, wools and linens to details on pre-shrinking, needle & thread, seam finishing and what to use them for. Each fabric type is classified based on the weight: from light to heavy. You’re gonna be so proud next time you walk in a fabric store!

Fabrics, fabrics, fabrics: that’s where it all begins and it all ends! So, let’s try to explore what are the options and what’s the best use for each of them.

In this post, I’m gonna talk about natural fibers (cotton, silk, wool and linen), but there’s so many types of fabrics available today! Some are artificially made to achieve specific features or to recreate the look of costy textiles at a much more affordable price. Viscose (or rayon) is still natural as it comes from organic fibres, but you also commonly find completely synthetic fibres such as polyester, nylon and spandex (to make a fabric a bit more stretchy).

For natural fibres, you can find information below organised into three categories based on the weight: lightweight, medium and heavyweight. You’ll see some examples of fabrics belonging to each category, tips on the best choice for needle and thread, finishing and pre-shrinking. You’ll also find some suggestion on the most suitable projects for each fabric type.

Is cotton batiste suitable for a pair of trousers? How would you finish your jacket made in a boiled wool fabric? What needle and thread do you have to use for linens or silks?

Did you ever ask yourself such questions? Read on and you’re gonna find out about all that and much more!

A few things to know…

Before to go, I’d like to tell you a few things about needle type and pre-shrinking. First of all, machine needles are classified based on different features but the most important ones to remember are width and type. The most common needles (typically provided with the sewing machine) are universal ones. Although one may think this means they’re suitable for any project, this isn’t true at all! They work for most projects but it’s best to pick the type which is suitable for the fabric you’re using (e.g. microtex, stretch, denim, etc.). The tips on needle and thread you find below are just general suggestions, you’ll see that, as you become an experienced seamstress, you’re gonna be able to easily judge what’s the best choice for your project!

As for pre-shrinking, I’ll be quick: never underestimate it! The most common consequence of washing fabrics is that they shrink, but the way they react to water actually changes and might also affect texture, softness and colour. So, keep that in mind and, if you’re not sure, do a test on a fabric scrap before to proceed. Unless you’re planning to dry clean your finished garment, always do pre-shrinking the way it is suitable for the fabric.

To conclude…

I hope you’ll find this guide useful. When we are about to start a new project is normal to have some doubts on how to treat the fabric. Also, I do know how annoying it is to browse pages and pages looking for some useful info online. That’s why I decided to create this page, including everything one may find useful about cottons, silks, linens or wool fabrics. So, if you have any doubt, come back here anytime and have a quick look at your fabric features before to proceed!

COTTONS

Cotton is a vegetable fiber coming from the seeds of the cotton plant. Cotton textiles are very breathable making a perfect fabric for apparel. Cotton yarns are either used for woven or knit fabrics and come into a large number of different blends: from silk to polyester.

Lightweight cottons

Lightweight cottons


Lightweight cottons are soft and fine fabrics. Examples are cotton batiste (opaque, thin fabric), cotton voile (sheer fabric), shirting cotton and cotton lawn, such as the famous Liberty of London floral prints. Cotton lawn is made using fine yarns resulting in a silky, untextured feel.

Polyester thread

The ideal thread is pretty much the same weight as the fabric. You can use fine polyester thread or fine (machine-embroidery) cotton thread.

schmetz 65/9

For this fabric use a fine 65/9 universal needle.

Lightweight cottons are ideal for blouses and shirts. They also make great underlining fabric: for example you can use cotton batiste to underline a pair of summer trousers in a lightweight fabric to give it some more body.

With such lightweight fabrics a french seam finish is gonna be perfect to enclose raw edges and give your garment a professional look!

Shirttail hem works great as a hem finish.

Pre-shrinking

Treat your fabric just the way you’re planning to treat your final garment.

Mediumweight cottons

Mediumweight cottons


The most common example of mediumweight cottons are quilting cottons, designed for quilting and available in a wide variety of lovely prints. Other examples are cotton flannel (with a brushed look), cotton piqué (with its diamond patterning) and cotton chambray (a 2-ply cotton similar to denim but lighter). Cotton sateen is produced in weights ranging from light to medium and is an extremely soft, smooth and slightly shiny cotton.

Cotton and polyester thread

Cotton thread or all-purpose polyester thread work perfectly for this mediumweight fabric.

schmetz 80/12

For this fabric use an 80/12 universal needle.

Mediumweight cottons work for a large variety of garments as well as other projects. You can make skirts, dresses, light jackets and some tops with a looser fit. You can also style your hand-made PJ‘s in a cozy cotton flannel!

Quilting cottons are obviously perfect for quilting but they may also work for some apparel. You can use them for accessories (such as bags) and for many small craft ideas. They also make lovely bias bindings!

Mediumweight cottons can be finished by serging or zig-zagging your seams together and then pressing them on one side (even if sometimes I finish them separately and press them open, for example when I have to install a zipper). As an alternative, you can use a clean finish. For a very professional look, you can also use flat-felled seams on sporty garments.

Hem with a standard double-fold hem.

Pre-shrinking

Treat your fabric just the way you’re planning to treat your final garment.

Heavyweight cottons

Heavyweight cottons


Heavyweight cottons are a sturdy, structured fabric. The most common example is denim, famous for jeans and sportwear. Other examples are cotton twill (with a patterned weave of diagonal parallel ribs), cotton velveteen, corduroy (with a patterned weave of vertical ribs) and cotton canvas.

Thread for topstitching

Use cotton thread or all-purpose polyester thread. For cotton canvas, use upholstery thread for topstitching.

schmetz 100/16 denim

For this fabric you want to use thicker needles: from 90/14 to 100/16 for denim and cotton canvas.

Heavyweight cottons are suited for jackets, trousers, some narrower skirts such as pencil skirts and any other structured garment. They also work great for home furnishing and bags.

For finishing heavyweight cottons you can either use flat-felled seams or serge/zig-zag and press open.

For hemming, shirttail hems are an option as well as single-fold hem after finishing the raw edge by serging or zig-zagging.

Iron steam and launder

For denim fabric pre-shrink a couple of times in hot water as it tends to shrink gradually the first few times it is laundered.

If you’re making a jacket or a garment that you’ll never going to launder, you can just lay the fabric in a double thickness on a table and go over it with some good iron steam.

Generally, you can pre-shrink heavyweight cottons as you are planning to treat your finished garment.

SILKS

Silk is a natural fiber produced by several insects but the one woven into textiles generally comes from a caterpillar: the silkworm. Its cocoons are dissolved in boiling water for extracting the fibers which are then used to produce the silk yarn. Silk has a smooth, soft texture and it’s great for any season: it has great absorbency for warm days as well as low conductivity so that warm hair is kept close to the skin when outside it’s cold!

Lightweight silk

Lightweight silk

Lightweight silks are typically drapey an sheer. Some examples are silk chiffon (very lightweight and drapey) and silk georgette (slightly heavier than chiffon). Silk organza is also a lightweight and sheer silk but it is much stiffer than the others.

Polyester thread

For this fine fabric use fine polyester thread or machine embroidery cotton thread.

schmetz 65/9

For this fabric use fine 60/8 or 65/9 universal needles.

Lightweight silks are typically used for evening wear. Silk georgette is a bit easier to work with compared to silk chiffon as it is not as slippery: multiple layers tend to stick together making it easier to cut. Silk organza can be used on garments when paired with other fabrics, but it also makes a perfect pressing cloth and a very good sew-in interfacing.

With such lightweight fabrics a french seam finish is gonna be perfect to enclose raw edges and give your garment a professional look!

A shirttail hem or a rolled baby hem are great options for hem finishing.

Always hand-wash silks in a basin with some suitable delicate soap. You can pre-shrink silk organza to make it softer.

Mediumweight silk

Mediumweight silk


These silks can come in different weights depending on the ply number used in their production. The ply is simply the number of threads used for the weft and affects both the thickness and the smoothness of the fabric.

Common mediuweight silks are 2, 3 or 4-ply. The higher the number, the thicker and less smooth is the silk. Examples of thinner silks are 2-ply crêpe de chine (thin, very drapey and with a matte surface) and silk charmeuse (with a shiny side and a dull side). Crêpe de chine also comes in 3 and 4-ply versions. 4-ply silk satin is as thick as crêpe de chine but with a shiny side.

cotton thread

For this fabric you can use polyester thread, machine embroidery thread or cotton thread.

schmetz microtex

Use 70/10 microtex needle or 70/10 denim needle. Use thin silk needles or embroidery needles for hand-sewing.

Thinner silks, such as the 2-ply crêpe de chine or silk charmeuse, are perfect for blouses and other drapey garments. 3-ply silks are good for trousers whereas you may want to use 4-ply ones for jackets.

French seams are always a great choice for light to mediumweight silks.

For hem finishing you can either use a shirttail hem or a rolled baby hem.

Pre-shrink these silks preferably by hand. You may also lauder thicker (4-ply) silks but always do a test on some scrap fabric as you may end up with unpleasant surprises!

Heavyweight silk

Heavyweight silk

These are thicker and stiffer silks. An example is silk shantung, a raw fabric where you can see little knobs of thicker and thinner yarns that move into the fabric. A very similar fabric is silk dupioni, which is actually wilder than shantung so knobs are much more visible. Another example of heavyweight silk is taffeta, similar to shantung in weight but much smoother. All these variants of silks are iridescent.

cotton thread

For this fabric you can use fine polyester thread, fine machine embroidery thread or cotton thread.

schmetz microtex

Use 70/10 microtex needle or 70/10 denim needle.

These thicker silks make beautiful evening wear and are perfect for dressier occasions. As they are much less drapey compared to the other silks, they work great for garments where you want some more (but not too much) structure, such as pleated skirts on 1950s vintage dresses.

For these silks you can either use french seams or play around with some fancy couture finishes such as the hong kong finish. Clean finishes also work great.

For hem finishing you can either use a shirttail hem or a rolled baby hem. Another great option for dressier occasions is to have a large hem made with a hem facing.

Dry clean

It is better to always dry-clean these fabrics as they can change texture and colour and they may also loose their shine when laudering.

LINENS

Linen is another vegetable fiber coming from the flax plant. Its absorbency makes it perfect for hot days. Linen fabric feels smooth and gets softer the more it is washed. It is also very durable and has very low elasticity, which is why it wrinkles so easily.

Lightweight linen

Lightweight linen


Polyester thread

For this fabric use polyester thread or fine machine embroidery cotton thread.

schmetz 70/10 denim

For this fabric use 70/10 denim needle.

Lightweight linens are typically see-through. Use them for blouses and other drapey garments.

With such lightweight fabrics a french seam finish is gonna be perfect to enclose raw edges and give your garment a professional look!

A shirttail hem is a great option for hem finishing.

Pre-shrinking

Pre-shrink linens in hot water twice before using them, as they gradually shrink within the first few washes.

Mediumweight linen

Mediumweight linen

Polyester thread

For this fabric you can use all-purpose polyester thread.

schmetz 80/12

For this fabric you can use an 80/12 universal needle.

Mediumweight linens work great for summer pants and light jackets.

French seams are always a great choice for these linens.

For hem finishing you can use a shirttail hem or a double-fold hem.

Pre-shrinking

Pre-shrink linens in hot water twice before using them, as they gradually shrink within the first few washes.

Heavyweight linen

Heavyweight linen

Thread for topstitching

For this fabric you can use regular all-purpose polyester thread on the botton paired with upholstery thread on top.

schmetz 100/16 denim

For this fabric you may want to use 100/16 denim needle.

These thicker linens are great for home furnishing projects. In some cases, they can be used for tailored jackets. Avoid looser styles as the fabric is too thick and rigid.

For finishing heavyweight linens in garments you can either use flat-felled seams or serge/zig-zag and press open.

For hemming, you can single-fold hem after finishing the raw edge by serging or zig-zagging.

Pre-shrinking

Pre-shrink linens in hot water twice before using them, as they gradually shrink within the first few washes.

WOOLS

Wool is a fiber typically obtained from sheeps, but also from goats (cashmere and mohair) and rabbits (angora), in its most common types. Wool fibers are crimped, this gives more bulk but also the capability to retain heat (by holding hair), so they are perfect for winter garments. The amount of crimps corresponds to the fineness of the fiber: the higher number of crimps per inch, the finer the fabric (such as the Merino wool).

Light wool

Light wool


Lightweight wools are fabrics with a beautiful drape. An example is wool crepe, which has lots of twists in the yarn so it doesn’t wrinkle.

As for silks, wool thickness is also determined by the ply number (i.e. the number of threads used for the weft). Higher ply (e.g. 4-ply) means thicker wool.

Cotton and polyester thread

For this fine fabric you can use polyester or cotton thread.

schmetz 80/12

For this fabric you can use an 80/12 universal needles.

Lightweight wools are perfect for many different garments, including dresses and pants. For jackets and coats, 4-ply wool works better.

With lightweight wools, you can either do a french seam or serge the raw edges and press them open.

Hand-blind hems work best for this kind of fabric.

Dry clean

Lightweight wools shrink quite a lot, so it’s best to dry-clean them.

Medium wool

Medium wool


A nice example of mediuweight wool is wool gabardine: it is very soft and makes a wonderful fabric for your winter clothes!

Cotton and polyester thread

For this fabric you can use polyester or cotton thread.

schmetz 80/12

For this fabric you can use an 80/12 universal needles.

Mediumweight wools are typically used for suits, dresses, skirts and trousers.

To finish raw edges of mediumweight wools, serge or zig-zag them and press them open.

Hand-blind hems work best for this kind of fabric.

Iron steam and hand wash

With this type of wool you have two options for pre-shrinking. You can lay the fabric on a surface and give it a good steam, then let it completely dry before using it. Alternatively, you can rinse it in cold water.

Heavy wool

Heavy wool


Examples of heavyweight wools are wool coating or boiled wool, which is created by heating and pressing wool fibers into a dense felt. Perfect for keeping you warm in cold winters!

Cotton and polyester thread

For this fabric you can use polyester or cotton thread.

schmetz 80/12

For this fabric you can use an 80/12 universal needles.

Wool coating is typically thick and drapey so it’s perfect for coats and jackets. You can use reversible wools or boiled wools for cozy and fancy unlined garments.

Wools that do not fray, such as boiled wools, can be just topstitched and there’s not need to finish them. In general, as heavyweight wools are very thick, they can be finished by serging or zig-zagging (or with the overedge finish) or by using the hong kong finish to avoid ugly bulks.

For hems you can either blind hem by hand or use bias binding.

Iron steam and hand wash

With this type of wool you have two options for pre-shrinking. You can lay the fabric on a surface and give it a good steam, then let it completely dry before using it. Alternatively, you can rinse it in cold water.

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