How to choose the right fabric

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How to choose the right fabric

Post by 4492 »

I’m writing this post because I quite often see questions about how one should find fabrics, and what types of fabrics. This isn’t a post about “go to this place, they have everything” but rather a collection of what I’ve learnt through the years when hunting for fabrics.

My starting point is that I live in a town that has two fabric stores. The problem is that both of them only sell fabrics for quilting, curtains and some ugly shiny fabrics that I guess they sell to girls who want to make their end of school-ball gowns and don’t know better. I am relegated to finding fabrics online and through catalogues. Through the years I have gotten better, and I must be honest and say that my costs for fabrics have gone up a lot since I’ve started. I should also say that I still do a lot of mistakes, and my fabric stash is filled with pieces that I thought would be great when I ordered them, but they were simply wrong when they arrived in the post. In fact I managed to make a full silk ball gown out of such pieces from my Amidala travel gown project. This is especially true when it comes to picking colours from what you see on your computer screen.

Anyway here we go with some things that I consider when choosing fabrics.

Fibre content
A fabric is made out of different fibres. The big difference is between natural fibres and synthetic fibres. The most common natural fibres are cotton, flax, wool, silk and viscose. Flax is the fibre used to make linen. Polyester, nylon, acetate, spandex and lurex are all synthetic fibres. Rayon is a natural fibre, but so heavily processed that it’s better to count it as a synthetic fibre. Many fabrics today are blends of different fibres, both natural and synthetic.

I prefer to work with natural fibres as much as possible. They breathe better, which makes clothes made from them more comfortable and not so hot. Natural fibres are easier to dye than synthetic fibres, in fact up until recently I had a big problem finding dyes in Sweden that could work on any kind of synthetic fibres. Fabrics made from natural fibres are usually more expensive than similar fabrics made out of synthetic fibres. Fabrics made from synthetic fibres are hard to dye, but they are usually quite cheap. In some fabrics you also need some synthetic content to get the properties you want, for example the ability for a fabric to stretch.

When it comes to the look of the fabric the weave is more important than the fibre content. The weave is the technique used to tie the fibres together. The different weaves forms different patterns on the fabric surface. I’m also going to give the name of the weave in Swedish, if that is more helpful than the English name.

First some glossary explanations though. A weave is made up of two types of threads called the warp (varp) and weft (inslag). The warp threads are the fixed threads that are in the loom, and the weft is the thread that is threaded through the warp threads.

Plain weave (tuskaft)
If you did any simple weaving in school or kindergarten or something like that, this was probably the technique that you used. The weft here goes over one warp thread, the next is under the warp thread, the next is over and so on.

Twill (kypert but nowadays mostly called twill in Swedish as well)
In twill the weft doesn’t go straight up and down on the warp, instead it goes over first one warp, but the next it can go over two. The result is that the crossing of the weft over the warp is slightly offset from one row to the next. This gives twill its distinct diagonal lines all over the whole piece of fabric. Due to this offset twill fabric usually has a nice drape, and it’s also possible to stretch it more than a plain weave fabric.
[imgl] ... ve.svg.png[/img]

Herringbone (fiskbensväv)
Herringbone is a variety of twill and can be described as a double twill. Unlike twill herringbone hardly stretches at all. For example I have used herringbone fabric when making corsets, that I want to be very sturdy.

Satin (satin)
Here it’s time to chime a little warning bell. Satin is both the name of the weave and the fabric that is the result of using the weave. Many people associate satin with ugly synthetic fabrics, usually the most cheap and glossy you can find in a fabric store, but those characteristics comes from the choice of fibres used in the satin weave. I’m not going to go into the technical side of the weave, but the result is a fabric that’s usually shiny on one side and dull on the other.

Weight and drape
This is quite self-explanatory. A heavy fabric is made of heavier and thicker fibres. Think about the difference between a heavy winter coat made of wool and a lighter blazer, made of wool crepe. When looking for that perfect robe or cape for your Sith costume its important to keep the weight of the fabric in mind. Even more important though, there is a correlation though, is the drape of the fabric. The drape isn’t a scientific measure, but rather a description of how the fabrics hangs and how stiff it is.
These two fabrics are both 100% silks and very lightweight, the blue is a taffeta a fabric made with plain weave, the other is a charmeuse made in a satin weave. As you can see the taffeta is so stiff that it can hold a shape of its own and stand up, while the charmeuse is very soft and just puddles together. (I’m going to use the blue taffeta for a gown that consists of a stiff, corseted bodice and very crisp pleats in the skirt, while I’m going to use the red for a light cape that will hang from my shoulders and move freely)

This diagram gives a good general overview of weight and drape of different kind of fabrics ... drape1.png

Some reflections
I’ll finish off with some personal reflections on some choices of fabrics, and how I’ve seen them (mis)used.

When making costumes that covers most of the body, and usually consists of several, heavy layers, try to use as much natural fibres as possible. For both my female Tusken and Jawa I’ve used 100% natural fibres, and it’s so much cooler and lighter than when I’ve compared them to costumes made with synthetic fibres.

For capes/robes/mantles it’s best to use a drapey, but thin wool. I have seen so many ugly capes that are stiff, wrinkly and almost see-through because the person wearing them has probably just gone down to the fabric store and looked for a cheap black fabric. Wool is expensive, but you don’t have to use pure wool, there are wool blends that are cheaper.

Stay away from satins, especially polyester satins. Poly satin is cheap, but looks nice and shiny on a bolt. The problem is that it’s a nightmare to work with. It’s slippery so you need to struggle for it not to twist and move if you put it through your sewing machine. Every mistake, and every millimeter that’s not perfectly fitted or has moved while you sewed it together will be visible, usually in the form of a lot of wrinkles. Also satin wrinkles just by being used so if you sit down and then stand up again your beautifully crafted costume will probably look like a big mess of lines all over it. One of my worst costume disasters, at least I think so now in hindsight, was this ugly thing:
Before having learnt enough about finding and using fabrics, I went down to a local fabric store and got out with poly satin, because that was the only thing that was affordable and I thought it looked nice. A common reason for bad Padmé gowns is that the costume has tried to recreate a gown made in soft, silk fabrics, in this kind of nightmare poly satin.

Linen is a wonderful fabric. It’s not strange that it’s been used for underwear for millennia. A lightweight linen is the best thing to wear close to the skin. Unfortunately it wrinkles, and quite a lot of linens are made to look homespun and coarse, and that’s maybe not what you want for the visible parts of a costume. If you have a hot costume in several layers I recommend making a linen shirt/tunic to wear under it all though. It actually protects both yourself and your costume. The linen soaks up the sweat and keeps you cooler, and then it’s easy to just throw it in the washing machine, at the same time since the linen absorbs the sweat your costume stays fresh for a longer time.

Final words

When searching for a fabric online these are the question I ask:

1. Is it the right colour and pattern?
2. What is the fabric called? (if I'm unsure I check the definition up in wikipedia)
3. What kind of fibre is used?
4. Can the fabric be dyed if I don't find the right colour?
5. How heavy is the fabric?

I hope that this can be of some help for those of you in search of fabrics. If you are familiar with the difference between fibre, weave and weight, then the chance is higher that you will find what you are looking for. Also if you can’t find the exact fabric that you want, by knowing some basics it can be easier to find a good substitution. For example it’s better to exchange a linen twill for a polyester twill, than a linen plain weave. If you are unsure about what the name of the fabric means I recommend looking it up on Wikipedia, in the articles they usually list what the fabric is used for and that can give you an idea of the properties. If it says that a fabric is mostly used for lingerie, I wouldn’t recommend using it for a coat.

Like with everything else it is also worth paying a bit more to get good quality fabrics if you want the end result to look good, but be prepared for mistakes to happen when it comes to fabric choices.

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Re: How to choose the right fabric

Post by The Artocracy »

Hi, This is really great info for the selection of the fabric, I am just trying to buy the best Linen and unable, how to check the quality of the Linen! I am from Melbourne, Australia and heard that there are many types of the Linen, I want this for bedding!
Buy Womens Clothing Online Australia on SALE in Linen or Any Other Fabric.

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Lora Skywalker
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Re: How to choose the right fabric

Post by Lora Skywalker »

I also recommend getting fabric samples when ordering online, so you can see what it looks like in real life before you commit to buying several meters of the stuff. :)
And samples can be good to have when going to the stores to match different fabrics for a costume. Never trust your memory to get it right.
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Re: How to choose the right fabric

Post by RickAnderson »

Hello) Your post is still on track)
My tip is to buy one fabric in 3 similar colors. That helps a lot to play with shadows.

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Re: How to choose the right fabric

Post by elizabeth12 »

I am from Australia. I personally prefer cotton fabric for wearing or even bedding. you can have more knowledge about choosing right fabric and you also will prefer cotton fabrics after reading this blog. ... Australia/

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