All about fabric: types of fabric and how to use them

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 Learn all about the many different types of fabric, understand how they differ and how to best use them! A cucicucicoo.com Learn to Machine Sew lesson!

Welcome to lesson # 2 of our Learn to Machine Sew series! On Monday I took you through the anatomy of the sewing machine, your most important sewing tool, and today I will talk about the next most important component: fabric.

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Update 12/12/2016: This post was originally called “All about fabrics and must-have notions.” I split it into two parts because it had gotten really long, and made some small updates to this post on fabric. You can find my newer post on the best sewing tools here.

There are something like a gazillion different types of fabric, so I can’t get too exhaustive on the subject. If you are interested in learning more about fabric, a great resource is the book “Fabrics A-to-Z: The Essential Guide to Choosing and Using Fabric for Sewing“* by Dana Willard, the amazing talent behind Made. But let’s talk some very basics just to get you started.

 Learn all about the many different types of fabric, understand how they differ and how to best use them! A cucicucicoo.com Learn to Machine Sew lesson!

Fabric is made from fibres from all different types of sources. There are natural fibers, such as cotton, linen, hemp, and bamboo, and fibers from animal sources such as wool or silk. There are an incredible number of synthetic fibers including, but definitely not limited to, polyester, acrylic, spandex and nylon. In the photo above you can see three very dissimilar fabrics made from synthetic fibers. There are even fabrics made from gold, recycled plastic bottles (fleece) or other peculiar sources. Fabric is created when putting together these fibers in some way.

Most fabric is woven or knit, but there are also other methods such as felting, bonding or braiding fibers. For each type of fiber and manufacturing method there can be many different types of fabric. For example batiste, denim, flannel, terry, voile and poplin can all be made from woven cotton, but are totally different from one another.

 Learn all about the many different types of fabric, understand how they differ and how to best use them! A cucicucicoo.com Learn to Machine Sew lesson!

Fabric can also be all different weights and each weight has different characteristics. In the photo above is a lightweight chiffon (a woven synthetic fabric) which I used to sew flower girl dresses. As you can see, it is very sheer so if you use it for clothing you need to have a different lining fabric beneath. It is very floaty and light, so nice for summer. It has a lovely drape, meaning that it falls nicely from a body instead of staying in stiff folds. However this means that it is a real pain in the butt to cut and sew because it moves around so easily.

 Learn all about the many different types of fabric, understand how they differ and how to best use them! A cucicucicoo.com Learn to Machine Sew lesson! (medium weight and heavy weight cotton)

Here are two different woven cotten fabrics: a medium-weight quilting cotton (the cupcakes) and a heavy-weight black denim. I would suggest using medium-weight cotton when starting to sew as it is the easist to work with. You can tell the weight of a fabric by touching it or often even just by looking at it. The above fabric pieces have been washed and you can see the cut edges have started to fray. Notice how much more fraying has occurred with the heavy-weight cotton as opposed to the medium-weight one.

 Learn all about the many different types of fabric, understand how they differ and how to best use them! A cucicucicoo.com Learn to Machine Sew lesson! (frayed edges)

Fraying is something that happens with most fabrics upon cutting and/or washing, though it depends on how the fibers have been worked. For example, a raw edge of woven cotton fabric (above photo, top) will definitely fray if not enclosed in some way before washing. Knit cotton fabric (above photo, bottom) does not fray even when washed on the most heavy duty cycle, though the edges may curl in. Therefore when sewing a knit jersey fabric (like t-shirts), for example, you can leave unfinished raw edges without having to worry about them fraying apart.

 Learn all about the many different types of fabric, understand how they differ and how to best use them! A cucicucicoo.com Learn to Machine Sew lesson! (selvage)

Fabric is rolled onto bolts after being manufactured. When you buy fabric by the yard or meter, the length of fabric that you want gets unrolled from the bolt and cut off. The width of fabric can vary greatly. The long edges of the fabric are called the selvage or selvedge. A nice thing about the selvage is that it will never fray because of how it was worked, so a lot of times you can use this to your advantage. Sometimes you will find the fabric designer’s name, the name of the fabric design, and a color swatch printed onto the selvage.

 Learn all about the many different types of fabric, understand how they differ and how to best use them! A cucicucicoo.com Learn to Machine Sew lesson! (selvage)

Sometimes you may notice tiny pin-sized holes running along the selvage.

 Learn all about the many different types of fabric, understand how they differ and how to best use them! A cucicucicoo.com Learn to Machine Sew lesson! (about fabric grain)

A very important thing to know about fabric is how the grain runs. The lengthwise grain runs parallel to the selvage while the crosswise grain runs across the fabric as it is cut from a bolt (though keep in mind that fabric is rarely cut perfectly along the grain, but somewhat irregularly), perpendicular to the lengthwise grain and selvage. In most wovens, these two grains look the same whether you hold the fabric in one direction of another.

In knit fabric, however, you can see a difference in the two grains if you look closely. The lengthwise grain appears as teeny tiny columns. In most knits the crosswise grain will the be one with the most stretch, although there are four-way-stretch knits in which the lengthwise grain is very stretchy, too. When you are in doubt which side of the knit is the crosswise grain, cut across it and stretch the fabric gently. The cut edge will roll along the crosswise grain.

Please note that knit fabric behaves in a different way than woven fabric, so I suggest you start learning to sew only with woven fabric. Then, when you have more experience, you can move on to my lesson on sewing with knit fabric.

 Learn all about the many different types of fabric, understand how they differ and how to best use them! A cucicucicoo.com Learn to Machine Sew lesson! (pattern layout on woven fabric)

Why is grain important? Well, you will usually want to cut out your fabric pieces along with the grain (although sometimes you want to cut at a 45° angle, the bias, although we won’t get into that now) so that the fabric pieces will lay right and not get pulled out of shape while sewing. Let’s pretend that this is a pants pattern (although I promise you that you will never see a pants pattern that looks like this!). As the crosswise and lengthwise grains usually look the same on woven fabrics, you can usually cut out a pattern piece in either direction with the same result as long as the piece is cut out along one of the grains.

 Learn all about the many different types of fabric, understand how they differ and how to best use them! A cucicucicoo.com Learn to Machine Sew lesson! (pattern layout on knit fabric)

This is not the case with stretchy knit fabrics. As a general rule of thumb, you want the greatest stretch to go across a garment or other object, not vertically. Let’s say we’re making leggings (as I did with this very fabric). We want the fabric to stretch around our hips and legs, fitting snugly on our bodies. So we need to make sure that the pattern is cut out so that the parts of it that stretch across the body are along the crosswise grain, the stretchiest direction.

 Learn all about the many different types of fabric, understand how they differ and how to best use them! A cucicucicoo.com Learn to Machine Sew lesson!

Fabrics have a right side and a wrong side. With some solid color wovens you may not really be able to tell a difference. The front and back of knits look different and there is usually a marked difference between the front and back of most printed fabrics. The colors and designs on the back side are much more muted and less sharp.

 Learn all about the many different types of fabric, understand how they differ and how to best use them! A cucicucicoo.com Learn to Machine Sew lesson! (directional prints)

One last consideration is the direction of a print. With some prints, such as the one on the right above, it doesn’t really matter which direction you use it in because the print looks fine any way. Some designs are directional prints, however, such as the cupcake fabric above. It is meant to be used in one direction only. You probably won’t get the effect you’re looking for if you cut out your pieces with the cupcakes upside down or sideways. When using directional printed fabric, you might need more fabric than indicated when cutting out pattern pieces so as to work within the print’s direction.

Now that you know all about the different features of different types of fabric, here is another very important thing to know about it: You must ALWAYS wash fabric at the highest temperature possible for the type of fabric before starting to cut and sew it. I’m sure you’ve at some point in your life tried on a garment in the store and it fits you perfectly, but when you get home, wash it and put it on, it’s tight. Most fabrics shrink in the wash and even more so if the temperature is higher. If you don’t want the unpleasant surprise of a garment or object that you’ve spent precious time (and fabric) on to be suddenly too small, I suggest you wash all fabric immediately upon their entering your home.

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Of course fabric is only part of the equation, and you need scissors, pins, needles and other sewing notions to actually sew your fabric into something fabulous! So go ahead and read my lesson on the best sewing tools here!

Want recommendations for the best sewing supplies? This extensive list suggests the most useful notions, fabrics, machines and books for your sewing habit! www.cucicucicoo.com

This lesson on different types of fabric is part of the syllabus of Cucicucicoo’s Learn to Machine Sew beginner’s sewing course! Don’t forget to share pictures of your work on Facebook or the Cucicucicoo Creations Flickr Group!

Learn to Machine Sew with Cucicucicoo: a free sewing course for beginners

*This post contains affiliate links.

34 COMMENTS

  1. Mamma mia che post accurato! Come hai già visto sto promuovendo il corso su tutti i social. E questa lezione non fa che confermare il mio entusiasmo! 🙂 Brava: era proprio una cosa che ci voleva.
    Ti posso dire il mio accessorio preferito? Il seam-ripper! Senza non potrei vivere. Sarà che sono una persona impaziente e non imbastisco, ma è più il tempo che passo a scucire e rifare che quello che impiego a confezionare le cose 😛
    Grazie ancora!

  2. Sei bravissima e le tue spiegazioni sono super iper chiare. In casa mia c’è sempre stata una macchina da cucire (mia mamma era sarta) e io ho sempre cucito. È da poco che seguo il tuo sito ma aspetto sempre con impazienza quello che pubblichi. Sempre tutto interessantissimo. Ancora complimenti.

  3. Grazie, grazie, grazie!! Ero una principiante disperata finché non ho scoperto il tuo blog… le lezioni sono utilissime, ben spiegate e illustrate. Sei la mia salvezza, forse adesso riuscirò ad imparare!!!!! 😉
    Gran bel lavoro.

  4. Ciao! Ho appena scoperto il tuo blog e sono già super entusiasta! Non vedo l’ora di spulciarmelo tutto! Complimenti per questa lezione, è davvero accurata e semplice da capire per chi è alle prime armi come me. Ho imparato un sacco di cose, grazie!

    • Fantastico, Francesca! Era questo la mia intenzione! Poi sto preparando un po’ di cose per aggiornare questa lezione, e anche un altro post ancora in tema, ma più dettagliato. Se ti sei iscritta alla mia newsletter (clicca qui per iscriverti), ti arrivano tutti gli aggiornamenti! (oltre a cartamodelli gratuiti e altre notizie interessanti!) 🙂

  5. Il tuo corso mi salverà! Ho comprato una macchina da cucire un paio d’anni fa, ma la uso pochissimo, per ignoranza!
    Oggi ho divorato i primi due capitoli. Spero di poter andare avanti (adesso sono in vacanza, ancora per questa settimana, ma poi avrò meno tempo).
    Le tue spiegazioni sono chiarissime e dettagliate. Perfette! Grazie della tua generosità.
    Un commento riguardo al gesso per segnare la stoffa: mia madre (che ha sempre cucito per tutta la famiglia), dice che il gesso “rovina la lama delle forbici” e preferiva usare… una saponetta! Una saponetta quasi consumata, sottile sottile. Boh! Inutile dire che c’era un assoluti divieto di toccare le sue forbici da stoffa!!!!
    Grazie ancora per le lezioni.

    • Hai ragione, Liliana! Anch’io ho sentito più volte di usare la saponetta quasi consumata, ma non avevo mai sentito che il gesso rovina le forbici. Grazie per la dritta!
      Sono molto contenta che il mio corso ti sarà utile! Continua a fare le lezioni e i tutorial, e vedrai che, anche con poco tempo a disposizione, riuscirai ad andare avanti!
      Buon cucito!

  6. Sto seguendo con interesse i tuoi corsi online 🙂 da poco mi sono avvicinata al mondo del cucito ed è nata una passione… Le tue spiegazioni sono molto chiare grazie di cuore… Un abbraccio

  7. Ciao Lisa,
    complimenti per il sito e per il Corso di cucito che sto seguendo con interesse.
    A quando la pubblicazione dell’articolo sui siti italiani dove comprare i tessuti? Lo attendo con ansia!
    Grazie.

  8. Il corso è ben fatto.Come molti altri su Internet. Ma sempre più o meno le stesse cose. Perché non insegnare come si cuce ad esempio il velluto……

    • Ciao Carla, che cosa vorresti sapere su come cucire il velluto? Si cuce come gli altri tessuti. Bisogna solo fare attenzione che la direzione del pelo vada sempre nella stessa direzione.

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