If you’ve ever been to a fabric store, you know that there are thousands of different fabrics to choose from for your sewing projects. It can be entirely overwhelming, especially if you don’t know what you want. And if you don’t know much about fabrics, it can be nearly impossible to know what to choose.
We’ve put together this guide to help you navigate the vast world of fabrics and so that you can understand a little bit more about the textile industry.
First things first: you have to understand the materials different fabrics are made from and how they’re made.
All cloth is made from fibers. When you twist fibers together, you get threads, which can then be either woven or knit to create fabric. Natural fibers are the ones most used, but there are also the synthetic, human-made fibers too.
- Hemp, rayon, linen, and cotton all come from plant fibers and create soft fabric
- Yarn is made from sheep’s wool which is warm and soft but very thick
- Silk comes from silkworms. It’s smooth and light but is also a fragile fabric
- Polyester is a synthetic fabric that’s water-resistant, wrinkle-resistant, and keeps its color
- Lycra is also a synthetic material, also known as spandex, that’s very stretchy and is perfect for swimsuits and yoga pants.
Before we even get into actual fabrics, it’s important to understand the properties of these different fibers. When you understand the qualities of each fiber, you’re more likely to know which fabric each sewing project calls for.
How It’s Made
Once there are threads from a particular fiber, there are some different options for how they can be put together to create fabric. As mentioned before, most threads are either woven or knit. But there are also some fibers that are neither woven or knit.
Many fabrics are made through the process of weaving. Weaving is done on a machine called a loom. There are thousands of different ways to weave threads, but the most common weave is the over-under pattern (imagine the same pattern as the running stitch).
There’s also a weave called the twill which uses that same over-under motion but creates more of a diagonal pattern. Most jeans are created with a twill weave.
Fabrics that are weaved are meant to stay nice and tight. If made well, the threads shouldn’t move very much in the fabric.
Unlike weaved fabrics, knitted fabrics are stretchy. These threads are meant to be loose and misshapen. These fabrics are harder to work with because the threads stretch and move around so much that it’s difficult to guide through a sewing machine.
As a beginner sewist, you may want to avoid working with knit fabrics at first.
Some fabrics aren’t created by weaving or knitting and instead are made by bonding fibers together by chemical, heat, or solvent processes. These are the strange fabrics, but they are used for sewing projects that don’t need much washing.
To give you an idea, here are a few fabrics that are neither woven nor knit:
- Faux Fur
- Oil cloth
Now that you understand more about the composition and creation of different fabrics, let’s get into specific materials that are ideal for beginning sewists:
When you hear “flannel,” you may think of plaid or tartan-patterned shirt. But it’s not a pattern; it’s a type of fabric. Flannel is a woven fabric typically made from wool, cotton, or synthetic fiber. It’s the fabric you want to use for keeping cozy during winter!
It’s a very soft and warm fabric that’s perfect for blankets, sweaters, bed sheets, and pajamas. It’s a great fabric to quilt with and recommended for beginners.
If flannel is the go-to winter fabric, then voile is ideal for summer. Voile is a soft and thin fabric, and in French, it means “veil.” It’s typically made from either 100% cotton or cotton blended with polyester or linen.
This fabric is ideal for making lightweight dresses and shirts. It’s also good for window curtains.
If your sewing project is making a bag or a pouch for toiletries, this is an ideal fabric. Linen and canvas are sturdy, durable fabrics with large fibers.
It’s typically more expensive than cotton, but it has just about as many uses as cotton. Many people prefer this fabric due to its durability.
Believe it or not, this is a fabric that’s hotly debated in the sewing world. But it’s a very simple cotton fabric made specifically for quilting. It tends to be stiffer than the type of cotton fabric you would use to make apparel because of how tightly woven it is, and it’s not as soft either.
However, because quilting cotton is stiff, it’s easy to cut and to sew. As a beginner, this is a great fabric to work with as it’s very agreeable!
Rayon challis (sha-lee) is a smooth and lightweight fabric woven from rayon. Rayon is a semi-synthetic fiber. It’s a bit heavier than voile, but it still drapes well and is easy to work with.
You’re probably immediately thinking of jeans, but denim has more uses than just that. It’s a heavy-weight cotton fabric (sometimes with blended synthetic fibers like Lycra) that’s works for sturdy clothing, footwear, accessories, furniture, and upholstery.
Silk, as mentioned above, comes from silkworms and is a very lightweight fabric. It can be difficult to work with because it’s slippery, but it’s a great material for making light clothing and undergarments.
Satin is a very glossy fabric that can come in varying degrees of lightweight to heavyweight. It’s primarily made from silk, but can also be composed of cotton, rayon, nylon, or polyester. “Satin” actually refers to a type of weave which gives it its luster.
While this guide doesn’t nearly cover all the fabrics out there, this is a great place to start for information as a beginner. Start by using easy-to-handle fabrics that do not slip when you attempt to cut, fold, or sew them. Then when you’re comfortable with those fabrics, move onto a more challenging fabric like silk or satin!