Monday, December 3, 2012

Fabric and You

So now that you've found the pattern you want to make, you're going to need to find the fabric to make it out of. Fabric shopping is one of my favorite parts of making a pattern because it's all about possibility and customization. For a first effort, I highly recommend sticking with light- to medium-weight cottons, as other fabrics will have peculiarities to them that will make them difficult for a novice to lay out, cut, and sew.

Note before continuing: On this blog, I will try to avoid using the term "Pattern" to describe the design or print on a bolt of fabric, and reserve the word "Pattern" to only mean the instructions and template for an item of clothing. So when I say "check the pattern," I mean the paper envelope with the clothing recipe you want to make, not the particular print of the fabric.
Where to buy
Most areas will have a JoAnn's Fabrics in the local stripmall where you can purchase fabric. I find JoAnn's to be something of a mixed bag, and highly variable by region. Some still specialize in offering fabrics, while others have found that their area's demographic is more interested in home crafts, and doesn't have as great a selection for fabrics (but you can get some great pine cones with glitter on them and wicker baskets!). Wal-Mart also offers some fabrics, if you are comfortable shopping there. My personal suggestion is: see if you can find a local fabric store in the area, and that includes quilting stores. Apart from helping the local economy, I find that the local fabric stores offer comparable or better selection in fabrics (both in variety and quality) to the larger chains, their staff are more knowledgeable and patient than the chains, and are generally the same price. For comparison, cotton usually runs about $6-8 per yard, and a good clearance section might have some great fabrics on sale for $4-5/yard. If you live in a larger city, see if there's a "fabric district" area. Philadelphia's Fabric Row on 4th street south of South is a great place to find all sorts of amazing lovely things, and it's a must-go when I find myself with an extra day in the City of Brotherly Love.

Fabric weight, contrast colors, etc
If loving paisley is wrong...
The nice thing about making your own clothes is that you can find some really cool fabrics and make them into something incredible. When you're looking for fabric for your first project, try to steer over to the cotton section, and begin looking at the various options there. Light- to medium-wovens  are fairly easy to work with.

When a print or color catches your eye, feel free to take it down from the shelf and unroll a little bit of it. Unfold it and hold a single layer of the fabric up to the light, preferably sunlight from a window -- you want to see how "see through" the fabric is. Of course, even if it is see-through, you can always wear it with a camisole or a slip underneath, depending on the pattern of course. Later on we will get into doing underskirts, but for now, try to get a fabric that lets through minimal light.

There a few fabric print styles to avoid. For first efforts, you are going to want to pass over fabrics that have straight lines. Clothing follows organic curves, and matching straight lines to curves is tricky and not for beginners. Solid colors, organic designs, and abstract prints are the best for beginners.

Bolts of fabric, the X's indicate vertical lines
Double-check that your fabric isn't what's called a "border print." Border prints mean that the fabric has a different design along the edge than it does in the middle (this includes things like eyelet fabric). Border prints make incredibly awesome skirts and dresses, but require special patterns that will treat their border-print-specialness right. Don't worry! Border prints are on the menu.

Eyelet (left) and traditional border print (right).
Both beautiful fabrics, but require special patterns!
oh my god i want to make that skirt on the right.
When you've found the fabric, check the pattern you're doing and make sure you don't need to buy a contrast color. When selecting a contrast, stay in the same fabric type as your primary fabric: Don't go racing off to the satins to trim a cotton skirt!

The top of the bolt will usually have fabric care instructions on it. You will want to know if this is machine-washable, after all. I would recommend getting a simple cotton that is machine washable and can go through a dryer, because that way you can pre-shrink your fabric.

When you're ready to buy, take the bolts up to the cutting station. Double-check the amount of fabric the pattern is asking for in order to make the view in your size, and then add at least an eighth or even a quarter of a yard to that.


First of all, it's always a good idea to give yourself a little extra to work with when you're starting out. As you get better at laying out your patterns, you can trim it down, but it's always better to have some extra than to fall short. Secondly, you want to give the fabric a chance to shrink a little*, because you'll be pre-washing it. So add a little extra.

If you've bought fabric that has a clear "up and down" to it's design (for example, it's got flowers that are all growing "up" in the same direction), get about a half a yard extra on top of that: You will need to make sure you have enough room when you're cutting out so that your design is facing the right way. For your first few efforts, I would recommend not getting a directional fabric--when you're cutting out the pattern, you will need to know how the pattern pieces are going to be oriented in the final product and with a first effort you're going to have enough pots on the boil when you're cutting out your fabric.

Don't forget your thread and other notions! Thread, zippers, and single-fold bias tape should try to match the color of your fabric as closely as possible. Check the notions section of your pattern. If your fabric has a bunch of colors on it, try to match against a slightly lighter color than the predominate color. Note, most cotton bolts will have a color swatch along one of the selvage lines, which can he used for matching colors. Dark thread will show up more clearly than light thread, and you want your thread to be invisible. Don't be afraid to ask the opinion of a store employee. My experience is that they can zero in on the perfect match quickly.

*or, in the case of flannel, a lot. Seriously. That stuff shrinks like Ron Jeremy in the Polar Bear Club.

Pre-washing/shrinking your fabric
(You can ignore this section if you've bought fabric that isn't machine washable or can't go in a dryer). When you bring home your fabric, the first thing you will need to do is bind off the cut edge. Fabric off the bolt has the selvages (the top and bottom part that doesn't fray), and then the cut-edge or raw-edges, which is where the store employee cut the fabric off the bolt with scissors. The problem with the cut edge, particularly with woven fabrics like cotton, is that it can fray and unravel in the wash. It's not like the whole purchase will come undone and turn to mush in your washer, but it can cause some problems for you like creating nooses around your fabric and unraveling enough to make it difficult to cut out your pattern. Plus, you paid for that fabric, don't waste it!

You wanna really, really, really wanna zigazig ah

To combat this, you will want to bind your cut edge. Sometimes this is also referred to as "finishing." Simply set your sewing machine to do a zig-zag stitch*, and then zig-zag up each cut side as close to the edge as you can get without the needle going off the fabric (this is a good way to practice as it's pretty low-stakes). The zig-zag stitch will prevent the fabric from unraveling past the stitch point, "binding" the weave into place. If you keep the edge of the walker foot flush with the cut edge and take it slow, you'll do fine.
After washing/drying.

Now that your fabric is protected, put it through a wash/dry cycle. It's not a bad idea during the last part of the dry cycle to up the heat a little. You want the fabric to shrink as much as possible before you cut it out, that way it's not shrinking too much after you've finished your perfectly-fitting masterpiece.

* there is also a "bind hem" stitch that's basically a zig-zag stitch but every fourth-ish "zig" will just out a little further than the others. If your machine has this, go ahead and use it, otherwise, the zig-zag will work just fine (see above).

Now that you've finished pre-shrinking the fabric, you'll need to try to get it back to as close to that pristine state it came home in before you put it through the laundry. You'll want to carefully iron the fabric and get as many of the wrinkles out as possible, and then you'll want to fold it and iron again.

For most simple patterns, you will fold it so that both both of the selvage sides are joined, with the "right" side of the fabric on the interior if the fabric is single-sided (wrong-side out). The selvages should be perfectly aligned, and then you will carefully hold that in place while you gently flatten away from the selvages to find the "perfect middle" between them to become the crease. The reason for this is because the selvage is your fabric's grainline, and if you have them carefully lined up against each other and the crease on the other end, your fabric will hang right when you go to try it on.

This takes a lot of practice, and some patterns will require different configurations. We'll go over the details of those configurations in a later post, but the basic method is fold in half, join the selvages, right sides in, and iron until it practically holds its shape on its own. And even if the pattern requires some other fabric fold, the half-way point is generally helpful to know for that as well.

More thoughts on working with fabric
I'll keep coming back to this, but fabric is a very unique material to work with. If you're used to working with paper, or similar substance, fabric might throw you for a loop. Simply put, fabric is fluid. You will find that it can shift almost imperceptibly as you work with it. Whereas paper folds and creases, fabric will pull and slide, it can shift and pucker without creating an obvious tell. You have to keep an eye on it, and when it needs correction, it's best to lift it and bodily correct the whole swatch, instead of trying to create a correction of the fly by "pulling it into place" like you might straighten a bedsheet.

When it stretches and pulls, this can be deceptive. You can think  the fabric is lining up when really it's just stretching because you're stressing it. Always measure twice before cutting, always check again before ironing. If that selvage is slipping away from its mate, just pick the fabric up and move it--don't try to slide it or pull it back into place. It will just slip away again once the tension is released on the weave. When you work with your fabric, you want it to be as relaxed as possible. If you stitch on fabric that's been pulled or stretched, it will behave strangely when it's released.

Learn to be a little zen about how the fabric moves around, or it will drive you crazy. Don't fight your fabric thinking you can bully it into submission. The fabric will win.

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