Understanding your fabric and how it will behave when being cut, sewn, and worn will make all the difference in the world to the success of your project. There’s a lot of information here that I hope will be of use, so hunker down, get something to drink or a snack, and here we go.
Choosing fabric: Weight vs. Drape
Even the most inexperienced sewists understand fabric weight. Fabric weight is the thickness of the fabric in your hand. Think of the difference between a wool coating and a silk chiffon. True, very easy to tell those apart, but there are differences even between fabrics of the same makeup. Consider all the varieties of denim, for example. Feeling the fabric in person, either at the store or with a swatch, is often crucial when first learning to sew.
When choosing fabrics, you must also consider the fabric drape. Though often confused, they’re not the same. Generally, however, the lighter the fabric, the more drape it will have. The heavier the fabric, the less drape it will have. Be aware this isn’t always the case. It’s possible to have a lighter fabric with less drape than a heavier fabric. Think of silk organza, which is tightly woven and has lots of structure, contrasted with cotton voile, which can be airy and light. Certainly the voile has more weight, but has more drape than the lighter silk organza.
Your project will determine your fabric choice. We tend to wear heavier fabrics in pants and coats, lighter fabrics for shirts and blouses. As a general rule to thumb, these fabrics work well for each application:
- Pants: Linens, denim, flannel, wool, suitings, cotton twill, poly gabardine. (Pants are well suited to two-way stretch fabrics, especially if your pattern is close fitting.)
- Shirts and blouses: Broadcloth, challis, crepe de chine, charmeuse, light knits like jersey, lawn, linen, flannel. (Drape is key here. Do you want a fluid, more blouses look or more of a work shirt?) Don’t forget to consider the opacity of the fabric, too!)
- Skirts: Denim, linen, flannel, suitings, tweed, velvet (no pleats or folds), wool crepe, heavier cottons like chambray or twill.
- Dresses: Wool crepe, linen, silks (for fluid designs), cottons like lawn or voile, broadcloth, overlays (chiffon, organza, etc.)
Furthermore, consider the style lines and shape of your pattern. Would it be suited to sheers? What kind of stress will be on the seams? Will this fabric cause bulky seams? Will this fabric flow like the design requires? Does it provide the structure I need to hold (or not hold) its shape?
Finally, in the fabric store, test the drape and weight of the fabric. Hold it up, drape it over you, drape it over bolts of fabric. See how it folds, how it behaves on the bias, Does it enhance the design you had in your head?
If you know anything about me and how I sew, you know already how much I love underlining. (Even the occasional costume is underlined.) Adding a simple underlining will really help make your results look professional, neat, and clean. I want to be clear, however: Underlining is not lining. Underlining is basted to the main fashion fabric and the two pieces are then treated as one to provide structure. Lining is added after construction of the main garment and is meant mask construction.
Underlining is especially handy if you fall in love with a fabric, but it might be too drapey for your design. For example, I made a dress for a friend and found the most lusciously beautiful silk crepe de chine. It was perfect! However, the design we picked for the dress had lots of pieces and required structure. By underlining the pieces in silk organza first, we were able to add enough weight to the fabric that it was perfect for the dress design.
I love sewing coats and one of the best parts is choosing the lining fabric. Sometimes you have a wool that’s not terribly thick and warm, like a bouclé, so you need to add some insulation. I like underlining the lining pieces in flannel. An added bonus is that you can use the underlining color to help a print or design stand out. (A note of caution: Don’t underline sleeves in a coat. They’ll be too bulky.) Yes, technically this is called interlining, but the process is the same.
Some fabrics are wrinkle factories. (I’m looking at you, dupioni and taffeta.) You can ease the amount of wrinkling by underlining in silk organza. I made a blazer using a lovely black dupioni. If I hadn’t underlined the pieces in organza first, you better believe the sleeves would be horribly wrinkled after about twenty minutes of wearing where the arm bends.
When sewing formal wear or couture garments, underlining can help hide the hand stitching. If you look back at my previous progress posting, I included a picture of the wrong side of the bodice. Hiding the catch stitching would be impossible without the flannel under the satin. Additionally, using an underlining helps soften turns (like those along the neckline or armholes) and lessens the effects of pressing seams.
Have I convinced you yet how great underlining is?
Choosing an underlining fabric
‘Choosing’ is the operative word here. What do you want your underlining to do? Are you just looking for a place to catch all of your hand sewing on the wrong side? If you don’t want to drastically change the hand or weight of the fabric, pick an underlining similar in weight and feel to the fabric you’re already using. No matter the underlining you choose, there will be an effect on the drape of the fashion fabric.
Take something like silk crepe de chine, with is ordinarily very fluid and “liquid-y.” This fluidity is part of the charm of the fabric. Underlining in silk organza or cotton batiste would provide some stiffness, but ultimately the fluidity of the garment will be maintained. Using something like cotton muslin, on the other hand, will increase the weight and reduce its drape. The moral of the story is to test the different underlining fabrics and see how they effect the overall look of the fashion fabric.
The skirt of the emerald prom dress is a black microvelvet. Unlike traditional velvet, microvelvet doesn’t crush as easily, but it has a lighter hand. If you’re making a flouncy skirt or light jacket, no problem. However, this skirt will be hanging off a structured bodice and a really light hand will change the balance of the dress. So, an underlining is needed, but which one?
I have three options available to me at home: silk organza, cotton muslin, and cotton flannel. Before making any decisions, we need to try each underlining fabric with the velvet.
I’ve unrolled some of the velvet onto my table and you can see here how easily is folds and flows. It’s very drapey and luxurious, but it picks up everything! You can also observe how the light affects the color of the fabric. Considering this is crucial when choosing a pattern layout.
Here’s another reason to underline I discovered as I inspected the fabric: it’s pretty sheer. You can make out the shape of the chairs behind the fabric. Microvelvet tends to be lightweight to begin with. It feels wonderful on the skin, I must say!
The first option is silk organza. Very sheer, as you can see, and it doesn’t fold like the velvet. It adds subtle structure and is wonderfully durable. Perfect as an underlining for many different fabrics.
Here’s the organza behind the velvet. It’s no longer sheer, and that’s good news. It’s also kept a lot of its drape, also good news. On the other hand, it’s still very light and I don’t think it’s stable enough to carry a skirt as full as the one we’re going to make. Let’s try muslin.
Muslin is pretty stiff, but you can see that it folds beautifully. I’m curious how the velvet will react over it.
The velvet loses a lot its drape with the muslin underneath. Another thing to consider: If my student is wearing a petticoat under the skirt, too light of a fabric will show the crinoline underneath and not lay as smoothly as we’d like. Muslin is winning for me so far, but let’s see how we like flannel.
Flannel has almost no drape to it. It’s really durable and perfect when you want structure, hence why I used it under the bodice. I think I want a little more fluidity in the skirt, but let’s see what happens with the velvet over it.
The velvet nestles into some flutes, but there’s not much drape, as I suspected. While I don’t mind the look, I think an entire skirt out of this material with the velvet will be too heavy. We want a little bit of bounce! I think our best option is the muslin. To soften it a touch, I’m going to wash it first, then press it out. Tip: When using muslin for test garments, don’t wash it. You want the crispness of the freshly pressed muslin to show how the design will fit the body.
One last note about velvet, if it hasn’t been made clear already. Cut out your pattern pieces going in the same direction! If you cut the skirt, for example, with the waist towards the right on one piece, and then place it towards the left on another piece, the velvet will look like two different colors.
Again, the moral of the story is to try your options first and don’t be afraid to use an underlining. I’ve gotten to the point where I sew more garments with an underling than without. Next up, cutting and basting the skirt pieces. We’re moving along quickly now!