Successful dressmaking for beginners – fabric

Getting the right fabric for your garment is often the difference between a successful garment and a disaster. When faced with racks of gorgeous fabrics, prints and colours it can be difficult to know where to start and how to get the right fabric.

This is my beginners guide to fabric, an overview of fabric types and important things you need to know about fabric. And a few tips for when you are choosing your first fabrics!

The two main things about fabric are the way the fabric is constructed and the composition. It is worth getting to grips with the basics of these, you might find you already know a fair bit learnt from wash-care labels in ready made garments.

Fabric construction:

Fabric can be knitted, woven or bonded. These different types of construction are part of what give the fabric its characteristics. A knitted fabric will have some stretch. Examples of knitted fabrics are cotton interlock which is used to make t-shirts and baby-grows,  heavier jersey fabrics are often used to make sweatshirts and jogging pants. A lot of fabrics used for sportswear are made from knitted fabrics because of the stretch which allows ease of movement.



Woven fabric, is mainly non stretch, (although their are exceptions when woven with a microfibre such as elastane). Fabrics used to make classic mens shirts are usually woven, and quilters cotton is common and abundant in most fabric shops. Woven fabrics are the easiest to work with because of the lack of stretch.



Felted and bonded fabric, are fabrics which are made from fibres which are bonded together with glue or heat and pressure, the most common fabric like this is craft felt which is used for many crafts and has the special quality of not fraying so raw edges can be left unfinished.


Fabric composition:

This is the fibre that has been knitted, woven or bonded to create the fabric. There are natural fibres and synthetic fibres, each of these fibres have their own speical qualities. When making a garment the choice of fibre may be an important factor when chosing fabric for washability and pracicality.

The natural fibres are:

Cotton -which comes from a cotton plant and is cool to wear, it can crease easily. It absorbs liquid well and is washable but  slow to dry.

Linen – comes from a flax plant and has similar qualities to cotton, it is cool to wear, absorbent and creases badly.

Wool – comes from sheep, is warm to wear and does not really crease, it is hard wearing but not generally washable.

Silk – comes from silk worms and is also warm to wear and not generally washable.

Synthetic fibres include:

Viscose – which is often drapey, washable and creases quite badly.

Nylon and acrylic – are warm to wear and non absorbent, so dry quickly and don’t crease.

Polyester – is not as warm to wear but is similarly non absorbent and crease resistant.

It is common to find blends of fibres which mix the quality of the fabric and can also reduce the cost of an expensive fibre. Polyester and cotton are a common blend. Adding polyester makes the fabric dry more easily and more crease resistant. Wool is mixed with syntheic fibres to reduce the cost of a pricey fibre. Micro fibres such as elastane might be used to add stretch to a fabric.

Fabric finishing.

This is the name of a process which is done to fabric to improve the appearance and give the fabric its final quality. It includes mechanical and chemical processes which can alter the handle of a fabric. For example brushed cotton, this process gives cotton a soft almost fluffy handle to cotton.

Fabric weight

Each type of fibre can be knitted or woven into different weights of fabric. It is a common misconception that all silk is a lightweight  smooth and silky finished fabric. Silk can be heavy weight suiting with quite a rough texture. Often silky finished fabrics that you find in fabric shops is actually made from polyester.



Wool is not necessarily heavy weight coating, you can buy dress or blouse weight wool.  Cotton can be heavyweight cotton canvas and cotton drill or lightweight cotton voile that has almost a chiffon quality.


Fabric width is important if you are following a dress pattern as you may need different quantities of fabric for the style you are making with different widths.

Generally fabrics come in 2 widths 150cm or 114cm wide. There are some exceptions to this, but these are the most common. Commercial patterns will give you guidance as to how much fabric you need for your chosen style in each width.

Tips for buying fabric:

When starting out on your first time buying fabric I think its a good idea to take a garment similar to the one you want to make with you so you can compare weight and how it feels in the fabric shop.

Take your time choosing fabric, pull some of the fabric away from the roll so you can see how it hangs and drapes, try and visualise the finished garment when doing this.

Ask for a second opinion, most shops selling fabric will employ people or be run by people that know their fabrics, so you can always explain what you are planning to make and see if they think your fabric choice is a good one!

Have a look at similar styles of clothing in the shops and then look at the washcare label where you can find what the fabric is made from.

Other things to consider:

Checks – If you are making a check garment you might want to take the time to match the checks at the side seams, this really gives your garment a quality finish without to much work. This however is likely to make cutting your garment quite wasteful so you will need to buy more fabric than stated.

One-way prints – This is a good time to look at how they lay the pattern pieces out on the instructions to your pattern. If you notice the pattern lay relies on pieces being laid upside down and you have a print that only works one-way you will need to allow more fabric for this. Some patterns will give you information on laying your pattern on fabric with nap, this is the information and quantities you would need to follow for a one way print.

Pile or nap – This is when you are using fabric such as velvet or corduroy that has a short pile, the appearance looks and feels different if you turn the fabric length the opposite way. Again the same applies as with the one-way print and patterns often have this information.

Final note – fabric shopping can get a bit addictive! In a few months you might start to develop a stash! 🙂

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Julia Claridge

I was about 6 or 7 years old when I had my first go on a sewing machine, it was an old hand crank machine that my mum used with her patients, she was an occupational therapist. I still vividly remember watching with amazement as the tiny perfectly formed stitches were created as I turned the handle. I Grew up in the 70’s and 80’s when buying clothes was less affordable and dressmaking was an answer to updating your wardrobe more regularly. My own mother was a talented dressmaker who made most of my clothes and my sisters clothes as well as a many for herself. I soon got involved with making my clothes, I loved the whole experience of picking out fabrics, trims and a pattern to create a new outfit, then going home to make a new garment or outfit. When it came to leaving school I visited a careers advisor who asked what I wanted to do next. My answer was ..Sew! Read more...

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