Plus, how to use each—cotton, silk, linen, wool, and specialty blends—in sewing projects.

By Alexandra Churchill
May 18, 2020
Advertisement
blue and gold solid cotton fabric
Credit: Laurie Frankel

Thinking about starting a new sewing project? It's important to remember that different types of fabric require different needles and thread. For use in your sewing projects, consult our extensive guide here for a number of common garment fabrics on the market.

Solid Cotton

The fibers of the cotton plant can be woven into a variety of fabrics; they can also be combined with other natural or synthetic fibers to create blended fabrics. In general, cotton is durable, comfortable, and easy to care for. Denim is a coarse twill used primarily for work clothes, jackets, and jeans. Its tight diagonal weave, along with the thickness of its yarn, produces a strong and durable cloth. Traditionally, the warp, or lengthwise, threads are dyed blue and the weft, or crosswise, threads are left natural or white.

Cotton velvet is rich and opulent, having a long suggested luxury. Its soft pile is formed by warp threads that are looped over thin metal rods on a loom. When the rods are removed, the loops remain. Sometimes, the loops are cut, resulting in cut velvet. Cotton velvet comes in many weights and is appropriate for upholstery, clothing, and decorative accessories; silk, rayon, or blended-fiber velvet is also available. Clean velvet with a soft, dry brush, or dry-clean. To avoid crushing the pile, steam (do not iron) to remove wrinkles.

The term twill refers to a specific type of weave in which the weft threads pass over one and then under two or more warp threads (as opposed to a plain weave, which has one of each); the result is a distinctive diagonal pattern. Cotton twill is often used to make khaki pants, military wear, and work clothes. Corduroy, like velvet, features a lush pile. It is characterized by vertical pile ridges, which can be wide or narrow. The width of the ridges is known as the wale; while often referred to as "fine" or "wide," wale can also be denoted by a number that indicates the number of ridges per inch.

Canvas, also called duck cloth or sailcloth, is extremely tough and is commonly used to make tote bags or outdoor upholstery. Its thick fibers—usually cotton, but sometimes linen or synthetic—are tightly woven in a plain weave. Muslin, an inexpensive plain-weave cotton, is usually undyed. It is often used as a lining or to make a practice version of a garmet or slipcover, to test for fit. Terry cloth, most commonly used to make bath towels and robes, is absorbent because of its looped pile of thick cotton yarns. It can have a pile on one or both sides.

Flannel can be made from cotton, wool, or a wool blend. Although it is popular for baby clothes and bedding, its softness makes it a nice choice for lining winter garments. Chambray, made of cotton or cotton-synthetic blends, is a plain-weave fabric. The warp threads are dyed and the weft threads are left white, as they are for denim. It is used for making clothing, especially shirts. Poplin is durable cotton that has a tightly woven plain weave and slight horizontal ribs. It is a good choice for children's and lightweight adult clothing. Cotton voile is lightweight and sheer—perfect for clothing and for breezy curtains.

blue and yellow patterned cotton fabric
Credit: Laurie Frankel

Patterned Cotton

When sewing with fabrics that feature large patterns, be sure to align the pattern at the seams. You may need to purchase an extra B/e yard (23cm) or B/c yard (45.5cm) to cut and match the fabric correctly.

Lace, developed in Europe in the 15th century, is a textile that was traditionally made by looping and twisting threads by hand to create ornamental motifs; modern lace is machine made. In the early days of hand-crafted lace, different regions became famous for their distinctive patterns; many of those patterns are still used. Venise lace (also called guipure) features heavy, raised motifs joined by connecting threads called "brides." Alençon lace, a thicker, more sculptural fabric, consists of floral designs that are outlined by a fine silk cord. Chantilly lace is characterized by botanical motifs worked into a mesh background. Lace is usually white or off-white, but colored lace can also be found.

Although it looks like lace, eyelet is made quite differently. Sections of fabric are cut away from a piece of cloth; the cutouts are then embroidered with thread, which keeps the cloth from unraveling. Eyelet comes in many patterns and is available both as yardage and trim.

To capitalize on the popularity of the polka in the late 19th century, one enterprising American textile manufacturer coined the term "polka dot" to describe the dots on one of his fabrics. The name stuck, and today the term refers to round, evenly spaced dots of identical size. Ticking is a sturdy, tightly woven cloth made of cotton or linen, which gets its strength from having more warp, or lengthwise, yarn than weft, crosswise; it's traditionally used to make mattress covers.

Dotted Swiss, also called Swiss dot, this pattern features raised polka dots on a background of light, sheer cotton. Dotted Swiss can be used for making curtains and clothing, including children's garments. Gingham is a distinct two-tone-over-white checkered pattern. It can be made of cotton or blended fibers and is well suited to lightweight summer clothing and household linens.

Shirting is a fabric often used to make men's and women's shirts. It is made of cotton or cotton-synthetic blends, and can be a solid color or patterned. Yarn-dyed patterns do not fade; printed patterns often do. Choose the type that best suits the appearance you hope to achieve. Calico, in the United States, refers to inexpensive, lightweight cotton with a small printed pattern. It is used to make quilts, craft projects, and clothing. (In the United Kingdom, "calico" refers to what is known as muslin in the United States.) Seersucker is a lightweight cotton or synthetic blend that features alternating puckered and smooth stripes or checks. The puckers in the fabric are thought to allow air to circulate under the fabric, making it ideal for summer clothing.

orange hued silk fabric
Credit: Laurie Frankel

Silk

Spun from the delicate threads of silkworms (caterpillars of the moth Bombux mori), silk originated in China and has been treasured the world over for thousands of years. Used for interior decoration as well as in fashion, it is strong, lightweight, and takes dye well, allowing for brilliantly colored fabrics with a natural luster. Because it takes many silkworms to produce even a small amount of silk—12 pounds of silkworm cocoons produce a pound of silk—pure silk fabric can be costly. However, blended fabrics such as linen-silk or cotton-silk often retain many of silk's desirable qualities, but are less expensive. Some silks may be gently hand-washed, although dry-cleaning is recommended for most. Do not wring wet silk, as the fibers become weaker when wet; to dry, roll the fabric inside a towel to absorb excess water. Never spot-clean silk, as water may leave a mark.

Organza is a very fine, crisp sheer silk that has a slight sheen. It is often used for formalwear and formal home décor, such as table linens. Satin has a glossy shimmer on one side and a dull surface on the other. To achieve its perfectly smooth finish, the fabric is usually made from very high-quality silk, which can be expensive. Less costly satin is made from cotton or synthetic fibers. Silk velvet has a greater luster and warmth than velvets made of cotton or synthetic materials; it is also more expensive.

Shantung is a form of slub silk—fabric with a rough, nubby texture—that originated in China's Shangdong Province. It is often used to make elegant women's suiting, pillows, and other home accessories. Raw silk, also called silk noil, is made from shorter silk fibers and has a dull sheen, loose weave, and rough texture. It is slightly bulky and has a gentle drape. It is excellent for home décor. Damask has a reversible pattern woven into the cloth; it is commonly used for upholstery, drapery, and table linens. It features subtle tonal motifs and has a soft sheen. It can also be made from linen.

blue and tan hued linen fabric
Credit: Laurie Frankel

Linens

Made from flax, linen is one of the oldest textiles in human history. It is extremely strong and durable, and can be fairly heavy, yet feels light and cool against the skin. Its properties and beautiful drape make it ideal for warm-weather wear, bedding, and table linens. You will find it in natural hues such as wheat-colored or silvery white, or dyed to brilliant shades, as well as solid or patterned. Linen softens if machine-washed, a trait some people find desirable; if you prefer your linen crisp, dry-clean it. Wash, dry, and press (or dry-clean) linen before sewing it.

Heavyweight upholstery linen will stand up to years of wear and tear. Use it to cover furniture such as chairs, sofas, ottomans, and headboards. Homespun linen, as its name suggests, is loosely woven with a textured surface, made to resemble handmade cloth. Damask is woven in such a way that the pattern on one side is the inverse of the other, so it has no "wrong" side. It is often woven from threads in similar shades, although you can find all kinds of color combinations. Linen damask is especially popular for tablecloths and napkins.

Linen mesh has a loose weave that makes it easy to fringe. It is a good choice for table linens or curtains. Handkerchief is a lightweight, fine linen ideal for making blouses and other warm-weather garments, baby clothes, and handkerchiefs. It feels smooth to the touch and is slightly sheer. It makes a pretty background for embroidery. Coated linen is treated with a layer of plastic or vinyl to make it water-resistant and easy to clean. This fabric is similar to oilcloth.

blue and cream hued wool fabric
Credit: Laurie Frankel

Wool

Warm and insulating, wool is manufactured in many weights and styles, from lightweight suiting to heavy blanket cloth. Fuzzy, textured fabrics are generally called woolens, while worsted wools—used for suiting—are smoother and finer. True wool comes from sheep; other similar woolly fibers come from animals such as goats (cashmere and mohair), llamas and alpacas, and rabbits (angora). Wool will last a long time if it is properly cared for; most wool fabrics should be dry-cleaned, although some can be hand-washed in cold water. When machine-washed in hot water and tumbled in a dryer, wool can shrink and become felted.

Mohair is a lustrous fabric comes from the hair of Angora goats. The fibers can be either straight or curly, and can be dyed to brilliant shades. Flannel wool, or wool-cotton blend, is extremely soft and warm—ideal for overcoats and blankets. Wool flannel is also used to make men's suits and women's clothing. It can be made with a plain or twill weave, and sometimes has a nap—fuzzy, slightly raised fibers—on one or both sides.

Windowpane is a classic menswear pattern characterized by horizontal and vertical pinstripes. The fabric is worsted wool, which is smooth and lustrous, and most often used for suiting. Herringbone, typically made from wool, refers to a twill-weave fabric with a distinctive V pattern, so named because it resembles the skeleton of a herring fish. It is a popular choice for suiting. Tweed, originally from Scotland, is characterized by its coarse weave, slubby texture, and flecks of color. It comes in a range of colors, from dark or neutral shades to bright hues, and patterns. Tweed can be found in a plain or twill weave.

Cashmere, known for its luxurious texture, is exceptionally lightweight and soft. Like mohair, it comes from goats, not sheep. Because the goats produce usable hair in small quantities, the finished product can be costly. Cashmere blended with other fibers is a less expensive alternative than pure cashmere.

warm toned specialty fabric
Credit: Laurie Frankel

Specialty Fabrics

These fabrics are in a category all their own; each has a special use. Leather and ultrasuede allow you to experiment with texture, while felt is wonderfully easy to work with, making it the go-to choice for a multitude of crafts. These fabrics won't fray or unravel when cut because there are no woven fibers. Oilcloth does have woven fibers, but they are bonded to a vinyl topcoat.

Ultrasuede is a synthetic microfiber fabric with the look and feel of suede. It is available in different weights and is machine washable. Leather is typically sold by the hide and is priced per square foot; look for it at leather stores, online retailers, and some fabric shops. The most common types are cowhide, lambskin, and suede (which can come from a variety of animals). Leathers that are (1.5mm) or thinner can be fed through a sewing machine; use a leather needle, sturdy poly-cotton thread, and a nonstick presser foot. To prevent the leather from tearing, use long stitches and adjust the tension according to your machine's instructions. When using a pattern, secure it to the leather with tape, not pins, then trace around it with a ballpoint pen; cut it out using scissors for curves and a rotary cutter and ruler for straight lines. Instead of ironing seams open, smooth flaps with a bone folder (a bookbinding tool available at crafts stores and online), and secure with leather glue.

Oilcloth was originally made from heavy canvas or cotton coated with linseed oil and paint; today, modern varieties are made from a vinyl top layer bonded to a woven cotton under side. It's durable and easy to clean—just wipe with a sponge or cloth—and is available in a variety of patterns or solid colors. Use it for aprons and bibs, as well as tablecloths.

Polar fleece was invented as a synthetic alternative to wool; it is made in part (and often completely) from recycled materials. Like wool, it is warm and breathable. It is also machine washable and can be somewhat stretchy when blended with Lycra. It's commonly used to make blankets, cold-weather clothing, and sportswear. Felt is a thick, durable fabric made when wool fibers are matted together instead of woven. The felt pictured above is 100 percent wool, but synthetic blends are also available. Felt is available in many colors and thicknesses.

Comments

Be the first to comment!