The easiest and least expensive fabric for beginners to work with is a plain weave fabric made of cotton fiber.
To be clear, cotton is not a fabric. Cotton is a fiber that comes from a plant. Once the cotton plant has matured the cotton fibers are removed from the plant. The cotton fibers are processed into yarn, which is then woven into a fabric.
For this lesson we won’t be going very deep into textiles. Here I’ll just discuss the fabric and it’s properties. When more advanced properties of fabrics are required, those will be discussed at that time.
The fabric I’m going to be using, as I mentioned before, will be the least expensive and easiest fabric for beginners. This fabric is called “muslin”.
Muslin is a very basic fabric, most commonly made of cotton and is woven with a plain weave process. The plain weave process is when two yarns are woven perpendicular to each other, and alternate running over and under each other at an “every other” interval interlocking each other. I know that sounds pretty confusing so I’ll demonstrate while I explain.
WARP & WEFT (Straight Grain & Cross Grain)
Before I can demonstrate the weaving process, I want to call out 2 properties of fabric that are very important. You’ll need to understand these properties before you cut any fabric for projects. These two properties are called the “straight grain” and the “cross grain”. In the fashion industry you may hear people call them by their technical names, the “warp”, which is the “straight” grain and “weft” which is the “cross” grain. The “cross” grain is also referred to as the “filling”. So, which is the straight grain and which is the cross grain? Well, I actually just gave you a clue when I called the cross grain the “filling.
The straight grain yarns of the fabric are the yarns that run the entire length of the fabric. You could also think of these yarns as the foundation of the fabric. The cross grain yarns are the yarns that “fill” in running cross-wise perpendicularly to the straight grain yarns. The cross wise yarns will also jump over and under every other straight grain yarn, which locks both straight grain and cross grain yarn in place.
There are two other properties of fabric you will also need to understand. You will need to understand the selvage and the bias of the fabric. These are not as important as understanding the straight grain and cross grain, but these are properties of the fabric that you will need to be able to identify before laying out the patterns and cutting.
The selvage of the fabric is the side of the width of the fabric. There are two selvages because there two sides of the fabric. The usable fabric runs between the selvage edges. If you look closely at the selvage edge of the fabric, you will notice that it is more tightly woven than the main fabric area. When weaving, the sides are automatically finished and the selvage is more tightly woven to keep it from unraveling when cut.
The bias of the fabric is inherent to the weave. The bias is the diagonal area of the fabric. If plain weave fabric is yarn running perpendicular to each other, which is a 90-degree angle, then the bias is any angle on the fabric between 0 and 90 degrees. True bias runs 45 degrees to the perpendicular weave.
Why are these properties so important? Understanding the properties of fabrics relates directly to the patterns you will be using. All of the patterns that you will be using will have information on them that contains the name of the pattern or style number. It will also have the fabric code you will use in relationship to the pattern piece and garment; it usually will not have a specific type of fabric. For instance, if there is a main fabric, or if the garment is made completely of the same fabric, that fabric will be called “self”. If there are two or more types of fabric, then the fabric that is used the most will be called “self” and the other fabrics will be called “contrast”. For multiple “contrast” fabrics, they will be called “contrast 1”, “contrast 2”, “contrast 3” and so on. There will also be cut amounts, or the number of times the pattern piece needs to be cut.
On commercial patterns for home use if a piece needs to be cut twice, it will just say “Cut 2”, but doesn’t say whether or not the pattern piece needs to be flipped over for a left and a right. The reason for this is because home patterns rely on folding the fabric in half lengthwise, which would automatically create a left and a right when the piece is cut just one time. However, in the fashion/apparel production environment fabric is not folded, so the cut amount is written a bit differently. If there is a left and a right to be cut, the cut amount would read “Cut 1 Pair”, by using the word “Pair” the marker maker/cutter knows that there needs to be a left and right piece, so the one pattern piece will need to be flipped over to cut for the opposite piece. In today’s computer world, this will be a setting that the patternmaker or marker maker will input into the computer and the flip will happen automatically when the marker is printed. If there is no indication that a pattern is a pair or needs to be flipped, two of the exact same pattern piece will be cut.
There is other information on the pattern piece such as the pattern piece name itself, front, back, sleeve, etc.…And there will also be notches cut out around the perimeter which aid in matching different pieces and sewing. Notches are very important in sewing. Do not forget to clip the notches. Notches tell you how the garment should be sewn. Notches are also used for controlling gathers, pleats, darts, and tucks and so many other design details. You will become more aware of notches and their uses as we experience them in the exercises and projects.
Now, for the most important marking on the pattern, the grain line! The grain line tells you how to place the pattern piece on the fabric. The grain line usually runs the full length of the pattern and has arrowheads on both ends. This is the important part so imagine I am speaking in all caps when I say this, THE GRAIN LINE ON THE PATTERN PIECE MUST BE LAID IN THE SAME DIRECTION AS THE STRAIGHT GRAIN OF THE FABRIC. And now I’ll say it a different way, again in caps, THE GRAIN LINE ON THE PATTERN PIECE, MUST BE PARALLEL TO THE SELVAGE OF THE FABRIC. It doesn’t matter what the pattern piece loos like, the grain line on that pattern piece must always follow these rules; the same direction as the straight grain, which is also parallel to the selvage.
What if you don’t have a selvage? It can happen. Sometimes the selvage will have been ripped off, or you are using a smaller piece scrap fabric. For whatever reason there is not a selvage to help you lay your pattern piece down, there are ways to find the straight grain. As mentioned before the straight grain runs the length of the fabric, they are the foundation and there are usually a high number of yarns between the selvages, depending on the quality of the fabric. The cross grain is usually less dense than the straight grain yarns which allows the cross grain to give or slightly stretch. Look closely at the yarns in the weave. Notice the perpendicular yarns. Using both hands pull the fabric side to side in one of the directions of the yarns. If the fabric does not give or slightly stretch, that is the straight grain. If the fabric gives, that would be the cross grain. Make sure when you do this test that you are not pulling the bias, which is at an angle, not perpendicular.
There is another way to tell, but it is difficult to do this on camera, but I’ll try to explain. Identify the perpendicular yarns. You’ll need take the fabric in both hands at least a 6” distance and then quickly tug several times to produce a sound. In one direction the sound that is produced is high pitched, and in the other direction it is low pitched. The high pitch direction is the straight grain.
Now you have two methods to find the straight grain.
Fabric weight is another attribute you need to consider. Light weight, Medium weight and Heavy weight. Lightweight fabrics like chiffon or voile have a very loose and open weave, meaning you can see through it, and it drapes very softly. Medium weight is a more densely and tighter woven fabric such as this muslin I’m going to use, but there are also many other types of medium weight fabrics such as this quilter’s cotton and also the linen. The medium weight fabric still drapes nicely, but not a softly as a lightweight fabric. Heavy weight fabrics tend to very crisp. They don’t drape very well and are much more dense and have a very tight weave. The yarns to produce the weave are most times larger than light and medium weight fabrics. Some heavy weight fabrics you may identify quickly are twill, denim, which is a type of twill and canvas.
You may also hear other’s say “Top weight” or “Bottom weight”. Top refers to garments worn above the waist, and bottom refers to garments worn at or below the waist. A top weight fabric would be light to medium weight, while bottom weight fabric would be medium to heavy. Of course these are not hard and fast rules, it will also depend on the fabric weave. Fabrics are a great source of inspiration for designers. Experiment with different fabrics types and weights to gain a greater understanding of how fabrics work.
Prepare your fabric before cutting. If the project will need to be washed, I would suggest washing the fabric prior to use. I wouldn’t want you to spend hours making a garment that you won’t be able to wear after you wash it! Wash and dry the fabric as you would if it were a garment already made. You will need to press the fabric after you remove it from the dryer. Try to iron in the direction of the straight grain. This will help realign yarns that have gotten out of place.
Once the fabric has been ironed, you will need to realign the grain of fabric. The nice thing about working with cotton is that it is easy to realign the grain line. You will need to establish a clean edge across the cross grain. Using your scissors, clip into the fabric at the selvage about 1” from the top of the fabric. Then grab the fabric at the sides of the clip and pull to rip the fabric across the cross grain. Do this on both edges.
If you look closely, you can see the individual cross grain yarns that pull out easily revealing the straight grain yarns. This gives the fabric a good edge. Using this edge as a balance, check to see if the selvages are running perfectly perpendicular to that edge. If you have a cutting mat that has a grid, you can line the edge up with one of those lines to check for the perpendicular selvages.
If your edges are not perpendicular, the fabric is “off-grain” and needs to be reset. Stretch the fabric in the opposite direction along the bias. Stretching the fabric this way pulls the yarns back to the original position. Do this until the selvages are perpendicular to the ripped edge.
What happens is you don’t realign your “off-grain” fabric? Have you ever had a pant leg twist around your ankle? How about a shirt that always twisted to one side? That’s what happens when fabric is cut “off-grain”.
When considering the fabrics you will use, you will also need to take into consideration the interfacing that will be required for the product you are making. In the apparel production environment you’ll hear people refer to it as “interlining”. Interfacing is a specialty fabric that stabilizes certain areas of the product while sewing, such as zippers, hems, facings, and areas that have a lot of details. Choosing the appropriate interfacing for your product is as important as the main fabric of your garment. Don’t skimp on the interfacing.
There are several types of interfacing but I’m only going to discuss a few. There are woven and knit interfacings. These two types come in two variations; sew in and fusible. Sew in interfacing is applied exactly as it sounds. It must be sewn into the area where the product needs stabilizing or structure. Fusible has glue on one side and is applied using an iron to get it to stick to the fabric.
When choosing the correct interfacing, keep in mind that you want the interfacing to be about the same weight as the fabric or lighter. There are exceptions to this rule, such as when you want a shirt collar or cuff to be very stiff, then you could use a heavy stiff interfacing. If you are unsure about the weight to buy, purchase a much lighter weight interfacing than your fabric. This will enable you to layer the interfacing if you decide you need a stiffer appearance. An additional consideration is how you would prefer to apply the interfacing, either by sewing it in or fusing it to the fabric. Fusible will of course take much less time than sew in. If you choose sew in, you will need to sew it to the wrong side of the fabric, then trim the seam allowance of the interfacing to 1/8” from the stitch line.
I prefer using fusible interfacings, specifically this type of interfacing. Pellon EK-130 Easy Knit Fusible Interfacing. This is fusible knit interfacing. The reason I like this interfacing is that it is lightweight, has a wonderful drape and is fusible. The best thing about this interfacing is that it is very easy to build up by fusing additional pieces on top of each other, while maintaining it’s drape and softness. Although this is a knit, it can be used on woven fabrics with great success. This is usually the only type of interfacing I buy, and it’s great because I can use it on both woven and knit fabrics. It is expensive, but well worth it! I would suggest buying this when you purchase your fabric.
There is one more thing about interfacings I would like to mention. Interfacings really play an important role in clothing construction. However, you (the designer) must decide what level of sewing you want to perform. For instance, if you want to sew [haute] couture or designer category styles, you would only use high quality sew in interfacings. Using fusible interfacings are mainly used in mass produced apparel at the ready to wear category and below. Understand though, that if you are doing personal sewing for clients you’ll need to consider the style of garment your customer is wanting and the price point they are willing to spend with you.
As mentioned at the beginning of this section, muslin is the least expensive fabric for beginners to use. It is made from Cotton, which is a fiber, not a fabric. However, muslin is typically not a very attractive fabric. As a suggestion, for your projects use only fabrics made of cotton, try to avoid any blended with polyester or nylon. These fabrics tend to stretch and as a beginner you will appreciate a more stable fabric. If you are unsure when you are at the fabric store or purchasing fabrics online, Quilters cotton is always a safe choice. COTTON SHRINKS!!! Always by extra fabric if you are making clothing. I usually buy an extra ¼ yard.
Before you head out to the fabric store, sit down with the pattern you want to make, and make a list of all the supplies you will need. If you plan on looking through pattern books at the store, bring along a note pad and pencil to write down the items you will need once you decide on a pattern.
Things you would need to consider, the main fabric, lining fabric, interfacing, thread, buttons, elastic, hooks and eyes, drawstring etc.… You may not need all of these items for your product, but I wanted to mention the most common so you get the idea. I cannot stress enough that planning out your sewing project before hand, leads to much less stress along the way. Don’t purchase buttons after you make the shirt, purchase them at the time you purchase the fabric. Don’t purchase the drawstring or elastic after you’ve made the pant. Buy everything at the same time. Here’s a hypothetical situation, you’ve just finished that shirt you’ve been working tirelessly on, but you can’t wear it tomorrow because you didn’t buy the buttons when you bought the fabric. Now you will have to wait until you have time to go back to the fabric store. How long will it be before that happens? I think you get the idea!