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Fabric Basics

There are many different elements to consider when selecting fabrics for your new project. Below is a description of the pros and cons on choosing certain fabrics over others.

Selecting Synthetics

Technically speaking, synthetics such as polyester and nylon are produced chemically, while rayon is made from plant material regenerated into fibers. They are often grouped together because they are all man-made fibers and because they share many of the same characteristics.

Rayon has been available since 1910. It has improved a great deal since then and is nearly as comfortable as cotton, only more flowing. It can be hand washed and ironed with a warm iron. Never use a hot iron on it or it will burn and pucker up.

Though they are usually easy to care for, washable, and permanent press, pure synthetics do not breathe. Because of this, they are not as comfortable to wear as natural fabrics. They also fray more than natural fabrics, making them unsuitable for some projects.

When they are mixed with linen, cotton, or wool, however, synthetics add many of their desirable qualities to the natural fibers. These blends, especially cotton/polyester, are often the best choices for garment construction, being both easy to sew and easy to care for afterward. They keep their crisp, like-new appearance longer than the natural fabrics do

Cotton’s Strengths and Weaknesses

Either as pure cotton or mixed with synthetic fibers, cotton is often the best choice because it is soft, washable, generally colorfast, and easy to work with. Most cotton is plain weave, which means the fabric has a flat even texture. Cotton can range in weight from sheer gauze to heavy canvas. It comes in a seemingly limitless array of solids and prints.

Cotton will fade eventually with repeated washing but is actually more vulnerable to the sun. In spite of this, it is a very popular cloth for outdoor wear because it breathes; that is, it allows air to pass through it. It is also absorbent and wicks sweat away from your body.

A Look at Linen

Linen is similar to cotton and is made from the fibers in the stems of the flax plant. It has been around for more than 7,000 years. Ancient Egyptians grew flax along the Nile River and wrapped their mummies in it before placing them in their tombs. Through Roman times, the Middle Ages, and colonization of the Americas, it remained the most popular fabric. It wasn’t until the invention of the cotton gin in 1793, which made cotton cheaper to produce, that linen slipped in popularity Flax isn’t grown commercially in the United States, and all linen is imported.

Linen fabric is tougher than cotton and wears longer. It is even more absorbent than cotton, making it particularly popular in hot climates. It tends to wrinkle worse than cotton and is often mixed with other fibers to make it more crease-resistant. Linsey-woolsey is a mixture of linen and wool and has been around since the fifteenth century A silk-and-linen mix is shiny and softer than pure linen.

Choosing Wisely

Besides a little background into the types of fabric available, there are a few general things to consider as you shop for fabric. To make this easier, let’s begin with some fabric and fabric store terms.

Fabric is generally sold by the yard or fraction of a yard and is sometimes referred to as yard goods. It is usually displayed at the store in large rolls called bolts. The tightly woven edges of the fabric are called selvages. The threads that run parallel to them are called lengthwise or warp threads. The cut edge is called the raw edge, and the threads running along that direction are called crosswise or weft threads. The bias is an imaginary line running diagonally across these two threads at a 45-degree angle. This line has the most stretch.

What Does It Look Like?

Once you’ve found the type of fabric you need for your project, you will probably be attracted to certain colors or prints. If you are buying fabric to coordinate with something else, be sure to bring it (or a swatch of the material you’re trying to match, if it’s difficult to carry around) with you so you can see them together. Take the bolt of fabric near a window if you can, so you can see how the fabric looks in natural light. It may look very different than it does under artificial lights in the store.

Often fabric is folded right sides together when it is wound on the bolt. Be sure you unroll it enough that you can see both sides. In fact, you ought to unroll enough of the fabric that you can play with it a little. Let some fall over your hand.

Knowing Your Knits

Nearly any of the fibers already mentioned can be knitted instead of woven. The most common knit fabrics, however, are cotton jersey and polyester knits.

Jersey is lightweight, stretchy, and a bit tricky to work with. Special care needs to be taken to ensure the pieces keep their shape while you are stitching. If the fabric stretches and the seam does not, the thread in the seam is going to break. To avoid this, you must stitch with a narrow zigzag stitch or a special stretch stitch, which is usually two stitches forward and one back.

The heavier polyester knits, especially double knits, were very popular in the 1970s. They are less stretchy than jersey, so they are easier to work with and make extremely easy-care garments. They are mostly out of style now, but a few polyester knits might be found. They are great for some craft projects because they do not ravel, and the interlocking double-knit process keeps them from being prone to runs like regular knits.

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