My fabric history
I was brought up surrounded by cloth. My father, and his father before him, were involved in the Lancashire cotton industry.
Rainshore Ltd, Overtown Rd, Nordon, Rochdale, stared off weaving ribbons on narrow looms, later moved onto bleaching and dyeing, and then in the 1960s moving from cotton to manmade and synthetic fabrics. These fabrics and furnishing cottons were printed with heavy rollers and later with flat-bed screens bought from Japan. I don’t have any photographs of the factory as it is now, sadly, a derelict site.
Often during my childhood I would accompany my father walking around the noisy factory, watching vast Victorian machines fold, roll, print, fix and colour yards and yards of fabric. The noise was immense, the conditions hot and the smell was memorable. Fixative, urea, the hot smell of dye being cured. I am attractive to textile design partly to recreate these evocative smells that take me right back to being about 8 years old. The vats of sloshing colour enchanted me before I understood very much at all. I liked the design room too where I learnt that there were just three textile designs: Floral, Geometric and Pictoral (typical in the 50s).
Although today we have photographic and digital too it could be argued that these actually will fit the existing categories, which is fairly amazing. Back then designs, that take two minutes with Photoshop today, took days of painting each colour onto cellulose sheets with matt maroon (light resist) paint.
There was always fabric around at the factory, and at home. There would be samples and bundles and opportunities to listen to discussions on composition and design when business contacts came round, or were spoken to on the telephone. At home every room had curtains made from fabrics from the factory, although I know my Mum longed for some Sanderson’s instead. Coupled with her interest in clothes and style I have been interested in textiles most of my life, and to some extent regret never going into the family firm.
When I showed my mother the fabric printing I had been doing recently she talked about my father and suggested he would have been proud of my interest.
Typography of Fabric
I think the task of marrying fabric up with the right dressmaking pattern or dress design is quite an art. Getting the right weight, drape and composition for the task can be challenging. Different fibres have different qualities and to some extent every fabric is individual. Sometimes different colours on exactly the same base cloth can affect the fabric differently. Here are some of the issues to consider when choosing fabric (apart from liking the colour or design printed on it).
- Smooth v Textured
- Light v Heavyweight
- Stable v Slippery
- Light reflecting v Matt
- Stable v Unravelling/fraying
- Heat-absorbing v Heat repelling
- Narrow v Wide width
- Natural v Synthetic
- Knitted (jersey) v Woven
- Patterned weave v Smooth
- Woven design v Printed design
- Special finish (eg fire proof ) v Plain
- Napped (eg velvet) v No nap
- Single component v Blend
- Stable v Stretchy/elasticated
- Transparent v Opaque
And so on….
This is just the fabric before we start discussing different weights, qualities, colours and designs. In other words the variety of choices is almost infinite and this make it hard to match a garment design to fabric.
Naturals v Synthetics
This is one of the most important divisions. The most common are:
Personally I prefer natural fabrics because they just feel nicer against the skin. The top two are made from plants; the second derive from animals. Creasing, and therefore ironing is an issue, but luckily my husband does the ironing! They are traditional (Mummies were wrapped in Linen 3000+ years ago and the bandages are still in good condition), widely available, reliable, absorbent, fairly stable and nice to sew. They can be relatively expensive, especially silk. I feel if you are going to the trouble of making something up yourself then get some decent fabric to do it with. I especially like using silk for linings, wool for coats and jackets, linen and cotton for summer clothes and blouses.
Man-made fabrics. These start life as natural materials eg wood pulp, recycled cotton, and other cellulose fibres eg paper which are then transformed into fabric. The most common are;
While viscose feels nice and similar to cotton, it usually has a better drape. Acetate has been used in the cheapest linings, but it is rather horrid and melts if you get nail varnish or remover near it, or a hot iron.
Synthetics (derived from petroleum oil), such as
Personally I have steered clear of a number of these since I had an Acrylic jumper when I was six that stretched each time it was washed until I could wear it as a dress.
However there have been big improvements since then, and many fabrics can be improved by the addition of synthetic yarns. Wool with some polyester for example, will be cheaper and stronger, with a faster recovery from creasing. Synthetics can also improve stability and add elasticity. As they are derived from oil they are easier to manufacture in industrial qualities – allowing the price to be reduced significantly. Most high street clothes are made from synthetics or blends for reasons of economy. Look at the labels before you buy, not just so you know how to clean the garment.
Choosing the right fabric for the job
Some fabrics go together with the garment or design – for example Duchesse silk satin with a wedding dress; heavy cotton/linen blend with a large-scale print for curtains; light weight chambray for a gathered summer skirt; a good quality but lightweight cotton for a summer shirt; tweed for a jacket; polyester crepe for a flimsy blouse, etc. You can break the rules but it is always a risk. If in doubt use what the designer suggests.
The designer will have made up his or her test garments in the fabric proposed, and the design will work best in these fabrics. I actually love the idea of making this nightdress in silk satin, and the “peignoir” in lace, but to be really frank I think the Ocado man might get the wrong idea. Could you recognise all these fabrics if you saw and felt them? If you can’t find, or afford, them (and making this set will need something like 8m) – the suggestions can be challenged.
What do the suggested fabrics have in common? All are light weight, opaque (translucent for the dressing gown), lightly coloured, cool, drapey, delicate. Then think of a fabric you can find that has these qualities. For example you could make the night-dress in a lightweight cotton, and the dressing gown in a polyester chiffon. Or make the short nighty in a light weight linen or viscose, and chose a transparent fabric with an embroidered detail for the dressing gown? Choosing non-approved fabrics like velvet, wool jersey or a cheap poly cotton would lead to something quite horrid; but if you are experienced you can go off -piste. Extra care will be needed during the construction and it might be a bit of a risk, but you may get a good result.
I meet people in Simply Fabrics or John Lewis with a “bought pattern” in their hand, carefully selecting an appropriate fabric. I almost always go the other way round. I buy fabric I like and then think of something to make from it. I wonder which is the more common approach?