The right fabric for the job (or the job for the right fabric)?

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My fabric history

I was brought up surrounded by cloth. My father, and his father before him, were involved in the Lancashire cotton industry.

My my father, Druce Barlow
My my father, Druce Barlow
My Grandfather, Albert Barlow
My Grandfather, Albert Barlow

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.

Flat bed screen printing in the 1950s
Flat bed screen printing in the 1950s

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).

  • Floral

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:

  • Linen
  • Cotton
  • Silk
  • Wool
From top to bottom: Linen, Cotton, Silk, Wool.
From top to bottom: Linen, Cotton, Silk, Wool.

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.

Linen stands the test of time
Linen stands the test of time

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;

  • Viscose
  • Acetate

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

  • Nylon
  • Polyester
  • Acrylic
  • Elastane

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.

Like this, only worse.
Like this, only worse.

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.

2014-06-29 09.16.47 2014-06-29 09.17.21

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?


8 Responses

  1. Joyce

    That’s so interesting, and connects a few dots for me- your passion for design and fiber.

    I could go into a long story here about the wrong fabrics I have chosen , but I’ll spare you the details. Lets just say I now realize I live a very casual lifestyle and would be better off sewing for those every day occasions , rather then, lets say a “Stage and Doe” – which I thought was a small dance, (wrong! shiny blue silk dress was going to do me no favours there :~ ( I also recently interlined a poly. patterned (flora/watercolour) material with Linen, because really the pattern called for a fabric with the hand of Linen…………etc etc. you see where I’m going with this…disaster.
    anyhow…. your so right… gotta get the right fabric for the design (and the occasion too :~)
    teehee. I’m trying to buy natural fibers, and I do like the blends. I definitely will pass up on the bright colours, for material that breaths.

    A little catch-up –
    Jacket- Love it! I too don’t like the boxy shape …… did a fabulous job. Great choices, and terrific you can wear it causal with jeans too, that is awesome.
    Over-Under Dressed – I think we all pretty much want to fit in , but… we also want to be unique. People that sew, have a great opportunity to express themselves through their personal choice of fabric and colour etc…….. which is why I think making your own clothing is so cool. I don’t want to be too, outside the norm (over dressed) but I don’t want to be the same as everyone else either (retail dictatorship) or underdressed.
    Joyce (Canada)

  2. fabrickated

    Another insightful reaction from Canadian Joyce! We want to fit in and stand out – yes – that says it precisely. I made a similar point in discussing what to wear for an interview. Sew2Pro made some similar observations. I will have a think about this issue. Thank you for taking the trouble to respond. It means alot to me.

  3. Sarah

    Very interesting – your early experience of the cotton industry. Not sure where my love of textiles comes from, though it’s certainly in the family – my brother’s current blog is about a particular type of fabric that he works with a lot

    Of the many things that you touch on here, I’m interested in how textiles have developed during my lifetime – and in how attitudes to certain textiles have changed. I think the generation before us – vast generalisation – was in thrall to the drip-dry, easy care properties of synthetics, whilst we rediscovered the joys of natural fabrics. It took me a long time – probably til the 90s – to even contemplate wearing anything synthetic. I think it was partly the Japanese designers of the 80s that suggested a different aesthetic. And of course synthetics now are not what they were. Nothing has surpassed silk, cotton, wool, linen – but synthetics add to the options. Probably at their best when being gloriously synthetic?

    • fabrickated

      This is such an interesting response. For my mother drip-dry was a boon and a chance to avoid half an hour a day ironing a single shirt. And how many of us remember with horror Bri-nylon sheets. In a very particular shade of pink. I responded in the same way as you, until I discovered what 2% elastane could do to natural fibres. Today’s synthetics are so much better than they were, and have some special qualities. I don’t know if you have seen the Japanese book Pattern Magic Sarah, but some of the more structured designs really require Neoprene or something similar. It does open up another exciting world.

      • Sarah

        Thanks – yes, I have seen that book. I remember when i came across it thinking how much wider the choices and resources for the home sewer are now compared with when I was first making clothes.

        Despite the – now long gone – department store fabric halls, the choice of patterns and fabrics available then seemed to be based on a limited understanding of what home sewers (well, me at least) wanted to do. I used to cut up old clothes for the fabric (these were the days when you could find Victorian silks and velvets in the church hall jumble sale) and unpick my Biba dresses to make patterns. Fabrics that were widely used commercially – such as cotton jersey – were simply not on sale to the public.

        I do mourn the passing of the large fabric halls, but I think that if you’ve an idea of what you want to make you’ve a much better chance these days of getting hold of the right materials.

        And yes – I do remember Bri-nylon sheets. Was ever a fabric less suited to bed linen? But with the greater emphasis then on standards of housekeeping you can certainly see why Bri-nylon was an attractive alternative to hours spent ironing linen or cotton.

  4. fabrickated

    Spot on Sarah. I used to buy chenielle table cloths and velvet curtains to make jackets and trousers too! And while I agree there are more choices commercial patterns are pretty dire both from the Big4 and most of the independents. That’s why vintage pattens appeal to me – low price, complex interesting contruction, and learning from history. I really appreciate your thoughtful posts.

  5. Sarah

    Ah yes, I’m sure you’re right about commercial patterns. I’ve never used them much – tending to cut freehand (pretty simple stuff) or make patterns from other things – and it’s many years since I’ve looked for one. You are rather inspiring me though in that direction. I know what you mean when you talked – elsewhere – about the pleasure of simply following instructions.

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