If you’ve got a crazy idea for a sewing project, that’s already one step towards the end goal. What will make or break the design is the fabric you use for it. Every fabric has a different weight, texture and sturdiness — the fabric you choose will make a big difference.
So how do you choose the right fabric for your project? In this guide, we’ll look at the various categories of fabric, the general types of fabric, how to choose the perfect fabric and how to buy them online and offline.
What is Fabric?
Cloth is the collective term for fabrics and materials used in making clothes — or at least that’s what the textile industry uses. The process of making fabric starts from raw fibres, which go through a process of being twisted together to make threads. From threads, they are then weaved or knitted to make materials we now know as fabric.
The fibres used can be natural or synthetic. Every type of fibre is unique in terms of its properties — some can be smooth and light and others can be thick and sturdy. You can combine various fibres to make a fabric that has a combination of properties.
Some fabrics have specific properties that are better for specific usage than others — for example, athletic wear should be stretchy and breathable, so preferably a synthetic fibre that has moisture-wicking qualities.
Don’t be scared off by this abbreviation — it stands for grams per square meter. This is the metric used to weigh fabric, and it refers to the thickness of the fabric. The heavier the weight of the fabric, the thicker the fabric is.
You can use the fabric GSM to decide which fabric is more suitable for your project. Usually, t-shirts are made from fabrics weighing between 160gsm and 220gsm. 160gsm t-shirts are thinner and more lightweight than 220gsm t-shirts. You’ll have jeans weighing more because denim is generally a heavier fabric.
Woven vs Knit
Mentioned briefly before is the two types of construction of fabric: woven or knit. Most fabrics are either one of them, and the two have quite a difference.
Woven fabrics are constructed with horizontal and vertical threads interlocking with each other. They also have multiple yarns laid on top of each other. Knit fabrics have single yarns that are looped and braided together. This type of fabric is more flexible and stretchy than woven fabric because of its composition.
If you pull a knit fabric hard, you’ll see the empty gaps in between the braids. Knit fabric will go back to its original shape no matter how hard you pull; woven fabrics are rarely stretchy. Knit fabrics also don’t have wrinkles as compared to woven fabrics. Woven fabrics also fray along the edges as compared to knit fabrics, which will just curl along the edges.
Those are the basic three ways to differentiate between a knit fabric and a woven fabric.
Natural vs Synthetic
Also previously mentioned are the two types of fibres: natural and synthetic fibres. These are the two categories of fabric that you can put all of them into. The main sources of fabrics are animals, plants, minerals and synthetic sources — the first three are classified as natural and the last pointer is classified as synthetic.
Animal sourced fabrics are like wool from sheep and silk from silkworms; plant-sourced fabrics are like cotton, linen and bamboo; mineral-sourced fabric is like glass fibre; synthetic sources include nylon, polyester and acrylic.
When synthetic fibres were introduced as an answer for the drawbacks of natural fibres, it was a total game-changer for the textile industry. All these man-made fibres were created from synthetic sources alone or combined with natural fibres.
These synthetic fabrics are much more versatile and cheaper; natural fabric like wool is more expensive and the sources are becoming more scarce. However, natural fibres like cotton are softer to the touch and more comfortable, so both have pros and cons.
General Types of Fabric
There are tons of types of fabric out there — all with different construction, composition, dyeing processes and finishing. To list them all would be like writing a book, but we’ve shortlisted it to the few general types that are often used by designers and seen in clothes shops.
Of course, cotton is one of the most frequently used fabric in the world. It’s organically grown and the methods of growing have a low impact on the environment — they use non-genetically modified plants or any other synthetic chemicals like fertilisers. Because of this all-natural aspect, organic cotton can cost more expensive than usual.
There is non-organic cotton that is much less expensive but also much more harmful to the environment. Not to mention not as comfortable on the skin.
What it’s good for: tops, bottoms, dresses, jumpsuits, tote bags, pouches, kitchen accessories
Another natural fibre that’s quite common is linen. It’s made from the stalk of flax plants. They’re usually heavier than cotton but also stronger. A lot of hotter climates prefer linen because it’s highly breathable.
What it’s good for: tops, bottoms, dresses, jumpsuits, jackets, blazers, tote bags, pouches
A common type of synthetic fabric is polyester. This term can refer to any type of fabric that’s made from synthetic polymer yarns. Back in the 1970s, polyester was advertised as a “miracle fabric” because it was low in cost but high in durability. However, it’s not a sustainable type of fabric as it’s made from fossil fuels — mainly petroleum.
What it’s good for: tops, bottoms, dresses, jumpsuits, jackets, blazers
Another type of synthetic fabric that’s common is viscose, which is also known as rayon in the USA. It’s made from cellulose that’s chemically extracted from trees — so they’re technically half man-made, half natural. Originally, viscose is created to replace silk.
What it’s good for: tops, bottoms, dresses, jumpsuits
One of the oldest fibres known to man is wool. It was the first fibres that were being spun into yarn and woven into fabric. Most of the wool we know today comes from sheep and goats. You can also get wool from llama and camel. Wool is usually wrinkle-resistant and goes back to shape almost all the time.
What it’s good for: tops, bottoms, dresses, jackets, blazers
This smooth, lustrous fabric is known as satin. It’s a woven fabric constructed with a special type of weave, the satin weave. This is when the warp threads are looped in intervals by the weft threads. Originally, satin was made of silk and was extremely expensive, but nowadays, there is satin that is made of synthetic fibres like rayon and polyester.
What it’s good for: dresses, jumpsuits
Speaking of silk, this fabric is considered one of the most luxurious materials in the world. Silk is made from the cocoons of silkworms. China is the world’s number one manufacturers of silk — it’s there where you can find Silk Road.
What it’s good for: dresses, jumpsuits
Another woven fabric is velvet — you can identify this fabric by its soft touch. The term “velvet” refers to the weave itself rather than the fabric type, but traditionally fibre is made from silk. Back in the day, velvet was reserved for royalty. Nowadays, there is a cotton version of velvet that’s more affordable.
What it’s good for: bottoms, dresses, jumpsuits, jackets, blazers
Leather is not a woven textile nor a knit textile. It’s made from tanning animal rawhides and some consider this fabric type to be the very first fabric. In prehistoric times, animal hides were used to form leather clothing and shelter.
What it’s good for: jackets, blazers, bags
Suede is also made from animal hides, but the inner surface of it. It’s usually visible on the underside of the leather. Suede has a velvety feel to it. Compared to leather, it’s much more flexible and can be more stretchy.
What it’s good for: tops, dresses, jackets
A piece of silky, lightweight fabric is chiffon. Originally, it was made from silk, but ever since a synthetic fibre called nylon was invented, the composition switched to that. The semi-mesh weave of chiffon makes it extremely light but a bit rough on the skin.
What it’s good for: dresses, jumpsuits, lingerie
Spandex is a synthetic fabric that’s also known as lycra and elastane. This is because of its super stretchy quality. It’s made of a type of polymer called polyurethane. Sometimes, spandex can combine with natural fibres like cotton to add more stretch to the fabric.
What it’s good for: athletic wear
How To Choose Fabric
So now that you know the general types of fabric, how do you choose one for your sewing project? Here’s how you can do it:
1. Type of project: What project are you going to do? Is it a garment or is it an accessory?
2: Main features: Think of its function — for example, if it’s a garment, it has to be comfortable; if it’s a bag, it has to be durable. If you’re making a winter garment, it has to be warm; if it’s summer clothing, it has to be breathable.
3: Natural or synthetic: this doesn’t necessarily have to be a big deal, unless if you’re environmentally conscious. Keep in mind that both have their pros and cons.
4: Woven or weave: This links to the main features — of course, if your project requires more stretch, then you would need knit.
5. Weight of fabric: How do you want your garment or product to drape? Will it be a lightweight item where you want it to swish around or does it have to hold a specific shape?
6: Colour and print: This one is all up to you. However you wish your final design to be, pick the coloured or printed fabric from there.
Now that you know how to choose the fabric you want for your project, how do you go about buying that fabric? There are two ways you can buy: online and in-store.
When you go to the store, you get to touch the fabric, see the colour in real life, observe the texture and weigh how heavy the fabric actually is. You can also ask for assistance from the shop staff if you don’t know what you’re looking for exactly or how much you need for your project.
When you’re buying online, you don’t get as many privileges. You have to rely on the description of the fabric.
Either way, you have to keep in mind these points:
Fabric Type: What is the fabric classified under? Especially when you’re browsing online, they can get pretty confusing. Check if it’s woven or knit.
Fabric Content: What is in the fabric? Is it natural, synthetic or a blend of both?
Fabric Width: Sometimes, some rolls of fabrics are shorter than others. It’s usually either 45” or 60”. If you buy fabric that’s coming from a roll that’s 45” tall, you might need more fabric than if you buy from a roll that’s 60” tall.
Country of Origin: Depending on where they come from, the fabrics can be cheaper or more expensive. Some countries are also famous for specific types of fabrics — for example, China and India are some of the top manufacturers of silk, so if you buy silk that’s made from these countries, it has got to be top-quality.
Care Instructions: Some materials are difficult to care for, regardless of whether it’s natural, synthetic or mixed. Make sure you know what they are before buying them. If it’s a fabric that requires tons of care like dry cleaning or hand wash only, you might not want to use it for your day-to-day garments.
You’re now an expert at the general fabric types and how to go about getting the perfect one for your project. What are you waiting for? Go on and browse online or head down to the nearest fabric shop to get the fabrics for your next sewing project!