Understanding slippery, floaty fabrics for dressmaking
One of the many benefits of dressmaking is that there are always new skills to learn and ways that you can challenge yourself. Working with fabrics that slip and float and drape certainly bring another dimension to your project and can be more work to handle, but totally worth it when you have a gorgeous garment to breeze about in!
For this part of my fabric focus series I’ve grouped a few different kinds of fabric together that all have the same characteristic of being lightweight with lots of drape.
To hear me chat about these fabrics and see how they move and float in real life, check out my latest Youtube video.
General tips and points to remember
They can be made from a variety of fibres ranging from polyester to viscose, modal and silk.
This type of fabric can vary in thickness, some can be slightly transparent but even the opaque ones will still move around a lot and float.
Within each type of fabric that I talk about there is lots more detail you can get into but I’ve tried to keep things as succinct and relevant to the home dressmaker as possible
Some of the patterns I will mention can be sewn with other types of fabric that are less slippery so the main thing to imagine when you think of a garment made from these fabrics is that it will hang and flow and move around a lot.
How they are made
All the fabrics that I mention in this post are woven fabrics. They usually have the simple under/over grid like weave to them.
Sometimes they might have a twill weave, which gives that diagonal texture to the fabric (below left).
Sometimes they might have a texture woven into them like a dobby spot or diamond texture (below centre).
Sometimes they are woven in a way that gives them a very subtle crinkle or pebble texture - this is called crepe (below right).
They can vary in thickness and some are more opaque than others but even the heavier ones will still be lovely and floppy with good drape.
At the top end of this floaty fabric scale is silk which is made by the silkworn caterpillar. The silk thread is actually the cocoon the caterpillar makes for itself before turning into a moth. The cocoon gets unravelled and the thread it produces then gets woven into silk fabric.
Other floaty fabrics are made from a variety of fibres including viscose, rayon, modal, tencel, lyocell and cupro. All of these fibres are made from regenerated cellulose fibres.
All of these fibres start as a cellulose base, usually made from wood pulp but it can also come from another plant such as bamboo, flax, hemp or cotton linter (which is a waste product from the cotton plant).
They then go through various chemical processes, some of which are more environmentally friendly than others. As the manufacturing process is so involved with many stages these types of fibres sit between being a natural fibre (as the base does come from plants) and being man-made.
Tencel, cupro, modal and lyocell are produced in a ‘closed loop’ process, which means the chemicals can be extracted afterwards and the water reused.
Viscose and rayon usually produce more waste products Peach skin fabric is commonly made from polyester which is a completely synthetic man made fibre. It’s made in a way that the right side of the fabric has been sort of brushed given a very light fuzzy feel to it – just like a peach skin!
Check out the Tencel website for lots of more information about this fabric and its environmental credentials - it's super interesting!
How to wash and care for lightweight, slippery fabrics
This will depend on what the fabric is actually made from
Man-made fibres like polyester can be washed in the washing machine at 40 degrees and air dried and they are unlikely to shrink
Viscose, rayon and modal can shrink a little so it’s a must to pre-wash them. I tend to use a cooler 30 degree setting and air dry them. They can feel a little stiff and wrinkly when they come out of the wash but once they dry and you iron them they will return to their soft floaty selves.
Silk needs to be handled with more care and hand washed as it’s a must more delicate fibre. I usually use Soak, which is a really mild detergent and actually doesn’t even need to be fully rinsed out.
Tips for working with them
Needles – a size 70 is probably best for these fabrics but I have to admit, sometimes if I don’t have one to hand I’ll use a size 80. You can always check what the stitching looks like on a small scrap and see if it looks like its leaving big holes in the fabric. For densly woven fabrics or prints with a darker background a micro tex needle is best!
Pins – I use my super fine pins when working with light weight fabric like this. They are much more gently on the fabric and don’t snag or leave a mark.
Thread – I still use regular gutermann sew all thread (which is made from polyester) when sewing with these types of fabric.
Cutting out – this can be tricky compared to a more stable cotton, for example, but as long as you are prepared to take your time you’ll be fine. The main this is making sure that the grainline of the fabric is square on the table.
First, look to see if the fabric as been cut or torn from the bolt or roll of fabric. If it's been torn you can use this to your advantage as fabric will always tear along the grain, or direction of threads that has woven the fabric. So, you know a tear is at a 90 degree angle to the selvedge.
Fold your fabric in half with the selvedge’s together and pin them in place. Make sure the torn edge of the fabric is also lining up. And you may want to pin this as well.
Next, use the corner edges of the table or cutting mat and make sure that the fold is along one edge and the torn side of the fabric is along the other edge of the table. You’ll then need to spend a bit of time smoothing all the fabric out and making sure there are no wrinkles. Weighing the fabric down in places might along help, just used tins of food if you haven’t got any real pattern weights.
One option for cutting out is using a rotary cutter and pattern weights as it means the fabric can stay totally flat on the table. You’ll need a large self-healing mat on the table, so it’s not always totally practical unless you plan to work with this type of fabric a lot.
Stabilising the fabric (with forming tape interfacing) - Often with garments the instructions will ask you to stay stitch certain parts of the fabric during construction, for example the neckline, to stop it from stretching out. Stay-stitching is just a single line of stitching close to the edge of the fabric can help to hold it in place. From my experience this can be hard to do on really lightweight fabrics so instead I use forming tape interfacing. It’s made from woven interfacing that is cut on the bias and it has a chain stitch running along its length. You just iron this onto the wrong side of the fabric, wherever you need to stay stitch and it’s a really nice quick and easy way stabilise the fabric.
Sewing seams – as this fabric is so flimsy sometimes when you come to start sewing a seam, if you don’t have enough fabric under the foot of the machine when you start it can seem like the machine is eating the fabric, like it’s getting pushed or sucked into the plate of the machine. If this happens start a little bit further down on the fabric so the machine has more fabric to grip onto. You can also hold the thread tails out to the back of the machine with your left hand and gently pull on them until you get going and the machine is easily feeding the fabric.
French seams work well with this type of fabric and look really professional!
Why choose slippery fabrics to work with?
Despite being trickier to work with these fabrics really do make beautiful garments. they feel really lovely to wear and soft and breathable.
You don’t get any static build up
The colour retention is really good and they are strong and robust.
Pattern recommendations and what to make
So to recap the types of fabrics that fall into this category are silk, rayon, viscose, tencel, modal, peachskin and cupro.
All of these fabrics are suitable for a wide range of projects so I’ve sectioned out pattern recommendations by style and type of garment. Some are slightly lighter weight than others, if the fabrics are described as having a twill weave then they are usually thicker so good for bottom garments. If it has a 'dobby spot' or texture woven into it, it's likely that this will be lighter in weight so better for tops and blouses, or dresses that are lined.
Loose and breezy with little details like frills, gathers, tucks and pleats work really nicely.
Shirts and Blouses
The light weight of these fabrics makes delicate work like collars, cuffs and button plackets look lovely and crisp and neat.
Skirts with a fuller style work well as they allow the fabric to swish and move around nicely. Gathers or panels are great, pleats are too - they are just a little more fiddly to get right.