Fabric Focus Series

Understanding woven cotton fabric for dressmaking
Part One

Blog / 9 January 2019

Trying to understand all the different types of fabric out there can seem like a daunting task, not just for beginners but for more experienced dressmakers too. There are different technical names, weights, thicknesses, fibre mixes and weaves, so it can all feel a bit overwhelming.

In this new fabric focus series, I hope to make things a bit clearer for those of you planning a dressmaking project because matching the right fabric to the right pattern to achieve the look you want is key to a successful project that will become part of your handmade wardrobe.

If you prefer hearing chat about this, check out my new Youtube video where I show you lots of fabrics close up to help show and explain the different types of cotton. 

There are some general points to note and remember….

  • When matching fabric to a pattern, it's important to remember that different fabrics can be used to make the same pattern/garment. Depending on your choice the style and look of the garment will change and this usually comes down to how the fabric drapes and moves. So as well as considering what the fabric is actually made of it’s vital to consider it’s thickness and how it behaves when you move it around.
  • Sometimes fabric is described by its weight in grams per square meter or gsm but this number can be hard to put into context and the information isn’t always available. So it’s common for fabrics to be described by more subjective terms such as light or medium weight.
  • As you learn about different fabrics and get used to feeling them and handling them, you’ll realise that the name given to them will ring a bell in your head about how it would hang or look on your body. Thicker, heavier fabric will hold it's shape and structure whereas thinner fabric will move, flop and drape more – each giving a different look.
  • It’s also worth bearing in mind that some of the fabrics I mention can also be made from other types of fibres such as silk, wool, polyester, linen or a mixture of different fibres.

Focus on Woven cotton

This first post will focus on cotton fabric, specifically woven cotton fabric and I’m going to take look at things from a dressmaker’s point of view. The cotton fibre or thread can be used to make lots of different fabric such as stretchy fabric and denim, but as they are such big areas themselves I’ll cover them in a separate post.

As the type and quality of cotton can vary so much I’ve narrowed things down to the common types of cotton that you will see listed as recommended fabric options on dressmaking pattern envelopes along with the most popular types of cotton fabric that we have available in the shop.

Why choose cotton fabric for dressmaking?

  • It’s easy to sew with – this is especially useful if you are still new to dressmaking. It won’t slip around all over the place. You can use polyester thread or cotton thread to sew with them. Only use cotton thread if the fabric is 100% cotton. Gutermann Sew All thread, which is polyester, is my preference. A size 80 needle in the machine will be fine for the majority of fabrics.
  • It presses really well – ironing and pressing is one of the key things in a successful dressmaking project and cotton will press really neatly, providing a crisp, professional finish -  just make sure you have a good steam iron and press/iron as you progress through your project.
  • Easy to wash – it’s pretty robust, even the lighter, thinner ones, so you can easily put it in the machine. It’s best to pre-wash fabric but with higher quality finer fabric you are unlikely to get much if any shrinkage. Machine washable at 30 or 40 degrees. A cooler wash will help to preserve colour in the fabric. You can tumble dry them too but some say it will make the clothes last longer if you air dry or partial air dry, so tumble dry them and whilst they are still a little damp, hang them up to dry.
  • Cool to wear – as it’s a natural fibre it won’t make you all hot and sticky like synthetic fibres do.

How they are made

Cotton has been around for centuries and is made from the cellulose fibres of the cotton plant. These fibres then get spun into threads that are then woven into fabric. The quality can vary depending on the length of these fibres. The longer the fibre the better quality the fabric will be in terms of durability and colour retention. Fabrics made from shorter fibres of cotton can go bobbley and look duller after a shorter time in use.

The threads can also be different thicknesses too. A thinner thread woven densely will produce a lighter weight more durable fabric than a thicker thread in a looser weave.

The threads can be woven in different ways and this can also make the fabric thicker or thinner. A simple under/over weave is the most basic one, where as in a ‘twill’ weave the threads that weave in and out and off set, which gives a diagonal texture to the fabric and means the threads can be more densely woven together.

Types of cotton fabric and what to do with them

To make this most relevant to the home dressmaker who is using sewing patterns to make clothes, I’ve selected the most common types of terms used in the ‘suggested fabric’ section. The list is not exhaustive and you may come across others.

Sometimes fabrics will have different names that get used interchangeably, but as patterns usually suggest several types of fabric, there should be something on this list that is relevant for you.

Cotton lawn

This is lightweight cotton that is made up of lots of very fine threads. It will float and move easily but still hold some shape. It’s easy to press (iron) and feels very smooth and soft.

Some companies have branded their own type of cotton lawn. For example, Liberty London has called theirs ‘Tana Lawn’ and McElroy fabrics have ‘Marlie Lawn’.

What to use it for? This is good for tops, blouses and some dresses. As it can sometimes be a little see through, you may need to line it, depending on your project. I have also used cotton lawn to line the inside of a coat on the bodice section.

Recommended patterns – Merchant and Mills Camber Top, Grainline Scout tee, Grainline Willow tank, Deer and Doe Melilot Shirt, Closet Case Patterns Kalle Shirt, Jennifer Lauren Handmade Hunter Tank.

Cotton bastise and cotton voile

These are very light weight fabrics that are often quite sheer and see-through.

What to use it for? This fabric could be used to line a cotton lawn garment if you wanted to add a bit more structure or prevent the lawn from being as transparent.

Recommended pattern – Say you made a dress like the Sew Over It Betty dress in a light weight sheer cotton lawn, you may want to line the skirt section of the dress with a voile to provide more coverage.

Double gauze

This is a loosely woven, lightweight fabric that is made up of two separate layers of very fine fabric sewn together to make one. It feels soft and can sometimes feel a little fluffy as it generally softens the more you wash it.

What to use it for? The fabric is great for kids clothes, tops, blouses and some dresses. It tends to fray more than other cottons due to the loose weave so its best to overlock the seam allowances or use a French seam finish.

Recommended patterns – Tilly and the buttons Stevie top, True Bias Ogden, Grainline Hadley, the Simple top from my book, Learn to Sew with Lauren, Closet Case Patterns Kalle, Deer and Doe Melilot, Closet Case Patterns Charlie Caftan 

Cotton Flannel

This type of fabric is usually classed as more of a medium weight and has a brushed surface making it feel fluffy and really soft.

What to use it for? I’ve mostly seen this type of fabric used to make shirts or it could be used for the lining of a coat or jacket too.

Recommended pattern – Grainline Archer shirt 

Cotton twill

This type of fabric is very densely woven in a specific way that gives a diagonal pattern/texture on the surface of the fabric. Gaberdine, drill and sateen are all similar types of fabric too. They tend to feel thicker and heavier and are therefore more durable and hold their shape and structure. Sometimes they have spandex or elastane woven into them, giving them a bit of stretch.

What to use it for? This fabric is best for trousers, jackets, coats and some skirts

Recommended patterns – Closet case Patterns Sasha trousers, Closet case Patterns Kelly Anorak, Sew Over It Ultimate trousers, Tilly and the Buttons Etta Dress.

Medium weight or quilting weight cotton

This type of fabric is typically use for patchwork/quilting or other craft projects but can sometimes be used for dressmaking. There is a big range in terms of the quality of ‘quilting’ cottons out there, some are very stiff and quite rigid, while others are lighter and softer. We label our ‘quilting cottons’ as medium weight cottons as the ones we stock in the shop are better quality and can be used for dressmaking too. They will still hold their shape and structure more than other cottons so that’s something to bear in mind.

What to use it for? They are great for kids clothes, PJ bottoms, some styles of dresses and skirts.

Recommended pattern – Nina Lee Carnaby Dress, Liesl and Co everyday skirt, Merchant and Mills Camber top, Grainline Willow tank top

Chambray

This fabric can often have the appearance of a denim fabric, but chambray refers to the way the fabric is woven in a simple weave, with a white thread and then another colour of thread (often blue). This gives a two-tone appearance to the fabric. Shot cotton or yarn-dyed are other terms that get used in this instance. Sometimes this type of fabric is made using cotton and linen, which usually gives the fabric even more structure and shape.

What would you use it for? It’s really versatile and can be used for tops, shirts, dresses, summer trousers, jumpsuits and skirts

Recommended patterns – Grainline Willow top, Deer and Doe Belladone, Merchant and Mills Camber top and dress

Waxed cotton canvas

 Canvas cotton tends to be quite thick and rigid with a dense and strong weave, perfect for projects that will endure a lot of wear and tear. 

What would you use it for? - When coated with a layer of wax it makes it great for bags and coats/jackets.

Recommended patterns – Jack Tar Bag, Closet Case Patterns Kelly Anorak, Papercut patterns Waver Jacket.

Corduroy

This fabric has lots of little ridges on it with a velvety texture. It is sometimes described by its ‘whale count’, which refers to the number of ridges there are in an inch. So the higher the number the finer the ridges are and the lighter the fabric is.

What is it used for? – Needle cord, which has lots of very fine ridges, is commonly used for kids clothes. Thicker cord can be used for skirts or dunagree style dresses. Sometimes it might have spandex woven into it, giving it stretch and make it suitable for trousers.

Recommended patterns – Tilly and the Buttons Cleo Dress, Tilly and the Buttons Ness Skirt Two Stitches Frankie dungarees

Cotton poplin

This is a medium weight fabric that is less sheer and holds it shape well. It can also be called ‘shirting’ fabric as it’s typically used for making shirts

What would you use it for? Mostly shirts but I could be used for dresses and skirts too

Pattern recommendations – Liesl and Co All day shirt, Sew Over It Elsie dress/skirt

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