Thursday, February 6, 2014

What you need to know to sew Fabric Content

A few days ago, I was at Joann's fabrics, here in town, for some muslin.   I just needed a few yards of it because I had run out and I am lining some potentially itchy, glittery fabric on dresses.  While I was in the muslin section, another lady was looking back and forth and all around, very confused. She asked me where to find the colored muslin.  I showed her the wall behind us, floor to ceiling with colored broadcloth. "I think that is the only colored fabric close to muslin," I told her. We conversed about sewing clothing and types of fabrics until she commented that all she wanted was something to make burp cloths! I pointed her towards the terrycloth fabric and she thanked me for my help. 

That experience made me realize that sometimes we don't know the names of the types of fabrics! I have a slight brain fog when it comes to remembering terms. I am practically a genuis at describing color and feel (at least I think I am) but remember the terms is hard for me. So, I have decided to launch a series called "What you need to know to sew" or, simply, "know to sew" for short! For my first post in this series, I am going to to explain the different types of fabric!!

 Have you ever been to's glossary of fabric terms page? Oh my goodness, look at all those types of fabric! How do you know for sure what you need for your project? Well, your pattern should tell you, for one, but what if it gives you options? How do you choose? Let's start, first, with what fabric is made of, otherwise known as fiber content. 

Fiber Content
Fiber content refers to the raw material making up the yarns and fabric. It can be natural, such as cotton, wool, linen, alpaca, and other specialty fibers; man-made from natural plant products, such as rayon or acetate; or synthetic from petroleum products, such as polyester, nylon, acrylic, olefin, or spandex. Fiber content affects appearance, comfort, durability, costs, and care of fabrics. 

Most of us probably know, in our heads, a bit about cotton. We know that it comes from a plant and it used to be grown a lot in the USA and now is mostly grown in India.  The history of cotton is part of the history of the labor movement, in the USA.  It used to be picked by slaves, spun by children. Now, we have labor laws and civil rights. But we still have cotton!  It is my favorite fiber.  It is versatile and durable and comes in many different weaves.

The history of silk is equally fascinating. The method of taking the cocoons of worms and turning that fiber into the most beautiful fabric in the world was founded in China several thousands of years ago. The silk road, the road between Europe and China, refers to the extremely long trip men would take to travel to and from China, simply for this exotic fabric.  And how on earth did the Chinese figure out to take the silk worm's cocoon and boil it and unravel the fiber and then weave it into amazing fabrics? It's almost unbelievable that they did figure it out. Silk is a very durable fiber but doesn't hold up well when exposed to light and moisture.

 Linen is one of the oldest fibers. Its use dates back at least 4000 years.  Linen comes from the flax plant, the same plant we use for flax seeds and lineseed oil.  Today's linen is very strong and varies in quality and price. Slubs indicate lesser quality; however, that should not stop you from owning this marvelous fiber. It does wrinkle easily but that just means you can overlook ironing. It is linen, after all!  I am not sure exactly how they take this plant and turn it into a fiber but it somehow comes from the stalk.
 Hemp fabric is made from fibers taken from the cannabis plant. The kind of cannabis used to make fiber is different from the plant used to make marijauna. The two should not be confused. You cannot smoke your hemp teeshirt, for example. Well, you could, but it would only make you annoyed at the loss of your tee.  Hemp has many uses.  Fabric is just one of them.  Hemp, as a fiber, is remarkable versatile and strong.  
And it is legal to use.

 Nylon was invented as an alternative to silk.  It is a polymer, basically a plastic.  It can be used in many forms, not just in fabric. It was first popularized, as fiber, during World War II, when the war machine needed an alternative to silk for parachutes. Women were encouraged to turn in their nylon stockings and go without.  Nylon is stretchy, resistant to mold, durable, melts when exposed to fire (as opposed to silk with burns), and is cheap to make! Nylon is added to silk and cotton to make it stretchy.


Polyster is a man-made fiber, created from esters and long-chain polymers.  I don't remember my high school chemistry but here is more information on that process.  Polyester can be used in just about ever fabric venue, from furniture covers to socks to underwear to suits. It is durable, cheap to make, and does not wrinkle. It lasts a very long time.  I am a huge fan of polyester fleece. Living in the Pacific Northwest, we all wear  fleece from head to toe at least half the year.  My favorite brand is LLBean (no they do not sponsor me, I just like their products).

 Rayon is a fascinating fiber. It is made from wood pulp. You got it, from trees. How on earth they figured out how to make a fiber from pulp is beyond me. Somehow, it has to be related to toilet paper, but that is about as far as my brain can go.  Viscose rayon is basically artificial silk.  Rayon, however, can also be made to feel like cotton, wool, or linen. It can be woven to have many textures. Rayon is durable but it does not absorb body heat. So, it is a great fiber for tropical or warm climates. Rayon has low elastic recovery when wet. That means it turns hard and looks odd when it is wet. Let it dry and iron it and it will be just fine.

 Bamboo is a fascinating fiber. It's popularity is soaring we people realize that bamboo fabrics are amazing. Bamboo is a fast-growing plant, which means it counts as sustainable. The fabric is made from the stem. The process is similar to making paper but the bamboo produces a softer fiber, which makes it ideal for fabric. Bamboo first became popular as a fiber about 10 years ago and is soaring in popularity. You can find it in almost every aspect of fabric production, from diapers to tees to skirts to pants. It is everywhere.

There are actually many more forms and types of fabric but I am going to stop here because this is what most of us choose from when sewing for our families.  If you want to learn more, I highly recommend you consult wiki!  Check the sources at the bottom of each page on wiki for even more information. 
 Next week, please join me as I talk about types of fabric: charmeuse, chiffon jaquard,  velvet, velour, denim, grey, satin, knit and more. 
Look for this "know to sew" series, every Wednesday or Thursday!!


  1. This was great Kathy! Thank you for taking the time to write it.

  2. Kathy, this post is such a great idea. Attempting to choose fabrics, especially for beginners is an absolute minefield!

  3. Hello there,

    Just a wee comment on the "muslin". In some countries, what is known as muslin in the United States is known as calico (plainweave, not all that soft, often unbleached, widely used for making up toiles). What we know as "muslin" is closer to what is also called cheesecloth (loosely woven, slightly crepey, very drapey). And this is often used for making burb cloths. So it may be that the woman in the store was just using the proper name for the fabric, but from a different variety of English. :)

    1. Sewphist! Thank you for that! I love to learn something new. We live very close to the Canadian/USA border so it may be she was from Canada and uses a different term! Thanks!

      And sorry it took me so long to see this.