The Savvy Sage of Sewing Stimulation

From Beginner to Beyond – Fabrics

Synthetics, naturals, weaves, content – how do you tell all this apart?  And even more to the point – how do you pick what is suitable for your pattern or idea or project?

Some of this is experience, but a lot is just old-fashioned knowledge. There are basically two classes of fabric in the content department:

Natural and synthetics content fabrics

The naturals are fairly easy:  Plant and Animal.  Plants are linen, cotton, flax, hemp and jute for a few.  Animals (or protein fibers) are silk, wool (and goats like cashmere) and the alpaca family…which is not considered part of the wool group.

The thing that is nice about naturals is that they all have specific characteristics and they don’t vary too much from that….linen wrinkles easily (I call them rich wrinkles) always has and always will.  But mix a little cotton with it, and it doesn’t wrinkle as badly.  But linen is cool, cool cool in the summer heat.  Wool is warm and wicks beautifully, but shrinks and can be scratchy.

Synthetic fibers are everywhere from nylon, polyester, acetate, rayon, spandex, Lycra and a lot of others.  These are basically made in a test tube or can be chemically treated cellulose or mineral components to fabricate fibers with certain properties.


Next to consider the difference between weaves and content.  A fiber that is woven in a certain fashion is the weave of the fabric, while the specific content is what the fiber is made of.  This sounds easy, but here’s where this can get confusing….folks often refer to charmeuse and think it’s automatically silk – it’s not….charmeuse refers to the weave of the fabric while silk or polyester or rayon refers  to the content.  This is real important when you’re at the store picking out the fabric for your project.  That means you’ll be looking for the content AND the weave.

Here are some examples:

Fabric content examples

  • wool (including cashmere in this group)
  • silk
  • linen
  • cotton
  • blend (usually with % by each showing the content amount)
  • alpaca (includes a lot of other sheered animals that aren’t sheep or goats)
  • flax
  • jute
  • hemp

Fiber weave examples:

  • chiffon
  • challis
  • jacquard
  • brocade
  • tweed
  • charmeuse
  • satin
  • taffeta
  • sateen
  • broadcloth
  • challis
  • chambray
  • chenille
  • bouclé
  • gabardine
  • canvas
  • duck

Hopefully this helps you understand the difference and why you need to know both.  So you’re looking for a winter coat, so you would look for a tweed or heavy woven wool fabric.  This is the content and the weave.  You’re looking for a summer skirt, so you would look for a silk chiffon or a rayon challis, even though these are both two different fabrics, they would both work for a summer skirt.


What’s important for us here is to consider how these fabrics will make up and what to choose for what.

Very first and most important is how you’re going to use the garment:  a coat?…a summer skirt?…a beach coverup?…in a business presentation?  You aren’t going to want a chiffon (no matter what the fabric content) for a winter coat, nor are you going to want a lively printed silk (no matter how glorious) for a business presentation (unless it’s a lining and not shown that much).


Wool is normally thought of as a winter-time fabric.  It isn’t necessarily drape-like, except in its lighter weights (tissue weight or wool gauze) and it is drapey.  Wool wicks marvelously which means it draws the moisture  away from the skin and helps keep the skin  and body warm.  It holds color well, however shrinks when exposed to water and heat, so it must be dry cleaned.



Silk is a filament from the long spin of the cocoon of the silk worm.  It is a smooth long fiber, which makes it lustrous and beautifully shiny.  Silk breathes beautifully and can be cool, even in it’s heaviest form.  It can have body (matka, linen weaves, dupioni, peau de soie, heavy-weight satin, one exception is organza which is see-thru, but has lots of body) or be draping (crepe de chine, 4-ply crepe, charmeuse, chiffon).  Silk does not hold color well, but in lighter weights launders well, but needs ironing.  If you wash dark colors make sure they are in like colors, they will fade and the color will spread to other colors in the wash.  Use silk heavy-weights for suits tailored dresses, the drapey fabrics for blouses, flowing skirts and dresses.



Linen comes from the stalk of the linen plant as does hemp, jute.  It is the oldest fabric known and used by man.  It is cool and comfortable in the hot seasons, but it does wrinkle like paper.  However it can easily be blended with cotton or silk to prevent hard wrinkling.  I like the wrinkles – I call the “rich wrinkles”.  Linen is mostly a fabric with lots of body and used for constructed garments, except in it’s lightest weight, and even then is a stiff fiber.  Tailored suits, jackets, dresses, shirts look great in linen,  but so do loose tunics, over blouses, beach coverups.  Linen launders beautifully and is stronger wet than dry.


Cotton is the most abundant fiber and is used all over the world.  The shorter staple cotton is the most abundant and cheapest, while the longer stable (below in the photo), is prized and can be mistaken for silk the hand is so smooth and it has a lovely sheen to it.  Cotton holds dye well and launders well.  In heavy weights (like ottomans, piques, failles) it can make beautiful jackets and tailored dresses that breathe very well.  Lighter weight weaves such as broadcloth, lino weaves, chiffons gauzes are excellent for blouses, flowy dresses and skirts.



Some of the Synthetics that are most known are polyesters, rayons and acetates.  The stretch ones that we are familiar with are Lycra and spandex.  Although synthetics do not have good breathing or wicking properties, they offer other advantages like resistance to wrinkles, color retention and longer and more durable wear.  Rayon is excellent for challis, draping type clothing  and Bemberg Ambiance for linings is one of the industry standards.  Acetate is more for formal wear, and must be dry cleaned only.  Acetate can come in varying weights – the heavier for more structure garments and the lighter for more flowing garments.


Choosing the best fabric for your project depends upon:

  • how cool or warm you want it to be; how draping
  • how much movement you want as opposed to how structured you want it.  You might some parts of the project to have movement, and some parts to be structured…like the blouse to have ruffles and soft but the jacket to be structured and simple.
  • how formal – silk and acetate tend to be more formal, but wool and silk can be as formal.  Cotton is probably the least formal and linen is next.  But all fibers can be made formal or casual, these are just how we traditionally think of the fabrics.
  • how strong or classic – strong in that silk can be very eye-catching and dynamic, while wool can be very classic and calm looking.   If you want to make a strong comment in your garment for a formal or semi-formal occasion, nothing provides this better than silk.  If you want to look classic and strong, wool can be an excellent choice.

Hopefully this will help you and give you some ideas about how to use fabrics for your project or pattern.  The best way is through practice, and seeing what works for you.  You know me, I’m not here to tell you exactly what to do.  I’m here to help you encourage your own style and look by helping you understand some fundamentals and then shooing you on down your merry path!!!!!


Leave a Reply