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Learning About Sewing: Fabric Choices

Updated on March 21, 2011

A well made garment starts with the perfect fabric. Many types of fabrics, both natural and man-made are available for home sewers these days.

Natural Fabrics refer to just that - fibers that come directly from nature. They are either cultivated or produced by animals or insects.

Cotton is one of the oldest fibers known. The cotton plant provides a cotton boll; a white, fluffy ball of fiber that is woven into one of the most desirable fabrics. It is soft, durable and very absorbent. It also accepts dyes well, making it very desirable for both fashion sewing and home decor such as quilts. It does wrinkle easily but treatment with a wrinkle resistant finish can help with that small drawback. Cotton is inexpensive and plentiful.

Wool is gathered from the coats of sheep and other animals is another favorite fabric of home sewers. Wool is warm, sheds water and is very durable. It dyes well but sheds water. It is a very versatile fabric and can be found in everything from blouse weight to very heavy weights for outerwear. Lighter woven and knit wool are very easy to drape and are suitable for wearing even in summer.

Until just recently, silk was a fabric only for the rich. It is formed as the silk worm spins its cocoon. The fine fiber of the cocoon is unreeled into a continuous filament. Silk is extremely strong, absorbent, warm, resilient, and highly elastic. Silk is much more affordable than it used to be and is a favorite of fashion sewers.

Linen is another one of these great natural fabrics that is a must for fashion today. It is made from the stems of the flax plant. Linen feels good against the skin and is easy to clean, durable and absorbent. Like cotton it does wrinkle easily. Linen is a stiffer fiber than cotton and clothing made from linen is subject to abrasion and wear along edges and creases.

Man-made or synthetic fibers can be made from natural materials like cellulose or protein, or they can be synthesized from chemical sources. In either, the production is similar; a chemical compound is formed that contains the basic component of the fiber. This chemical compound is then formed into fibers by pumping through a machine that forces it into long thin strands and then into a chemical bath or air chamber that coagulates or bakes these strands into a filament form or fiber ropes. These fiber ropes are then spun and woven in a similar fashion to natural fabrics.

Rayon is now over 100 years old and is the original man-made fiber. Rayon is made from cellulose - wood pulp. It is soft, absorbent and easy to drape. It is also very easy to dye and feels good on the body. It does wrinkle easily and is not strong when wet.

Acetate is a mixture of cellulose and acetate. It was the first fabric that an iron would melt, not scorch. It drapes well and makes an excellent lining fabric giving body to garments when needed.

Nylon was the first true synthetic fiber, formed from a polymide derived from petroleum products. Nylon is strong and durable and is frequently blended with other fibers to add strength without adding weight.

Polyester is made from petroleum by-products and is durable and easy to care for with good shape retention properties. It does not shrink, bag or stretch. It is strong when wet or dry. Older polyester fabric can pill badly and does not absorb moisture well. They are often hot in summer and feel clammy in winter. Polyester is often added to natural fibers such as cotton to add wrinkle resistance.

The next time you are fabric shopping, pay attention to labels and compare prices and care symbols on fabric. This will help you find the perfect fabric for the garment or home decor piece you plan on making.

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