Teaching yourself to sew can be daunting. For those of us not located in a major city, classes are few and far between, and mostly oriented to quilting or heirloom sewing. Teaching myself was not without its ups and downs, and let’s just say it’s lucky that I am a very patient person! I’m writing this series of posts to help out my fellow beginners. I am not an expert – just someone who loves to assimilate and share knowledge! I talked about books for beginners here, and now I’d like to talk about another challenge facing the beginner… fabric selection.
I live in Louisville, as you may know, and until 2008 we had a fabulous downtown fabric store, Baer’s. They closed with literally a day’s notice, leaving us with only quilting stores, Joann’s and Hancocks. I shop at the last 2 stores often, but to be honest I do not find many quality apparel fabrics (though should you want sports logo fleece they are a goldmine!) I mostly hit the pattern sales and buy Gutterman or Mettler thread. So that leaves me with online shopping, which believe me I am grateful for! But… if you are a beginner, how are you to interpret the descriptions?
I’d recommend picking up a fabric guide (of course! I love books!) I like both of the books above: Claire Shaeffer’s Fabric Guide and More Fabric Saavy by Sandra Betzina (this is not a sequel, but rather a revised edition. You can see a limited preview of this book here.) These guides have been invaluable to me because they not only tell you what the fabric is, they tell you what needle to use, seam finishes and special care, and tell you how to wash your completed item. You can also find an excellent online guide to sewing different types of fabric at Emmaonesock here. It’s important to keep in mind (and confusing to beginners) that fabric has two elements – the weave and the content. So, for instance, faille is not a fabric but rather a weave, and it can come in many weights and fibers. But of course, a fabric guide means nothing if you don’t know how the fabric feels – and how can you find that out? If you have a local fabric store, I recommend just going and investigating the fabrics. Even Joanns and Hancocks can give you an education! Buy small amounts of different types of fabrics, and practice sewing with them (the clearance tables are great for this purpose; Joanns often has 50% off of clearance fabric.) If you don’t have local fabric stores at all, consider joining a swatch club – Sawyer Brook, Vogue Fabrics, and FabricMart are 3 that will send you a variety of swatches every so often, which you can get a feel for not only different types of fabric, but the quality of fabric at that particular store. Vogue sells back issues of their swatch service very cheaply. The fabrics are often still in stock, and you can get a ton of swatches so you can later remind yourself what a particular fabric type feels like.
So now you have read the guides, maybe investigated different fabrics, and you are ready to approach online shopping… how to tell what you will be getting? The first tip is to order swatches. Many retailers offer swatches for a nominal fee. It’s the only way to tell for certain what you will be getting! Of course, you do run the risk that the fabric you want will be sold out by the time you get your swatch… but sometimes better that than to end up with a fabric that is much different from what you expected! Having said that, I only order swatches for fabric that is super expensive, or that I need a lot of. For instance, I need 4 yards of wool crepe for a 1950s suit, and I’ve been getting swatches in order to figure out what I want (no luck so far, but eventually I will hit on the right fabric!) Watch out for scale on prints. Often, fabric will be displayed with a ruler measuring the repeat, or with something such as a penny for scale. Think about how the scale of the print will look on you – for instance, I am overwhelmed by really large prints. I prefer sites that show the whole bolt draped over something – it gives an idea not only of scale, but of the drape of the fabric.
And then there is the issue of color. Not all monitors will display colors the same, though usually it is close enough, if you aren’t trying to match exactly. Some retailers use the pantone color guide to tell you what number the color is, though I don’t have a pantone guide (I understand they have become harder to find of late.)
Now the hardest part… how to match your pattern with a fabric. Read the list of suggestions on the back of the pattern. Vogue patterns are especially good here, because they are specific.
Take Vogue 1182, a Kay Unger design. The suggested fabrics are: Shantung, Satin and Jacquard. None of these fabrics are light and drapey – a chiffon, for instance, while lovely, would not give this dress the structure it needs. So even if choosing a fabric not on the envelope, the envelope will guide you in the right direction. On the other hand, some brands are less useful, for instance Simplicity. I have observed that modern Simplicity patterns give you a list of about 15 fabrics which don’t always have much in common. In that case, look at the drawing or photo – does the design fall in graceful soft waves, or is it tailored and structured? Fabric selection will make or break many projects, so it pays to really visualize the project in the fabric. I like to make digital design boards sometimes, so that I can see all the elements in one place. Any image editing program can do this, though it is easier with some than others.
Mostly, don’t fear shopping online! You will make some mistakes and flubs – I now own a pepto-bismol colored wool that feels like a horse blanket. No idea what I’m doing with that. But I have found lots of fabrics that I could never have sourced locally, such as beautiful wool crepes and silk jerseys. If I am sewing for myself, I will be using quality materials – I dislike synthetics, which often do not behave well when sewing, don’t breathe, and retain odors.
Here is a short list of the retailers I have shopped and recommend (US based, but many ship overseas.) As a disclaimer, I am not associated with any of these stores, other than as a normal customer. My opinions are just that, and your experience may vary!
Boutique type Retailers
Gorgeous Fabrics The fabrics are here are well described, with a pattern suggestion for each one (helpful to get a better idea of the hand, even if you don’t plan for that project.) Ann offers swatches, and fabrics don’t sell out so quickly that you can’t use them. Not the cheapest prices, but not the most expensive either – in line with the quality and price I want for my handmade projects. The selection of knits is especially nice, and I have some of the wide silk Shantung, which is beautiful. The fabric for these items came from here: Mod dress, Leopard dress, Rooibos.
Sawyer Brook – This store adds new fabrics every season, to go along with their excellent swatch club. While the selection is limited, every swatch I have received is of truly excellent quality. Fabrics are listed by content, as well as organized into collections – be sure to check out The Back Room, where you can find discounted designer fabrics. I have yet to use any fabric from this store, but I do have a beautiful cotton brocade awaiting use.
Emmaonesock – specializes in designer fabrics. Not cheap, but the quality is excellent. I will admit I don’t shop here often – I am a dedicated bargain hunter. Be sure to click on the fabric swatches to see the fabric bolt draped. Fabrics sell out quickly, so if you see something you like, jump on it!
Fashionista Fabrics – In addition to carrying the latest Burda magazine (which I have ordered several times) Melody carries a selection of fabrics. Her tastes must line up with mine, because I’ve used nearly every piece I bought right away! Very fast shipping, and the prices are good. I used fabric from this store in the following projects: The Betty dress, linen pants, the ! dress, dotted Rooibos.
Discount Retailers – you never know what they will have, but prices are excellent and sales are frequent!
Fabric.com – I have ordered several times from fabric.com. Shipping is free over $35, and there are many discount codes (check retailmenot.com for the latest,) making the already low prices even better. Quality seems kind of medium, but I’ve only had one purchase that I do not like (a knit that was severely off grain.) The following projects used fabric from here: Mock 2-piece dress, pleated neck dress, plaid secretary blouse, Beignet.
Fabricmart – A rotating selection of fabrics, including a good selection of discounted designer fabrics. I’ve only ordered from here once, but it was a good experience. I notice that they have excellent sales.
Fashion Fabrics Club/Denver fabrics – Both of these websites are outlets of the same company. I have placed multiple orders here – fabrics are cheap, and sometimes of suprisingly good quality. Of course, they are also sometimes of suprisingly bad quality. Swatches are available, but to be honest shipping is so slow (average time to receive order: 2.5 weeks, and I live pretty near St. Louis) that I don’t bother. I have had the experience of finding fabrics that are listed elsewhere for far more money several times. The following projects were made using fabric from this store: Butterick 5490 , dotted cardigan, cozy wrap, plaid maxi skirt.
Web sites of brick and mortar stores –
Vogue Fabrics – online shop for a chain of Chicago fabric stores. They have several swatch clubs, and you can also frequently buy fabrics featured in Vogue pattern magazine. It takes a bit of clicking around to see everything, but it’s worth it. I have made 2 orders – one for swatches, and the other for fabrics. I was pleased with both. I have yet to use any of the fabrics I bought here, but I have plans for this winter.
Elliot Bermann Textiles – online outlet of a NY retail store. I have been very pleased with my purchases from this shop – the fabric was as described and excellent quality. Prices seem decent for what it is – mostly designer overruns. I used fabric from this store for my 50s sheath dress.
Mood Fabrics – Mood seems to have recently improved their online fabric shop. I recently placed an 2 orders for both fabric and swatches. The fabric was beautiful, and the swatches were large. The photos seem pretty true to color to me, and they are well described. Shipping isn’t the fastest ever, and they don’t send out shipping emails, but I love the selection – the best part is that they carry basics in every color. Want an exact match for silk chiffon with a habotai lining? You’re in luck!
Waechter’s fine fabrics – I’ve visited this Asheville store in person – it’s a lovely place! Fabrics are well described, and swatches are available (I have used the swatch service before – each swatch comes with a labeled tag so you can’t forget what they are!) Prices are not cheap, but you can get some usual and lovely fabrics. The fabric for my Tara dress came from this store.
Whew – that’s a lot of fabric shopping! In addition, here is a list of stores that I have not yet ordered from, but which have decent feedback online:
Hart’s Fabric – great selection of unusual fabrics, including both fashion fabrics and home decor/Japanese cottons.
Marcy Tilton – You know her designs for Vogue, but did you know she sells fabric? The knits are especially lovely looking, though I have yet to order.
Farmhouse fabrics – heirloom sewing fabrics
And… that’s all! I’ve gotten a lot of comments about being afraid to shop online. I know it isn’t the same as shopping in person, but sadly for many of us there is no other option. In fact, I would say that one of the biggest barriers to new sewers is a lack of access to quality materials. Educate yourself and give it a try – I have been pleased overall with my online purchases. As a disclaimer – I am not an expert, and I am not affiliated with any of these companies, but I do get an awful lot of questions on this subject. I know when I was starting out it was so hard to figure out fabrics, and I hope this answers a few questions!