Chapt 1 - Fabric
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Table of Contents ] [ Chapt 1 - Fabric ] Chapt 2 - Tools and Equipment ] Chapt 3 - The Sewing Machine ] Chapt 4 - Patterns ] Chapt 5 - Pressing ] Chapt 6 - Marking The Fabric ] Chapt 7 - Preparing to Begin ] Chapt 8 - Seams ] Chapt 9 - Seam Finishes ] Chapt 10 - Stabilization ] Chapt 11 - Control of Fullness ] Chapt 12 - Finishing Edges ] Chapt 13 - Hand Sewing ] Chapt 14 - Closures ] Chapt 15 - Body Measurements ] Chapt 16 - Ease In Clothing ] Chapt 17 - Pattern Alterations ] Chapt 18 - Finished Dimensions ] Chapt 19 - Common Terms ] Chapt 20 - Common Costume Fabrics ] Index of Sewing Exercises ]

Before the 1930's any discussion of fabrics was a great deal simpler than today. Fabric was manufactured from totally natural fibers, and although variations in the weaving and knitting process produced a great number of different fabrics, all fabrics had certain properties that are associated with natural fibers. Wool was warm, yet it 'breathes' and was excellent for winter work clothes. Cotton was cool, usually soft and required a lot of ironing. Linen was very durable, had a natural luster, and required even more ironing. Silk was both warm and soft, draped superbly- and had to be laundered with care.

During the past fifty years this situation has changed radically. There are now dozens of synthetic fabrics, occurring in a marvelous array of mixtures and blends, under a sea of names, some generic and some trademark. Each of the new synthetic fabrics has a life of its own, and each reacts differently to heat, water, dyes and sunlight. Each has a different HAND (the technical term for the way a fabric feels) and each drapes in its own way. Today there are so many fibers and fabrics each possessing its own qualities that garments must, by law, carry a set of instructions for its care.

The new fabrics have had a tremendous effect on the garment industry and many types of clothing are now readily available that a few years ago were not possible to produce. For example skin-tight, knit pants, leotards, and swimwear, as well as wool-like sweaters that can be machine washed.

Costume shops deal with the production of period garments a great deal of the time. For strict historical accuracy, garments should be made from the same type of fabric that was worn during a historical era. This means ideally that most costumes should be manufactured from the four natural fibers. Unfortunately this is often cost and time prohibitive. Synthetics are usually less costly to produce and maintain and much easier to obtain. Because of this fact the costume technician is always faced with the dilemma of trying to create a 'period' look from modern fabrics. It is helpful for the costume technician, as well as the home sewer to know at least the basics about how fabrics are produced, since this gives us the key to how to use them effectively and maintain them after a garment has been constructed.

bullet FIBERS and FILAMENTS are the basis for all fabrics, natural and synthetic. Fibers are made from cotton and flax plants, and the wool from sheep, goats, and other other animals. These fibers range from one to ten inches in length and must be twisted together to form yarns from which the fabric can be produced. This twisting process is called SPINNING. Silk and the synthetics are filaments. Long, continuous yarns that need not be spun before fabric manufacture .
bulletWEAVING is the most common method of fabric production. It is merely an interlacing of yarns accomplished on a loom. Commercial and many home looms are intricate machines, but they all operate on a fairly simple principle. Basically one set of yarns is held taut on the loom running lengthwise of the fabric to be produced. These lengthwise yarns are called WARP yarns. Another set of yarns is interlaced at right angles to the warp yarns with a shuttle, these crosswise yarns are called WEFT or WOOF Because the warp yarns must be held tightly in place during the weaving process they are the strongest of the two sets of yarns. For this reason the lengthwise grain of the fabric is stronger, will wear better and drape differently than the crosswise or weft threads. Garments are almost always placed with the warp yarns running vertically down the garment.
The width of any piece of fabric is determined by the width of the loom on which it is woven. Silks are generally woven at 36", cottons and most synthetics at 45" and wools, knits, drapery and upholstery fabrics at 54"-60". This is a generality, so it is always advisable to measure the fabric before cutting.
bulletGRAIN on a piece of woven fabric refers to how the yarns are running. The lengthwise grain follows the warp threads. This lengthwise grain is much less likely to stretch or shrink. The cross wise grain or weft threads will always shrink and stretch more. It is for this reason, clothing generally runs on the lengthwise grain. The diagonal direction of a piece of fabric is referred to as the TRUE BIAS. The bias will have the most stretch and drape. Patterns for garments are placed on the fabric in specific directions to achieve the proper look of a garment by taking advantage of the different grains and their characteristic properties.

Grain & Bias

THREAD COUNT of a fabric refers to the number of warp and weft threads per square inch. The higher the thread count, the better quality of the fabric. The fabric won't shrink as much, will wear much longer and does not ravel as easily. All these things should be taken into consideration when planning the fabric for a particular costume or garment.

There are a multitude of weaves and patterns that can be done on a loom to create different weights, textures, and designs in fabric. We will discuss four of the most common ones in use in fabric manufacture:

PLAIN WEAVE is merely the process of interlacing the warp and weft threads in an alternating pattern. This weave gives the maximum number of interlacings, producing the strongest fabrics at the cheapest cost. There is a minimum of surface texture produced with a plain weave and so often printed designs are added after the fabric is woven. If the plain weave fabric has no added design, it has no right and wrong side, making either side usable. Plain weaves may also be woven in stripes or checks. Plain weave fabrics can be any weight and may incorporate the use of natural or synthetic fibers.

Plain Weave

BASKET WEAVE is a variation of the plain weave in which two or more of the weft yarns are interlaced with a corresponding number of warp yarns. The resulting fabric is loose and drapes well, but will not wear as well as the plain weave.

Basket Weave

TWILL WEAVE uses the weft thread to 'float' over more than one of the warp yarns but seldom more than four. On each successive line of the weave, the design is moved one step to the right or the left producing diagonal wales which may vary in prominence and direction. Twill weaves produce very strong fabrics, but they tend to lose color in the natural fibers and to 'shine' when pressed when they are made of synthetics. All twill fabrics have a definite right and wrong side and so care must be used in cutting and construction.

Twill Weave

SATIN WEAVE is created when either the warp or weft yarns are passed over several yarns and then beneath a single yarn. These long stretches of yarn are called 'floats'. The satin weave produces fabric with a high sheen because the surface of the fabric is not broken up by a series of interlacings. They are rich in color and luster for the this reason. Satin weaves tend to wear badly since the floating yarns are much more susceptible to breakage and tears. All satin weaves have a right and wrong side.

Satin Weave

bulletPILE FABRICS have loops or tufts standing up from the base cloth. These loops are formed from an additional set of warp or weft yarns which are raised by short wires in the weaving process. The pile may be cut or left uncut, and all pile fabrics have an up and down direction known as NAP. 

FELT is a fabric, commonly used in costume shops that is neither woven or knitted. The preparation of felt depends upon a unique property of wool called felting. Wool fibers because they are so kinky and springy mat together in the presence of heat, moisture, and pressure applied together. Felt cannot be washed as the fibers will unbound, but it has no grain line as does woven fabric and therefore will not ravel and can be cut in any direction.


KNIT FABRICS are created in a number of ways, but most of them share the same characteristics. They have a great deal of give and return back to the original configuration of the fabric. Most knits are machine washable and require no ironing.


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