Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Fabric frustation

What is the single most frustrating thing about sewing? It should be something tedious like cutting out, or finishing seam allowances. Or something difficult like perfecting fit or bound button holes. Or just something annoying like poor instructions.

Instead, frequently I find the most frustrating thing about making my own clothes is finding the right fabric. There can be several reasons for this, my personal fussiness notwithstanding,

Firstly: fabric type. I struggle with this. Patterns are excellent are giving fabric suggestions, but a lot of it doesn't really mean that much to me. Here are just a few suggestions on the backs of the envelopes of some of the patterns I own, where I have NO CLUE what they are: cotton bastiste, ottoman, laundered cotton (isn't that just cotton that's been washed?), tropical wool, challis. Now, I know a lot of this will be down to my inexperience, but how do I get the experience? My local fabric shop drew a blank when I asked for "bastiste" and instead she presented me with a cheap stiff poly cotton. I am not 100% sure what bastiste is, but I'm pretty it's not a stiff poly cotton (in my head it's a bit more like lawn). Instead my fabric store list their fabrics by fibre content. This is useful, but not helpful when you are searching out "tropical wool" - even if it is just to find out what it is! I can of course Google the description, but that doesn't help me understand what it feels like.

Secondly: fibre content. I am a natural fibres kind of girl. Yes, I will freely admit there is an element of snobbery in there. 100% polyester is just a bit too reminiscent of Primark and other cheap shops (not that I never shop there, but I do baulk at the sea of polyester upon entry). But from a wearability point of view, I just find polyester a bit too clingy and a bit too sweaty to ever be fully comfortable in. I have tried polycotton mixes but they still cling. Maybe I just generate excess static when I move?

Thirdly: finding the perfect colour/print. As part of MMM13 I realised that a lot of my self made garments are "stand alone". That is, they don't go with a lot of items in my wardrobe. Tops and blouses are not so bad because pretty much everything goes with jeans or black trousers, but the skirts I have made often go with one top or blouse. My recent floral Charlotte and my quick pleated skirt are cases in point. I only have 1 top that goes with each of them - and it's the same yellow tee! So, to combat that I am trying to be more selective with my fabric choices (think capsule wardrobe territory), and immediately I come up against difficulty. As soon as I have an idea in my head, it becomes impossible to find the fabric I want. Some evidence:

Exhibit A: As my floral Charlotte has blues as well as yellows in it, I want to make a blue blouse. It needs to be work appropriate to wear with the Charlotte to, err, work. I am thinking a slightly looser fit sleeveless blouse. Something like the Megan Nielson's Eucalypt, or a Sorbetto, or possibly even a sleeveless Taffy. I want something simple and self coloured as there is quite a lot going on in the skirt, and I want a nice drapey, breathable fabric. I have been thinking a voile or a lawn, or a cotton/silk mix, maybe even a woven viscose. I don't want jersey. And I want a SOLID colour - royal blue, violet or maybe cornflower blue. And can I find that fabric? No! Solids in particular seem to be difficult to find in lightweight wovens. Jerseys and knits are no problem at all, but I don't want a knit...

Exhibit B: My mum is making a dirndl skirt for a 1950's party she's going to in a few weeks. She wants to make it in a 2" gingham in black and white, probably partly inspired by Gertie's version (I sent her the link for the tutorial). I would also like the same fabric to make an Archer, inspired by Andrea's.

Gertie's black and white large gingham skirt

Andrea's gingham Archer
Again, can we find the fabric? No! The only 2" gingham I have found in the UK is yellow and white*, and while I'm actually open to colourways other than black (my mum isn't), I don't want yellow (a turquoise/white on the other hand would be lovely...)
*Actually, not strictly true - I did find a 2" black and white gingham on Ikea's website, however while it might be fine for my mum's skirt, it it highly unlikely it would be a light enough weight for a shirt. I have yet to find out if my mum managed to find it at the weekend.

Fourthly: Online shopping. I find in actually fabric shopping on line full stop. The number of websites out there are huge, but I find them often very difficult and time consuming to navigate (e.g. you can only select fabric type OR colour, not both!!!), the descriptions vary (I need as much detail as possible, weight, some examples of what could be made with it, fibre content, washing instructions) and I guess you always have the colour issue when looking at something online. I know most websites have sample swatch services but they don't all. And I reckon I could probably spend a lot on swatches before finding the fabric I want.

Fifthly: price. Usually, because this is the way with everything I do,  IF I manage to find the right fabric, it will be expensive. I don't set out to have expensive taste. It just seems to happen.

This has ended up being a slightly ranty post - apologies. I hadn't intended that. What I did want to do was share my frustrations and hopefully open up some discussion. Do you have this problem, or any other problems, when sourcing the "right" fabric for your project? It does seem that US websites (and presumably also physical stores) offer a lot more choice, so is this specifically a UK problem? Or am I just being too damn fussy?


  1. I suspect that there is a bit of both going on - fabric availability isn't great, and many of the websites are awful (Minerva, I'm looking at you in particular).

    But you're probably being a bit particular as well. If you went shopping for a gingham skirt / shirt that matched your two inch black gingham requirements, you probably wouldn't find that either.

    As a beginner sewer, I find the fabric descriptions baffling as well, but I guess that's something one learns a bit more over time. But I agree that it would be helpful to have a fuller description of things (I knit as well, and there is a much more consistent labelling in knitting - all balls have weight, length, gauge, fibre content and washing instructions). You could invest in one of those books with fabric swatches inside them (there was one doing the round of blog reviews fairly recently)

    You may wish to be more flexible in terms of man made fibres. They are not the ghastly nylon nighties of the seventies (I'm currently in battle with my four year old daugher who has a weird attachment to the nightie I used to wear when her age - it's so synthetic it brings her out in a rash). A lot of RTW contains some man made fibres and is perfectly wearable. It may be a question of spending a bit more dosh - I have some lovely John Kaldor Polyester Crepe in my stash and have just made a dress out of some John Kaldor Polyester Jersey.

    I'm utterly useless at building a coherent wardrobe, but deciding on a limited colour palette and buying on spec within that palette may help (as may determinedly buying solids rather than patterns). I'm not sure I have the sort of willpower that is required for this, but both Tilly (of buttons fame) and Gillian (from Crafting a Rainbow) have shown how well this approach can work.

    Personally, I need to go to physical stores more often. I have one fairly near. It's chaotic inside, but I took in some patterned fabric and asked them to find a plain cotton that matched a particular colour of my piece, as well as matching its weight, sheen and drape, and they found it in about a minute. It's just a case of finding time when I'm not at work or looking after a four year old! I live in London, so that's a step in the right direction.


    1. Do you know what, Miriana? You are absolutely right! I wouldn't find that specific item in shops either - unless it was "on trend". I do acknowledge that I am fussy, but perhaps I just need to give myself a break a bit more. Either that, or put up with nothing until the perfect thing comes along. Funnily enough, while browsing sites earlier today (working from home has not worked well today) I came across quite a few fabrics I like the look of - none of them meet my specific requirements but they would be great for other projects that I'd forgotten about.

      Thanks for a funny and thought provoking comment! :)

  2. I was just reading your post when the postman knocked on the door with my fabric delivery from ebay.... what a disaster, I have 4m of jersey fabric that is nothing like I thought it would be - grrrr! I try and buy fairtrade cotton only but it is not always possible ao I try and get fabric from people's de-stash sales on ebay and as I have proved today that does not always work...!!


    1. So annoying when that happens! This having standards lark is more difficult than it looks! Good for you for trying though.

  3. Am Totally with You Helen. I was shopping at a fabric place near me last week, and bought a wool blend suiting (it needs to be washable which is why i went for a blend.) but I had no Idea what the percentage content was - after a little bit of Chemistry I figure it's less than 20% wool. My other local shop is great as listing the content and very knowledgeable, but they are pricy and and have a quite small range, but I do find myself shopping there more and more. Partly because I want to keep a local business in business and partly because I'm becoming a fabric snob and want good quality. I now only tend to buy cheap for costumes and muslins.

    1. Glad to hear I'm not the only one, Claire! I guess we maybe need to start buying more expensive, but less? Easier said than done though. :)

  4. I agree with you too Helen. I'm in the US, but only have a JoAnne's nearby which can be pretty hit and miss for good fabric. I also have a 'separates' wardrobe. I really need to sit down and figure out what I need to make to go with what I already have instead of just sewing the next shiny new pattern I see online.

    1. I always think Joann's sounds OK for selection - that's where Andrea's gingham was from, apparently! But I guess if it's all you have it probably gets tired after a while.

      And yes - the next shiny pattern is always too much of a temptation for me too. I've just found the new pattern company called Named!! Oh dear, this could get expensive!

  5. Oh I despair of my lack of fabric knowledge - and don't know how to rectify it, I am often mystified! It's not such an issue when you can physically see and touch the fabric but I find it very limiting when shopping online. I wanted large black and white gingham for ages, happened upon it in a tiny shop in Ventnor whilst on holiday in the Isle of Wight and snapped it up! Good luck in your search :)

    1. It's difficult isn't it? Lucky you finding the perfect gingham. I guess I just have to keep my eyes peeled!

  6. Great post! I hear you on the "stand alone" garments issue. MMM13 made the same thing clear to me too! I really like your idea of buying to a limited colour palette. Since May, I've been only buying fabric if I can think of at least three things I already have that it will go with, and that's been helpful too.
    I'm not overly keen on online fabric shopping either - I like to see and feel fabric first. Since local options are a bit thin on the ground I've been trying to save up over a few months and then head to Melbourne and hit some quality shops. I've always loved a bargain, but I'm starting to prefer having one really good piece of fabric over three or four average bits. Can be tricky though when there's so much inspiration out there!
    PS: There's no shame in a little fabric snobbery!

    1. Thanks Danielle! Oh I like your fabric buying rule - that's a good one! For me, I don't particularly want to limit my colour palette as such, I just want to ensure I have more opportunity to wear the things I make. And to be able to mix and match a bit more.

  7. I'm totally with you on the fabric frustrations! Often I type one of the mystery fabric recommendations into eBay to see what comes up, but more than once, I've ended up with something on the more hideous end of synthetic or else just completely not what I was expecting. I always thought it was just me being a complete fabric dunce, but I'm glad I'm not alone! I have yet to encounter cotton batiste in real life ;)
    I tend towards cheaper fabrics too, because sometimes I don't know how much I'll actually wear the finished garment. I suppose as we become more experienced sewists, and understand fit and what suits us better, we'll be able to splash out on the quality stuff.
    PS: I was in Ikea last night, and think their gingham is maybe a bit stiff for shirts - to be honest, most of their fabric feels likes lighter weight upholstery stuff.

    1. Thanks Emma! Yeah, I am very wary of buying fabric on ebay. I have been mostly lucky but not always and it's just so frustrating!

      By the sounds of the above comments, we are not the only "fabric dunces" which is nice to know (that phrase did make me laugh!).

      And yes, my mum bought the Ikea fabric only to discover it's too bulky to make a gathered skirt. She has offered it to me anyway though. It might make an OK A-line skirt, or something similar.

  8. Helen, working in Mandors, we know how bad the pattern envelops are for fabric suggestions! Remember their loose guides, intended to allow you to make the cover image so are quite specific. Your fabric shop should be able to give you a suitable alternative! I know we do :) and we have large ginghams in stock in Glasgow, call us on 01413327716 so we can check stock over the phone and can take payment that way and get it sent out to you provided we have it!

    If you're ever stuck with fabrics let me know and I should be able to help you on how/where to get it. Some things just aren't available in the UK x

  9. I totally agree with you! The right fabric is so crucial to any project and if you use something you don't really love, chances are you might not ever wear whatever it is you spent so much time making. I, too, am sort of addicted to natural fibers. I live in a particularly hot and humid climate so polyester is NOT my friend. And it seems that no matter how small the percentage is, I can always feel it.

    So, I have no solution, but I wish you great luck in your future fabric quests!


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