Fabric for Historical Sewing || Supplies for Sewing
I could be wrong, but the hardest part of learning how to sew your own clothing may very well be finding the right fabric. There are just so many options out there, even for modern sewing. If you want to get into historical or vintage sewing, that can complicate matters even further.
I am going to give you some pointers for where to begin with fabric. I will include a resource list at the end with several online fabric stores I enjoy shopping from.
What Kind of Sewer are You?
The first thing you need to figure out when choosing fabric is: what kind of sewer are you? I know, it’s a vague question. Here is what I mean. Do you enjoy historical or vintage sewing, or modern sewing? If the former, is historical accuracy important to you? What kind of sewing budget do you have? What kinds of garments would you like to sew? Do you want to create a few staple garments that last for years, or would you rather whip off many different garments for short term wear? Do you sew costumes, or clothing for your daily life? Do you want to sew stretchy clothing, or tailored custom fit garments with woven fabric?
All of these are questions which it is important to ask yourself before choosing fabric for your projects. How will this help you choose fabric? Here is an example. Let’s just say you are mostly interested in sewing costumes rather than every day clothing. Historical accuracy in fabric is not too important to you, and you are on more of a budget. Polyester satin may be a perfect choice for that Victorian ball gown you want to make (or whatever it is).
In my case, I sew clothing for my daily life, and I prefer the feeling and historical accuracy of natural-fibre fabric. I am also okay with investing a little more into the wardrobe pieces I create - they are so well-loved that it is worth it. Therefore, linen fabric is a perfect choice for me. In fact, it is one of my favourites. More about that later. Also, linen doesn’t have to be as expensive as you may think.
Historical Fabric Fibre-Type Breakdown
Let’s talk about fabric fibre-type. Fibre-type simply means what the fabric is made of. What a fabric is made of is one of its main distinguishing factors. Another one is weave type, and “weight”. More on those later.
Here on my blog, I focus on historical and vintage sewing, and I LOVE natural fibres. I will leave synthetic fibres out of today’s discussion, because I am not as familiar with them. Here is a breakdown of the main natural fibres that were used historically, and are still just as useful today.
Cotton is the most recognizable fibre type to modern people, and with good reason. It is very cheap to produce nowadays, which means it is used to make EVERYTHING - underwear, bed sheets, clothing of all kinds, towels, you name it. Cotton is breathable, can be thick or lightweight depending on its weave and weight, and is fairly absorbent as well. Cotton can be a great stand-in for those historical garments that would have traditionally be made of linen, like chemises and shifts, and so many more.
One of my biggest uses for cotton is in corset making. Every corset I have made has been made with cotton fabric - I’m talking about coutil here, of course. Cotton coutil is a strong and sturdy fabric designed especially for corset-making. It has been widely used for corsets since at least the Victorian period. For those who are learning corset-making and aren’t ready to invest in coutil, 100% cotton canvas or twill can be a great stand-in for corset making.
Another one of my favourite uses for cotton is for those lovely lightweight garments: blouses, undergarments, summer dresses, etc. There are so many beautiful lightweight cottons - lawn, voile, batiste, lightweight muslin, and more. Historically, this is how cotton was mostly used. Here is an example of a vintage bra I recently created using lightweight cotton batiste.
If I am in doubt about what type of fabric to use for a project, I will always gravitate to linen. Linen comes from the flax plant, and is known for its strength, elegance, and breathability. Linen was the historical equivalent of cotton. It was quite inexpensive, and was used for absolutely everything from undergarments to dresses to stays to shrouds for corpses. When I said everything, I meant everything.
What are the qualities of linen? Linen has a very distinctive appearance with a visible weave, and little “nubs” that show up in the weave at times. It is smooth but crisp, wrinkles easily, and is oh-so-breathable. It is not absorbent like cotton, which means it is great to wear in hot weather as it won’t absorb sweat. It also has natural antibacterial properties - another bonus for hot weather or for undergarments. There is something viscerally calming about the feeling of linen against the skin. Linen is probably also one of the oldest fibres that we have records of being used.
The great thing about linen is that it can be used for so many different garments. Dresses, skirts, shirts, you name it. Simply buy the appropriate weight (ie. thickness) for a given garment, and you are set to go. There are handkerchief weight linens, which are the lightest weight and are great for blouses or undergarments, all the way up to heavy linen canvas - perfect for stays. There are even yarn-dyed linens, which have stripes or other patterns woven into the fabric. I will list below two great resources I have bought my linen from. Both have very affordable prices, and offer hundreds of colour and weight choices of linen.
While silk nowadays is considered a luxury fabric, historically this was not so. Silk was worn by all classes of people, and was used in a fairly utilitarian manner - though it obviously would produce garments with a higher “dressy” factor.
What are the properties of silk? Silk usually produces fabric with a sheen, and can even produce “multi-hued” fabrics, which change colour depending on the lighting and angle it is viewed at. While silk is viewed as very delicate and luxuriant, it can be surprisingly tough (I’m thinking of silk taffeta here). It is also one of the strongest and most heat resistant fabrics there are. You may have even noticed on your iron that if it is labelled with the fabric types to use at each temperature, silk is usually in the hottest category (polyester is always in the lowest heat resistant category). I have most often used silk as an outer fashion fabric for my corsets, as it adds such elegance and sheen to the finished product. I have also loved working with silk taffeta - I have made a skirt, jacket, and even a pair of ballet flats with silk taffeta. I have found it extremely durable for every day wear.
Silk is another extremely versatile fibre, in that there are many different types and finishes of silk that would be appropriate for many different types of garments. I have personally worked with silk noile (very similar to linen and more casual), silk organza (great for interfacing, more on that below) silk charmeuse, and silk taffeta. I have loved each of these types of fabric, but they all have very different applications. If you are new to working with silk, stick to the less slippery silks like silk noile and silk taffeta. In the resources section I will list a great resource for silk.
Wool is the most misunderstood fabric today, in my opinion. What do most modern people think of when wool is mentioned? Itchy socks. Ultra-hot old fashioned coats. Heavy, thick fabric. While all of these can be true of wool, there is so much more to the picture. Wool was another highly utilitarian fabric for historical people - it was used for coats and stockings, yes, but it also produced elegant men’s suits, ladies jackets and skirts, stays, travelling ensembles, hats, shoes, and so much more. Surprisingly enough, wool can actually produce extremely smooth, lightweight, and breathable fabrics - such as those used for suits. Some types of wool can be itchy, but that is usually with a certain type of lower grade wool. Wool is, I admit, the fabric I have personally worked with the least, but its not for want of desire! When I do make a new project with wool, I will definitely update you all here!
What are the properties of wool? Well, first of all, it is the only fibre listed so far (other than silk) that comes directly from an animal - from the shorn hair of sheep. This could be viewed as a symbiotic relationship, as by the time sheep are shorn, their hair likely feels hot, heavy, and dirty, and they are ready for a hair cut in the spring and summer. In return, we get an amazing fibre to work with! Wool can be warm, but it can also be highly breathable and cool if it is a lighter, smoother weave. It has a lot of body, is water resistant, and anti-bacterial. The main project I can recall making with wool are for my newborn son, which have worked amazingly and feel so soft and comfortable.
Now, what about fabric weave?
Weave refers to the way the threads of the fabric are interlocked together. Different patterns of weaving produce different effects and surface finishes in the finished piece of fabric. For example, many of the specific types of fabric I referred to in the previous sections are differentiated according to how they are woven. Regular warp and weft weaving (straight up and down threads, woven with side to side threads) is the most common type of weave. However, other types of weaves, such as a twill weave (which has diagonal threads as well as the warp and weft) will have different properties which are best suited for certain types of garments. Twill weave in particular is known for its strength, and for having less ‘bias stretch’ than other fabrics. Coutil (that corset-making fabric I mentioned earlier) is similar to twill weave, and has a herribone weave pattern, which is the strongest and least stretchy weave possible. Basic twill weave fabric is used for heavier weight garments, like skirts, pants, jackets, coats, corsets, etc. Fabrics that have the standard warp and weft weave can also be used for these types of garments as long as they are of an appropriate weight, which is what we will talk about next.
Fabric weight refers to how thick and heavy any given fabric is. This is literally measured in a weight - it’s why you will see certain fabrics listed as being of a certain amount of ounces or grams. Personally, I am not overly familiar with these technical measurements, although they can come in handy if you are shopping online and aren’t familiar with the look and feel of a certain fabric. Generally, heavier fabrics will be used for pants, skirts, jackets, coats, and corsets, while lighter weight fabrics are used for blouses, summer dresses, undergarments, etc. It is especially important not to pick a fabric of too heavy a weight for these latter types of garments, as they will not drape properly and will be stiff and bulky. Likewise, if one uses too light and drapey of a fabric for tight or tailored garments, or those that will recieve a lot of wear, they will be see-through, not have enough body, and wear through quickly.
Included in this discussion of fabric weight is that term I just used: “drape”. Drape is a visceral quality of fabric that describes the flow of a fabric and how it falls over the body. Let’s use silk as an example. Silk charmeuse has a lot of drape, whereas silk taffeta has a lot more body and stiffness to it (though it still has a good amount of drape and can be used for lovely skirts and dresses). If you are shopping online, some fabric websites will include photos of the fabric draping over something to illustrate this. The best teacher of fabric weight and drape (and what is appropriate for your projects) is practice. Often, making mistakes in our choice of fabric is the best way to learn! If you are unsure about fabric weight, I recommend working with linen! Most linen online stores will categorize according to light, medium, or heavy weight linen, so it is much easier to select what you need. More on linen in a later section. Often websites will also list in a fabric’s description what kind of garments it would work well for. Now, a brief seg-way into the world of interfacing . . .
Interfacing and Mock-Up Fabric
Have you thought about what you will be using for interfacing and mock-ups? Let me tell you a story about interfacing. When I first began garment sewing (self taught mostly from blogs and trial and error), all of the modern sewing blogs I was reading recommended using fusible interfacing, stay tape, and things of that sort. What on earth is interfacing? I wondered. Stay tape?? (I still don’t really know what that is, ha!) I googled these things and figured, well, this must be what sewing is about, so I will use that. It wasn’t until later that I learned what interfacing was really all about, and the importance of choosing good quality interfacing. Interfacing is essentially the bones of your garment. It provides structure and stability, as well as preventing stretching, over the long haul. Ever since then, I have thrown away my fusible interfacing (okay, mostly just the non-woven stuff!) and gravitate toward using real fabric as my interfacing. I always keep a bolt of cotton muslin in my fabric stash. I use it for interfacing, boned garment linings, and mock-ups. When I need lighter weight interfacing, I might use something like silk organza. Yes, it takes more time to stitch it in rather than fusing it, but that has never really bothered me. In my opinion, one of the major factors that sets apart couture sewing from run of the mill sewing is the choice of interfacing.
I’m going to say something that may be controversial here. Are you ready? Don’t rely on your local fabric store for your sewing projects. Become more open to fabric shopping online. In fact, up until recently, I simply had not stepped foot in my local fabric store in about 2 years. Now of course, I’m generalizing. Some people have great local fabric stores, or simply prefer shopping physically. But let me tell you a story to illustrate my point.
Several years ago, when I first became interested in garment sewing, I was already gravitating toward natural fibre fabrics like cotton, linen, and silk. I would have even been happy with 100% cotton. Sure, this store carried plenty of quilting cotton, but not much garment cotton. No matter how I searched my local fabric store, it seemed that nearly all of their garment fabric was either 100% polyester, rayon, or were a cotton/poly blend. No judgement here, but that simply wasn’t my cup of tea, and still isn’t. I remember asking a sales associate: “Do you carry linen? What about silk?” The woman in question looked skeptical and somewhat exasperated as she led me to the back of the store, where there were bolts of fabic high on a shelf, not displayed like the other garment fabrics. “Here’s the silk. Here’s the linen.” My jaw dropped at the prices! How can anyone afford this? I wondered. The sales associate walked off with a huff as if to say, “told you so.” I went on to sew with this and that for some time, before discovering the magic of online fabric shopping. Specifically in my case, it was online linen shopping. The prices were significantly lower than those I had seen in my physical fabric store, and for the first time I was able to make full outfits out of linen - my dream! The same goes for silk. Silk is, objectively, a more expensive fabric. However, I can still always find better prices shopping for it online than in my physical fabric store. Okay, if you live near the fashion district of New York City or something, maybe this will all be irrelevant to you. Lucky you!
Let’s talk about something I have already alluded to: “old faithful fabrics”.
Finding “Old Faithful” Fabrics
If you are new to sewing, I have one piece of advice when it comes to fabric: find your “old faithful” fabrics! What on earth do I mean by this? Well, just think about it. Sewing, or historical sewing, is already complicated enough, right? So many different patterns, sewing techniques, not to mention worrying about fitting. Once you find your “old faithful” fabrics, you can stop adding fabric to that list of confusing factors. For me, my old faithful fabric has been linen. So no matter what I am making, if I am unsure of what fabric to use, I will always gravitate to linen because it is accessible to me, it fits in my budget, and it is versatile. I have also worked with it before, and love how it feels to work with. I am comfortable with it. Now, this isn’t just one massive plug for linen. Linen is simply my old faithful fabric. For you, it could be something else entirely. Maybe it is cotton from your local fabric store, or even polyester! The main thing is, to find what works for you on every level of your sewing practice, and use that fabric whenever you are in question of what to use, or when you just don’t feel ready to experiment with a new type of fabric. Obviously, it goes without saying that you need to buy your “old faithful” fabric in a weight which is compatible with a given project, but either way - if you have a certain fibre type or fabric source that you are already comfortable with, use that! Now, let’s get to the fabric resource list I promised!
Online Fabric Resource List
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