How to Choose, Prepare and Cut Dressmaking Fabric
Once you’ve selected your sewing pattern and have cut it to size following our guidance in the ‘How to Achieve the Perfect Fit from your Sewing Pattern’ article it is time to choose, prepare and cut your fabric. Here is a step by step guide, perfect for beginners, on everything you need to know. It is worth considering (and accepting) for most sewing projects you will spend around 80% of your time preparing and 20% of your time sewing. Getting the preparation right is crucial to success - my Mom always said: ‘fail to prepare, prepare to fail!’ and as always (annoyingly) she was right!
Choosing your Fabric
We’ve all bought clothes from the shops we never wear and sadly this can happen even when you’ve spent hours making them yourself! Choosing the right fabric is an important part of avoiding this sad situation!
Firstly, it is crucial to choose the right type of fabric for the garment you wish to make and there will be suggestions and guidance on the sewing pattern packet to help you - always read them carefully.
Different fabrics hang differently and therefore suit different types and styles of garment - if you’re looking to make a smart tailored shirt you won’t want to use soft, drapey jersey fabric and if you’re looking to make a comfortable, flowing summer dress stiff taffeta just ain’t where it’s at! Don’t be a magpie and get distracted by a pretty pattern, remember the composition of the fabric is the first thing to consider...then you can start looking at the pretty patterns!
It is also worth noting here where sewing patterns suggest a woven fabric we would recommend you avoid using jersey. Due to the amount of stretch in jersey fabric sewing patterns designed specifically for use with jersey will have less ease in recognition of the amount of stretch in the fabric. Therefore patterns designed for woven fabrics, including less stretchy cottons and crepes for example, may have too much ease for a jersey fabric resulting in a finished garment that could quite easily resemble a dog’s dinner and nobody wants that!
Some patterns will have a small diagram on the back of the packet to test how stretchy your fabric is to identify whether it is suitable for the pattern - a sort of stretchometer I suppose! If you can stretch a given length of your fabric between two points on a line it indicates it is suitable (stretchy enough) for that particular pattern.
At the risk of teaching my granny to suck eggs also consider what you will wear your finished garment with - shoes, accompanying items of clothing and accessories. If you can’t think of anything that will go with that fabric it probably isn’t the one to choose unless you are prepared to buy accessories or accompanying garments to go with it. If your aim is to eventually build a handmade wardrobe that will be the foundation for most outfits you wear you will need to build a core wardrobe including practical, staple items that will coordinate with lots of other garments as well as the occasional show stopper!
Preparing your fabric
Once you’ve (wisely) chosen your fabric it is always a good idea to wash it on a cool wash to ensure any shrinkage that may occur happens before you spend hours lovingly sewing up a storm! Some fabrics will also bleed their colour or appear differently after a wash so, again, you are better off finding this out before you start sewing. We would always advise investing in good quality dressmaking fabrics since you are far less likely to experience any of these issues and they will usually come with specific washing and care instructions.
It is possible to buy some fabrics at very cheap prices and you might be lucky enough to choose one that washes and wears well, but you also have a much higher chance of shrinkage and colour bleeding.
Throwing a colour catcher in the wash with the fabric will help you to determine whether colour bleeding is an issue - if it comes out heavily stained you may need to try and set the dye by soaking in salt water or using other agents available to buy.
Once the fabric is washed and dried it is time to give it a good press in preparation for cutting.
Cutting your fabric
Lay your washed, pressed fabric, right side up, on a nice flat surface. Fold the fabric in half joining the selvage ends together (these run the length of the fabric and often have little holes where the fabric was fixed to the weaving machine). Folding the fabric in half enables you to cut two of the same piece where necessary and cut symmetrical single pieces.
Smooth out any ripples in the fabric by brushing your hands across it over the flat surface and towards the fold and ends of the fabric keeping the selvage ends together. There may be a twist in the fabric and it is important to smooth this out making sure that the selvage ends remain lined up perfectly and the fold is lying straight.
It can be useful to lay the fabric on a cutting board so you can use the lines to make sure your fabric is lying straight. The ends of the fabric that run across the width may not line up with each other and this is fine since it may not have been cut perfectly straight in the shop.
Once you have cut out your sewing pattern pieces according to your size (see our previous article on achieving the perfect fit from your pattern) iron the pattern pieces using a dry iron. This means they will lie flat on your fabric and any creases are removed. If you haven’t got the room or inclination to keep battling with your ironing board a piece of polyester insulated wadding can make a small and useful pressing mat which will come in handy for pressing your garment later. You could even cover the wadding in cotton fabric to make a proper pressing mat and roll it up and put it away when not in use.
Now it is time to pin the pattern pieces to your fabric and there will be guidance on how to lay them out according to the width of the fabric you are using provided with the pattern.
You will need to identify the pieces that need to be lined up against the fold, which will be indicated on the pattern. This is normally the case for the front, sometimes the back and sometimes the facings. Always check whether the facings, neck or armholes need to be on the fold as this can vary depending on the pattern. All pattern pieces should be facing the same way (face up so you can easily see the markings) since shading can occur in the fabric which could be visible on the finished garment if different sides of the fabric are used. Very occasionally a pattern may have pieces that need to be placed face down on the fabric indicated by shading on the pattern piece, but this is rare.
When pinning the pattern pieces to the fabric ensure they are lying flat and resist the temptation to lift the fabric. Some pattern pieces will be marked with ‘straight of grain’ or ‘cross grain’ and it is crucial to ensure this line lies parallel to the selvage or fold edges of your fabric (just choose the one which is nearest). Use a tape measure to ensure the straight of grain is the same distance away from the edge of the fabric all the way along and pin it in place. Lining your pattern up appropriately with the cross or straight grain will ensure your garment hangs correctly. If it is cut ‘off grain’ the garment can appear twisted.
For beginners especially we recommend pinning the pattern pieces to the fabric since this prevents any movement of the pattern on the fabric or between the two layers of fabric. More experienced sewists may choose to use pattern weights to speed up the process, but these should be kept in place whilst cutting to avoid the two layers of fabric slipping or moving apart.
Now you’ve pinned your pattern it is time to get cutting. Needless to say use a nice sharp pair of fabric scissors and never use them to cut anything else, especially paper which can blunt them. Once again avoid the temptation to lift the fabric with your hand. Instead slide the scissors underneath the fabric and cut with the fabric falling flat onto your work surface either side of the scissors. Side bent scissors are the best type of fabric scissors to use since they are designed to allow the fabric to remain flatter on the table.
If the pattern has notches to help you match the pieces together (usually depicted by little triangles or lines at right angles to the cutting line) cut these out of the fabric beyond the pattern rather than cutting into the pattern since this will weaken your seams.
We recommend using tailor’s tacks to mark any darts rather than marking the fabric with chalk or pens since these are easily removed once the darts have been stitched in place. Simply create a cross to mark where the darts begin and end by sewing a straight stitch in one direction and crossing it with another straight stitch at right angles. Be sure to leave long tails on the thread at the loop and the end so that you can snip it and leave enough thread in place on both layers of the fabric to mark out where the darts should be.
Once everything is cut and marked accordingly you’re ready to start the best bit - the actual sewing!
If you found this article helpful you should know that every week we’re adding our top tips and tricks to the Sew Essential blog so stay tuned! You can follow us on Bloglovin to receive an update every time we add a new post.