What you Need to Know About Fabrics (For Beginners)
Why some fabric knowledge is essential
I’ve touched on the topic here at the beginning of our how to design article. Different fabrics will change the way an item looks. The same design can look slouchy vs boxy by just changing the fabric. This image is the best that I can find to illustrate this effect.
Secondly, fabric choices can make or break a customers impression of your brand. Have you ever bought a lovely item online? Only to get said item in the mail and excitedly rip open the package. To find a creased, thin, crispy feeling, plastic-y smelling item?
Your fabric choice is how a customer is going to literally, feel, your brand. Do you want your brand to feel thin, shoddy or rough? If not, read on.
Fabric Basics: What you need to know
What should be important to you is not the composition, ie: 70% cotton, 30% polyester. More important consideration are things like fabric appearance, feel and weight.
Fabric Basics 01: Fabric Structure
Types of fabrics can be broken down into 3 main structures.
Woven fabric. This is made on a loom, where ‘warp’ and ‘weft’ yarns pass over and under each other. Changing the order of overs and unders, produces different ‘weaves’. Some examples of woven fabrics structures are: basket weave, twill, oxford and chiffon. Typically, woven fabrics are for, suit pants, button down shirts, overalls, and jackets.
Knitted fabric. This is made from 1 or more yarns, which get looped together by a knitting machine. These loops create a knit fabric that stretches. Changing the formation and order of loops give you different knit structures. Different knits include jersey, interlock, rib, pique and tricot, to name a few. Usually, knitted fabrics are used for t-shirts, underwear briefs, leggings and other items that need stretch.
Non-woven fabric. This is the ‘other’ category and includes fabrics where fibers are meshed together. Either mechanically, or by using chemicals. Some examples are, felt, cushion padding, insulation and cleaning wipes.
Knowing at least the right fabric type is the minimum amount of expertise I’d recommend. If you don’t know this, it’s at this point where a factory will know that "you know nothing John Snow!"
Fabric Basics 02: Composition & Fibre
Fibers are used to make yarns, that get woven or knitted to make fabric. The fabric content you see on a care label inside your clothing that says: 30% cotton, 70% polyester, etc, refers to the fiber.
Natural fibers include cotton, hemp, cashmere, angora, & silk. Semi synthetic fibers are man-made, but originate from natural sources. Like, viscose/rayon, bamboo or modal. Synthetic fibers are entirely man-made, like polyester, polyamide, acrylic and nylon for example.
Fabric Basics 03: Fabric finishes
A finish is applied to a fabric after it has been woven or knitted. The most common finishes include… Washing. Sandwashing or stonewashing is used to give a fabric a faded or vintage effect. Coatings are chemicals applied to the surface of a fabric. Often for waterproofing, or for aesthetics like glossy or metallic finishes. Mercerizing, a common shrinkage process for cotton, strengthens and softens the fabric simultaneously.
Fabric Basics 04: Other Fabric Characteristics
The weight of the fabric is important too. This is usually measured in grams per sq meter (written as GSM) or oz per sq yard. The weight will change how the fabric drapes and how heavy the fabric feels in your hand.
The fabric width is another small detail that is useful to know. A roll of fabric is around 1.5 meters or 58 - 60” wide. You’ll need to know the width of the fabric you select, so you can work out how much to purchase. A narrower width might mean you need to buy more fabric (it will be priced per meter or yard).
How to Research & Choose Fabrics
This is something that I hear clients struggling with all the time. How to choose the right fabric? How do you know the best weight or which weave/knit you need?
Firstly, consider what the fabric is for? What type of garment are you making? Start by deciding on an appropriate fabric type.
When will the item be used? What season, winter, summer or spring? What is the purpose of your design? Do you need to keep the wearer warm, or cool? Do you need to protect from water, or from heat for example? Or maybe your design is a fashion item that is purely decorative? This should inform your choice on weight and structure.
Now think about the aesthetics of your design. Do you need something that is easily dyed and printed on? Do you need something that drapes well? Or something that can take the weight of heavy pockets or lots of embroidery?
Once you’ve established the properties you need to have, you can start you research there. If you’re going to approach a fabric store or supplier for advice... now you can describe the characteristics of what you want, even if you don’t know the correct fabric names.
Think back to the products you wear everyday. Which items have a fabric you like? Go shopping to look at similar items in your target market. What fabric do they use? Feel the fabric and try to identify the structure.
Make notes and start buying samples. If you look at the online product page of an item you just bought in real life - you can match up the fabric description with what you can see/feel in your hands.
I’ve outlined the essentials for choosing a fabric. A cheeky workaround would be to buy a retail item you like. Then send your factory or supplier a swatch of this exact fabric. See if they can source something similar for you!
We’ve not covered any aspects of actually buying fabric from a supplier. (Which has a totally new set of pitfalls)! Send us an email if you’d like to hear more on the topic of fabrics, or if you have a specific suggestion!
AUTHOR: BELINDA JACOBS
TECHPACKS.CO founder Bel (as she is affectionally known as) is a technical fashion designer from London. Belinda has worked with numerous high street retailers, independent designers and fashion start-ups since graduating with a first class honors degree in clothing design & technology.