Learn to sew - Understanding fabric


The first learn to sew lesson with Bryoni is about understanding fabric.

One of the most important things to grasp when learning to sew is the fabric! There are 2 main types of fabric structure

Woven fabric

Woven fabric is made up of multiple yarns (threads) crossing each other at right angles (like a basket).

Woven fabric is strong and hard wearing, it only stretches on the bias (diagonally) i.e. if you pull it lengthways or widthways it does not stretch very much at all (unless it has some kind of elastic fibre combined in it).

Woven fabric will often fray at the edges.

Woven fabric such as cotton is a good fabric to work with on a beginner project as it doesn't stretch out of shape and has good structure as you sew.

Knit fabric

Knit fabric is made up from one continuous yarn/thread and is looped continuously to create the fabric.

Knit fabric stretches in all directions.

Knit fabric doesn't usually fray.

Knit fabric can be a little more difficult to work with, but don't put it off for years (like I did) as you do get used to it, but I wouldn't suggest it for your first projects.

Once you have mastered working with knit you can make really simple projects that don't need zips and other fastenings as it will stretch over the head for example.

Learn to sew - Understanding fabric layout

So, we are going to start with a woven fabric (cotton) and the first thing to understand is the edges and the grains as when laying out a pattern ready to cut it will make reference to these, I am going to keep it simple!

Why is the fabric grain important? The fabric grain will affect the way the fabric hangs or drapes.

Imagine that you have a length of cotton fabric, notice the following

  • The top and bottom of the fabric (the width of the fabric) will often have frayed edges
  • The left and right hand sides of the fabric (the length of the fabric) will often have stiffer, non frayed edges, which sometimes has the name of the brand/fabric range printed on it, this is called the Selvedge (you will see reference this a lot)
  • The straight grain runs parallel to the selvedge edge (so vertical)
  • The bias grain runs diagonal
  • The cross grain runs parallel to the width of the fabric (so horizontal)

Understanding fabric


    The straight grain is the most used grain when making garments and generally runs up the centre front and back of the garment, (some pieces such as sleeves and collars are a little different but lets keep it simple for now) this will ensure that the garment drapes and sits correctly on the body.

    Have you ever had a garment that doesn't sit right, or twists in an awkward way around your body? This will be because it hasn't been cut correctly on the grain.

    Your pattern will tell you which grain to cut the pattern piece on, and I will go into more detail on this in the next lesson, but its important that you understand the above to avoid garments that don't drape correctly (I learnt the hard way with this!).

    See the owl fabric below, as it has an obvious print it is pretty easy to work out, the selvedge is running down the left and right hand sides, the left side selvedge has the fabric maker/design printed on it, the right hand side selvedge is not so easy to see as the print goes to the very edge, but if you look at the underside, you can clearly see the selvedge.

    The top and bottom of the fabric are frayed slightly.

    Fabric Selvedge

    Fabric selvedge

    Fabric selvedge

    Fabric selvedge

    I hope that helps you to understand fabric in a little more detail, there is so much more to learn about fabrics, but these basics should be enough to get started with your first project!

    Bryoni said that she now understands it but it can be a bit confusing as some patterns and web sites call them different things such as weft and warp, but this is just another description for the same thing, weft is crosswise grain, warp is the straight grain.

    In the next lesson I am going to show how to trace and cut out the pattern.