Seamingly Badass

Learn to Sew: Fabric Basics

There’s a lot of information that needs to be acquired to sew.

It can be daunting and overwhelming.

There’s a lot of “Need to know”, and even more “Nice to know” when just getting started.

Let’s start with fabric. Without Fabric, you can’t really sew anything.

When you buy fabric, it’s good to have a clear idea of what you will be using that fabric for. Otherwise, you could very well end up with a room full of fabric you don’t know what you’re going to make out of it. (Like me).

Many sewists have a “fabric problem”. We lovingly refer to the excess fabric in our homes as our “Stash”.

I even have some “WTF” fabric in my stash. As in “WTF was I thinking?!?” or “WTF am I going to make out of that?!?”

Enough about me…

Fabric is generally sold by the yard (or meter).

The width of the fabric will be specified by the manufacturer. Most fabrics come in widths between 44″ and 60″.

Because there is such a wide range of widths, you may need more or less for the pattern you want to make based on the width of the fabric you want to get.

Another really good thing to note is the care instructions. MOST fabric will specify if it can be machine washed or dried or if it needs to be dry cleaned. If you want to be able to wash whatever you make, pay attention to the manufacture recommendation.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to follow the directions. But if you really want to wash a dry-clean only fabric, I highly recommend testing a swatch to see what it does after being washed.

Some fabrics completely change luster or texture.

Knowing what you want to use the fabric for will also partially determine what type of fabric you will need.

Fabric Types

There are two main types of fabric: Knit and Woven. (Yes, there are others, but for now, that’s “nice to know”.)

The difference is in the way the fabric is constructed.


Woven fabric is made by … weaving… threads together in some pattern. The most basic pattern is an over/under type pattern where horizontal threads go over or under the vertical threads alternately.

Other patterns make different types of “weaves”.

Woven fabric rarely stretches in the length or cross directions unless some type of elastic fiber is added to it.

This makes woven fabrics pretty stable but unforgiving in clothing. Which means close-fit activewear is a no-go.


Knit fabric is made by threads (or yarns) being knitted together. Instead of running a horizontal thread over and under vertical threads, the horizontal thread is looped through loops from the previous horizontal thread.

There are different types of knits that affect the behavior and stability of the fabric.

Most knits stretch at least a little in the cross direction. Some stretch in the lengthwise direction.

Because of the stretch, this can make knit fabrics more forgiving to wear. But depending on the stretch, they may not be stable enough for some projects like home decor or accessories.

Fabric Fibers

So, the type of fabric doesn’t have anything to do with the fabric fiber.

The fiber refers to the actual material that the fabric is made out of. There are two categories of fiber: Natural and Synthetic

Natural Fibers

Natural fibers are made out of things found in nature.

They can come from animal or plant.

Fibers such as cotton, wool and silk are natural.

Also, bamboo, rayon and linen are natural.

While the process to make fabric threads out of each of these is different, they are all natural.

Synthetic Fibers

Synthetic fibers, by contrast, are made out of man-made substances (often chemicals). Some common synthetic fibers are: polyester, nylon, vinyl, or spandex.

Back in the day, synthetic fibers got a bad rep. They were inexpensive and wrinkle-resistant, but that’s about where the awesomeness of these fibers ended. Polyester didn’t breath. Meaning there was no ventilation and any body heat would just pool inside your clothes and get nasty.

I also think that the quality of these fabrics just wasn’t quite as good as natural fiber fabrics at the time.

MUCH of that has changed though. Today, many high-performance fabrics are synthetic. Or a blend of natural and synthetic fibers, thereby combining the awesomeness of each.

So, Let’s Play

Take a moment to go through your closet and look at some of your favorite clothes (and maybe not-so-favorite clothes) and take note of the fiber content which should be listed on the tag (if the tag is still present or visible.

Also see if you can tell the difference between knit and woven fabrics.

Hint: most of your t-shirts and socks will be knit. Your raincoat or windbreaker will likely be woven.