When I was 19, I walked in to a fabric shop for the first time. I’d dropped out of university and had signed up to a night class at a local college to learn how to make bags, and I was looking for supplies to make my first item. I was like a kid in a sweetie shop and going into that fabric shop became a weekly treat for me. Touching different fabrics, trying to understand how they moved and if they would be suitable for the ideas in my head. Looking at zips, buttons, needles and threads imagining what I could do with them all. Some days completely overwhelmed but always leaving more inspired than I entered.
After a few months, they advertised a job for a part time sales assistant and reluctantly I applied for that role. Little did I know how much of an impact that application would have on my future.
That was March 2010 and up until February 2020, I was a proud member of the textile industry, spending 4 years at my first fabric shop and a further 6 years at another, working on the shop floor and in roles as a dress fabric & haberdashery buyer and running a fabric retail website. Over that time, it would be safe to say that what I haven’t learned about fabrics isn’t worth knowing!
Working as a fabric buyer, especially as someone who sews, was very much like being a kid in a sweetie shop. My day to day was spent playing with different fabrics, surrounded by fabric samples from suppliers across the world and dreaming up the endless possibilities our customers could have with the fabrics I was choosing to stock. I had access to every fabric you could ever want to work with and many you didn’t know that you needed in your life!
One thing I was particularly passionate about as a buyer, was finding the best possible version of certain fabric types. This led to various buying trips locally and abroad, including trips to Paris and Amsterdam, going to ‘Stitches’ in Birmingham every year, the odd trip to London and the absolute dream of visiting Liberty of London’s warehouse to pick fabrics off their shelves to stock on ours. As well as many visits from my lovely suppliers to our offices over the years to see their new collections as they launched. I feel very lucky that I had the exposure to this amount of fabric and knowledge from these companies over those years.
As many of you will know, selecting the right fabric for a project can often be a tricky task. Imagine being the person who has to narrow that down for the thousands of options available from mills and suppliers to those you see stocked in fabric stores across the UK and online. There’s the danger of allowing personal taste to influence your choices and I had to remind myself a lot to take a step back and think of my customers. Often this was more difficult with plain fabrics. Once I’d decided on a quality (the type and composition of fabric), I had to narrow down my core colours and additional seasonal choices. The easiest way to understand what to choose was to spend time in our stores, speaking to customers about what they like and seeing which fabrics were selling through better than others. That’s knowledge you can only gain from being there on the shop floor.
Sometimes too much choice can be a bad thing as it means deliberating over options for longer than necessary. Being the go-between for our suppliers and customers, building that knowledge base on both what was available and what sold well, meant we could curate sell-out collections each season. With the odd wildcard fabric thrown in to mix things up! I was always very conscious that it would be no fun seeing the exact same fabrics in every fabric store with maybe just the choice of a different colourway so I was always on the lookout for something different.
On a personal level, it was this time as a fabric buyer which really allowed me to explore fabric choices and consider what I wanted to sew with. I recently wrote about this on my Instagram as I’ve had a change of focus since I left my role as a fabric buyer. I was very brand loyal whilst in that job which might have limited some of my fabric choices, even though I loved all the fabrics I was buying for our stores. However, exposure to every fabric you could think of let me understand the properties of these fabrics and appreciate which kinds of projects each fabric would suit best. Knowing that you can’t use a woven for a project requiring stretch content or you can’t use a twill weave for a drapey dress or top. Learning which fibres have more suitable applications at different times of the year, such as linen in summer and wool in winter, and again why these fibre types lend themselves better to one garment rather than another. And being able to communicate this information to customers when they asked these questions or offering a suitable fabric for their garment if they didn’t know where to start.
Alongside buying fabric, I also looked after buying for our haberdashery items. Having a view on both the fabrics available to us and what we had stocked on our shelves meant I could chose notions and tools which worked best with these. Ensuring we had suitable threads, zips, buttons, needles, trims and everything else in between meant our customers could leave our stores with everything they needed for their garments or projects. Although, having said that, I can’t tell you how many times I came home without a matching zip or thread! Just as well I had easy access to them!
One thing I have really missed through lockdown, is being able to visit a fabric shop, take my time to look at what is available, chat to members of staff about what makes a fabric special and what my plans might be with it. To spend time debating whether I need 2 metres or 3 if I’m unsure what to make before turning round and finding another fabric to fall in love with. And if I’m missing this interaction, I can only imagine how those early in their sewing journey are missing these valuable experiences to learn more about fabrics and what can be done with them.
As I’m sure you’ll now be aware, I am particularly passionate about finding or suggesting the right fabric for the right project. Whether you are starting out on your first make or a seasoned pro at dressmaking, there is nothing more satisfying than finding the perfect match for idea/pattern/final project. I’ve had the pleasure of advising everyone from kids sitting at a sewing machine for the first time through to experienced designer dressmakers. And I’d like to share some of that knowledge with you in this blog post.
Picking 4 of my favourite By Hand London patterns and pairing them with some different fabric types, I’ll explain what these fabrics are and why they are a good match for the project.
Linen is woven fabric made with fibres from the flax plant and is generally thought of as a summer fabric as it breathable and absorbs moisture well, drying quickly. Being of plant origin, linen is a vegan fabric and favoured by many who avoid animal products. It’s a very versatile fabric and is available in many weights making it suitable for most garments which require a bit of structure. I’ve used linen to make dresses, trousers and lightweight jackets.
Linen would work really well made in to an Elisalex dress, holding the pleats well in the skirt and allowing the princess seams on the bodice to sit neatly. And as linen behaves well, it would be great for a beginner sewist to use so it’s easy to understand why it’s such a popular fabric choice. Usually available in plains and prints, every different linen would make an Elisalex dress look completely different and unique to the maker.
I would stay away from using linen for a garment that requires a bit more drape, such as the Alix dress. Linen would cause the wide sleeve, waist gathering and fullness of the skirt in the Alix dress to become a bit too rigid and lose the light, floaty, 70s feel of the dress. A better choice for this dress would be a lightweight viscose, silk or double gauze. These fabrics would be much better suited as they allow drape and for the pattern details to sit as designed.
My choice would be to use a viscose crepe as it’s one of my favourite fabrics. Viscose is referred to as ‘semi-synthetic’ fabric as it’s made from cellulose wood pulp and spun in to a silk-like fabric so can neither be described as entirely natural or man-made. Offering lovely drape and slight sheen, viscose is available in many different weaves such as crepe, challis and twill. Recently, more viscose crepes have been readily available for the home sewist and many which are ‘deadstock’ fabrics from designers and retailers.
Sometimes for projects, you need to pay particular attention to whether you need to use a woven or a jersey fabric. Garments drafted to be made in jersey fabrics are usually designed with ‘negative ease’ meaning the finished garment measurements are smaller than body measurements as the stretch of the fabric is taken in to account. Jersey is a fairly broad term for fabrics which are really tightly woven knit fabrics and most commonly what will be suggested for these kinds of garments. Taking many different forms and weights, jersey is perfect for more comfortable garments and available in a variety of fibres, including cotton, viscose and polyester and can be made from a combination of fibres, sometimes including a stretch content (elastane, lycra etc) which allows stability and movement in the fabric.
Most commonly used in tops, jersey is an ideal (and recommended) choice for the Poppy top & dress. I’d recommend a ‘T-shirt’ weight jersey fabric rather than a Ponte Roma or similar, up to about 220gsm in weight (most fabric shops will give you this information). Garments designed to be made in a jersey fabric, often give a stretch recommendation on the pattern and it’s important to note this for correctly fitting it. Jersey garments are now a very popular choice for home sewists as they have become easier to work with and with the popularity of loungewear during lockdown. Most fabric shops will stock both plains and prints in all the different types of jersey meaning every kind of garment can be created, from patterns such as the Poppy top through to hoodies, joggers, hats and items for kids.
There aren’t any ‘set in stone’ rules for what fabrics will work for each project and a lot of the time, suggestions can be adapted to let you try something different. However the one rule I would always follow is if a pattern requires a fabric with stretch, use a fabric with stretch. Often these garments are designed and drafted with negative ease, meaning the finished garment measurements are smaller than body measurements. A woven fabric won’t work on these projects and you’ll likely be left disappointed. Other than that, I would always actively encourage trying different fabrics for different projects to see how they work as you might just surprise yourself! Sewing is about creativity and self-expression and there is no greater why to discover things than to just give them a try.
One final note of caution, particularly for beginners. It’s very easy to get carried away with ALL the pretty fabrics. I loved nothing more than a pretty print when I first started sewing, making so many dresses in what I would describe as cute fabrics. However, that wasn’t and still isn’t my aesthetic and those garments I lovingly made weren’t practical and no longer live in my wardrobe. Match your sewn garments to your wider wardrobe needs and consider if the fabric was made in to a RTW garment, would you have bought it? If not, I would recommend reconsidering and choosing something which you’ll make, wear and love for a long time. Making that one small change to my fabric buying approach has ensured that the garments I now make are more practical and sustainable.
As for my favourite fabric, currently that goes to Viscose Twill. Viscose has always been my favourite fibre regardless of weave, as it’s lightweight and lends itself well to most things I like to make. My preference currently falls to twill as it’s got a little more body and is more wearable year round. Not to mention there are some lovely viscose twill prints about at the moment, including those by Atelier Brunette & Mind the Maker.
I hope that you’ve been able to learn something from this quick guide to some of my favourite fabrics or have been inspired to try a project in a different kind of fabric than you usually would. To see which fabric I’m working with at the moment (in amongst adventures with my wee man), join me on Instagram @hazel_b_obv
Thank you Hazel! I find it so fascinating to read about your time as a fabric buyer and retailer, and it reminds me of my brief stint working in a fabric shop. I learned so much, drinking up everything I could from the owner – the immensely knowledgable and inspiring Joy of Loving The Fabric – but I only scratched the surface! The understanding of all the fabric types, weaves and appropriate applications that comes with your years of experience is second to none, and I thank you for sharing some of that with us!