How to pick a fabric
So, you know what you want to do, you found a pattern, and then… bafflement! What fabric should you use for each part? What do all those names in the “fabric suggestions” section mean? We will get to that, first let us answer some questions.
1. Is this garment covering your top half (blouse, corset, jacket, vest) or your bottom half (pants. Skirt, boots), all of you (dress, kimono, robe), or is it outer wear (top coat, cloak)?
2. Where and how long are you going to be wearing this? Inside? Outside? Just one weekend or forever?
3. What time of year? This applies to both one time wear planning and everyday clothing you intend to wear frequently.
4. Is there anything from the images of the character or it’s show/ manga dictating or suggesting a specific fabric?
5. Is this piece going to be layered with or attached to any other parts of the costume?
6. Is the garment being made an ‘action’ type (like Superman or Naruto) where vigorous movement will be performed while wearing it?
1. Fabrics fall into a few very broad categories: top weight, bottom weight, outer, and active. These apply to the fabrics and materials themselves, regardless of what you are making from them. Leather is considered outer even if you’re making a bra. Broadcloth is top weight even if you are making shorts. Denim is bottom weight even if you are making a coat from it. Spandex is active because it has stretch and spring back qualities… I can’t think of anything incongruous that one might make out of spandex that wouldn’t normally be made from it, it’s pretty well purposed stuff. For now, this is all we are going to worry about.
2. If the answer is a con for one day, you can probably tolerate lower quality fabrics than if you are making it for a stage play that is going on a six week tour. Also if you are going to Renn Faire during an unusually rainy year you want more washable materials. People often suffer when they ignore this consideration.
3. This is pretty self explanatory. Even for an indoor con, if it’s in Texas in summer, you are going to get hot and possibly sweaty. If it’s in Minnesota in February you need to be able to walk through snow in it. No one wants frost bite or heat stroke because they had to wait in line 20 minutes at the parking garage. For everyday clothing, you probably weren’t considering making a sundress from velvet, I’ll trust you’ve got better sense than that.
4. Only applies to costume making. Things from television, film and other live action are the easiest. Even if the specific colors or texture is custom for that character, the weight, fiber and colors are very defined. Sometimes you are free to choose whatever you want, like characters pulled from black & white mangas. Only the style of the garment narrows your options. If the character is in a kimono, the traditional fabrics would be either cotton or silk, in a finely woven lightweight fabric. Maybe you have a theme in mind that requires you to tweak or change the materials, like making a Steampunk Cinderella. Video games with flat colors and minimal texture can be the most frustrating, because they don’t give you much to work with. By narrowing your options in answering the other questions, you can reduce to always-too-many options at the fabric store.
5. Layers! And full body garments! It’s easy to forget when making Captain Jack Sparrow that he’s wearing a shirt and a waistcoat under that leather top coat. Even in good air conditioning that can get hot fast. Thinking through the first three questions and answers can help you decide to make the vest back from broadcloth instead of polyester lining, and to be sure the shirt is 100% cotton for maximum comfort. Likewise if you are making a dress where the top & bottom are different colors, or maybe a center panel is different like a classic Queen of Hearts, matching the fabric weight between the sections will result in the best finished look. It’s better to put up with being a little warmer because the dress is twill from top to bottom than look cheap and having your panties show because you used broadcloth for the whole dress and the skirt has white panels.
6. For the majority of super hero type costumes, you are going to be wearing some sort of Spandex, Lycra or other 4-way stretch. 4-way stretch!! If the pattern calls for it, you must use it. There is also 2-way stretch fabrics and knits that, while they stretch in all directions, aren’t intended for deep stretching like Spandex. Can’t scrimp on movement ability when you are saving the world y’know. For the other kind of action character, ones who aren’t wearing stretchy stuff, bottom weight is the general rule but most important is the fit and tailoring. Too tight pants will tear at the butt, too loose pants will trip you.
Okay, so you’ve narrowed the field some, you’ve got a rough idea of what is going where on your body and made a few goals related to that. Let’s look at the “suggested fabrics” part of the pattern envelope again. First, 95% will either be wovens or knits, only toy and decorator patterns and things like house shoes will call for felts. (see my other blog post about fiber & weave) If it calls for wovens you must use wovens! If it calls for knits you must use knits! A pattern for a woven made in a knit will sag and not sit right on the body, it might even stretch so much it just falls off. A pattern for knits made from a woven means you won’t be able to put it on most likely, or at least not be able to move or breathe in it if you can get it on. This is law, don’t cross the streams.
Lets look at some specific examples….
1. This is a summer dress pattern. While everything listed is fairly light weight and flow-y, they are all nearly all bottom weight fabrics. That’s because it covers the whole body top to bottom. Note the statement about buying extra if stripes or plaid is chosen, this means the pattern will work with stripes or plaid. Some don’t and they will tell you.
2. This is a pattern inspired by the TV show Once Upon a Time, high fantasy design. All those fabrics listed are based on the images of costumes worn in the show and used in the photos on the front of the envelope. They are nearly all bottom weight and outer wear fabrics. Note it lists different fabrics for the different pieces in the pattern set. Does this mean you can’t do it in real leather or denim? Not at all, because both of those materials are the same weight as what’s listed. So long as the weights are similar, the pattern will work.
4. A current pattern for a crossover top tee shirt. Notice that even though it states boldly that it’s only suitable for stretchy fabrics, there are still a few specifics listed. That’s because all those can be made from knits or otherwise stretchy fabrics.
Don’t know what challis is? Or lawn? Or pique? Entire text books have already been written on this subject, I won’t go into detail but I’ll make some suggested reading for the interested. Instead you can Google it, or better yet, do that then look in the store until you find some and feel it, hold it up to the light, watch a pile fall from your hand. This is the best way to get to know fabrics and fibers. My mom took me to some very high end fabric stores as a kid and later as a teen (which sadly are all long closed). I had an opportunity to put silk satin in one hand and cotton polyester satin in the other and learn the minute differences. And I can’t teach you by telling you, not really, you need to touch them to really know these things.
How do I find it in the store? First use the signs and employees for the broad categories like top weight or bottom weight, use a specific fabric name if you are seeking it out and add ‘it’s for a blouse’ or whatever it’s for, because they may not know ‘chalis’ but they will know where most of the blouse suitable fabrics are. Then when you get into the aisle, flip the fabric off the top of a bolt and read the label. Aaaaannnnddd that’s another post….