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Beginner's Guide to Fabrics

There are hundreds of fabrics to choose from, but which should you buy? We help you understand your options and pick the perfect material for every pattern.

Woven Fabrics

Woven fabrics are made from two groups of threads, a warp (the threads that run lengthwise) and a weft (the threads that run widthwise). The fabric may be plain or patterned, according to the colour and sequence of warp and weft yarns used. It’ll also have a border around the edge called a selvedge, which is more tightly woven to prevent the fabric from unravelling – but you don’t use this in your sewing. If you are making a project that is going to be used a lot then choose a fabric that can be easily washed and is colourfast.


Cotton is one of the world’s most popular woven fabrics. It’s strong, easy to work with and can be machine washed at high temperatures. However, it creases easily, so do make sure you press cotton fabric regularly as you cut and stitch it. Most patchwork fabrics are made from 100% cotton, which is ideal as you can buy a variety of patterns and colours and join them together as they are all the same weight. Polyester cotton works in the same way but will crease less – it doesn’t have the crisp feel of pure cotton, though.


Linen, woven from flax fibres, is even stronger than cotton, although it has a higher tendency to crease. Its natural appearance makes it ideal for that homespun look, but again, remember to press it regularly as you are working. Linen is perfect for tea towels and table linen, as when washed and pressed, it is lovely and crisp.

Heavier Weight Fabrics

Home furnishing fabrics, canvas, cotton drill, denim and corduroy (including needlecord) are great choices for projects that need a bit more strength such as bags and aprons. They will also add more structure to the finished projects so will look better. Some soft furnishing fabrics have the added bonus of a protective stain-resistant finish making them ideal for items that are vulnerable to spillages, such as seat pads and outdoor table linen.

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Delicate Fabrics

Silk, cotton lawn and some vintage fabrics need a little more special care as they are much finer to work with. Only use these for projects that won’t be treated harshly, such as lingerie and decorative items like dainty bags or pictures.

Felt and Fleece

Felt is created by matting woollen fibres in hot soapy water, either by hand or in a machine. You can also felt knitted fabric by washing it in a machine at a high temperature. Fleece is also known as polar fleece and has a combed nap, which makes it warm and cosy. Always iron fleece with a thin cloth on top of it to prevent it from felting, or being flattened too much. These fabrics have become popular with crafters and beginners because they are frayresistant, don’t stretch like woven materials, can easily be cut to any shape, and come in an array of interesting colours and textures. They’re ideal for appliqué for this reason.

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Net and Lace

Net and lace are made by knotting together lengths of thread to create a pattern. These materials are often used as decoration, and are best cut with small, sharp sewing scissors for a neat finish. They can be used for appliqué or to edge or decorate an item. Many lace fabrics and trims are made from artificial fibres, but check what your lace fabric is made from before you wash it, in case of potential shrinkage.


Interfacing gives an extra layer of support to your material – to stiffen bags or fabric baskets, for example. Choose an interfacing that’s slightly lighter than your main fabric, and if you’re using a fusible (iron-on) option then always test it on a scrap of the fabric first. Interfacing is available in different weights and as an iron-on or sew-in version. With fusible interfacing, press the shiny side to the wrong side of your fabric. Tack sew-in interfacing to the wrong side of the fabric pieces around the edges. Medium interfacing is soft and lightweight and you should use this to add a little body to your finished item. Firm interfacing is stiffer and will add more definition and structure.

Interlining and Wadding

Curtain interlining is a more flexible alternative to interfacing and will give projects such as bags and baskets a fuller look. Tack this to the wrong side of your main fabric then work with it in the usual way. It’s ideal for putting between the main fabric and lining on the base of a bag. Wadding comes in many different weights and materials and is not only used as the padding between the top layer and backing on quilts but also to add shape and softness to bags and fabric boxes.

Tear-Away Stabiliser

This non-woven material is perfect for machine embroidery as it adds body to the finished item and supports the fabric. After stitching, gently tear away the excess stabiliser.

Vintage Fabrics

The beauty of vintage fabrics is that they already have that worn homespun look and will give a truly unique feel to your finished project. Buy old fabric items such as table linen, curtains and even old clothing from sales and cut them up to use for new projects. Hand wash vintage fabrics before you use them to ensure the colour doesn’t run and to remove possible years’ worth of dust and dirt.

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What is Nap?

Nap is the direction of the raised pile on a material such as velvet and fleece and it makes the fabric look and feel different from different angles. If you brush ‘against the nap’, the fabric feels rougher. When you cut out different pieces make sure the nap runs in the same direction on each one.

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First published in Beginner's Guide to Sewing