When you first decided to start sewing, I bet you thought it was going to be easy, didn’t you? If not, you are smarter than I was. I thought it would be a breeze. I mean, how hard could it be? You pick a pattern, grab some fabric & thread, put it through a machine and voilà you have made a beautiful summer dress!
Boy, I couldn’t have been more wrong! It’s not that simple. At least not in the beginning. You see, there are things you should learn before you can even begin to sew.
Before You Start Sewing
After finding the perfect sewing machine, you then need to learn how to use it. You should also have a basic understanding of sewing machine stitches, especially the straight stitch and the zigzag stitch.
It’s also helpful to know the basic sewing tools and have them on hand before you start. My free e-book, Sewing Basics for Beginners: What You Need to Know Before You Start, is a helpful resource.
Once you have all that down, you should then do a little fabric research. Actually, there’s a good chance that one of the main reasons you are drawn to sewing is because of the fabric. Well, at least that’s the case for me.
Beautiful fabrics are eye-catching! It can be tempting to grab every lovely piece you see, without a plan or idea of what you are going to do with it. This can be particularly bad if you are new to sewing because you may not realize that it is much harder to find a pattern that will work with fabric you’ve already bought than it is to simply buy the fabric required for a specific pattern.
It can be even more difficult if you’ve purchased the fabric with little or no knowledge about fabric in general. Believe it or not, understanding fabric types is an important part of becoming an experienced sewer.
Types of Fabric
Basically, there are two types of fabrics. I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that’s a load of garbage because if you walk into a fabric store there are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of fabrics. And this is definitely true, but, all fabrics essentially fall into two categories: woven or knit.
All other fabric types are actually sub-categories of these two fabrics. The flow-chart below shows an example of how fabric types fall into categories and sub-categories.
Difference Between Woven & Knit Fabrics
So what’s the difference between woven and knit fabrics? Well, the differences actually start with the process by which each fabric type is made. All types of fabrics are made through either a weaving or knitting process. Knit fabrics are made on a knitting machine, whereas woven fabrics are made on a huge loom.
Other differences have to do with fabric stretchability and washability. Knit fabrics stretch, but woven fabrics don’t. Knit fabrics shrink when washed while woven fabrics hold their shape.
Generally, woven and knit fabrics look quite different, yet many people find it difficult to differentiate between the two. When buying fabric, there are a couple of key things to look for if you are struggling to decide if the fabric in question is knit or woven.
One, check the lengthwise edge for round blobs of glue or starch. Knit fabrics tend to curl at the edges, these blobs keep the fabric straight. Woven fabrics will not have these blobs.
Second, check the cut edge (also called width) for fraying. Knit fabric edges do not fray. On the other hand, the ends of woven fabrics do fray and will need special care to keep the fibers from coming apart. See How to Keep Fabric Ends from Fraying for review.
After you’ve determined if your fabric is knit or woven, you should keep a couple other differences in mind when making your projects, especially if you are making an article of clothing. Knit fabrics tend to be more comfortable, warm, and wrinkle-resistant. On the other hand, woven fabrics tend to be more durable and more fade resistant than knit fabrics.
Now that you know the difference between woven and knit fabrics, let’s discuss each of these categories in a bit more detail.
When you think of woven fabrics, think about your favorite button down shirt, trousers, tote bag, or quilt. These fabrics are made by weaving two threads together just like a basket but on a smaller scale. They can be made from natural or synthetic fibers and range from delicate weaves (think silk) to large weaves (think burlap).
A loom converts these threads into fabric by intersecting them at right angles. This forms grain lines. The threads that run lengthwise are call warp and the threads that run across the width are called weft. Most woven fabrics have a right side and a wrong side, you’ll notice this as soon as you see the fabric.
Woven fabrics are sturdy and reliable, but eventually, the threads that hold them together will gradually pull away at the edges causing them to unravel. This is called fraying. This usually occurs along the cut edge, which is the width (weft threads). The lengthwise edges (called selvages), on the other hand, are strong and do not move.
One distinguishing feature of woven fabrics is their lack of stretch. However, today, some woven fabrics, such as denim, can be made stretchable by adding spandex (which is the generic name for Lycra) in between.
Woven fabrics can be weaved in an array of colors and patterns. The dyes used tend not to run or bleed once they are dried, making them colorfast or permanent. Thus, they usually don’t fade quickly.
One disadvantage is that woven fabrics tend to wrinkle greatly. Be sure to invest in an iron and ironing board if you choose to sew with a lot of these fabrics!
Knit fabrics are called knit fabrics because they are literally knit–just like you would knit something with needles and a ball of yarn. It’s just done on a smaller scale using tiny needles and very thin yarn (thread). The needles make interlocking loops out of one continuous piece of thread creating what looks like tiny rows of braids.
These interlocking loops make the fabric stretchable, which makes them ideal for making clothing and wearable accessories because they conform to the body. And since knit fabrics are actually a single thread the raw edges don’t unravel like woven fabrics.
Knit fabrics tend to be fluffy, absorbent, and lightweight. This makes them comfortable to wear so they are often the fabric of choice for many people. However, they don’t hold color as well as woven fabrics, which causes them to fade easily. They also tend to shrink more than woven fabrics so they cannot be washed as often.
On the plus side, knit fabrics are wrinkle resistant. It crushes easily if you ball it up in your hand, but will spring back to its original shape once you release. No ironing needed! Your favorite T-shirt is a great example of a knit fabric.
Knowing fabric basics can make a trip to the fabric store less overwhelming. However, if you’re on the hunt for a specific fabric type and find yourself lost among all the choices at the fabric store, here are a few tips to help you decide if the fabric is woven or knit.
The Stretchability Test
- Try stretching the fabric. If it stretches, it’s a knit. If it doesn’t, it’s woven.
The Wrinkle Test
- Crush it into a ball in your hand and then release. If it springs back, it’s a knit. If it wrinkles up, it’s woven.
The Blob/Fray Test
- Check the edges of the fabric before it is cut. If there are blobs of glue or starch, it is a knit. The blobs were put there by the manufacturer to keep the ends from curling. Woven fabrics should not have these blobs, but will often fray along the width of the fabric.
If you found this post useful, please share it!
Until next time… Happy Knitting!