7 Tips for Working With Tricky Fabrics

Created By:

Janelle Marie (Santner)

Skill Level: Beginner

One of the questions I get asked most when talking to friends and people online about sewing is “How do you handle sewing stretch/slinky/textured fabrics?”. It's not a straight-forward answer so I thought I would do my best to walk you through my favorite techniques and tips when working with tricky fabrics! I will demonstrate these with my current make, a rainbow striped 2 piece outfit made out stretchy, metallic Bodre fabric. Bodre is a lightweight fabric with irregular pleats that drapes beautifully but tends to slip around when being cut and sewn. When I saw this fabric, I immediately thought of all the gorgeous flowers at Biltmore House in Asheville, NC and knew I wanted to make an outfit to wear there on my next visit!



Tip 1. Pick your projects wisely


We have all been walking through the fabric aisle when something just POPs out at you. Now that fate has bestowed a new material that makes your heart sing, you need to decide what to do with it. Of course cottons and traditional knits call to be made into tops and familiar garments but what if the universe decides to hand you.. dun dun dun.. a pleated, silky, stretchy bolt of joy? You design your project around it!


Identify the: 

  • Drape - How does it behave when you hold it from it’s long edge and let it hang?

  • Stretch - Does it give much when you pull from either direction of the grain or bias?

  • Weight - Can you fold it crisply or does it distort or resist when folded?

  • Sheerness - Can you see through it? Will you need a lining to avoid an “oops” moment?


Once you identify all of the above, you can pick a garment or project to create! When looking at my rainbow Bodre fabric: it drapes in only one direction, it has a LOT of stretch along the drape, it's very lightweight/can't be ironed and needs no lining. Therefore, I decided to make a jumpsuit with the stretch going around my body and the drape running vertically on both the top and bottom. Most store bought patterns will say what type of fabric they recommend to use.



Tip 2. Cut out your pattern one piece at a time


Now it's time to cut out your pattern pieces but don't be tempted to fold and cut double. Because stretchy and textured fabric tends to shift when pressing down on it, you want to only lay out one layer of fabric at a time to cut your pieces. For the same reason, I would recommend marking your fabric before cutting, being sure to include notches and marks for seam alignment. My favorite tool to mark with is a heat-erasable pen as it disappears with just steam. 



Laying out fabric one layer at a time will also let you ensure that the grain of the fabric is straight and not pulling in one direction or the other which happens a lot with very lightweight satins and sheers. 



Tip 3. Go with the flow (and stretch) of your fabric


When laying out your pleated, stretchy fabric, you may be tempted to tug and pull it as flat as possible, holding it in place with pattern weights. Do not do this unless you want your garment to fit skin-tight. If your pattern does call for stretch, make sure the widest point of stretch is going around the body. As you advance in your skills, you can learn how to manipulate a fabric’s stretch and drape to create more interesting designs!



Tip 3. Use the right tools to cut your pattern pieces 


Different types of fabric are easier to cut with different tools. For fabric like this Bodre that has a scrunched texture that likes to shift around, I prefer to mark it with a heat-erasable pen and cut with scissors. Scissors make it less likely the fabric will get pressed down and warped out of position. When cutting lightweight fabric like chiffon or satin, I prefer to mark it with chalk and cut with a 45mm rotary blade. A rotary blade prevents the fabric from having to be lifted to be cut which can cause the grain of the fabric to be pulled out of alignment.  



Tip 4. Know when to use interfacing or let loose


A big part of getting a garment or project to look “professional” is knowing when to add support or interfacing. This is even trickier with knits and slinky fabrics. Hopefully, you have chosen a project that works well with your fabric but it could still need a little help keeping shape. Store bought patterns should provide you with exactly how much and what type of interfacing you need. There are types of interfacing for every fabric. 


When choosing between iron-on (aka: fusibles) and sew-in interfacing for tricky knits and slinky satins, I will always recommend sew-in. Iron-on loses its adhesion and structure after only a few washes and wears. It can even break down and turn into a crumbly mess which is common to see in homemade garments from the 1970s and 80s when fusible interfacings first became popular with home-sewists. If you want to make something that lasts, choose natural-fiber blended interfacing or even better, use a fabric with similar stretch but more stiffness than your “fashion” or visible fabric. It will last so much longer than the iron-on version.



Common placements for interfacing include necklines, pockets, shoulder seams, waistbands and cuffs but they can be added anywhere that needs a little extra support. When sewing shoulder seams on stretch garments, I like to bind the seam with bias tape to prevent stretching. I also always add a strip of cotton or dense stretch fabric to my button hole line to give them more hold. Buttonholes sewn into stretch fabric without interfacing tend to loosen over time and stop holding buttons. For this outfit’s waistband I used a sew-in cotton interfacing.



Tip 5. Choose to pin, clip or baste


Once you have your pieces cut, it's time to pin! Or is it? The only fabric that pins work well for are fabrics that have enough stiffness to keep them in place. That is not the case for most knits, stretch or slinky fabrics. Clips are a great option when working with fabrics that can’t hold a pin or are too thick. You can find them in most local fabric stores (check the quilting area) and online. 


If you want to go the extra mile or have fabric that the clips don't provide enough security for, hand-basting is the ultimate pre-sewing assembly option. Hand basting is the process of securing two pieces of  fabric together with long, loose stitches in contrasting thread color. It takes a while but nothing else will hold your pieces together better. The more you do it, the faster it’ll become! I use it most often when preparing chiffon or highly textured pattern pieces.



Tip 6. Decide the right machine and foot types


My number one choice for sewing knits and other stretch materials is my Janome AirThread 2000D serger. The wide foot pulls the top and bottom fabrics through with even pressure and the seam is finished in one step. I also use it to make single-needle rolled hems on very lightweight fabrics like chiffon and satin which prevents fraying and doesn't interfere with the drape.



When sewing particularly thick or irregularly textured fabric on your sewing machine, I would recommend a walking foot. A walking foot (or Even Feed Foot) uses textured feet to grab your fabric from both the top and bottom. This results in no shifting of fabric while you sew. I like to use this when securing gathered fabrics to waistbands as demonstrated here:



Tip 7. Let it hang overnight


Once your garment is sewn, you may be tempted to finish the edges and run out the door to enjoy your new outfit! Which is understandable but don't be surprised if one leg ends up longer than the other. This is because you didn't let your garment hang before hemming! Always place your garment on a padded hanger or even better, a mannequin, overnight or for at least 8hrs.



 While stretch and slinky fabrics may not shift and settle in the same way cotton or linen fabrics do, they still settle. The most common thing I have to fix after letting my stretch/knit projects hang overnight is the fabric along the front and back centers hanging lower than the fabric at the side seams. That is due to the thread in the seam supporting the fabric and holding it in place while the rest settles. In a perfect world, the seam tension would be adjusted to not let this happen but, it happens and it is good to be ready to handle it. Hanging and then trying on your garment will also alert you to any interfacing issues you can fix more easily before finishing/hemming rather than after.



Once my outfit was finished, I took it to Biltmore Gardens to take some photos with their gorgeous conservatory and gardens! I really hope you found this helpful and if you ever have any questions or comments, please don't hesitate to contact me on Instagram! 


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