folded cotton and linen fabrics

Dressmaking for beginners – how to choose and buy fabric

Buying fabric can be addictive but it doesn’t usually damage your health. If you are new to sewing and dressmaking, you may find fabric shops slightly bewildering. Here’s how to get started…

Quick-start guide to fabric

Fabrics are either woven or knitted, and can be made from animal fibres (wool and silk), plant fibres (such as cotton and linen) or man-made fibres (like nylon). Knitted fabrics are more stretchy than woven ones.

There’s not space here to talk about every fabric available so I’ll just mention some of the main ones:

  • Cotton – the most versatile fabric, woven cotton comes in many different weights from light-weight handkerchiefs to heavy canvas. It’s often used for shirts, skirts, trousers, jeans and bags. Fabrics like denim, moleskin and corduroy are generally made from cotton. Range of prices – often fairly cheap.
  • Cotton jersey/knit – knitted by machine from fine cotton thread, this fabric is what t-shirts are made of. It’s stretchy and comfortable to wear, but not as easy to sew as woven fabric.
  • Linen – woven linen is easy to sew and comes in a variety of weights. It tends to crease a lot and is often blended with cotton. Its main use is in making summer clothes. Can be quite expensive.
  • Silk – shiny, slippery woven fabric often used for luxury underwear, blouses and dresses. Expensive and difficult to sew.
  • Wool – can be knitted or woven. Woollen fabrics are often made into suits, coats and posh skirts and trousers. Often fairly expensive and tend to be dry clean.
  • Polyester and polycotton – synthetic woven fabric, generally light-weight and crease resistant. Polycotton is a blend of polyester and cotton. Often pretty cheap.

Good fabrics for beginners

To start with, it’s a good idea to buy fabric that is easy to sew and not too expensive. Don’t be too afraid of making mistakes though – you will end up ruining some fabric at some point! However, to put off this evil moment as long as possible look for:

  • A woven fabric that will not slip or stretch too much when you sew it. This really means choosing cotton, linen or a cotton-linen blend. Avoid silk, rayon, shiny polyester and cotton jersey and other knitted fabrics.
  • Either plain colours or small prints. Avoid stripes, checks and big patterns for the moment as they are more difficult to lay out.
  • Light- to medium-weight fabrics. Avoid really heavy-weight fabrics like denim at first as they are harder to manipulate. It’s also a good idea to steer clear of bumpy or ridged fabrics like corduroy for your first attempt at sewing.

How to buy fabric

Which should you buy first, the sewing pattern or the fabric? I think it’s easiest to buy your sewing pattern first then shop for fabric. Once you’ve got your pattern, you know what kinds of fabric you’re looking for and how much fabric to buy. You can also buy any thread, zips, buttons or other notions to match at the same time.

It doesn’t always work out like that though. If you find some fantastic fabric that you can’t resist, buy 3m of it to keep your options open when you’re ready to sew something.

When you are looking at fabric in a shop:

  • Check that the fabric is one of the ones recommended for your sewing pattern.
  • Unroll the fabric bolt a little and have a look at how the fabric hangs (called its drape). Do you like the feel of it? Is it soft or stiff? Does this fit with what you are planning to make? Is the fabric scratchy?
  • Have a look at the label – there should be some information about the fibre content and care instructions. Can you machine wash it or is it dry clean only? If it sounds like it’s too high maintenance, move on.
  • Visualise your planned project made up in the fabric. Does it look right? Do you like it? Is the fabric in a colour that suits you?
  • Check the width of the fabric. Fabrics are made in different widths: mainly 150cm (60”) and 115cm (45”). Look at your pattern to find out what length of fabric you will need to buy. Make sure you buy enough fabric to allow for 10% shrinkage on washing just in case.
  • Take your time – once you’ve had the fabric cut from the roll you generally can’t return it so don’t rush into buying.

For more help with different fabric types and finding your way around fabric shops, I’d recommend either of the books Learn to Sew with Lauren or Sew Everything Workshop.

Fabric shops and online stores

If possible, it’s a good idea to go and visit some fabric shops to get a feel for different fabric types. If you’d rather shop online, you won’t go far wrong if you stick to reliable fabrics like cottons.

Bricks-and-mortar fabric shops

Options include:

  • John Lewis – good range of fabrics, not particularly cheap but plenty of affordable cottons.
  • Local fabric and sewing shops – very variable in stock and quality but sometimes very good value.
  • Quilting and craft shops – normally have a huge range of cotton fabrics with lots of small prints, often quite expensive. Look for fabrics sold by the metre rather than as ‘fat quarters’ or patchwork packs which are small pieces.
  • Furnishing shops like Dunelm Mills – often have very cheap cotton fabrics but check that they are washable. Good for buying fabric to test out patterns with.

Online fabric shops

When I first wrote this guide back in 2010, there really weren’t many places to buy nice fabric in the UK. How things have changed! There are now a dizzyingly large number of online fabric stores. There are three main types: (1) cheap and cheerful, (2) mid-price, decent quality dressmaking fabrics, and (3) gorgeous, lovely but very expensive fabrics.

Be aware when you are comparing prices that some shops quote fabric prices by the metre, some for 0.5 metres and some for 0.25 metres. Many online fabric shops offer a service where they will send you samples (also called swatches) of fabric for a small cost.

A few easy-to-navigate stores that I’d recommend for beginners include:

  • Minerva Crafts – huge selection of dressmaking fabrics at good prices. Site is easy to search as you can filter results by colour, fabric type, weight, price etc. Samples service. Delivery is £2.49 or free is you spend over £20. Fabric ordered by the metre.
  • Truro Fabrics – wide range of good quality dressmaking fabrics. Easy-to-navigate website.  Samples service. Shipping costs calculated by weight and value of purchase. Minimum fabric order is 0.5m then can order in 0.1m increments.
  • Stone Fabrics – large selection of good quality dressmaking fabrics. Free samples service. Shipping costs calculated by weight and value of purchase. You order by telephone so good for asking advice. Minimum fabric order is 0.25m then 0.05m increments.
  • Croft Mill – mostly manufacturing ends and sample lengths from top end and high street designers so stock changes continually. Quality fabric at very reasonable prices. Good service, quirky descriptions. Samples service. Delivery charge is a flat rate of £5.95. Minimum fabric order is 1m then 0.5m increments.

Haberdashery and notions

Notions (also called haberdashery) are all the things apart from fabric that you might need to sew your project – like thread, buttons, zips, elastic, tapes and bindings, ribbons, press studs and so on… you get the idea…

Most fabric shops have a haberdashery section, and you can normally buy matching thread, zips, buttons and stuff when you buy your fabric. For more specialist notions, try Kleins – a most amazing haberdashery shop in London’s Soho which also has an online store.

Preparing fabric and cutting out

When you get home with your fabric, try to resist cutting straight into it at once. A tedious but necessary step is to first wash and iron your fabric. Wash the fabric as you will wash the garment – if the fabric is going to shrink at all, it’s better for it to do it now rather than after you’ve spent lots of time sewing it into something. When the fabric’s dry, you’ll need to iron it smooth again.

Your sewing pattern will have instructions for different cutting layouts depending on the width of your fabric. Find the right cutting layout for the style you’re making and the fabric that you have – you may need to fold the fabric as shown in the layout.

Roughly cut out your pattern pieces and iron them (gentle heat and no steam). Lay out the pieces on the fabric following the cutting layout. It’s a good idea to lay out all the pieces before starting to cut so that you can be sure that everything’s going to fit. Pin the pattern pieces to the fabric, go and take a break, then come back and check your work. Finally, take a deep breath, pick up your dressmaker’s scissors and cut!

For more information, there are good beginners guides to layout and cutting in either of these books: Learn to Sew with Lauren or Sew Everything Workshop.

Read more

  • Dressmaking for beginners
    Equipment and books, courses and tutorials, where to get help and inspiration, choosing patterns and buying fabric.

If you have any recommendations or things you’d like me to cover in this guide to dressmaking for beginners, please leave a comment.