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Sewing Chatter: What’s your trick for sewing challenging fabrics?

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07-fabric-swatches

I faced my first fabric challenge sewing a waffle cloth robe for my mom. I used her trusty old Bernina, and the many layers of thick knit fabric fought me like a wild beast. I stuffed it under the presser foot, plugging my ears to avoid the crunching noise the needle made. Only after arming myself with a walking foot and some stabilizer did the machine quiet down.

Sometimes, fabric can be a monster. Fluffy, stretchy, thick, or sheer, without a little bit of background about the fabric you’re using, it’s easy to feel defeated.

We’re celebrating eyelet in the shop right now. It’s such a great fabric for making a statement, but working with eyelet can be tricky unless you have the right information.

(If you’re looking for the right information, Katie answers all your eyelet questions here!)

I’m wondering, have you come across a fabric that made you shake in your boots a little? Share your scary fabric experiences below, so we can all be prepared for our next project!

* What is the most challenging fabric you’ve sewn?
* How did you make peace with a finicky fabric?
* Has a fabric ever defeated you entirely?

Meg Stively   —   Communications Manager

Meg is here to help you. She's the smiling face behind our customer service and social media. Keeping in touch with our family of stockists, and shipping your orders all across the world, she loves seeing what you're making with our patterns.

Comments 57

jen instagram.com

Recently I made a skirt with vintage rayon and when I was done I felt like I never wanted to sew with rayon again! But the thing is, I have more like it and want to use it eventually. I have googled ‘sewing rayon’ etc and haven’t found anything that helped.

My issues were cutting it accurately and keeping the seam allowance as I sew (it was slip). I admit I didn’t use any tricks, like putting tissue paper underneath while sewing on the machine, because I took for granted that it was an easy enough fabric to sew; I’ve had more success sewing silk chiffon! I learned the hard way that rayon does this weird shrinking/growing thing when spraying out wrinkles and ironing it. I wish I had some advice to share but I’m actually looking for tips so if you think others would be interested, I’d love to learn how to work with this fabric !

Meg colettehq.com

I’ve even had issues with rayon in RTW. Once I wore a rayon dress to a really hot and humid outdoor event, and by the end of the day, my dress was two inches shorter!

Meg White thekninja.blogspot.com

I just starch the heck out of it with spray starch, and rayon challis becomes as easy to handle as quilting cotton.

jen instagram.com

I’ll have to try that, thanks!

francesca

I use the gelatine thing for anything slippery. It really helps

L

Could you tell me more about the “gelatin thing?” I’m not familiar with that.

Thanks!

Annie

I just sewed a pieced blouse from rayon challis and had some difficulties with it stretching out of shape. Spray starch helped, but I think I’ll stick to more simple designs with my rayon challis in the future.

Lisa

I’ve had similar issues but I do a lot of knitwear and found huge differences based on the quality of the rayon. I now buy expensive Italian rayon instead of the inexpensive types and have had little issue with heat either in the wash or during pressing (as long as I use a press cloth). My thoughts are that challais is likely similar since the quality varies greatly. And I hate to say it but vintage does not equate better, it’s just fun.

L

Where do you buy your Italian rayon?

Tootsie

I learned from a long arm quilter that a washable glue stick can be your best friend when it comes to difficult sewing. I saw some spray adhesive recently for anchoring a pattern to fabric. I wonder if it would work to adhere slippery fabric or even attach tissue paper to the pattern piece. I have used stabilizer that washes out. I cut strips of it and put it under and occasionally both under and over the seam being sewn. It did the trick. Also used it for fabrics that might catch on the foot, like embroidery or terry towel. Made sewing so much easier.

Diana

Ooh! I’ve got to try that! My favorite materials to wear are usually the ones that give me the most trouble to sew. Thanks for the tip, Tootsie!!

PsychicSewerKathleen tarotbykathleen.com

I’ve had exactly the same problem with rayon!! And swore off it forever just like you – actually that woven rayon was so crazy I ended up just tossing it. Then I tried bamboo knit (which is really a rayon) and went completely bonkers. I don’t know…I’m inclined to say NO to rayon and annoyingly I have a bunch of it in my stash :(

Mary

Rayon, as well as chiffon, crepe, other “jello-like” fabrics will behave a little more if you lay the fabric out (single layer, if possible) over newspaper, medical table paper, tissue paper, etc., before you cut the pattern. Make sure none of the fabric is hanging off your cutting surface. Cut through all layers and discard the paper. This does not hurt your fabric scissors, as you probably won’t be doing this on a regular basis. You’ll be surprised at how well this works. As for sewing, “slow” is the word, as well as the proper needle for the job, and if available for your machine, a throat plate that has a very small needle hole designed for straight stitching. If you don’t have that, a piece of tape or paper taped over the hole will work. And, as always, practice, practice, practice!

marijka

I agree with the spray starch, but be sure to test a swatch in case it spots. Also, micro-serrated scissors or a rotary cutter will make cutting out your pieces easier and more accurate. https://www.amazon.com/Gingher-8-Inch-Micro-Serrated-Dressmakers-Shears/dp/B002PNSWFA

Debera Massahos

My husband gave me a spendy piece of beautiful faux shearling for Christmas last year and I immediately started to make a “simple” coat. By February, I finished my coat but it took research (I thank the cosplay community for all of the awesome video tutes on working with high-pile fabric), patience (first, I had to figure out how to make a muslin that would have similar bulk so I could get the fit right and then I spent over 90 hours tracing, cutting and sewing the actual coat), and lots of hand basting (to prevent slippage and also because I chose a design with lapped seams that had to be as even as possible). I love my coat because it’s pretty, it fits well and it makes me feel like a badass because I made it. Best Christmas gift ever!

Meg colettehq.com

I think cosplayers are some of the best sewists I’ve ever met! So much technique and fabric wisdom :)

Kelly Rose

I dread sewing with light weight rayons. They’re a pain to sew and like Jen said above, they shrink and grow when you spray and press them. I recently bought two different rayons, one was a very strange heavy weight fabric that I would have mistaken for linen except it had too much drape and was WAY to cheap, and one that was a pretty standard plain weave rayon broadcloth. The not-linen one was shifty, but not too terrible. The plain weave was EVIL. It was impossible to get a clean marking on the fabric, and it slipped around as I sewed. I have made a number of bias cut silk charmuse and georgette garments, and they were fine. This was a whole new level of horror.

Next time, I intend to try stabilizing the rayon using gelatin, which is suggested for bias silk garments. You dissolve a packet of gelatin in a cup or so of hot water, then add 3 cups of cold and soak your fabric in it; hang it to dry without ringing, and then when it’s nearly dry, carefully press it so that everything is on grain; I find that laying it on my (very large) cutting table and re-shaping it before pressing is very helpful. It stiffens the fabric nicely, and will wash out pretty easily. Just be careful not to stretch out your fabric when you press. Your fabric will be stiff, almost like paper, and want to stick together more so it won’t creep as much. I may also try using my walking foot.

Meg colettehq.com

Gelatin? What a great tip! Thanks so much for sharing what that evil rayon taught you.

kalimak swarmofchickadees.wordpress.com

Such a great tip! Thank you for sharing!

Ravennemain

Does anyone know of agar or a similar vegan gelatine substitute would work as well? I’ve meant to try it, but maybe someone already has and can report back? Thanks!

Leila growyourownclothes.com

I’ve stabilized nylon tricot by mixing 1 tsp Elmer’s washable school glue in 1 cup of water. I sprayed it on the fabric, dried it with a hair dryer, then ironed it. I would think this would work for rayon, too.

kc theactofmaking.tumblr.com

You could try using spray starch — there are some environmentally friendly brands that say they’re plant-based. I’m sure you could try agar and use it in a similar way to gelatin; I’d be curious to know whether agar would scorch more quickly than gelatin under an iron. Might be worth just doing a small test piece of fabric to see if it works out.

francesca

I usually use gelatine, but you could try Sulky – it’s a soluble thing that works just as well.

marijka

When I was on the road teaching sewing, I forgot hair gel. (Forgive me, it was 20 years ago – we used a lot of hair gel!) I dissolved a little square of Sulky Solvy in hot water and it worked GREAT! Luckily, it was long before ‘Something About Mary’ was released… hahaha My students loved it. :-)

Lusty lusty.org

A month after buying my sewing machine, having not sewn for something on the order of about 30 years, I decided to make a halloween costume. I chose a gloriously hideous embroidered print in chartreuse and purple, with patches of glued-on rhinestones. After breaking 3 needles attempting to navigate the rhinestone areas, I realized the key was to heat them up with the iron to soften the glue, then scrape off the rhinestones in the seamline. That very simple dress took me way longer than it should have to sew, because of this complicated fabric.

Meg colettehq.com

So clever! I’ll keep that in mind if I ever sew rhinestones.

Sarina sewguide.com

Hi Meg,
There was a time when I was obsessed with sewing bags. When I started stitching with faux leather I had lots of trouble sewing with it.- All the problems disappeared when I used the teflon feet to sew it and also changed needle to heavy needle used to sew jeans.
I also since then learned to leave long thread tails at the start and end of the sewing because you cannot backstitch, so I tie off these tails at the end. It is also better to use a thick thread if possible.
Sarina

kc theactofmaking.tumblr.com

Sarai recommended Sullivan’s Spray Stabilizer years ago for silks and it may be the best tip I’ve ever heard. I use it on anything shifty or lightweight (silks, rayons, tissue knits, etc.) and it beefs up the fabric just enough to make it easier to cut and sew.

So now the fabric I fear most is denim, not because it’s hard to cut or sew but because my home machine can alllllmost handle sewing several layers of it. The uncertainty of whether my machine will make it over that topstitched seam or no is pretty nervewracking.

Deborah Morrison

Hey! I used my old 1970s Singer for just that. I keep it around for sewing my husband’s outdoor gear. Those babies were made to last a lifetime. It sews on denim layers more easily and beautifully than my new ‘spensive machine that has all the computerized bells and whistles. Maybe you can pick one up somewhere, or have a friend or relation that has one at the back of the closet. It also sews leather and faux leather like nobody’s business.

kc theactofmaking.tumblr.com

This is a great tip! Thanks!

marijka

Use a hammer to flatten out those seams before sewing over them, and use a hump-jumper to level out the surface so the foot doesn’t get wonky and break the needle. I’ve had to take up the waist and hem all my jeans for years – hammering works wonders.

Nancy Liedel

Anything with, heaven forbid! Lurex in it. Also, some uber slippery knits. Which were never a problem until I was told they can be problematic. It was like reading that destroyed my confidence and I started trying all of it. I finally learned that if I can do it, don’t read tips about working with it, unless there is a problem. I can overthink things to a ball of fabric and sobbing if I over think.

kc theactofmaking.tumblr.com

That totally happened to me with zippers — I never had a problem sewing them until I kept reading (over and over) how tricky they are. Now I’ve got the yips something awful.

francesca

OMG me too! Thank you both so much!

Elizabeth M

I have been struggling with a crinkle gauze (fiber content unknown). I tried to make a simple circle skirt with elastic waist. (My first.)

Even after washing and thorough pressing with steam, it kept trying to crinkle when I was cutting and measuring. I staystitched the skirt opening immediately, and it still stretched about six inches. It came it too short, so I decided to add a ruffle in the same fabric with a band of eyelet underneath. I measured it by pinning the eyelet around it, then cutting the gathered ruffle to match, then pinning with the eyelet and ruffle together. The hem stretched so much that the ruffle didn’t fit. I resigned myself to having extra vertical seams in the ruffle and extended it. In the process of picking out and re-pinning, the hem stretched so that even the extended ruffle is too short. I’m giving up on it now, and trying to decide if there is a way to salvage the fabric. It’s cut in 4 pieces rather than a single donut, but I’m afraid the only thing I can salvage is the eyelet.

Hmm… Maybe if I run it through a wash and dry cycle the hem would shrink enough that I could try again?

Maggi Y

I am trying a very simple top in cotton crinkle gauze, two piece pattern – front and back with short sleeves all one piece. Pretty new to garment sewing. I read about using hem tape somewhere, so I used that on the shoulder seams and that worked pretty well to hold them in place, they feel stable. On the side seams I tried sewing them with tissue paper underneath, that worked. Now it’s sitting there because I’m not quite sure how to tackle the hem and neck. I was going to use facing on the neck, and do a very small hem, maybe just more tissue will do the trick. Maybe some stabilizer in the neck?
I am feeling braver after reading all the above!

Diana

My heart goes out to you. I’ve had a number of projects where the fabric/pattern were a poor match and I’d fight with it, fix parts, try to see if I could live with it, and in the end, there were some that just got decommissioned. (Went into the muslin/scrap pile)

I’ve completed some disasters out of sheer stubbornness and ended up with something I never want to wear. At the end of the day, I’m sewing for pleasure, and when I’m putting more into it than I’m getting back, it’s time to assess what you’ve learned and let that particular project go.

SJ Kurtz erniekdesigns.blogspot.com

Washaway stabilizer over ANY horizontal seams, especially shoulder seams. Or my trick: never sew crinkle fabrics.
Rayon has only broken me when I didn’t preshrink it. It will stretch on the bias but stay stitching after cutting helps.
Send me your rayon ! I love it.

Kathleen

Many years ago, my challenging fabric was an extremely openly crocheted fabric with a very large repeat in its pattern. It was a cotton knit and very stretchy. I wanted to make a swimsuit coverup with it.
What I found worked for me, at that time, was to carefully pin hem tape to the side and shoulder seams to keep them from stretching then to serge the three layers together. I then finished off all the other edges with bias tape. I had the strength where I needed it and a clean finish elsewhere.

PsychicSewerKathleen tarotbykathleen.com

I do that with bamboo knit! That tape by Pellon is fabulous. I made a whole Tee shirt ironing this tape down all the seams. It kept it’s shape and hangs nicely. I recommend that for any sort of knit that had a tendency to keep stretching.

Jude judithshelton.com

Hi, thanks for all the tips! Which Pellon tape is best for this? I just looked and there are so many. Thank you!

tisha @ quiltytherapy quiltytherapy.com

I have been working with some bridesmaid dresses for baby quilts recently. While I won’t put in the patchwork, I have been using them as bindings. Having lots of clips and working just small stretches at a time has helped me from throwing the almost finished quilt out the window.

Robin

I became completely unraveled (pun intended) trying to put bust darts into polyester chiffon. If I ever can’t resist it again, I will try some of the stabilizing suggestions here, or pick a pattern with no bust darts. I still morrne the delicate little daisy print pattern and the perfect sheer sleeves made with French seams…but there was no extra left to work with, it was a remnant to start with. Yet another lesson there…

Sandy magpiestitcher.wordpress.com

Do you still have the sleeves? you could sew them into a woven-fabric sleeveless blouse for a ‘waistcoat’ effect. I tried to alter a silk-chiffon dress once – bought at a thrift store, remember a few years ago all the catalogs were showing multi-layer bias chiffon midi skirts? Well, I could have handled the sewing, with lots of basting (I have been known to baste t-shirts), but cutting the waistline off evenly . . . . Well. It wound up shorter than I wanted, because I had to trim so much, and I put a straight-grain waistband on because there wasn’t the length to do a fold-over elastic casing. Ah, well, the color was beautiful.

Dalia thelittlecave.wordpress.com

My worst fabric-experience has been with an insulating padding that had a metal sheet in it. I didn’t know about quilting-feet or working with this much padding. I was making cooking gloves, The Beginnerproject. The needle nearly hit my eye when it broke, since then I do not lean my forehead on my machine anymore. And then I decided to serge the edges. Just don’t try that. Really.

Leila growyourownclothes.com

Yeah, I second that. I broke my first serger making cooking gloves. I had it repaired, but it never worked as well after that.

Marie livingamystery.com

I save the stabilizer pieces from my monogram projects to place under the edges of thin, hard to sew fabrics. It keeps me from having skipped stitches and discourages my sewing machine from ‘eating’ the fabrics. When the seam is complete I just tear the stabilizer off cleanly.

Rae Cumbie raecumbie.com

When I am trying to sew on a new, challenging fabric, I always choose a pattern I have made before, at least once, and know it fits and I like the style. Then the only new challenge is the fabric itself.

Marty Boeckel spoolsoflove.wordpress.com

I tackled (and fought with!) a polyester chiffon this spring and made a cute kimono jacket. I wrote a blog about the process and tips. My daughter and fellow blogger just made two following my tips! Check it out here.

Shelley

Velvet has been the stinker for me. A good friend asked me to sew a velvet dress modeled after Princess Diana’s. The fabric I was given was stretch velvet and the pattern had a bias panel. I should have run for the hills. The dress was a nightmare to sew and to fit. I doubt my friend ever wore it. Glad that velvet’s not too popular now.

Judy

Instead of New Year’s Resolutions for 2016, I set out to address Sewing Fear Factors. Top of the list was working with slinky fabric, so I took advantage of a sale online with deeply discounted fabrics in challis, chiffon, synthetic silk and others that didn’t require a steep investment but that did require hopping on a learning curve. I looked up all of the fabrics online and squirreled away tips for sewing on them. Most things I read affirmed my concern that slinky fabrics require special handling for sewing. So, after the research, a comfy mode for academic-me, I determined to tackle Akita.

Hey, a one piece pattern! Great place to start, thought I! Unlike other times I tried to process wonky fabrics through my sewing machine, this time I used a much smaller needle, a size 9 with a single hole presser foot to keep fabric from slinking all over the needle plate, AND I also used the single hole embroidery plate that I’ve mostly used for machine embroidery. Not once did I get bunched up fabric that created a nest in my bobbin! I felt A-OK with these choices.

Still, cutting out the pattern was wonky, and I wish I had used another tip I read, alluded to in another post in this conversation, using a tissue lining UNDER the fabric for cutting. My edges were so-so, but with the total slink factor, even slightly uneven edges were not great. I also used my spanking new scissors with serrated edges, so slippage of the fabric during cutting was minimized, but still wish I had put the medical office liner paper under the fabric.

End result was a fairly successful Akita, one I will actually wear although the slinky fabric would have been much better served with self-bias that I wish I had bothered to cut and construct myself, but that’s a totally different item on my fear factor list! Using the regular, single-fold bias tape pushed me to deal with my bias-tape fear factor though I’ve been sewing for 50+ years and have successfully avoided meaningful encounters with bias tape! However, the bias tape, even applied well (and proudly) on my behalf, didn’t eliminate the issue of too much added bulk for my slinky fabric. Lesson learned!

Another Akita may be in my future with another cut of a slinky from my deeply discounted stash, but this time using: 1.)a single hole presser foot; 2) the single hole needle plate; 3) a thin paper lining under the fabric for cursing; 4) my serrated scissors; AND 5) fabric for bias edges that are compatible with my garment fabric. Onward!

Robin

Kudos. I have decided to sew as few of these fabrics as I can keep myself away from… The expense/time of all of the special techniques and equipment is just too high. Then I relent and try again, sigh. I guess that’s just another technique to cope with difficult fabric – timing.

marijka

Bias anything! (Well, except for binding.) I don’t care how many days I let something hang before hemming, I’ve yet to have a hem not sag on a bias garment afterwards. Drives me batty.

Barbara Ramirez

I found laminated cotton to be very challenging, despite having 50 years of experience as a hobby sewist. I was admittedly frustrated in about 2.5 seconds after starting a simple seam for the first time. I thought I could “manhandle” this stuff to be cooperative…ha! The plastic-like surface doesn’t feed smoothly under a presser foot UNLESS you apply a layer of painter’s tape on the bottom side of the foot. It’s like magic!
I could use a tip or two on how to topstitch without the fabric stretching. I seem to end up with surplus fabric on the top of two layers.

AmmieLeigh

I am a beginner, and just completed a basic skirt with a beautiful knit. Honestly I don’t know what kind, but it is a nice heavy knit with a little sheen and silky soft feeling. It was so slippery to see with! I used my walking foot, lots of pins, and my slowest machine setting (and my knit stitch instead of straight stitching wherever possible). It came out great, but my 1 hour skirt definitely took me 3-4 hours! I have never used stabilizer or gelatin or starch… I am nervous about ruining fabric. Can this happen?

Meg colettehq.com

As a rule, always test any stabilizer on a swatch before using it for your garment. You can also sew over tissue paper to stabilize knits!

Kristen smithanddaphne.blogspot.com

I was making a wool Laurel that I wanted to line in silk habotai. I didn’t even *think* about doing anything special with the fabric, and after I cut it out in a double layer it was so misshapen that I couldn’t use it. I had another color of the same fabric, so I cut it out again in a single layer, but man, that stuff was not my friend. I got the dress finished to wearable status but it currently has a hacked off lining (I thought I could fold the hem up over the lining, but it obviously wasn’t even and pulled the dress all wonky), luckily you can’t see it from the outside. I still haven’t gotten up the willpower to fix it. The wool was a complete dream to sew, though!

I have access to so much information and so many tips but forget to put them into practice sometimes!

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