How Fabric Choice Affects Your Design

You’d be surprised how different the same design can be in different fabrics. I know this, and it still surprises me sometimes. The fabric you choose for your design has a big effect on the final garment. It dictates not only the look but also the fit and technical construction. Let’s look at how the fabric affects each of these areas.

How fabric affects your design visually

The fabric affects the look of your design in several ways. In addition to the color and print giving your design a certain look, the fabric weight will also change the appearance. For example, a pleated skirt in a heavier fabric may look nice and full, whereas a pleated skirt of the same fullness in a lightweight fabric will appear flat and the gathers will look skimpy. Most likely, you can get the same look in both fabrics, but the design and pattern will have to change to account for the fabric differences.

The drape of a fabric will also affect the look of your design. Drape refers to how the fabric hangs or drapes on the body. Fabrics with more drape tend to skim the body and some move with an almost liquid appearance. Fabrics with little drape are stiffer and work well for tailored and structured garments. Think of the difference between a silk blouse and a cotton button-up shirt. Both can be made in either fabric, but the difference in drape will yield very different end results.

How fabric affects your fit

Your fabric choice not only affects the look but also the fit of the garment. The amount of stretch in the fabric plays a big role in this. A garment with more stretch will feel looser than one with the same measurements that has no stretch. To visualize just how much stretch changes the fit, lay out your favorite pair of leggings on top of a pair of your no-stretch denim jeans. Both fit the same size person, but the leggings are much smaller to account for how much they stretch. This is a drastic example, but even slight differences in stretch, compression, or give in the fabric will make a big difference in fit. Usually the pattern will need to be altered to account for these factors if you switch fabrics.

Shrinkage of different fabrics can also affect the end garment and its wear over time. In production, fabric is not washed before it is cut and sewn into the garment. This means that if the fabric is prone to shrinking, it will happen after the customer buys it and washes it. If you’ve done wash testing on your fabrics during development (which you should be doing) you’ll know exactly how much it is going to stretch and your patternmaker can cut the pattern with extra length to accommodate that. Most customers expect a little bit of shrinkage in a new garment, but if your fabric shrinks drastically, you might want to rethink your fabric choice. You want the washed garment to have as close to the same fit as when the customer first tried it on as possible.

How fabric affects your design technically

On the technical side, the design is very much affected by the fabric choice. The type of fabric determines what stitches and seams are appropriate for the design. If the fabric has stretch, the seams will have to stretch with it so the thread doesn’t break. Some stitch types have more give than others. The weight and stiffness of the fabric will determine if and what weight of interfacing is needed to stabilize and give structure to the inside of the garment. How the garment is put together is very dependent on the type of fabric.

The fabric width is also a big consideration for your design. Fabrics typically range between 42” and 62” wide. You can lay more pieces side by side across the width of wider fabrics than you can with the narrower ones meaning your yield (fabric usage in yards for your design) is less for wider fabrics. This means you will be spending less money on fabric to make each garment. Sometimes a few inches difference in width doesn’t affect the amount of fabric needed, but other times it can make a big difference.

Another effect fabric width has on the design is the shape of the pattern itself and the placement of seams in your design. When you know the width of your fabric before product development starts, you can engineer your design and pattern to fit most efficiently within that width. Again, this can potentially be a big money saver.

The opacity of the fabric also has technical effects on the design. Your design may not require a lining to get the desired look, but a sheer fabric may need a lining to cover the body sufficiently or mask internal construction elements. Keep in mind how the fabric opacity will look in your final design so that you can design the inside of the garment accordingly.

Shrinkage can also be a technical issue. Even if the shrinkage during washing is not an issue, excessive shrinkage during the production process can ruin the polished look of your design. While production fabric is not pre-washed, different parts of a garment require ironing at different stages in production. If your fabric shrinks a lot with heat, you may end up with uneven gathered-looking areas where the garment has been pressed.

Getting down into the nitty gritty of production, the quality of your finished design can be affected if the fabric is difficult to handle during production. Certain fabrics can dull cutting knives faster, be prone to curling edges on cut pieces, have a nap (like velvet) or be super slippery, and these can make the fabric more difficult or time-consuming to handle. Your factory is an expert resource in this area and can advise on how the fabric handling affects the production of your design.

Fabric is a key factor in determining the look, fit, and feel of your design. Keep this in mind when searching for the perfect fabric and consult your patternmaker and factory if you have any questions about the effects a certain fabric will have. The unique outcomes are endless if you plan the fabric and design accordingly! 

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