Measurements are found all over within the fashion industry and fabrics are no exception. If you’re new to the fashion industry, what those measurements mean can be a bit confusing at first. Whether you are looking at a Bill of Materials, ordering fabric or swatches online, or doing some fabric testing, understanding how fabrics are measured and listed will help you make the best choices regarding your fabric.
An important fabric measurement is the fabric width. The width typically ranges between 42”-62”, though it can be narrower for specialty fabrics or double width for applications like sheets, tenting, sails, or other industrial uses. The width of your fabric has a big impact on how much fabric you’ll need to cut out your design, so it is an important one to pay attention to when sourcing fabrics. (More on calculating fabric usage, or yield, here.)
Fabric units of sale
The fabric measurements you will probably deal with most often are the units of measurement fabric is sold in. Most commonly this is linear yards (or meters in metric-using countries). Note that this is linear yards, not square yards. This makes a big difference. As we talked about above, the width of the fabric can vary quite a bit. A linear yard of a 42” fabric (36”x42” piece) is significantly less fabric area than a linear yard of a 62” fabric (36”x62” piece). When comparing fabric prices, it won’t be an apples to apples comparison unless the fabric widths are the same.
Fabric can also be sold by its weight in either pounds or kilograms. This is less common than the linear yard or meter unit of measurement. In my experience, it is usually on bulk orders from overseas factories that the fabric is sold in weight. If you know the fabric’s weight, you can calculate roughly how many yards of fabric your order will be.
Fabric weight can be measured in three ways: ounces per square yard (oz/yd2), ounces per linear yard (oz/linear yd), or grams per square meter (GSM). GSM is the most commonly used measurement for fabric weight. A heavier weight fabric typically means the fabric is thicker and denser, though two fabrics of different fiber content and construction can behave very differently even if they are the same weight. Sometimes the weight makes a thin but drapey fabric, while other times it makes a thicker and stiffer one. I find GSM to be most helpful when comparing two similar fabrics – for example two jersey knits. There are special tools that measure the weight of fabric by punching and then weighing a section.
Fabric thread count
Another fabric measurement is thread count. This measurement is less common for apparel fabrics, but you’ve probably seen thread counts (TC) listed on your bed sheets. Thread count is the number of threads running in both directions within a square inch of the fabric. The higher the thread count, the tighter the weave. Higher thread count fabrics are better quality and will last longer being worn and laundered without becoming threadbare. Higher thread count fabrics are more expensive, too.
One last way fabrics are measured is by their amount of stretch. Fabric product descriptions or swatch headers will usually say whether a fabric has stretch and in which directions. If the description mentions stretch, but doesn’t say which direction, it is the fabric width that stretches. Woven fabrics labeled as “warp stretch” stretch in length instead of width. Knits always stretch in width, but sometimes stretch in length, too. Knits labeled as “4-way stretch” stretch almost equally in both the width and length. Swim fabric is a great example of a 4-way stretch fabric.
Product descriptions usually don’t list the amount of stretch, but you can test this at home with a swatch of the fabric. Stretch is measured in percentage, so a fabric with 50% width stretch would mean that when stretched out, it is 1.5 times as wide as it is when unstretched. The amount of stretch is useful to know when making the garment pattern or specifying garment measurements.
Understanding how to properly read and take fabric measurements will help you decide on the right fabric for your design and how much fabric you’ll need to buy to make your production.