When Stretchy Fabric Is Great For Your Design (And When Stretch Fabric Might NOT Be A Good Choice)

People love stretchy fabric. It is easy for customers to live in stretchy loungewear and for brands to add spandex to everything in an attempt to make it fit (and thus sell) to more people. But should stretch fabric be the go-to for all fashion? There are plenty of ways stretch fabric can benefit your design, but I think there are times when stretch fabric isn’t the best choice. 

Types of fabric stretch

There are two main types of stretchy fabrics. One is mechanical stretch. This refers to fabric that is constructed in a way that gives the fabric either length (warp) stretch, width (weft) stretch, or both. Knitted fabrics are the most common example of this. Due to the structure of the knit, the fabric can expand and contract even if the yarn itself is not stretchy. Net or mesh constructions like tulle fabric also have some mechanical stretch.

A second way that fabrics get their stretch is by incorporating stretch fiber. You’ll see these stretchy fibers labeled as spandex, lycra, or elastane depending on the manufacturer and region. This stretch fiber is blended with other non-stretch fibers to create a variety of fabrics. It can be made into either a knit or woven construction. You’ll see stretch fiber in knits in leggings and swimwear and stretch fiber in wovens in jeans or shirting. The higher the percentage of stretch fiber, the stretchier the fabric. A knit fabric with a high percentage of stretch fiber will be the most stretchy. Fabric with stretch fiber not only expands, but it compresses back to its original shape better than purely mechanically stretchy fabrics. 

A third type of stretch, less important to this discussion, is bias stretch. This type of stretch is what happens when you pull a woven fabric diagonally. All woven fabrics have this stretchy angle regardless of the fibers they are made of. You can make use of this bias stretch depending on your design.

Depending on the product type you are designing, you may already know whether you want a knit or a woven fabric. Some garments like tee shirts, sweatpants, swimwear, etc. are pretty much exclusively made from knit fabrics that are stretchy and cozy. Other garments like tailored pants, blazers, or blouses are typically made of more structured wovens. The bigger question that can get more confusing and nuanced is should the fabric you select contain stretch fibers?

When stretch fabric can be a good choice

When the garment is tight-fitting

A tight-fitting garment like a pair of leggings, fitted tee, or bodysuit definitely benefits from stretch fibers in addition to mechanical stretch of a knit fabric. The garment is snug to the body and there is no extra fabric ease to allow for movement. Often there is negative ease in these garments – meaning the garment is smaller than the body – and relies on the fabric stretch to expand to fit the wearer. 

For tight-fitting garments, you can use stretch instead of seams and darts to contour the curves of the body. This gives a minimal and casual look while still fitting different body shapes.

When the garment is for athletic activities

Garments made for sports, dance, or other movement also benefit from stretch fibers. The garments are casual and often fitted so they don’t get in the way. The stretch fabric moves easily. Compression is often an important aspect to these garments as well. Stretch fibers, with their superior compression, help to maintain a secure fit as well as support the body during movement. Think of a sports bra or waistband of a yoga pant for this. 

When any corresponding fabrics in the garment are stretchy

When there are more than one type of fabric within a garment, the materials need to be compatible. While you can mix very different fabrics together, it can get complicated and isn’t always ideal. A good rule of thumb is to use like fabrics together. For example, if the main fabric for your design is stretchy, find a similarly stretchy fabric for your lining or contrast. This keeps the overall stretch of the garment, the care instructions, and the seam and finishing types cohesive.

When stretch fabric might NOT be a good choice

When the silhouette is loose-fitting

When the garment is not tight or fitted to the body, there is less of a reason to use a stretch fabric. Perhaps you like the drape of a knit, but you may want to try a knit fabric without spandex fibers. Spandex stretch fibers add weight to the fabric as well as bounce. In a flowy, loose-fitting design, you aren’t really making use of the stretch, but the spandex fiber is making the garment feel and hang heavy. Just the weight of the garment hanging on a hanger or even being worn all day can stretch it out. If the garment isn’t fitted, a stretch-fiber fabric isn’t necessary or even ideal.

When stretch compensates for bad fit

As a patternmaker, I have a lot of opinions on this. Too many (especially fast fashion) brands create cheap clothes and rely on stretch fabric to make it “fit” (I use quotes here because anyone who has bought a stretchy, but poorly developed garment knows it doesn’t actually fit). Stretch fabric is not a free pass to get lazy with fit. Knit and stretchy garments need just as much attention to fit and patternmaking as non-stretch. Yes, stretch can make the garment more adaptable to changes in body weight or size or different body shapes of your customers, but it still needs to fit. Stretch fabric does not make the design one size fits all.

When the design itself is adjustable

It is true that stretch fabric can allow more flexibility to fit different body shapes and sizes, but sometimes the design itself is adjustable in itself and doesn’t need the help of a stretch fabric. For example, an elastic-waist pant can be made of a non-stretch linen and still accommodate a range of waist sizes. A corset top can be non-stretch with rigid boning, but have a lace-up back that can be adjusted for different sizes and bust-to-waist ratios. Ruching, pleats, or gathers also can give flexibility to a garment without stretch as well. If the design itself incorporates flexible details, the fabric doesn’t always need to be stretchy.

When stretch counteracts the structure of the design

Each type of fabric – including different types of stretchy fabric – has its own properties. Successful designs combine the fabric, design, fit, and garment intent in a way that is harmonious. Forcing a fabric into a design or structure that it is not ends up looking sloppy. Using a fabric with the wrong properties for your design can be confusing to develop and a headache to produce as there is no clear way to construct it. Do you use seams and methods appropriate for the design or appropriate for the fabric? Again, you can break the rules sometimes, but you need to know what the rules are and why they are there first. 

If you want the look of a structured, tailored jacket, you aren’t going to get that with a drapey stretch knit. If you want a boned corset that cinches the waist, a stretchy fabric is going to counteract the structure you are trying to create with the design. Stretch fabrics can be nice and comfortable, but they don’t work the best for every type of design. Sometimes you need the sturdiness or crisp structure of a non-stretch fabric to get the desired look and fit.

Stretchy fabrics are a popular choice for many brands and customers because they are cozy, adaptable, and easy to wear everyday. However, adding stretch to every style across the board isn’t the easy answer to creating clothing that fits your customer, lifestyle, and values. As a designer, you need to know when a stretchy fabric can benefit your design and when it might not be the best choice.

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