Tips on Sewing Tricky Fabrics

Sewing tricky fabrics - Bay Area Sewists meetup -


Have you sewed any lightweight silk or slippery fabrics? The Bay Area Sewists meetup group met at Britex Fabrics this weekend to discuss sewing tricky fabrics. This is the second time we’ve held this meetup. There was a wait list for the first one we held last fall (see Fiddly Fabrics & More…). So I thought it would be a good idea to repeat this meetup.

Once again we were fortunate to have Douglas, the store’s very experienced sales associate, discuss his tips and his experience sewing fabrics, such as silk chiffon and charmeuse. And of course, it’s always fabulous to meet at Britex, which has a wide range of gorgeous fabrics.

Britex Fabrics - Bay Area Sewists  metup -

What follows are my notes, Bay Area Sewist members’ questions and comments, and my observations.

Sewing tricky fabrics - silk chiffon, charmeuse - Bay Area Sewists meetup -

Douglas picked out silk chiffon for us to look at. His tips for sewing delicate fabrics  – as well as some suggested by Bay Area Sewists members attending this meetup – are as follows:

Use entomology pins, which are extremely fine pins used to pin insects (yep, if you want to pin a butterfly, you use these pins). A friend of his recently returned from London and brought back some of those pines and Douglas noticed that the box said they could also be used for “fine fabrics.” I did a quick search and found this naturalist store, The Compleat Naturalist, selling a box of 100 insect pins for $7.95. The pins are coated in black enamel, which prevents them from rusting. Douglas said to get the finest size. Merchant & Mills also sells them here for £6.00. Douglas warned that you need to be careful using the fine pine because they are so sharp, they will just go through your skin.

If you’re sewing charmeuse, pin everything, says Douglas.

To hem a silk scarf, Douglas says you could use a very thin line of stitch witchery to hold the hem in place and then sew it with silk thread. He says do not use silk thread for garment sewing because the thread is so strong, the fabric will tear before the thread does. There is no “give” to silk thread.

To cut silk and slippery fabrics, Douglas recommends putting a layer tissue paper on your cutting table, place your fabric on top, then your pattern paper, pin and cut. The cheap tissue paper you can get at the drug store, the stuff some department stores put around your purchases before they put them in a bag. I mentioned this in my post on the earlier meetup – so this may seem familiar if you’ve already read that post. Do not remove the tissue paper before you sew. Keep it in place and sew through your fabric and the tissue paper. This will help stabilize your fabric.

Silk chiffon - Bay Area Sewists - csews.comDouglas pads his cutting table so he can pin the fabric through his pad. What’s in his pad? He uses several layers of cotton on top of foam. One Bay Area Sewists member mentioned that you could get a piece of foam core and pin through that. And I just saw a tip the other day on Sew Busy Lizzy‘s Instagram feed (@sewbusylizzy) – put a blanket on your cutting table before cutting slippery and heavy fabric – don’t cut through the blanket though! It stops the fabric from sliding around.

Scissors or rotary cutter? Douglas uses a rotary cutter around curves, scissors for straight lines.

To install a zipper in chiffon – Douglas says to put a strip of organza where the zipper goes. I asked him if he would recommend using a lightweight fusible as well and he said no, the organza was enough.

What about sewing together two slippery pieces of silk along a curve, for example, a armhole? Douglas say to cut a strip of organza (on grain, not on the bias or it will give you trouble) and sew it together. And don’t forget to clip the curve.

At the end of Douglas’s talk, we convened upstairs to discuss some of our experiences sewing these fabrics. Bay Area Sewists member Emily used silk charmeuse to make her wedding dress from the By Hand London Flora Dress pattern. She laid out her fabric on the floor, sandwiching the charmeuse between two layers of tissue paper (a layer of tissue paper, silk charmeuse, tissue paper, then pattern pieces). Emily blogs at Dressing the Role, where you can read more about her dress here.

Emily talking about cutting silk charmeuse - Bay Area Sewists -

Sewing Knits

Douglas showed us some lightweight plum wool jersey. You could see through it. He says you could line with Bemberg cut on the bias.

To sew it, your could use a longer straight stitch gently stretching the fabric as you sew, a stretch stitch, or a shallow zig zag stitch. For tips on sewing knits on a regular sewing machine, see this Tilly & the Buttons post. Also, see Sewaholic’s list of tips for sewing knits.

Lightweight wool jersey - Bay Area Sewists meetup -

Fabric that Unravels

How do you cut fabric that unravels very easily? Douglas says take some scotch tape (regular invisible tape), put it on your fabric and then cut through the tape. He showed us two samples of fabric made with raffia. You can’t wash this fabric though – you can only spot clean it. You could make a really interesting coat from this fabric.

Raffia fabric - Bay Area Sewists meetup - csews.comRaffia fabric - Bay Area Sewists meetup -

Fabric Care

Prewash silk with shampoo. Silk is a protein so wash with shampoo in warm water. Cold water can make the fabric stiffer. Douglas says he uses Pert and dries it in the dryer – “no heat” setting. Air drying is also fine.

You may want to test a small piece of your fabric and see how it reacts. If it changes too much, then you may just want to dry clean it. I did an experiment a couple of years ago on prewashing some silk chiffon, which I have yet to sew. Here are my test results using cold water, luke warm water, and water plus vinegar.

Someone asked about Woolite and Douglas does not recommend it. He says if you look at the ingredients – bleach is one of them. So you are making your clothes lighter by using Woolite. Yikes.

Other Tips

When we went upstairs to continue the discussion among the members, here’s what else came up:

Use a Teflon foot for sewing sticky fabrics, leather, performance fabrics, fabrics that stick to your finger when you press on them.

If you wash something and the color bleeds where it shouldn’t, wash it again with a “color catcher.” You can find it in the grocery aisle in the dryer section, according to Emily, who says it will pick up the extra dye.

If you have any tips for sewing tricky fabrics, please share them in the comments section!

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Author: Chuleenan

Chuleenan sews, collects hats and shoes, and is a fabric addict. She is also the organizer for the Bay Area Sewists Meetup group.

4 thoughts on “Tips on Sewing Tricky Fabrics”

    1. I’m trying to recall where I bought spray starch, maybe at a big drugstore. I’ve heard about gelatin, too but have yet to try it. Let me know how it goes!

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