Tips on Sewing Tricky Fabrics


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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Fiddly Fabrics & More – Meetup at Britex Fabrics

We had a great Bay Area Sewists meetup at Britex Fabrics last Saturday morning – the topic was Sewing Fiddly and Slippery Fabrics. Douglas, a dapper and knowledgeable staff member at Britex pulled out various bolts of fabric – silk charmeuse and silk jersey as well as this white silk chiffon and silver mesh (see photo below) for us to look at and touch.

Prom Dresses UK

We met on the first floor of Britex, where you’ll find all kinds of silk and wool fabrics, including many imported luxurious fabrics – from cashmere and English tweeds to French silks and Italian wool crepe. It’s hard to walk by without touching them! (oooooh so lovely …)

I stopped by the store a couple weeks before the meetup to see about getting some swatches for this meetup and Dina, the store manager, very helpfully pointed out that swatches wouldn’t be large enough to give people a sense of how the fabric draped. So she cut nearly 1/4-yard pieces for a couple of them. Thank you!

She cut the first three fabrics, from left to right: iridescent silk chiffon, silk jersey (silver), and the light blue silk charmeuse, and then I went upstairs to the fourth floor where a staff person cut this fun cobwebby stretch mesh.

4 fabrics from Britex Fabrics

At the meetup I brought these fabrics and we passed them around as we listened to Douglas offer his tips and observations about sewing fiddly and slippery fabrics.

He advocates cutting silk chiffon and charmeuse as well as the silver mesh fabric (top photo) together with tissue paper. (The kind of tissue paper stores wrap your clothing purchases in or that you can get at the drug store in the wrapping paper section.) So you cut through the fabric and the tissue paper together. And you sew each of these fabrics together with the tissue paper, using a small needle size and a short stitch length. When you’re done sewing, you just gently pull away the tissue paper.

For the silk jersey, he recommended using a small ball point needle.

A Bay Area Sewists member asked how do you finish your seams if you’re sewing silk chiffon because you can see the seams? Douglas says he would trim the seam allowance close to the seam and then use Fray Check to prevent it from unraveling. Fray Check is made by Dritz and you can get it any fabric store or online.

My experience with Fray Check is that you need to use it sparingly because it can dry rather hard and you don’t want a hard edge to your fabric. Always test your fabric before using it to see how quickly one drop spreads. You don’t want to have any discoloration appear on the right side of your fabric because you used too much. you probably want to use a brush so you’ll have more control, rather than the tip on the bottle. I’ve just used the tip if I’m using it on the edges of a ribbon.

You may want to check out June Tailor’s Fray Block, which is also available at most fabric stores or online, including website here.  The thing about using Fray Block is that you’re supposed to run it under hot water for a few minutes before you use it, which is a little annoying. But it is thinner than Fray Check and seems to be more flexible.

Douglas also showed us a few of the other fabrics on the floor, such as this lovely tweed and he mentioned that he only cleans his wool clothes about twice a year. He says when he wears something wool, he just brushes it off at the end of the day and hangs it up. One Bay Area Sewists member mentioned that wool is anti-bacterial so it doesn’t get very dirty.

tweed at Britex Fabrics -

Douglas also said that fabrics have a finish on them that irritate his skin so he wears gloves when handling fabric in the store. If he buys fabric, he soaks it in cool water to remove those chemicals. Someone asked him whether dry cleaning fabric before sewing would work and Douglas said that that would just add more chemicals. Good point.

Gee, I just got a few yards of wool jersey at Britex a couple weeks ago. I was thinking about dry cleaning it. (sigh) So I asked Douglas if he would soak wool jersey in water and he said yes, but then you’d have to block it afterwards. Shoot. So I asked him if I could just lay it flat to dry and he said yes. I think I’ll cut a small square, stick it in some cool water, let it dry and see what happens.

Then we went upstairs to to fourth floor where chairs were set out for us to sit and hold the rest of our meetup. We were in a space near the windows and in front of these tempting rolls of on-sale fabrics.

rolls of fabric at Britex Fabrics -

I was busy facilitating the meeting so I didn’t take very many photos – sorry!

A few people brought some things they made to show and discuss with the group. I bought a rayon jersey long-sleeved top I made during my anti-interfacing phase a couple years ago. Unfortunately, the yoke sags because I didn’t use interfacing. Edina suggested taking it apart at the yoke and serging clear elastic to it – a nice suggestion.

I also passed around some fusible stay tape that I like to use on knits to stabilize the shoulder seams and along the side seams when matching stripes – Design Plus super fine bias fusible stay tape, which you can find at a well-stocked fabric store or online.

Other members recommend using a walking foot or Steam-a Seam Lite.

Loran of Loran’s World, not only wore a lovely dress she made from a vintage pattern, she brought two garments she made – one was a shirt she made for a Sew Weekly project. But she used cheap fabric from Jo-ann’s and cheap fusible interfacing. She didn’t finish the seams because she didn’t expect to like the shirt as much as she did. She wore it a lot and after a few washings, the interfacing started falling apart and the fabric along the seam allowance near the front collar had frayed all the way to the seam leaving a gaping hole and no way to fix it.

Loran says she now uses woven sew-in interfacing. She doesn’t use fusible interfacing any more. Fro her years as a costumer, she observed that eventually the fusible interfacing would bubble so she won’t use it any more.

I also bought some quilting spray-on temporary adhesive that you use to stick pattern  pieces to fabric, asking people if anyone had ever had experience with it. It says that it doesn’t gum up needles, etc. I was thinking of using it to stick pattern paper to a slippery fabric. One member said not to use it because it does gum up on your needle and to use freezer paper instead – an excellent suggestion!

I’ve used freezer paper when I’ve done a little fabric painting. You just iron the freezer paper to the fabric (use a low setting). The paper sticks to the fabric and the paint won’t bleed through. Then you peel off the paper when you’re done.

Another member brought a sleeveless top she made from silk chiffon. She did a nice job sewing it but she wasn’t too thrilled with how it looked on her because she felt it would be more flattering on someone with slim hips.

We also briefly discussed scissor sharpening – where do you get your scissors sharpened? One member mentioned that the San Mateo farmer’s market has a knife sharpener. I also did a little search and found that this San Mateo-based company Perfect Edge travels to a variety of farmer’s markets in the Bay Area – maybe this is the company someone was referring to? You can find their schedule here. I have not used them so I can’t vouch for the quality of their sharpening but their prices for scissors ($12) and pinking scissors ($14) are on this page so they do offer that service – though their main business is knife sharpening. They also have many drop-off locations, which you can find on their website.

I was at Stonemountain & Daughter Fabrics earlier this week and asked a sales person where to sharpen scissors and was told to check out Golden State Sharpening – another mobile sharpening business. You drop your knives/scissors off at various designated locations the day before and pick them up the day after ($10 for fabric scissors).  The schedule’s on their website. Gee, I don’t know about dropping off my scissors… If anyone has found a scissors sharpener they like in the Bay Area, please let me know!

I remember years ago when was visiting my parents on the East Coast, that Jo-Ann’s had some scissors sharpening day. My mom had written down on her calendar, which is why I remember that. I don’t recall seeing that at the Jo-Ann’s in the Bay Area.

Oh, and I nearly forgot to mention – Britex gave each member a coupon for 20% off remnants and 10% off regularly priced fabrics (good for that day only). So we had fun browsing for fabric.

Bay Area Sewists browse at Britex Fabrics

Of course I had to browse the remnants on the fourth floor and found this red cotton lycra (2 1/8 yards, 50 ” wide) and this hounds tooth print (2 yards, 42″ wide). I love cotton lycra because it doesn’t wrinkle easily and I love this shade of red (more blue in it).

red cotton lycra fabric, houndstooth cotton fabric -

And when I got to the second floor as my inner voice was telling me “leave before you buy anything else!” I nearly made it downstairs to the register before I saw some wax prints – oh, my how interesting they were! I was told that the one I liked was a Dutch wax print, which was printed in Africa – a reminder that the Dutch empire had established a colony in Cape Town back in the 17th century.

I vaguely knew about African wax prints from the outfits I’d seen on Ginger of Ginger Makes who used a Vlisco wax print to make this Alder Dress and Oonaballoona who made a stunning skirt from a Dutch wax print. Both of these gals make me laugh because of the expressions on their faces in the photos on their blogs.

So I couldn’t resist buying this print – just $10/yard – clearly not a Vlisco, which is a pricey luxury brand. Admittedly, the color is not flattering to my skin (too close to my skin tone) but I think it could make a really cool skirt – maybe the Deer & Doe Chardon Skirt with inverted pleats. The fabric will far enough away from my face so it could work.

wedding dresses UK

If you want to find out more about wax prints, check out this interesting New York Times article “Africa’s Fabric Is Dutch,” on Vlisco, the Dutch company that produces wax prints in Holland. Vlisco fabric is very popular in Africa and has a certain cachet because it is so expensive. (Ginger says “I’d have to sell an organ to pay for this fabric!”) And read this post for more about wax prints, Vlisco and prints produced in Ghana,  “borrowed ideas: wax-print,” on African Lookbook.

I noticed that the selvedge of my fabric says “GUARANTEED REAL WAX ORIBA JLM HITARGET.” Well, according to the African Lookbook article, Hitarget is a Chinese company (!) that modifies Dutch designs, reprints them in new colors and sells them at low cost. And the post also stated that an “overwhelming majority (maybe as much as fifty percent) of the African prints sold in Ghana are Hitarget prints.” Sheesh. Well, I like the design – regardless of its origins!

Have you used any African/Dutch/Chinese wax print fabric in anything you’ve made?

Tips on sewing fiddly fabrics - silk cihiffon, silver mesh, stretch lace and more - a Bay Area Sewists meetup at Britex Fabrics

My Test Results: Pre-washing Silk Chiffon

Silk ChiffonEarlier this month I did a little online research on pre-washing silk (see “Prewashing Silk Fabric“) because I was trying to figure out how I should treat this fabric before sewing it: dry clean, pre-wash by hand or machine, what soap or detergent to use, etc. I decided to limit my tests to hand washing because the fabric is rather delicate and I think a washing machine would be too rough. Here are results of my tests for pre-washing silk chiffon.

I did three tests using 4-inch (10 cm) squares of fabric, hand washing each piece in my bathroom sink using 1/4 teaspoon (~4 ml) of Johnson’s baby shampoo. I picked that amount because I guessimate that you use about a teaspoon or tablespoon to wash your hair. (Note: It takes about 1.5 gallons (5 liters) of water to get my sink 2/3 full.)

Here are the three tests I did:

  1. Wash and rinse in cold water and the iron on silk setting
  2. Wash and rinse in lukewarm water (barely warm) and iron on silk setting
  3. Wash in lukewarm water and rinse with water mixed with 1/8 cup (30 ml) of vinegar. I just picked that amount because it was half the amount Steph mentioned in her post about washing silk in the washing machine (see “This Is how I Care For Silk“). I also ironed this square on the silk setting.

And here’s my documentation of the process:

Two silk chffon squares before washing in cold and lukewarm water.
Two silk chiffon squares before washing in cold and lukewarm water.
The lukewarm water got very bubbly
I soaked the fabric for about 10 minutes for each wash. The lukewarm water was the most bubbly.
I soaked and rinsed each square in the temperature I washed it in.
I rinsed each square in the same wash temperature. I put it under the spigot and then soaked in rinse water for 10 minutes.
Left: after cold water wash and rinse; right: after lukewarm wash and rinse. Note: Cold water barely shrunk but lukewarm had slight shrinkage (I didn't cut these squares as precisely as I would have liked).
Left: Silk chiffon after cold water wash and rinse, then ironing at silk setting, only a little shrinkage 1/16″ (1.6 mm). Right: Silk after lukewarm wash and rinse, and ironing, shrinkage was about twice that of the cold water square – 1/8″ (3.2 mm)

My third test (washing in lukewarm water and rinse in vinegar solution) was with this square of chiffon.

Silk chiffon before lukewarm wash and rinse with 1/4 cup (60 ml) vinegar in water
Silk chiffon before lukewarm wash/rinse with water & 1/8 c. (30 ml) of vinegar. (Note: I was off in cutting this square!)
After lukewarm water wash and rinse with a little vinegar, and ironing the square, you can see that this test had the most shrinkage - about 1/4" (6.4mm) - of all the squares.
After lukewarm water wash and rinsed with water mixed with 1/8 c. (30 ml) vinegar, and ironing the square, you can see that this test had the most shrinkage – about 1/4″ (6.4mm) – of all the test squares.

The hand of this silk chiffon is very soft and has a lovely drape as you can see in the photo below (see “The Hand of Fabric” for more on the hand of fabric). So I really didn’t want to change the hand significantly by washing it. Note: I held each square in the center, with the front edge parallel tome. I didn’t want to hold it on the bias, which would make each square more “drapey” than usual.

See how this square of silk chiffon (no wash) drapes?
See how this square of (unwashed) silk chiffon drapes? It just fall straight down from my fingers.
The hand of silk chiffon washed/rinsed in cold changed the most. It's doesn't drape as much.
The hand of silk chiffon washed/rinsed in cold changed the most. See how it doesn’t drape as much? 
The hand of silk chiffon washed/rinsed in lukewarm also changed but it had slightly more drape than the cold.
The hand of silk chiffon washed/rinsed in lukewarm also changed but it had slightly more drape than the cold test.
Hand of silk washed in lukewarm/rinsed with water mixed with vinegar. This square had a lot more drape than the ones rinsed in plain water.
Hand of silk washed in lukewarm/rinsed with water mixed with vinegar.This square had a lot more drape than the ones rinsed in plain water. However, the texture of the fabric seemed slightly rougher than the unwashed version.

So what will I do? I’m leaning heavily toward prewashing in lukewarm water and rinsing in lukewarm with a little vinegar. Though this version shrank the most, the hand changed the least – and the hand is more important to me than a little shrinkage.

I envision this silk chiffon floating over a lightweight cream wool skirt. My next step is finding or modifying the right pattern or drafting my own skirt pattern.

Test results from prewashing silk chiffon in cold and lukewarm water -