How to measure someone

It’s important that you measure the person you are planning to draft a pattern or make a garment for accurately. Firstly you need a good quality measuring tape.  Those cheap flimsy ones are hard to work with and often inaccurate so please invest in a good one.

If you are making something for yourself, you can measure your own bust, waist and hip, but it’s impossible to measure your own nape to waist and across back and getting lengths accurate can be a bit tricky too so you’ll need a partner in crime to help you.

We’ll call the person you are measuring the ‘client’.

Before you start grab a pencil/pen and a piece of paper ready to write the measurements down. Your client needs to be wearing fitted clothing that isn’t too bulky or if you know each other well, they can just be in their underwear. Ask the client to stand straight, arms relaxed at their sides and breathing normally.  You’d be amazed how many people stick their arms out to the side, hold their breath and suck their stomach in when you’re about to measure them.

Watch the video below for a basic measurements demo.

How to measure a client

Bust – Stand in front of the client, ask then to lift their arms so you can slip the measuring tape around their body. The tape should be firmly (but not tightly) around the fullest part of their bust. Hold one end of the tape against the rest of the tape in one hand and then use the other hand to first ensure that the tape is straight around the client’s body (parallel to the floor) and then to slide the end until the tape is firm. Write the measurement down.

Waist – Slip the tape down to the client’s waist – this is usually at bellybutton height. However, if the client has a particularly large waist or you’re just not sure where to measure ask the client to turn around and press your thumb onto their spine (not too hard). Work your way down their spine starting at shoulder blade height.  When you reach their waist their body will move involuntarily forward and that is where you need to measure. As with the bust make sure the tape is parallel to the floor, hold the ends and adjust the tape until it’s firm but not tight. Write the measurement down.

Hip – slide the tape down to the client’s hip.  You want the widest point and everyone is widest in a different place. Hold the end of the tape loosely against the tape so it can move. Use your other hand to slide the tape up and down on the client’s hips until you can feel the widest part. Make sure the tape is firm and record the measurement.

Across back – Ask the client to turn around. Measure straight across their upper back from armpit fold to armpit fold.

Nape to waist – measure from the base of the neck down the spine to the waist.

these are the basic measurements you need.  You can also take bicep – around the clients relaxed bicep, arm length – from the shoulder bone over the back of a slightly bent arm to the wrist bone, waist to floor – from the waist to the floor at the side of the body and waist to knee – from the waist to the knee  at the side of the body.

Okay, next time we’ll start drafting a block using these measurements.


Pattern making 101 – what you need to get started

Today I’ll take you through all the gear you’ll need to pattern make. I was trained in the ‘flat pattern making’ method which uses a series of basic blocks: skirt, bodice, dress, pants etc… that are drafted to a personal size and from these blocks all your patterns are created.  Anyone who watches project runway will have seen the other method of pattern making which is called ‘draping’. This is where the fabric is draped directly onto a mannequin. While this method looks much sexier than drafting on a piece of paper, flat pattern making is good for beginners and those wanting to make clothes for themselves as all you need is a table to work on,  paper and some basic tools. You don’t need to own a mannequin that is your exact size to drape on (and as we all know our size changes throughout our life so who wants to be buying a new mannequin every few years.)

A place to work

To pattern make you need a table to work on. Ideally this table should be between 85cm and 90cm high and a minimum of 1m long by 60cm wide (preferably bigger). There are lots of relatively cheap work benches on Trade Me that you can use as a base and pop a piece of MDF on the top to increase the size of the top. My own table is just two benches like the one below with two pieces of MDF on top.


You don’t have to go crazy and spend a fortune. A piece of MDF on piles of books on top of a desk or dining table will do the job. The bonus is that this table can double as your fabric cutting table too. No more grovelling around on the carpet on your hands and knees trying to cut your fabric. Please don’t try and work on a standard height table as it is essential to stand up when pattern making and you will end up with a very sore back if you try to work on your dining table.(plus you’ll get little holes in your dining table).😀


You need some basic tools to pattern make. These are: a set square, technical pencil, rubber, good quality paper scissors, measuring tape, Sellotape (pref 3m Magic tape), an awl, a tracing wheel, notchers, some weights (cans of food work fine) and a long metal ruler. Again, there is a basic pattern making kit available on Trade Me and everything else can be purchased from a stationary shop.


When I say a technical pencil I mean the ones with the separate leads. A standard pencil gets blunt too quickly and the line isn’t fine enough. I prefer to use a .7 HB lead in my pencil because I’m heavy handed and tend to snap .5 leads too easily.  Here are my tools which I have had for years.


Left to right and top to bottom: set square, scissors, tape, tracing wheel, pencil (with rubber), notchers, weights, awl, measuring tape and ruler.

Once you’ve assembled your table and tools you then need paper.  Brown kraft paper is the best for making patterns.  It comes in various weights on rolls.

Several companies supply rolls of kraft paper online.  Officemax and Attwoods are two you can check out. There is a dizzying array of weights and widths available.  weight-wise anything around 120gsm works well for patterns.  Blocks should be on slightly heavier card of around 165gsm.  But as you probably don’t want to buy two rolls of paper I suggest you get a roll around 120gsm in weight which should be fine for both blocks and patterns. Width-wise, I’d recommend 900mm.  A roll of 120gsm 900mm wide x 140m long is $109 from officemax. This will be enough paper to last you for years. But if you have a friend whose keen to pattern make too you could split the cost and roll off half the paper onto a cardboard fabric roll (fabric stores have lots of these and are usually happy to let you have one).

So that’s it, all the basics you need for pattern making. Next time we’ll get started.

How to shorten a pair of trousers

Have you noticed that as soon as your friends and family know that you own a sewing machine they are constantly asking you to do alterations? Personally I just say no to everyone except immediate family, but if you are newish to sewing then alterations are good practice. The most common alteration tends to be taking up (or shortening) a pair of pants. Here is how to do this job quickly using just one pin.

Firstly, wash and dry the pants. Then get your client to put the pants on while wearing the shoes they plan to wear the pants with most often. Get down on the floor to the side of your client’s leg and turn the pants up by folding the hem up inside right around the leg. The folded edge will be your finished length so adjust the fold at the back of the leg only until you are happy with the length. The rule of thumb is that the finished length should be half way down the heel of the shoe. Put in one pin horizontally on the fold at the back of the leg to mark the finished length.


Step 1 – lay the pants flat on the table and measure down from the pin twice the depth of the finished hem. For example the finished hem on the pants I’m shortening here is 1.5cm, so I measure down 3cm from my pin and put a chalk mark. Then measure up from the existing hem to your mark, in this case it’s 13cm from the hem to my mark. Put a couple more chalk marks across the leg measuring the same distance up from the existing hem. You can use your ruler to join these marks if you prefer to have a line to cut along.


Step 2- Check that the existing hems line up front and back and then cut through both layers along your line.


Step 3 – Lay the second leg out flat on the table. Place the piece cut from the first leg on top of the second leg carefully lining up the existing hems. Cut the second leg off to match the first leg. Note: if you don’t feel confident with this step, you can measure up from the hem as you did with the first leg, make marks and draw a line to cut along. I just do it this way cause it’s quicker.


If you have multiple pairs of pants to shorten the same amount you can just keep placing the cut off piece from the first leg onto each pants leg and using it as a guide for cutting each leg off.

Step 4 – Now it’s time to sew the hem. You need either a stitch gauge or a small ruler to measure the hem as you sew.  Watch this video where I show and talk you though the hemming process in a very monotone voice. (Sorry about that). If you follow this blog and the video doesn’t come up on the email you get just click through to the post itself to view.

Important things to note are:

Choose a thread that matches as closely as possible to your fabric.  If you can’t find a thread that is exactly right, slightly darker than the fabric is better than slightly lighter.

Start about 5cm before the inside leg seam as seams can be tricky to sew over. If your seam is bulky and giving you grief, carefully trim out half of the seam allowance inside below the hemline to reduce the bulk. Sew really slowly over seams.

You need to sew aprox 1mm from the folded edge inside the hem.  The foot on my machine is great because I can line up the left hand side of the U shape cut into the middle of my foot with the edge of the fabric which gives me a perfect 1mm distance. Your machine foot will probably be different from mine, so experiment before you start sewing the hem to find the place or mark on your foot you need to follow to keep your stitching line straight and parallel the the fold.

As you sew, watch the point on you foot you have chosen to follow like a hawk.  Don’t look at the needle or the bit you haven’t sewn yet or anything else, keep your eyes on that point – this is the key to straight and accurate sewing.

Don’t back tack (go forward and back a few stitches) at the beginning, just start to sew. When you come to the end sew over your first 2 to 3 stitches.  This will secure your stitches and avoid ugly-looking nests of thread. Trim your thread completely off front and back with sharp scissors or snips.

Now this is the most useful sewing advice I’ll ever give you (I’ll probably keep repeating it during future blogs cause it’s so important).  Ninety nine percent of the time you do not need to pin before you sew (there are a couple of exceptions, but sewing a hem is not one of them).  Pinning is a waste of time and can lead to inaccuracies and broken machine needles. This is the secret to sewing without pins:

  1. Before I sit down to sew any seam or hem (or anything else) I have pre-checked to make sure that pieces of whatever I am sewing fit together by checking that my notches and seams all match in advance.
  2. I prepare just the first couple of centimetres and I place my work under my machine foot. (It pays to lower your needle at this point as well to keep everything secure).
  3. I then arrange and prepare to sew the first 10-20 centimetres only. When I start to sew I work slowly, closely watching whatever point on my machine foot I have designated as my place where the fold runs along to keep my stitching straight and accurate.
  4. My fingers are close to the foot, usually one to the front and one to the side and I have my fabric under control constantly. Never put your left hand behind the foot and pull on the fabric to feed it through.  You have no control in this position.
  5. When I reach the end of my 10-20cm I stop, drop my needle and prepare the next 10-20 centimentres for sewing. Then I continue.

I’ll talk more about this way of sewing in relation to sewing seams, putting in zips etc.. in future blogs.

Finally, press your completed hems. They should look just like a bought one!



Commercial patterns

Before I launch into showing you how to make your own patterns, I’d like to give you some advice about using commercial patterns. As you know, I’m not a big fan, but until you can make your own patterns they are a necessary evil. Hopefully I can give you some tips so you can avoid spending hours making a garment only to find at the end that it doesn’t fit you.

I’ve selected a pattern for a simple peasant blouse to use as an example.



Lets start by looking at the back of a typical pattern envelope.  American measurements are given on the left (inches and yards) and European measurements are given on the right in French (centemetres, and metres). I work exclusively in metric measurements and while I know a little bit of French, it’s obviously easier to work in English. Therefore I have to use both sides to work out all the info I need.

The first box at the top gives sizing for the pattern.  The most important thing you need to know is to completely ignore the sizes written at the top (6,8,10,12 etc..). These sizes bear no relation whatsoever to our NZ sizing system.  To determine the size you need to buy you have to measure yourself before going to buy your pattern.  (I’ll do a tutorial on how to correctly measure yourself very soon). Buy the size that is closest to your actual bust, waist and hip measurements.  If your measurements don’t quite match up with the pattern, buy the size that matches your bust measurement as in most cases the waist and hip are easier to alter than the bust. If you are buying a skirt or pants pattern, buy the size that matches your waist measurement. Try not to be horrified to discover that although you wear a size 12, you need to purchase a size 16 pattern -remember sizing systems are different all over the world and it’s just a number!

Below the sizing box you’ll see that each style (A, B, C etc..) is listed on the left with the fabric requirements for each size and the two most common fabric widths (115cm and 150cm) in a grid. Select the style, fabric width and size to see how much fabric you need.

Next they list suggested fabrics for this style. This is where your knowledge of fabrics become invaluable.  You can see from the  photos and sketches of the style that the peasant style blouse this pattern is for would look best in a soft fabric that drapes well. They have listed options such as voile, georgette, chiffon, soft lightweight linen and laundered silk-rayons.  All of these fabrics are lightweight, soft and drapey. You notice that they have used a mixture of common names such as chiffon and fibre types such as linen. This is why it’s so important that you understand what each of these terms mean. Chiffon is a lightweight woven fabric with a plain weave which could be made from silk, silk blend or polyester – you need to decide what option you prefer. Linen comes in all sorts of different weights, so they’ve advised you to look for a soft lightweight linen.

They also mention that you need to purchase extra fabric if you buy a stripe, check or plaid.  I recommend that beginners avoid stripes, checks or plaids as they need matching. But if you have your heart set on a tartan, buy an extra half metre or so because when you cut out you are going to have to make sure that your design matches perfectly at the side seams. Nothing looks more amateurish than a non-matching pattern. I’ll talk a bit about matching when I cover cutting out in a future blog.

Finally they list the trims (or notions) you will need for this design under the heading ‘requirements’. Hopefully that part is pretty self-explanatory.  But if you’re not sure what you’re supposed to be purchasing ask for help at the fabric store.

Right, lets look inside at the instructions:


The first page shows you the styles as technical drawings in the left top box. Next to that the pattern pieces are shown.  Then you are given some general instructions about laying up, cutting and sewing the garment. The sewing directions will include the seam allowance for this style. In this case it is 1.5cm (5/8″). It’s important to be accurate with your seam allowances as five mm difference on each seam can increase or decrease the size of your garment by up to 2cm which could make the difference between fitting and not fitting.  In the lower panel you are shown the suggested cutting layouts. Commercial patterns nearly always show garments being cut using a folded lay (the fabric is folded in half before cutting out with the wrong sides facing each other).  The pattern pieces are pinned through both layers of fabric and depending on the instructions on the pattern piece you will be asked to cut either a pair of each piece or one cut on the fold with it’s centre on the fold of the fabric. You need to be really careful when using a folded lay.  Any pieces that are labelled ‘cut one on fold’ must be laid up so that their centre line is exactly on the folded edge of the fabric. Again, it’s easy to inadvertently make your garment smaller or larger by not getting the piece exactly on that fold. In the apparel industry we never do a folded lay because it can be inaccurate.


The next sheet is the instructions.  I recommend you read them carefully and be sure you understand them before you start to cut out.


Here’s the pattern opened up. The sleeve is at the bottom of the image. You can see the sizes marked as different types of lines.  Be really accurate when cutting out, try not to stray onto the wrong size line. The info on the pattern piece tells you the piece name: sleeve and the garment style: C,D.  It also tells you to cut two.  Now this is a bit misleading.  Cut two indicates that you should cut two identical pieces.  In fact, what you need to cut is one pair.  After all, your arms aren’t two identical limbs, they’re a pair aren’t they? Make sure that the fabric is folded with the wrong sides together if you are doing a folded lay so you end up with a pair of sleeves (not two left sleeves).

You will also notice the vertical line with an arrow at each end.  That is the grain line.  This line should always run up and down the piece of fabric along the warp grain (parallel to the selvedge). Don’t be tempted to cheat and put pattern pieces off grain to save fabric. Off-grain pieces will hang different and may twist or sit funny in the finished garment.

You will also notice the small triangles in the seam allowances on each aide of the sleeve.  These are the notches and are vitally important when sewing your garment together. the single triangle on the right hand side indicates that is the front of the sleeve and the double triangle on the left hand side indicates that is the back of the sleeve.  The armholes will have corresponding notches so you can fit your sleeve in perfectly and avoid putting it in backwards (trust me, it happens).  When you come to cut out your fabric you need to accurately cut a tiny slit into your seam allowance using just the tip if your scissors in the exact centre of each notch triangle. Be careful not to cut your notches any deeper than 2 or 3mm.

You’ll notice the piece above the sleeve on the image is labelled ‘neck ruffle’.  This piece is labelled ‘cut one on fold’ which means that you must line up the edge with the arrows pointing to it exactly on the folded edge of the fabric.


This is the time to do any alterations to the size or length of your pattern. For example, if you are bigger in the waist and hip than the size of pattern you have purchased you need to do the following:

Work out the difference between your measurements and the measurements on the pattern envelope.  Eg: your waist is 85cm and the pattern allows for a waist of 80cm. Therefore the pattern is 5cm too small for you at the waist. Divide the difference by the number of seams.  If you have just two side seams then divide your measurement by 4 (front and back seams on both sides) which equals 1.25cm on each seam.  So to make the garment fit your body you need to add 1.25cm to each seam at the waist.  Let’s also say that your hip is 8cm larger than the pattern so you need to add 2cm to each seam at the hip.

I’ve done a pretend alteration below on the side seam of a top pattern.  I’ve shaded the altered area to make it clearer.  I’ve gone from adding nothing at the underarm to 1.25cm at the waist and 2cm at the hip. I need to do this on the side seams of both the front and back pieces which will give me a total increase of 5cm in the waist and 8cm in the hip.

altered pattern If there isn’t enough space on the sheet to add onto a pattern before cutting it out, just cut it out as is and then stick either some newspaper or a spare piece of pattern paper behind the seam.   To reduce a pattern piece that is too large follow the same process of work out the difference, dividing it by the number of seams and then take that amount off the side seams.

Now you’re gonna hate me for this, but I recommend that you make a toile or mock-up of your garment in a cheap fabric like calico before making your final garment. I know that sounds like a lot of work, but you’re going to spend time on this project anyway so adding an extra half-hour making and fitting a quick mock up is totally worth the effort to ensure a well-fitting finished product. It’s better to discover that your garment needs altering when it’s in calico rather than once it’s in fabric and you’ve finished all your seams inside. You don’t have to put any closures like zips or buttons in the mock up or finish the seams inside.  It is just a quick cut out and throw together of the main pieces, press it and then fit it on yourself or whoever you’re sewing for.  I will cover how to fit a garment in a future blog.

Okay, I think that’s enough to load you up with today.  My parting pearl of wisdom is accuracy is key.  Measure, cut and sew as carefully and as accurately as you can. If you add a few millimeters when you cut, then another few when you sew, it all adds up and suddenly your finished garment doesn’t fit how it should. It’s worth taking the extra time and effort to do a good job.

Next time I’m going to cover what you need to get started making your own patterns.


Know your fabrics part three – fibre content

Hi, today I’m going to round out our fabric info blogs with a discussion about fibre content. Fibres are the raw materials from which fabrics are made. Each type of fibre has its own properties which in turn effect the properties of the fabric made from it and eventually the garment made from that fabric. So knowing a little about the different fibres and their properties is very important as a sewer.

Lots of fabrics are made by blending two or more fibres. This is done to add stretch, reduce cost and/or to reduce any negative properties of the fibres used. For example polyester and cotton are often blended for sheets because polyester is cheaper than cotton and doesn’t wrinkle whereas cotton ‘breathes’ so it is cooler and cotton also wicks or draws moisture away from the body. So theoretically by blending the two fibres you get cheaper sheets, that don’t wrinkle and that don’t make you sweaty at night.

Fibres fall into two basic groups-natural and man made. Within these groups they fall into several sub categories. Again, this is not an exhaustive list, just the most common fibres that you are like likely to see as sewers.


cellulose or plant based: cotton, linen, ramie, hemp, jute

protein or animal based: wool, silk

Man made

synthetic: polyester, nylon, acrylic, elastane (Lycra)

regenerated cellulose: viscose (rayon)

Burn testing

It is possible to identify a fibre by burning a little piece of the fabric. Be very careful and always just burn a tiny scrap either outside or over a sink. Let the fabric burn for a couple of seconds, extinguish the flames and then smell and observe the burnt fabric. If it’s a blended fabric you’ll be most likely to observe the qualities of the most dominant fibre. As I talk about each fibre type below I’ll describe what you’ll see and smell when you do a burn test.

Natural cellulose fibres

Cotton is the most commonly used fibre on the planet and is made from the ‘flowers’ or bolls of the cotton plant. I’m not going to go into the processes used to turn each raw material into yarn and then fabric in this blog as that would take far too long and probably bore you all stiff.  But this is what cotton looks like on the plant.


By Ashish Wankhade Wankash at English Wikipedia (Ashish Wankhade Wankash at English Wikipedia) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


Cotton has lots of great properties. It ‘breathes’ therefore is cool to wear, it’s quite strong but on the down side it does tend to shrink when washed. It has no natural lustre (shine), doesn’t drape particularly well and wrinkles easily.

When you burn cotton it will burn quickly and the ash left will be grey, soft and flakey. It will smell like burning paper.

Linen  – The other common natural cellulose fibre we all know is linen. Linen comes from the flax plant. It is very strong, but can be a bit rough and it wrinkles a lot as anyone who owns a linen shirt will know. Like cotton, it breathes so is comfortable to wear.

linen burns in a similar way to cotton so you may need to use other ways to differentiate between the two such as linen feeling rougher than cotton.

Both linen and cotton fabrics are generally easy to sew so are good for beginners. Just remember to always pre-wash to shrink them before you start cutting out.

Natural protein fibres

Wool comes from sheep as we all know. It is an amazing fibre. Strong, cool to wear, fire retardant, wrinkle resistant and very versatile. It is used to make everything from carpet to babies under garments. It also has an amazing malleable quality which means it can be moulded with steam which makes it perfect for making suits.

When you burn wool it is slow to ignite and usually self extinguishes. The ash is black and flakey and there will be a strong smell of burning hair.

Silk – there’s nothing quite like silk. It’s lustre and handle are unique. However, it’s expensive, can be weak and hard to care for. Silk comes from the cocoon of the silk worm. The cocoons are dunked into boiling water killing the pupae inside(so you may want to consider if you’re ok with that before buying silk) and then the incredibly fine fibre is spun off the cocoon.

imageCocoon of the silk worm. Bombyx mori Cocon 02″. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons –

When you burn silk it will burn faster than wool, will have similar flakey ash when extinguished and the same burning hair smell as wool.

Man made fibres

Polyester is the most well known man made fibre. It’s made from oil and also can now be made from recycled plastics such as old soft drink bottles. This link is to a five minute vid on You Tube that shows the process from bottle to sweatshirt. It also shows an industrial knitting machine at work.

Polyester is cheap and easy to care for. It rarely shrinks when washed. But it doesn’t breathe, so you’ll get hot and sweaty in polyester clothing. It also tends to attract oil based stains and can smell a bit when hot.

When polyester is burnt it burns quickly with black smoke and when extinguished you are left with black melted plastic like bead. It smells chemically.

Nylon and acrylic are very similar to polyester so I won’t go into detail about them.

Elastane (Lycra)


Spandex biker by Ed Yourdon” by Ed Yourdon – Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Commons –

Elastane is different from other fibres as it can’t be used to make fabric on its own. It is always blended in small quantities, usually up to 12%, with other fibres to add stretch and recovery to those fabrics. You may have noticed that I say elastane and then Lycra in brackets. That’s because elastane is the generic name for the stretchy fibre and Lycra is the brand name owned by Du Pont for their specific fibre. When you label a garment for sale you can only use the name ‘Lycra’ if you know for sure that the fibre used in your fabric is genuine Lycra from Du Pont, otherwise you have to call it elastane or spandex.
Elastane revolutionised swimwear and exercise wear when it was invented in the early 1960s. Suddenly it was possible to get a really tight fit that was comfortable to wear and didn’t sag when it got wet.

You can’t burn test for Lycra but if you give a small piece of fabric a good stretch and observe how far it stretches and how it recovers after stretching you should get a good idea if there is elastane in the fabric.

Man made regenerated

Viscose – 1950s it was discovered that fabrics would be made from waste cellulose such as wood pulp and cotton linters (the waste bits from the cotton plant). These are melted down using chemicals and extruded into fibres. The generic name for fabrics made from these fibres is viscose. You will often see the name rayon used as well this was an earlier name which has been replaced by the term viscose which covers a variety of fabrics such as cuprammonium and
Modal. You should pre-wash viscose before use as, like cotton, it can shrink.

When you burn viscose it is very similar to cotton so other ways you can tell you have viscose fabric is from the handle or feel of it. It sounds weird, but viscose feels soapy when you touch it. Plus it tends to drape better than cotton and can feel stiff when wet.

I hope you have found this three part super quick intro to fabrics useful. The best way to get your head around fabrics is to spend lots of time touching and looking at them. So next time you’re at the fabric shop look at and feel the fabrics, have a guess at whether they are knit or woven, what type of weave they have if woven, what fibres they are made from and finally what their common name is if they have one. also give burn testing a go (maybe not in the fabric shop 😀).

Next time I’m thinking that I’ll launch into pattern making with you. Maybe we should do a project like a simple skirt from start to finish. I’ll teach you how to measure correctly, draft a basic skirt block, adapt the block to make an A-line skirt. Then we can cut it out and sew it together. There are lots of elements such as making and applying your own bias binding, putting in an invisible zip and lining a garment that we can include in the skirt project. These can all be applied to other projects. So even if you don’t particularly want a skirt, the learning involved in the project will be super useful. Till next time. Kathy.

Know your fabrics part two – weaves

This blog is only about woven fabrics. I talked briefly about the basic plain weave in yesterday’s blog. This is where the two sets of yarns, the warp and weft are interwoven at right angles to each other. A plain weave fabric will look the same front and back so sometimes it can be difficult to identify the right side of the fabric. (When I use the terms right and wrong side of the fabric basically I’m referring to the front and the back).

Here’s a tip – if you’re not sure which is the right side of a fabric look at the selvedge (the edges that run down each side of the fabric piece). Most, but not all, fabrics will have small holes running along the selvedge. These holes are caused by the tenter hooks. The tenter hooks are used in the manufacturing process to grab and put the nearly finished fabric under tension to help reduce shrinkage and flatten it. This is where the saying ‘on tenter hooks’ comes from because the fabric is under tension.  But I digress….. If you run your fingertips over these holes you should be able to feel that one side will be sitting up proud like mini volcanos, this is the right side of the fabric as the hooks grab the fabric from underneath pushing up the volcanos.

Plain weave fabrics 

imageThese are some plain weave fabrics you may recognise. The greenish grey fabric is a cotton canvas, the pink and white check is cotton gingham and the dark blue is polyester/cotton poplin.

You may have noticed that I identified the fabrics by the weave, fibre content as well as the common name. I did this because Fabrics have four levels of identification: structure (knit or woven), weave, fibre content and often a common name as well – confused? Let me show you some examples using plain weave fabrics you may know:

Homespun is a woven fabric, plain weave, 100% cotton.

calico is a woven fabric, plain weave, 100% cotton

Canvas is a woven fabric, plain weave, often 100% cotton, but can also be made from polyester or a mixture of polyester and cotton.

Chiffon is a woven fabric, plain weave made using very fine yarns resulting in a sheer, lightweight, unstable fabric. Chiffon was originally made from silk but with the invention of man made fibres is also available in polyester.

Georgette is a woven fabric, plain weave that is slightly heavier than chiffon. Again it is usually made from either silk or polyester.

Taffeta is a woven fabric, plain weave that is made from densely woven fine, lustrous yarns resulting in a stiff, smooth fabric with that distinctive’russle’ sound. It is made from silk, polyester and sometimes nylon.

Crepe is a woven fabric, plain weave but the yarns are highly twisted before weaving resulting in a pebbled surface, crinkled appearance and drapey feel to the fabric. They look beautiful, but can be springy and hard to sew. Crepes are often made from viscose (rayon) or silk.

Lets move on to some other weaves.

Twill weave

A twill weave is a hard wearing weave in which the weft yarns are woven over and under 2 warp yarns which creates a stronger fabric and a diagonal pattern on the surface of the fabric.

The most common twill weave is denim. I’ve left the picture below big so you can see the distinctive diagonal lines in the weave. This is the wrong side or back of a piece of denim.


Denim comes in a number of fibre variations – 100% cotton, cotton and polyester, cotton and elastane (Lycra) to name just three.  So to describe a denim fabric you could say for example that it is a woven fabric, twill weave. The fibre content may be polyester/cotton/Lycra and it’s common name is denim. So we’ve identified, the structure, the weave, the fibre content and the common name.

Another twill weave fabric you may have heard of is drill. This is hard wearing fabric often used for work clothes and uniforms. It can be made from cotton,  polyester, wool  or a mix of one, two or all three of this fibres. When you look at the surface of a drill fabric you can clearly see the diagonal lines created by the weave.

Satin weave

Satin is a bit of an anomaly because it is a weave and a common name. Satin weave is made by allowing long ‘floats’ of yarn to lie on the surface (right side) of the fabric resulting in a smooth, shiny right side. Satin is made from lustrous fibres such as silk and polyester, but can also be made from viscose (rayon). Satin looks beautiful and  drapes well but be warned, it is not for the beginner. Satin is notoriously difficult to cut, sew and press and often finished seams hang poorly and pucker even if you follow all the rules and know all the tricks (some of which I’ll show you in a later blog).

imageWoven fabric, satin weave, 100% silk, satin.

Now just to confuse you there is also a weave called sateen. In satin the long floats on the surface are vertical, in sateen they are horizontal. Also, sateen is nearly always made from cotton. There are a few cotton sateens with floral prints around in the shops at the moment. It is a great fabric for skirts and sundresses. Being made with cotton it is heavier and more stable than satin and therefore much easier to sew.

You may be wondering why I’m going on and on about fabric. Why don’t I just get on to the pattern making and sewing stuff? – I promise I will, but  as I think I said in the first blog ‘knowledge is power’ – when you plan to make a garment you need to understand how the fabric is going to behave as this has a major effect on the finished product. For example, a 100% cotton denim has no stretch but a denim with cotton and a small percentage of elastane (Lycra) – usually around 5% – in it will stretch, so you have to consider what type of fit you want your finished garment to have before you buy your denim.

In another example, polyester chiffon is generally a lot cheaper and more available than silk chiffon but polyester doesn’t breathe so the wearer will get hot and sweaty in a top made from polyester whereas silk, as a natural fibre, does breathe so the wearer would be more comfortable in a top made from silk chiffon if she was planning to wear it to an event in summer – do you kind of see what I’m getting at? Knowledge about fabrics and their properties arms you to make good decisions before you start sewing.

Anyway, enough blabbing from me for now. Next time I’m going to talk about the different fibres and their properties and arm you with some ways to identify them. By the way, this is my no means an exhaustive list of all the types of weaves. There are many more, but this is a sample of the main ones you are likely to come across.

imageWoven fabric, plain weave, 100% silk, georgette.



Know your fabrics Part one – structure

Understanding fabric is the first essential step in successful sewing. Making the correct choice of fabric will determine the success or failure of your project before you even cut out.

There are so many different types and variations of fabric these days that it has become quite difficult to identify the right fabric to use in your project. I’ll try and simplify it and give you a few tips for indentifying and choosing fabrics. This is a huge subject so I’ll break it down into bite sized pieces for you.

Despite all the myriad of variations on offer most fabrics fall into one of two categories (there are a couple of other categories but I won’t go there today, I don’t want to explode your brains with too much info in the first blog now do I?) The majority of fabrics you will come across will be either  woven or knit structure. This refers to the way the fabric is created.

Woven fabric is created using a loom. Two sets of threads (the warp and the weft) are interwoven at right angles to each other creating a basic grid structure. There are numerous variations on this basic structure which I’ll go into later. There are loads of videos on You Tube showing the weaving process, but I’m not sure if I’m allowed to use someone else’s video. Feel free to search ‘weaving on a loom’ on You Tube if you want to see it being done.

What you need to know as a sewer is what type of fabric to use for your project. If you have a commercial pattern, that information will be written on the back of the package. It will specify knit or woven and give a list of fabric names such as twill, chiffon etc… I’ll tell you more about these terms in the next blog.

To quickly and easily identify a woven fabric pull at the raw cut edge. If a few threads pull away into your fingers then you have a woven fabric.

imageWoven fabrics generally have less stretch than knits. But don’t be fooled, many wovens have stretchy elastane (Lycra) yarns added these days so they do stretch. Don’t  rely on the presence of stretch to work out if you have a knit or woven.

Wovens are suitable for dresses, pants, skirts, jackets, shirts and numerous craft projects such as bags and quilts.  They are good for beginners because a basic woven with no stretch is stable and easy to sew.

Knit fabrics are made using a commercial knitting machine but the basic process of looping the yarns around each other is the same as your grandma did using knitting needles. When you pull at the raw cut edge of a knit fabric no yarns will pull away. Knits are suitable for tee shirts, swimwear, exercise clothing like leggings and crop tops, underwear etc..


Sewing knits requires a whole set of different equipment and skills from sewing wovens so we’ll put them aside for now and concentrate on wovens first.

Now I’m going to give you some homework. Take a look at fabrics you have at home or go to a fabric store if you can. Try pulling at the cut raw edge of as many fabrics as you can get your hands on and then check the label (if you are in a fabric store) to see if it’s a knit or a woven (if it’s not labelled ask the staff, if they’re any good they should know). While you are handling the fabric take close look at the surface. Is it shiny or dull? Is the surface smooth or textured?  Also think about how it feels. Is it soft or stiff? Smooth or fluffy?  Also take a look at garments you own, examine the fabric and tuck away in your memory whether the fabrics used for your favourite garments are soft and drapey or firm? Are the soft? smooth? textured? Just start to be aware of fabric, it’s all around you…

Next time we’ll go into more detail about the types of fabrics, their properties and how to identify them.

Thanks, Kathy.



Sew like a pro

Would you like to learn to sew like a professional?

After twenty years in the apparel industry working as a pattern maker and designer I discovered that I loved to teach. Since that revelation, I’ve spent years teaching pattern making and sewing to a wide range of students from complete beginners right through to experienced home sewers and fashion diploma students at a tertiary level.

imageIt was actually my students who encouraged me me to start a blog to share the methods I teach with a wider audience. It all came about months ago when one of my students videoed me doing a demo of how to put in an invisible zip.  She posted it on the Coatesville Crafters Facebook page so others could see it. Looking at it now, it could be clearer so I will do a new video of that and lots of other techniques. Invisible zip technique. But feel free to check it out remembering that it was done as part of a class rather than as as stand alone video.

In my classes my aim is to teach my students to become ‘thinking’ sewers. The goal is for them to fully understand the garments they are making before they start (including making appropriate fabric choices), to have a well-practiced group of construction techniques to choose from and to sew their garments quickly and efficiently in a professional style which includes leaving behind inefficient practices like using pins. I also teach them basic pattern making to free them from a reliance on commercial patterns and help them to achieve a great fit. My experience is that not only do commercial patterns rarely fit your average figure, the instructions are often long-winded and confusing and the techniques used result in a ‘home-sewn’ rather than a ‘professional’ finish. I hope to show you that there is always an easier way and I’ve found that the easiest way is usually the best way.

If that sounds interesting to you, then please subscribe to my blog and let me help you become a self-reliant and confident sewer too.