Do you have a fear of picking the wrong fabric for your vintage dress patterns? I've gathered from some beginners' questions that this can be a scary, even paralyzing, topic. It does take a bit of practice, but it's really nothing to worry about too much. Selecting fabric should be inspiring, not a thing of dread. I thought I'd share the tips I've picked up along the way. Let's dive in!
In my opinion, the most important thing to think about is this: do you want your garment to have drape or body? One of the best illustrations I've seen on this topic is from the book Weekend Sewing by Heather Ross. Here's a little scan:
Doesn't that help?
Now, think about your pattern and envision your ideal finished garment. Does it flow over your body glamorously, like this little dress from the 40s (below)? Next, look at the pattern details to give you clues: the silky necktie, the soft tucks at the shoulder, the way the skirt clings slightly to the body. This pattern screams for a fabric with drape. How about a nice silk crepe, georgette, or even a charmeuse? If you wanted to do wool, a lightweight crepe would work well.
Or perhaps you want your finished garment to have a certain perky stiffness to it - like the fabulous full-skirted 50s cocktail number below. Look at the way the skirt stands out from the body, and the bodice looks tailored and structured, rather than drapey. This pattern would be great for a fabric with tons of body - maybe a silk faille, cotton or silk broadcloth, or shantung.
Another thing to consider is the weight of the fabric. The full-skirted 50s dress above could be made with a variety of weights, depending on the look you want. (The one key thing for this pattern is that the fabric should not be so heavy that it won't gather well for the skirt.) A shantung will be stately and heavy, while a sheer cotton organdy will be light as a feather. Still, both of these fabrics have body.
Lastly, think about whether your dress has any tailored elements, like a shawl collar and cuffs. Look at the lovely pattern below. Can you imagine trying to tailor that collar in charmeuse? Yikes! Tailored details need just a little bit of body, but even a lightweight wool crepe backed with fusible interfacing could work. Just remember not to go too drapey for this sort of thing.
Obviously, this all requires a certain familiarity with different types of fabrics. The best way to gain knowledge is to wander around a well-stocked fabric store, feeling fabrics and looking at the bolts as you go. Of course, this isn't always a possibility, depending on where you live. Another idea is to order a variety of swatches from online fabric sellers (Gorgeous Fabrics sells swatches, for instance) and start a fabric binder for reference. (Or if you have some extra cash lying around, you should consider Julia Parker's Fabric Reference Series. These books look so cool!)
I hope this has been helpful! Please let me know if you have questions. Or if there's anything you want to add!
P.S. You'll notice that I've only mentioned woven fabrics, not knits. It was pretty rare to sew with knits in the 40s and 50s - except for wool jersey. If you want to try wool jersey, find one with a stable hand (not too stretchy). I'd generally only recommend trying it on a pattern that has more drape rather than body. It looks great in blouses (like this one I made!) and soft skirts.