Tuesday, November 23, 2010

A Field Guide to Various Lightweight Cottons

As I've been writing about fabric selection for the Crepe Sew-Along, some of you helped me realize that I need to get back to basics. It's all well and good to recommend a cotton lawn or voile, but what if you've never seen those fabrics in your life? I thought I'd show you a few lightweight cottons that I have in my stash. I draped each of them over my dress form so you can see how they hang. Hopefully, this will help you as you embark on your fabric journey!

Let's start with voile. Voile is the lightest, sheerest cotton I can think of. It's airy, soft, and exceptionally drapey. Here's a hot pink cotton/silk voile:

A lot of you have mentioned Anna Maria Horner's printed voiles, which I just adore. (This shop has a large selection of them.) I admit, however, that I'm surprised they're considered voiles. They're opaque enough that they don't need a lining, and they feel more like a batiste to me. Whatever you call them, they're a great choice for the Crepe dress.

Speaking of batiste! Here's another very lightweight cotton. I often think of it as a utility fabric since it's great for lining and underlining. Here's a pale yellow poly/cotton Imperial batiste that I used to line my yellow dress.
It's pretty sheer in this light color, but it does add a layer of opacity and structure to an outer fabric. However, it's also a great fabric on its own.

Dotted Swiss. Oh, how I love this stuff! This lightweight cotton has little raised bumps on it, creating a lovely texture. Here's a beautiful rose-print dotted swiss. See the little white dots in the background?

Lawn. The most famous of cotton lawns is the Liberty Tana lawn, which is so pretty—and pricey! Nice cotton lawns can be had on any budget, though. Lawn is on the heavier side of lightweight (do you like how I'm just making up categories now?). It has a nice drape and is opaque (though light-colored lawns may be a little sheer, just like with any lightweight cotton). It definitely has more body than a voile or batiste. Here's a cute retro print lawn I got at Mood:

Gingham. Who doesn't love this stuff? This cute checked fabric comes in all manner of colors and sizes. It's generally opaque and has a bit of body. It's sometimes mixed with polyester for a more drapey effect. Fun fact: true gingham is actually woven with two different colors of threads, forming the checked pattern. The really good stuff is woven in designer mills and can cost around $25 a yard. Cheaper varieties are printed, rather than woven. If you guessed that my green gingham here is the cheap stuff, you'd be right.

Double Gauze. This lovely stuff is a favorite of Japanese fabric designers. It's essentially two layers of cotton gauze (a beautiful, ethereal fabric in its own right) woven together to form a two-ply fabric. Because of the double layer action, it's opaque and fairly firm, but it still has the softness of gauze. Excuse the wrinkles here, I couldn't bring myself to press it just for the sake of throwing it over the dress form.

Silk and Cotton Blends. This isn't really a type of fabric, but it's an amalgam worth mentioning. I love silk and cotton blended together and I've never regretted a purchase of this fabric. It has the best properties of each fabric. Silk/cotton blends come in many different types: charmeuse, voile, poplin, sateen, etc. Radiance is a brand I've seen often, and they sell it at Fabric.com.

For my Crepe, I've picked out two silk/cotton blends from my stash: a black and white zigzag print for the body, with the hot pink voile for the sash:

Does this help? Let me know if you have questions!


  1. Not to be a pain but now you've got me worried that I've purchased the wrong fabric. I purchased "color Basic" by Lecien from Aunt Bea's web site, it a simple 100% cotton fabric,Sku #4509C. Is this fabric going to be to heavy? Should I pick something else out?

    Thank you so much for the education on fabrics, I obviously needed it:)!

  2. I have a question, I am planning to use a solid black dotted Swiss for my dress and would love to use a printed fabric for the sash. Do you thing the sash fabric needs to be lightweight as well, or can i get away with a heavier fabric, like quilting cotton for example.

  3. Since we're on the subject of names, I don't understand the name of the pattern.

    "Crepe" usual refers to materials made of silk, wool, or polyester, not cotton.

  4. Well, to me Crepe is a pancake. :)

    As for the fabric choice, I am wondering as well if mine is too heavy. I've seen fabric described as having x gramms per square meter (sewbox for example). Is that something one can use when shopping online for fabric? I just calculated and my fabric is 167g/m2. A liberty Popelin has only 120g.
    How can one really tell if a fabric is too heavy for a certain pattern?

  5. I have never heard of double gauze but I am going to keep my eyes peeled because I think it will make something wonderful for spring. Thanks for the mini-fabric guide.

  6. Hi guys! First, let me say that you CAN use medium weight cottons for the Crepe pattern. I was keeping this post to lightweight fabrics for simplicity and because there are so many different kinds.

    Margaret, I've never used that fabric but it looks like it's a quilting cotton, which I generally don't recommend for garment-making. But it might be fine. When it arrives, drape it over a chair or something to see how it drapes. Pay particular attention to how the bottom hangs, because that's how a skirt will look.

    Farah, I think quilting cotton might be too bulky and stiff to match with a dotted swiss. But again, you can drape them together and see if you like the effect.

    atelierflou, you can definitely make this pattern with crepe. I'm using cottons for the purpose of a beginner's sew-along. Plus, it's also a food, like Julia said!

    Julia, I have no idea what the weight means . . . sorry. It sounds very British to me!

  7. Gertie - THANK YOU! I'm off internet shopping again. I so wish I lived closer to NYC!

  8. Thanks for the fabric guide, Gertie. How many times have I made a garment that didn't work out because I've used the wrong fabric.

    This was a big help.


  9. Heather Ross has a beautiful line of voile that would work wonderfully for a dress. I think her audience is mostly quilt-makers, but I can't wait for sewers to discover her fabrics for garments. Her line is a bit on the pricey side, but the design lines are stunning.

  10. Check out organdy, it's sort of a cotton organza fabric and can be downright transparent. Might be fun if you want a multilayered dress. Can't wait to see everyone's dresses!

  11. Oh! That rose print! Love it, almost bought it for myself. Glad to see some of it made it to the stash of a retroista.

  12. Fabric shopping is one of the hardest things to do online because the simple answer to most of the questions is - handle it and see!

    In answer to Julia's question, the weight can be a useful bit of additional info but it only really works if the fabrics are made of the same fabric (so, if your pattern recommends silk and you've found a polyester, it won't be so useful). Comparing between cottons it can be quite useful, for example Spoonflower gives approximate weights for their different types of fabric http://www.spoonflower.com/spoonflower_fabrics. But at the end of the day, the best way to know if a fabric is going to work is to handle it and check out the opacity and drape in the flesh.

    If you do have a local fabric store with friendly staff, a good way to learn is to pop in and ask to see their different types of fabrics, and if not, most online retailers will send swatches.

    Green Apples had a good post on online fabric shopping a couple of months ago; she recommends ordering swatches, and getting hold of a book like Claire Shaeffer's Fabric Guide. http://stitchywitch.wordpress.com/2010/10/01/as-promised-an-online-fabric-shopping-guide/

  13. Silk/cotton blends are absolutely my favourite fabric for blouses and dresses -- the sheen and beauty of silk with the practicality of cotton. I'm not doing the sew-along (too many other things to sew on limited time, alas), but if I were, I'd probably use the purple Radiance from Fabric.com. I'd certainly recommend it to others!

  14. Do you think this dress would also work by making the dress in a solid and the sash in print? I was thinking of doing the dress in navy with a white with navy dots sash. I don't have the fabrics in hand and am having trouble visualizing it. What do you think? Thanks!

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  16. I love the rose print. Where did that fabric come from?

  17. Thanks for the primer - it was really helpful. I read these terms, but I rarely bother to look them up, so I'm usually lost as to what they mean. Now I know!

  18. atelierflou,

    This pattern name has nothing to do with fabric. Other Colette Patterns have been named after desserts, spices, and other foods. Examples: Parfait, Eclair, Chantilly, Beignet, Cinnamon, Crepe, etc. Isn't that sweet?

  19. This is a really helpful post, bookmarked.

    I've bought the Crepe pattern and hope to join the sew-along, but I'm just going to make it as a wearable muslin out of cotton from my stash, I think. I've been looking for something to do with that fabric.

  20. Thank you so much for the fabric guide. It has cleared alot of things up for me. Where does poplin rate on the scale (and what is it?)? Sorry if you have already written about it somewhere else...

  21. Crepe is a weave of fabric, just like satin, so it has nothing to do with the fiber. There are different varieties but they all involve twisted fibers when woven that give the fabric its distinctive hand. In the case of this dress pattern, I "think" it is just a name since crepe is just one option on the fabric choices.
    Batiste is a very high end fabric when you use the real stuff, not Imperial batiste. Swiss Nelona is the most common weight and it is about $29/yard here;
    There are three weights of Swiss batiste. These fabrics are the standard for French Heirloom Sewing. Think Christening gowns.
    1) Finella and Oriunda are very thin, shiny and delicate.
    2)Finissima is a thicker, matte batiste.
    3)Nelona is a kind of cross between the two.
    Real dotted swiss uses real batiste as a base.There are other fine batistes that are not made by the Nelo company in Switzerland. There is also silk batiste but we are discussing cotton here.
    Cotton organdy is obviously the lightest cotton fabric of all but it has ton of body and will not drape. It is a cousin to silk organza.
    The voile I have known has been similar to a heavy batiste. In heirloom sewing for women, I see it used as the skirtweight while the blouse is made out of Swiss batiste.
    Sandra Betzina's Fabric Savvy is a good guide for fabrics and their uses.
    I love the projects that you are working on. I hope this is helpful.

  22. HA! I bought that cute blue retro print lawn at Mood when I was there over the summer! It's still half-sewn, because so many projects seem to be bumping it off the queue.

  23. Nice descriptions of the various types of fabrics! If you love ginghams, many heirloom sewing and smocking stores carry lines of pima cotton woven ginghams that are much less expensive than those described. Just as you mentioned the Imperial batiste, there are also woven Imperial ginghams, microchecks and plaids. Most of us that love heirloom aewing and smocking tend to love lightweight cotton fabrics of great quality! Since much of our sewing is for babies and children, some of the fabrics may lean more toward pastel colors and small all over designs, but there are others suitable for adult sewing, too.

  24. I need a second (or third, fourth ...) opinion as to whether this Pinpoint Cotton Shirting will work: http://www.gorgeousfabrics.com/shop/product_info.php?products_id=9042


  25. Thank you so much for this rundown, Gertie! I appreciate it, having STILL not purchased my fabric (was supposed to go with my mother-in-law, but she got sick the day before we were to descend upon the shops!).

  26. Thanks for the primer. Where does broadcloth fit on the scale? My dress fabric is a sueded cotton-nylon blend and I chose a broadcloth for the lining. The fabric doesn't need a lining, but I want one.

  27. Great guide!

    For a summer dress, would an opaque batiste be OK to use without a lining?

  28. Hi I'd like to make my first skirt. The information on fabric type helps because I'm looking for a silk/cotton blend, something high quality. I can only hope my sewing can live up to the fabric type.

  29. I need help finding a fabric to make a ruffled coverlet and many other things in a spare bedroom. I need alot of fabric. The fabric that I want is soft and flowy. I need the cheapest thing that I can buy. Thanks

  30. I have bought about 5 different sorts of fabrics to make Colette's Crepe Dress but keep having a crisis of confidence! I have a great cotton lawn with dandelion print I want to use but it needs lining because its not quite opaque enough, so I thought if I'm lining the dress I may as well make it reversible - so I initially bought voile but it seems way too light weight (around 60 gsm) - could I use a poly cotton (100 gsm) with the lawn? Help! x nervous novice


Thanks for your comments; I read each and every one! xo Gertie

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