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A few pointers to help you shop online for fabric

Posted by Jacinthe Bisson on

Are you used to touching/feeling your fabric in a store before buying? Shopping online for fabric can be overwhelming at first. I know when I first ordered fabric online, I sometimes got surprises when I received my package. I have learned a lot since, but I can still have a hard time imagining what a fabric will be like just from the description. 

This post proposes a few pointers to help you shop fabric online. You might have noticed that the description of each fabric listed on my website includes several information including the fiber content, width, weight and stretch. Not all online store provides the same information - for me, these are the key info I am looking for.

Array of fabric samples

What is the fiber content?

Linen, cotton, tencel, polyester, rayon, spandex…the list goes on and on. Fibers are what is used to make the fabric. The fibers are either woven or knitted to create the fabric. You can have a woven cloth made from 100% cotton, but you can also have a jersey knit made of 100% cotton. These two fabrics would behave entirely differently.

The fiber content describes the types of fiber used to make a particular fabric. There are several types of fibers ranging from 100% natural to 100% synthetic. A fabric can be made from one fiber only or a mix of several types of fibers.

Fibers from pants, animals, chemicals or man-made

Fibers can be further classified as cellulose fibers, protein fibers or synthetic fibers. Cellulose fibers come from plants. These include cotton, linen, hemp, bamboo. Protein fibers comes from an animal and include fur, silk, wool. Synthetic fibers are made by chemical synthesis. Nylon, acrylic, polyester, vinyl and elastane (spandex/Lycra) are a few common examples of synthetic fibers. There is also a wide range of man-made natural fibers; made from natural fibers using a chemical process. Examples of man-made cellulose fibers would include rayon (which is a type of viscose), modal and Tencel (lyocell).  

Each fiber confers different qualities to a fabric. A fabric made only of natural fibers tend to wrinkle, but when the natural fibers are mixed with a bit of synthetic fibers, then you can get a fabric with a natural feel but less wrinkles. Adding a bit of spandex will give stretch to a fabric.

Some fibers are better than others on the ecological chart and natural fibers are not always clearly better. Yes, in the end, natural fibers will decompose, synthetic won’t, although some can be recycled. Some man-made fibers, like Tencel (lyocell), offer benefits for reducing water use, land use and toxicity impacts among other things when compared to cotton for example (Shen, Li & Patel, Martin. (2010). Life Cycle Assessment of man-made cellulose fibres. Lenzinger Berichte. 88: 1–59.) Selecting the most sustainable fabric isn’t an easy task and involves complex life cycle analysis. That being said, lyocell is a great sustainable choice. 

To recap, the fiber content informs on the type of fibers that were used to make the fabric. It is accompanied by percentages showing the proportion of each type of fiber used to create the fabric. For example, a fiber content of 67% bamboo, 28% cotton and 5% spandex indicates a fabric made mostly from cellulose fibers mixed in with a bit of synthetic to add some stretch and recovery to the fabric.

What is the width of the fabric?

The width is the distance selvage to selvage of the fabric. Common widths are 45, 54 and 60 inches (114 cm, 137 cm and 152 cm), but it can vary from fabric to fabric (even from bolt to bolt of the same type of fabric 😒). Some fabrics can also be narrower, for example, selvage denim is only 86 cm (33.75 in).

Depending on the width of the fabric, you will need more or less of it to complete your project. Most patterns will list the fabric requirements based on a particular width of fabric. If the fabric you use has a different width, you may have to adjust the quantity of fabric you take for your project. For example, if your pattern requires 1 m of a fabric with a 45 inches width and the fabric you want has a width of 54 inches, you would likely be able to make it work with a bit less than a meter. It all depends on the design of the pattern, but also whether or not the fabric has a nap or a one-way design. I would probably still get 1 m of the 54 inches.

If you have the opposite, pattern calling for 1 m of 54 inches and the fabric you want has 45 inches in width, you will likely require more than 1 meter.

What does the fabric weight mean?

GSM is commonly found when shopping for fabric online. GSM stands for grams per square meter (g/m2). It is the metric measurement of the weight of a fabric or how much 1 square meter of that fabric weights. The higher the number, the heavier or denser the fabric is. Patterns will usually call for either lightweight, medium or heavy weight fabrics to be used. The imperial equivalent is ounces (OZ) per square yard (oz/yd2) which is sometimes simply referred to as OZ. Denim is often described using OZ. 

The weight of a fabric does not determine its quality, but it can reflect its opacity, fluidity, and sturdiness. As a general guideline, a heavier fabric will yield a more structured garment, may not need interfacing and would probably be more durable.

A type of fabric can present various weight. For example, linen can range from lightweight (around 100 GSM, sheer and more suitable for summer tops and blouses), medium weight (around 200 GSM, opaque and suitable for clothing and heavy enough for pants) to heavy weight (for home decor applications).

The fiber content (i.e. cotton, rayon, bamboo, spandex, etc.) and whether it is a woven or a knit fabric will also affect the weight.

The following table summarizes the weight categories and approximate GSM/OZ ranges to expect.

Weight Category

GSM (g/m2) Range

OZ (oz/yd2) Range

Lightweight

50 – 170

1.5 – 5.0

Medium Weight

170 – 340

5.0 – 10.0

Heavy Weight

340 +

10.0 +

 

In summary, info about the weight is provided to help guide the choice of fabric online without being able to touch and feel it, but it cannot be used to assess all the qualities of a particular fabric.

A bit of math 😊 To convert from GSM to oz/yd2, divide by 33.906. To convert from oz/yd2 to GSM, multiply by 33.906.  

  • GSM (g/m2) = grams per square meter
  • OZ (oz/yd2) = ounces per square yard
  • 1 oz = 28.3495231 grams
  • 1 yd = 36 inches = 0.9144 m*
  • 1 square yard = 0.9144 m x 0.9144 m = 0.83612736 m2

Example:

180 g/m2 x 0.83612736 m2/yd2 x 1 oz/28.3495231g = 5.3 oz oz/yd2

Or 180 GSM / 33.906 = 5.3 oz/yd2

*this is very important to know if you shop somewhere the prices are listed by the yard instead of per meter – a yard is a bit less than a meter! Also check your fabric requirement on your pattern for the unit base used.

What is the stretch?

Knit fabrics and woven with spandex/lycra/elastane will have various amount of stretch. Fabrics without fibers with stretch properties such as spandex can still have some mechanical stretch. The stretch can be different grain wise and cross wise.  A fabric that has a 2-way stretch will stretch horizontally (most common, across the grain or width wise) or vertically (length wise or along the grain), not both. A 4-way stretch will stretch horizontally and vertically, but the amount of stretch in either direction may not be the same.

Patterns will list the recommended type of fabric along with the stretch required when applicable. If your fabric has more stretch than the design intended for, you may end up with a looser garment or you may have to size down. If you pick a fabric with less stretch than recommended, you may have to size up.

You have some fabric, and you do not know the stretch percentage of it? No problem, here is how you can estimate the stretch of your fabric: pick a 10 cm section of your fabric (not the edge) and lay it next to a measuring tool, hold the left side at the 0 mark and line up the right end at the 10 cm mark. Pull on the right side of the fabric until it resists but not until it gets all deformed from the stretch and note the end measurement.

The stretch percentage is the width of your fabric when stretched to its maximum divided by the width of your fabric when it is not stretched (minus 1). For example, if your fabric stretched from 10 cm to 14 cm, it would represent 40% stretch in that direction (14/10-1 = 0.4 or 40%).

Choose Your Fabric!

My shop has the fabrics organized into categories based on the type of fiber and whether it is a knit or a woven fabric. Each description also has the width, weight, fiber content (percentages), percentages of stretch according to both directions, what type of garment the fabric would be suitable for and a few pattern suggestions (but let your creativity flow!). The colours are sometimes hard to really assess from a picture and since everyone’s screen is slightly different, keep in mind that the real colour may be darker or paler. The thread suggestion is added for reference – this way you can check if you already have some matching thread in your sewing box and it helps with colour matching! For some fabrics, short videos are also available to better show the drape, stretch and hand of the fabric.  

Here is an example of a fabric description online:

Super soft French terry in Indigo. French terry is a knit fabric similar to jersey, with loops on one side and soft piles of yarn on the other. This knit results in a soft texture perfect for sweatshirts and other kinds of loungewear. This French terry is midweight making it lighter than cold-weather sweatpants but heavier than your typical tee. 
Also available in Black and Red.
Width/Largeur: 64 in / 160 cm
Weight/Poids: Medium weight approx. 245 GSM  
Content/Composition: 67% bamboo, 28% cotton, 5% spandex
Stretch/Elasticité: 30% across the grain/30% along the grain
Thread suggestion/suggestion de couleur de fil: Gutermann Sew-All 239
 
Perfect for: hoodies, pullovers, shorts
 
Special Instructions: Prewashing is recommended. This fabric will shrink by about 10%. Pre-wash or pre-treat your fabric in the manner you intend to wash your finished garment. 

 

This description tells me that the type of fabric is a French Terry and it is made from cellulose fibers (bamboo and cotton) and that a bit of spandex has been added as well. This fabric is a 4-way stretch knit that stretches the same amount in both directions. This is a medium weight fabric at 245 GSM and it is quite wide at 64 inches. Perfect for a super comfy sweatshirt! 

Still unsure about ordering fabric online? Let me know what you plan on making and what you are looking for and I will try to help you the best I can. Samples may be available too for selected fabrics.

Happy shopping