Natural fibres v polyester

Stack of four folded fabrics: two polyester, two cotton
Top to bottom: polyester crepe de chine, polyester coating, cotton denim and striped cotton jersey

The #sewtallandcreative2017 challenge has taken me out of my comfort zone. Instead of my usual circuit of jersey, cotton, wool and wool coatings, I’m sewing with lightweight silk and crepe instead. To prepare, I’m making a toile in polyester crepe de chine… and discovering that this particlar fabric might be my nemesis.

If I’m honest, I’m not sure I’ve ever had a good sewing experience with woven polyester. I’ve made trousers in imitation cotton drill, half a pair of shorts in polyester crepe, two children’s coats in polyester coating and battled with some polycotton shirting to run up a toile.

The trousers feel scratchy, the shorts were too slippery, the coating wore out my hands and my shears , and the polycotton shirting came out looking a bit like a supermarket school uniform.

The lovely Gillian, over at Crafting a Rainbow, has written a very useful – and persuasive – post in praise of polyester knit fabric, so I thought I’d put the case against woven polyester fabrics.

Let’s get the main reasons we choose polyester out of the way first, shall we?

It’s cheap

It’s cheap for a reason: polyester is a polymer, meaning that the key raw ingredient is crude oil rather than a plant or animal fibre. Oil is undervalued because no one’s currently paying to clean up the damage that digging it up and using it does to the environment. Climate change, and the potential damage to sea life are two of the most disturbing side effects of our love affair with fossil fuels and man-made fibres. If these externalities were priced in, would polyester still be cheap?

It doesn’t crease

If you’re the sort of person who really, really loathes ironing (hello to my Mum and Dad if you’re reading this) then that’s fine. But if it won’t crease then it won’t press. You can’t mould it like wool, or crease it crisply like cotton or linen – and that’s going to cause problems when you’re turning up a hem, shaping a dart or pretty much any other task you’d expect to do when making a woven garment.

But it doesn’t breathe

I’m always amazed by wool. Wool is breathable, waterproof and warm. British sheep live outdoors on wet and windy hillsides, and yet they manage to stay warm and dry – and then their wool can be sheared and made into clothes for me. How is that even possible?

[Someone, somewhere is making a killing on wool, but it’s not the farmers. Wool fabric and yarn are anything up to £50 per kilo, but British farmers receive as little as 30p per kilo, meaning they may even make a loss on shearing their sheep.]

Polyester, on the other hand, can turn a short walk to the shops on a warm day into a clammy, sweaty mess. The static cling on skirts especially is horrendous. Plus it squeaks when I sew it. (Or is that just me?)

There are some great uses for polyester though…

Where polyester and other artificial fibres do win out is in outerwear and sportswear, especially when they’re blended with natural fibres like cotton or bamboo. I can’t imagine my workout gear without spandex, or my waterproof jacket without nylon.

After my experience this week with a polyester crepe de chine that clings so badly it won’t drape, I think I’ve sworn off polyester for a while.

How do you feel about polyester? Do you love all the quirky prints and the low prices, or would you rather sew with linen, cotton and wool?




I got my colours done…

If you read Bridget Jones’ Diary, you probably remember Bridget’s Mum urging her to ‘get her colours done’. “Mavis Enderby used to be all miserable in buffs and mosses…” At the risk of turning into Bridget, (or her overbearing mother), that’s what I did earlier this month – partly to help me choose some new fabrics to sew with.

I’ve always been drawn to colourful clothes, but recently I’d noticed that I was choosing almost everything in grey or navy. And since my son was born, I’d had so many days where I woke up looking pretty grey that I felt I was turning into a Spitting Image sketch about John and Norma Major. I’ve read the Colette Wardrobe Architect series, but I was struggling to work out which colours suited me out of the ones I like.

So I booked in for a colour analysis consultation with Meg Hanlon, a local Colour Me Beautiful consultant. Meg and I tried out lots of different colour swatches next to my face to see which ones made me look hungover and which as though I’d slept well and breakfasted solely on quinoa, organic eggs and watercress. We also looked at which ones go together well and the hair and make-up colours that would suit me best.

For those who are up with the lingo, I’m soft, cool and deep*. CMB cops a lot of flack for being overly prescriptive, but you really don’t have to take every recommendation as a rule. It definitely helped me see I’d been restricting myself to just a handful of colours, and opened my eyes to some others that suit me as well. Rose brown, for example – I’d never really considered having brown in my wardrobe, and there are so many different greens.


A few of my favourites from my CMB palette

Looking through my fabric stash, I can see that most of my fabrics are in the colours Meg identified for me – there’s a lot of blue and grey, but there’s also some pink, plum, red and ivory. But it’s also quite a narrow range of colours. I think I can probably accommodate some more browns, purples and greens in there, and I’ve now got some new ideas for neutrals other than just navy, black and grey so I think it will influence my fabric shopping habits and the things I make.

Do you sew in all the colours of the rainbow, or do you stick to the same three or four shades?

*CMB UK has updated its colour groupings since Bridget Jones’ Mum had her colours done. They used to use groups named after the four seasons but there are now six: warm, cool, soft, clear, light and deep.

Five ways to make a little fabric go further

So you’ve altered your pattern and you’re all ready to cut out your brand-spanking-new garment. Except that once you’ve laid out all the pieces, you realise you don’t have quite enough fabric. Aaaargh.

Well, you probably can’t get a maxi dress out of half a metre, but if you’re only a little bit short, here are five things you could try.

  1. Tweak your garment a bit – maybe 3/4 length sleeves would be more flattering than full-length, or you could skip the pockets? I left out the pockets on my version of Simplicity 2246, and I much prefer it without them.
  2.  Colour block – how about a contrasting belt or using a scrap of another fabric in your stash for the collar?

    Sewing pattern showing 6 different lace dress options
    If I ever get around to sewing this lace dress, I’ll definitely make the belt in a contrasting fabric.
  3. Facings and bindings can almost always be cut from a different fabric, and I love the look of a patterned facing inside a plain garment like this Bettine on Lauren’s blog
I wish I'd thought to cut the facings for this dress from another fabric - they're so itchy in the green wool!
I wish I’d thought to cut the facings for this dress from another fabric – they’re so itchy in the green wool!

4. Create your own fabric layout – rather than slavishly following the layouts given in the pattern, try re-arranging the pieces on the fabric yourself. There are just two rules: you must follow the grainline, and if you’re using a fabric with a nap, or a one-way pattern, then make sure the pieces that matter all face the same way

For this dress, I didn't have enough fabric to make another bodice in one piece, so I created a seam in the centre front and cut it as two pieces.
For this dress, I didn’t have enough fabric to make another bodice in one piece, so I created a seam in the centre front and cut it as two pieces.

5. Try folding the fabric differently. What happens if you create two folds in a knit fabric, for example? Or you could flat-cut everything like Jen from Grainline if you’re obsessed with yield.

Two pattern pieces laid out on twice folded fabric
Making two folds in the fabric for this maternity top gave me a nice chunky piece left over – enough for another T-shirt

If you’re new to making your own clothes, you might prefer to stick with the layout given by the pattern company. But if you know what you’re doing, especially if you’ve altered the pattern to fit you, you might well be able to do better with a bespoke layout.

Unpromising beginnings

Photo of two pattern envelopes, McCalls 6007 and Vogue 9188.

I have something to confess: my first three makes were disasters. Here are the sorry details – and what I learnt from each one.

Disaster 1: I was too ambitious.

I started sewing when I was 14 – I was overweight, and I couldn’t find any shorts in Topshop that looked good. So my ever-helpful Mum suggested I try making my own. She was a keen sewer in her teenage years, and offered to help. But with a teenager’s attention span, I got distracted and gave up half-way through. Sadly I binned the remnants shortly before bold florals made a fashion comeback.

Photo of two pattern envelopes, McCalls 6007 and Vogue 9188.
The patterns for my first two disasters: McCalls 6007 and Vogue 9188

Disaster 2: I ignored the fabric suggestions for the pattern.

Disaster number two was supposed to be my prom dress. I’d just seen Before Sunrise, and fallen in love with Julie Delpy’s slip-dress-over-T-shirt look. So for our prom (read: school disco), I wanted to wear a slip dress – but in burgundy velvet. No, I’m not sure why either… Ever tried making a spaghetti strap from velvet? Not a smart idea. Again, my poor Mum helped me get started. And again, I consigned the half-finished garment to a drawer. Years later, I cut it up to make a cushion. But I still have the pattern, and I occasionally wonder about using it to make nightwear.

Disaster 3: I cut straight into my fabric without making a toile first

The third one was  a bootcut trouser pattern c.2001. I had a suitable fabric, but I didn’t know how to shape the pattern to fit me other than lengthening the legs. So I ended up with excess fabric at the front, and not enough room at the waist, giving me that second-trimester-but-trying-not-to-let-on look. Oh dear.

It was after that that I started reading up on fitting, and things have improved in leaps and bounds from there. But occasionally I do still have a disaster, and when that happens I’ll try to share it here for you to laugh at and learn from.

Will dressmaking save me money?

Dressmaking is going through a revival, and it could be because we’re all keen to save money on clothes. So can a DIY wardrobe actually save you money?

DIY v high street prices…

Big high street clothing chains buy their fabric, equipment and labour very cheaply – too cheaply in some cases. Expect your fabric to cost about the same as the finished garment would in Primark. Your version’ll be awesome in comparison, obviously – but if you usually shop in budget chains then DIY won’t be cheaper overall.

If you usually pay a bit more, then you can definitely make clothes that you’ll like more and that fit you better for less than you pay in the shops.

How can I cut costs?

There are lots of things you can do to bring the costs down. Here are my top 5 suggestions:

1. Upcycle. Root through your existing wardrobe, your stash household linen, and those of your family and friends. Try charity shops too. If you can find a garment you could alter, or a piece of fabric that’s big enough to cut something new you could convert it into something you love. Even if you hate the material, could you re-use the buttons or the zip?

2. Repeat yourself. Once you’ve got a pattern you love that fits, get your money’s worth by making it up in several different fabrics. If you’re making for a child, buy a multi-size pattern and make bigger versions of the same garment as they grow.

3. If you’re buying fabric, shop around. Try your local market, or head for your nearest city and investigate specialist fabric stores away from the main drag. It’s also worth a dig around your local charity shop – some occasionally have dressmaking fabric, or items like bed linen and curtains that could be adapted into clothes – depending on your taste!

4. Blag equipment. Let your family and friends know that you’re taking up dressmaking and see if you can have or borrow any kit for free. You’d be amazed at how many people have an unused sewing machine lurking in the loft, or a bag of haberdashery they don’t want. Ebay, gumtree and preloved are worth a look too, but check the prices carefully. Start with the bare minimum and work out what else you’ll use as you go along.

5. Be different. There’s a whole swathe of people out there looking for vintage 1950s dress patterns, so prices are rocketing. Try something else – maybe you’d love some well-fitting trousers for work, or a shirt that doesn’t pull across the chest. You can even draft your own patterns if you can’t find what you want.

Where shouldn’t I scrimp?

There’s some stuff you shouldn’t skimp on. You need a good quality pair of fabric scissors and cheap thread isn’t usually good value – it snaps in the machine and your seams come apart.

What tips would you give to a sewer on a budget?