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8 Fabric Buying Mistakes Beginner Dressmakers make

Updated: Sep 22, 2022

...and how to avoid them!

Speaking to a lot of people that want to get started with dressmaking one common key thing that holds them back is a fear of buying fabric. They are afraid that they will make the wrong choice and end up wasting money. Over the years I have made lots of ‘mistakes’ when buying fabric which I wanted to share with you and some tips to avoid making the same mistakes.

I wrote the word ‘mistakes’ in quotation marks because with hindsight I realise that they were not mistakes, they were part of my learning on my dressmaking journey. But knowing what I know now I wanted to share some tips with you so that your learning might be a bit quicker and more cost effective! So here goes…

Mistake #1 - Choosing the fabric before the project/garment

Pick your project first before you buy your fabric
Avoid wasting money - pick your garment first

Now I am sure that this will raise some objections from those with lovingly curated stashes of fabric but I hear me out. When buying the fabric first you end up with the following:

  • Spending a lot of time trying to find a pattern that will work well with that fabric

  • Once you find a suitable pattern it is likely to be for a garment you weren’t planning on making or don’t really need

  • You have to hedge your bets and over buy to ensure that you will have enough to work with a wide range of garment types so you either: - End up with left over fabric that you then struggle to find a use for - OR battle to fit all your pattern pieces on because you didn’t quite buy enough

  • If you can’t find a pattern you have to find a home for you new fabric where the moths won’t be able to feast on it.

Worst case is that if you don’t find a project for your fabric fairly soon then your colour and style preferences can change with the seasons and you end up not even really liking the fabric that much.

Now I know it can be tempting if you go to a fabric shop and see all of the lovely fabrics on display. Our fear of missing out triggers and we buy those fabrics "just in case" with the best intention. But for me, since I started buying fabrics after I have chosen my project I find I am much more satisfied with the final garment (as it isn’t a compromise) and what I am making is much more intentional.

So choose your project first and once you have chosen your pattern/project read on to make sure you get the best from your fabric choice.

Mistake #2 - Not making a mock-up/toile

Making a toile in cheaper fabric teaches you about the way the finished garment will look
Make a mock-up/toile

I had been dressmaking for a long time before someone introduced me to the concept of making a toile or a mock-up of the garment before making the final version.

It seems so obvious now I know it but at the time it was a revelation. I had some resistance to it at first. Why would I want to waste time on a practice one when I just wanted to get the ‘real’ one finished?

If you aren’t already using toiles then there are lots of great benefits - another blog post topic! In relation to choosing a fabric they help you understand how your garment will go together, how it will sit/hang and what seams and design details are included. They give you a way to tell how much ease is built into the design, whether elements of the garment need drape or structure.

Whilst you can get some of this information from the pictures, technical drawings and other people’s reviews, the best way to see how the garment will be on your body is to try it and match your preferences to the fabric you choose.

Mistake #3 - Picking a fabric based on colour/pattern alone

"Ooh look Gladys, what a pretty pattern"

OK so this was another biggie for me when I realised what I was doing and it is triggered from mistake #1 and wandering around fabric shops with no specific project in mind.

It can be really tempting when we walk around a fabric store to be drawn to the fabrics with beautiful patterns and lots of colours. Whilst we may love the colourful designs on the roll, if they were made up into a garment they may be overpowering or unflattering for our colouring or body proportions.

They may also be the wrong type of fabric for your project, for example that pattern/colour is only available as a knit/jersey fabric but your pattern is for a woven fabric.

One way to get a sense of how it might look as a garment is to take a photo of the fabric laid flat or a screenshot of the fabric from the website, print it out and then cut out the shape of your garment from the printed pattern. It may not be quite to scale but it will give you an idea of how it might look as a full garment.

If you have chosen your project and are making it from a dressmaking pattern then there will also be suggestions for recommended fabrics on the pattern. It is worth paying attention to that as it will give you ideas on what weight and construction of fabric the pattern designer had in mind for that style.

Mistake #4 - Not getting to know your fabric preferences

Check your wardrobe for clues about fabrics you love

Again this is something that came to me quite late in my dressmaking journey but I have realised that there are some types of fabrics that I love and some that I am not very keen on. Now that might seem obvious but in the past I have been so keen to get a fabric that is a certain colour for example, I have bought it in a type of fabric or fibre that I don’t actually like.

An example would be crepe fabrics. These have a slightly bobbly, rough texture due to how they are constructed. There are different types of crepe and I think triple crepe does have a softer feel but to me they generally feel a bit rough to the touch. It turns out that I really, really like smooth, soft feeling fabrics so it’s no surprise that when I made a skirt from a slightly rough crepe I found I wasn’t that inclined to wear it.

Take a look in your wardrobe at what you own. Look at the labels as they will tell you the types of fibres used in your garments e.g. cotton, polyester, linen etc. They won’t necessarily tell you the name of the fabric e.g. canvas, twill, lawn but if you find that a lot of what you wear is natural fibres then it might be good to buy fabrics that are also made from those fibres. Equally if a lot of your clothes have some stretch in them then it might be worth finding fabrics that contain some elastane or lycra blended in. But if you are buying online how can you find out how the fabric feels? That leads me onto mistake #5.

Mistake #5 - Not ordering samples when buying fabric online

Build your own sample library

Buying fabric online can seem overwhelming. There is so much choice, so many options and as fabric is such a tactile purchase can you really be sure what you are going to get.

My advice here is to look for websites that provide samples. Now I have made the mistake in the past of thinking "I’ve bought cotton jersey before, surely they are all the same?" Unfortunately they are not. There are a lot of elements that go into the finished fabric - the thickness, quality and composition of the fibre (or fibres) it is made from, the tightness of the weave or knit, the dye used, any finishing processes such as brushing.

The best way to know what that fabric is actually like is to get a sample. On some sites you have to pay for your samples but don’t let that put you off. £1 for a sample to save you £20 on the wrong fabric is definitely worth it and some sites will give you the money back if you place an order.

The additional benefit of starting to gather samples is that you can start to create your own swatch library. When the samples arrive be sure to write on them the name, fibre composition, weight and price per metre so that you can refer back to them.

Mistake #6 - Not buying extra fabric for pattern matching

Be sure to buy extra fabric if it has a bold pattern that you want to match

So you have decided on your project, you know what types of fabric you like, you have ordered some samples and picked the one you want and now you are ready to place your order/buy the fabric. It’s highly likely that the one you have chosen has a pattern on it (based on the fact that 80% of fabrics available are patterned).

As a little side note here, if you want to make it easier for yourself with your first garment then choose a plain fabric - no pattern matching/pattern direction to think about :)

When you get to the point of laying your pattern pieces on your fabric to cut them out you want to ensure that if you have a pattern that has an obvious direction i.e. a right way up, that you can fit the pattern pieces facing in the same direction. Most sewing patterns allow for this in their recommended fabric amounts so if your pattern is quite small that may be enough.

However if you decide that you want to match the pattern at key places e.g. the side seams or centre front/back then you may have to leave more space between the pattern pieces to get them in just the right place to match up. The bigger the size of the pattern-repeat the more additional fabric you may need.

Mistake #7 - Not buying enough matching thread when you buy the fabric

Be sure to buy enough matching thread

OK so this one isn’t technically about buying fabric but if you have spent all this time getting just the right fabric then the last thing you want is to get ready to sew it only to realise you don’t have a thread that matches. Equally frustrating is that you find the perfect colour thread and only buy one spool only to find that as you get to the final steps of hemming (where you do really want it to match), you run out.

In my experience if all goes well on your project, one full spool (100m) of thread generally is enough to do a dress. However, if something doesn’t go right first time and you end up unpicking or if there is a lot of double topstitching or similar thread-intensive detailing then one full spool may not cut it.

My recommendation is if your fabric/thread is a non-neutral colour (i.e. not black, white, navy or grey) buy two spools of thread when you buy your fabric.

Mistake #8 - Not pre-washing your fabric

Remember, remember to pre-wash!

Again this one isn’t technically about buying fabric but it does relate to how much fabric you may need. I have fallen foul of this one too many times so please, please learn from my mistakes.

If your fabric is washable then wash it before you make your garment.

There is no greater sense of disappointment than when you spend hours making your fabulous garment to fit you perfectly, you wear it a few times and then put it in the wash. As you remove it from the wash, lovely and clean you realise that it is now a size smaller than when it went in - aaarrrrgggghhhhhhh.

So I would recommend washing your fabric, ideally in the manner that you plan to wash your final garment and doing it when you get the fabric home. Doing it straight away means that when you are ready to get started it is all ready to go and you aren’t tempted to just make it up without washing it.

There you have it!

Now you have the top tips you need for fearless fabric shopping. If you’d like to be kept informed when we post new tips, tricks and tools then sign up for our regular updates below.

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Good article but I was hoping for an explanation on fabric width.

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