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How To Work With And Select Outdoor-Safe Fabrics

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When I was first introduced to outdoor sewing, I have to admit I wasn't very enthusiastic about it. (And, no, I didn't think it meant taking my sewing machine outside.) Why would I want to put all the time and effort into sewing home décor items and then leave them outside in the weather? I'd seen what happens to cloth items that get left out on the deck overnight. I was missing an important piece of information. There is a whole array of great looking fabric designed to be left outside. They're called... wait for it... outdoor fabrics. If we can put a man on the moon, we can make great looking fabric that doesn't mind being outside.

I've since learned there are dozens of things you can easily sew that will make your time out on your deck, patio, or porch even more enjoyable. Have you ever sat on a patio chair made with teak slats or metal mesh and wished it had a cushion or two?

Things To Sew And Take Outside

By adding some comfortable furniture and maybe an umbrella or hanging shade, you can make your deck or patio into another living space. Whether you buy new or vintage furniture, you can sew simple projects to make the entire scene much more inviting. For example, I nabbed a vintage daybed that was headed for the dump. It will make a comfortable outdoor sofa as soon as I finish making the cushions. Even if you buy new outdoor furniture, which will come with cushions, you'll want to make outdoor throw pillows for decoration and extra lounging comfort.

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Your outdoor eating table will look much more inviting with a table cloth and, of course, you'll want cushions for your unpadded outdoor dining chairs. Other items such as benches and coffee tables look great with sewn covers. And, if you're stuck with chairs that are sturdy but don't look so great, you can slip cover them. Of course, the classic example is that old lounge chair you'd probably spend more time reading in, if it had a decent cushion.

Do you have one or two spots at your outdoor table that face directly into the afternoon sun? You can solve that problem by sewing simple outdoor curtains or sun shades. You make them and hang them just like indoor shades.

Fabrics That Like To Live Outside

Starting right about now, your local fabric store will have a seasonal collection of outdoor fabrics. They're made by a number of well-known fabric companies with designs that will inspire you to get sewing. There are a number of prints that remind me of those expensive tropical hotels. So even if I can't go to the Caribbean, I can bring it to my deck (if only I could bring the warm weather, too). Fabric.com carries the complete line of Tommy Bahama outdoor fabrics, which is one of the most gorgeous tropical prints I've seen in years.

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Outdoor fabrics are usually made from synthetic fibers, like polyester, which are specially coated to withstand the weather and ultraviolet (UV) rays. Rain and wind can be hard on regular fabric, but it's the sun's UV rays that really fade colors and cause fibers to break down.

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Don't forget the outdoor thread. Regular thread will succumb to the elements much more quickly. Several of the major thread brands make special outdoor thread in colors to coordinate with your fabric choices, including Outdoor Living Thread from Coats.

Read The Instructions

You always hear, "Read the instructions before you start sewing." For outdoor fabrics, you should read the instructions before you buy. They're a lot like upholstery fabrics, being thicker, coming in wider widths (54" instead of 45"), and not needing to be pre-shrunk before you sew with them. But because they have a protective coating to fend off the weather, you need to carefully read the cleaning instructions before you buy.

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With hazards like dirty feet and wayward Frisbees knocking over drinks, outdoor items are more likely to get dirty. You should know how to clean them before the inevitable accident happens. It's all on that little cleaning instruction label. Many popular brands can be spot cleaned with soap and water without losing their protective coating. Some require a non-water cleaning agent (like a home dry cleaning kit), and some have to be professionally dry cleaned.

If you're positive your darling family is going to get everything dirty, you can get outdoor fabric that's machine washable. In this case you'll want to make your pillows and seat cushions with zippers or an envelope closure so you can easily remove the covers.

Regular cleaning will extend the life of your outdoor fabrics. Mildew grows much more readily on a dirty surface and will eventually work its way down into the fibers. So keeping your outdoor creations clean will make them look great now and into the future.

Making Outdoor Life More Enjoyable

If you live in a region where you can comfortably spend time outdoors at least part of the year, you can make that time much more enjoyable with a home décor facelift for your outdoor spaces. Even if you start with just a few cushions, you'll quickly see their worth in added comfort and style.

Check out these great tutorials from our 2009 Patio Party. Our items were made with non-outdoor fabrics as they were for a special party, but most of the tutorials could be easily done using outdoor fabrics.

Patio Party: Sunny Throw Pillows

Patio Party: Flirty Floral Napkins

Patio Party: Strips & Stripes Tablecloth

Patio Party: Round-Table Wedge Placemats

Patio Party: Sitting Pretty Chair Cushions

Patio Party: Festive Pennant Banner

Patio Party: Groovy Hostess Apron

Patio Party: Side Table Drape


Comments (10)

Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home said:
Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home's picture

@ Mary B - I was just about to update this article in favor of today's article from Waverly. I've included that link below. I haven't tested that particular fabric for a curtain project so I really can't give you a definitive answer. Many of the outdoor options can be quite stiff. However, we just used one of the Waverly Sun N Shade fabrics for a shower curtain and it worked great - that tutorial is coming up this Friday.


JuJuK said:
JuJuK's picture

What do you think about using outdoor fabrics to make a slip cover of sorts for beat up pontoon seat cusions?

Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home said:
Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home's picture

@ JuJuK - that's a hard one to answer since I really don't know how much exposure to sun, wind and rain these cushions will be in for. In general, outdoor fabric is not meant for heavy-duty exposure. There are marine fabrics that are meant to stand up to the elemetns in style. Fabric.com has a very supple marine vinyl in lots of cool colors: https://www.fabric.com/home-decor-fabric-vinyl-fabric-marine-vinyl-fabri...

Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home said:
Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home's picture
@ Mary Walter -- I'm not sure I know exactly what you mean by "net fabrics". If you'd like, send me an email using our contact form with a link to the fabric you're thinking about. If I can help, I sure will.
Mary Walter said:
Mary Walter's picture
Can net fabric be used for an outdoor project?
Nana Gail said:
Nana Gail's picture
I was thinking of recovering my outdoor swing...what fabric would you recommend for something like this
Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home said:
Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home's picture
Hi HeatherG -- I think the best rule-of-thumb is: if the finished product is going to be washed then you should pre-wash the fabric... or clean it in whatever method it would eventually be cleaned, eg. dry-cleaned. Otherwise, you could end up with unfortunate twisting and shrinkage. As we mention above, outdoor fabrics often have special coatings and so should come with specific washing instructions. Make sure you read and follow those instructions. For the bags and totes you are making, it sounds like it would be rare that the owners would ever completely wash or dry-clean the entire item... in fact, many dry cleaners won't accept bags and totes. If the item will only be spot-cleaned, you would likely be fine without pre-washing or pre-dry-cleaning. Use your best judgement. Hope that helps.
HeatherG said:
HeatherG's picture
I'm using outdoor fabrics to make bags (toes, etc0. Some outdoor fabrics say to dry-clan, but I expect owners of my bags will be spot-cleaning by hand, and I'm not sure if its necessary to pre-wash or dry-clean the fabrics before sewing or not. Any advice? smilies/cry.gif

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