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Sewing with Specialty Fabrics

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The holiday sewing season will be on top of us before we know it, which is always a great time to pull out the specialty fabrics for both garments and home décor items. However, working with these fabrics does require a little special handling; they aren't always as user-friendly as good ol' cotton. We picked four of the most common categories: netting and tulle, organza, taffeta, and burlap; and provide some tips and techniques to make preparing, cutting, and sewing with them easier, faster and frustration-free. 

In addition to the great information below, check out the tutorials below for additional hints and tips, and visit our Project Index for even more resources. 

Nettings

Whether you choose tulle, with its fine holes, or net with slightly larger holes, these crisp, shapeable fabrics are great for bows, sashes, runners, garlands and more. They're often used in multiple layers to showcase vibrant color, volume and add more frou-frou... which I guess would be frou-frou-frou.

Preparation and pressing

Since both are synthetic, there's really no need for pre-treating netting or tulle. Just be careful of your iron temperature when removing wrinkles and bolt folds – otherwise the fabrics can melt and distort, making them unusable.

Tulle and net can both be hand washed, but sometimes they'll lose a bit of their body in the process. If you need to revive them, press the fabric between wax paper, or use a starch alternative, such as Mary Ellen's Best Pressto add body.

Telling them apart 

Tulle has very fine holes, and it's softer and more flexible than nylon netting. Netting, with its larger holes, is very crisp. Both can be used for the same purposes in decorating and attire. Wedding veils are often made from tulle or net, and both are used for skirtings and petticoats. Tulle is often used to underline special occasion wear or to showcase the sheer section of a garment. 

Usually made from 100% nylon, both tulle and netting are available by the yard (they're usually 54"-108" wide so they go a long way), or you can often purchase them in pre-cut widths, like 6", which is perfect for trimming and accents. Netting comes in a wide range of colors to go with any decorating scheme.

Cutting and marking

Before you try to cut either fabric, press out the wrinkles (remember, low heat setting). Because of their extra-wide nature, both are likely to come with fold lines from being wrapped around the bolt. If the netting you purchase is not on a bolt, pressing may not be needed at all.

Neither tulle nor netting have any grain, so you can place pattern pieces at will, however they best fit on the fabric. Cut with very sharp scissors or a rotary cutter.

These mesh fabrics tend to be slippery; after all, they're mostly air! To keep them corralled, use pattern weights or layer the fabric over tissue and pin through the mesh and into the tissue. Pinning a pattern to netting is actually easy, because you simply place the pins in the holes of the fabric. It's best to use pins with large flat tops, such as the flower head pins by Dritz shown below, so they're less likely to slip out through the holes of the fabric.

In the unlikely event you need to mark tulle or netting, use heavy thread tacks in a contrasting color or removable transparent tape. More conventional pen/pencil marking methods don't work well due to the lack of a flat surface.

Sewing and finishing

A great thing about both net and tulle is they don't ravel, so no edge finishing is needed, unless you want to do it purely for decoration. 

If you need to join seams, use a short straight stitch.

A Straight Stitch foot will give you better gripping power. 

If you decide to make a decorative edge on these airy fabrics, use a rayon machine embroidery thread and zig zag over a small cord (like rattail).

To make a flouncy edge, use 50 lb. fishing line and fold the tulle over the line along the edge you want to ruffle. Use a very narrow zig zag to encase the line. 

To help guide the line and keep it in the fold, use a Cording foot, which has a groove(s) on the underside to feed the cord.

  

A small needle (size 60/8, 65/9 or 70/10) is best so you don't damage the delicate fibers. 

Since the fabric is see-through, trim seams ⅛" away from the stitching line to prevent show-through. 

NOTE: We have more notes on this topic, including hemming options, in our tutorial, Sewing with Sheers.

If you're using netting for a petticoat or skirt, the cut edges are scratchy, so you may want to bind them with a lightweight knit tape like Seams Great by Dritz to prevent irritation. 

Using a multi-step zig zag stitch and pre-made tape makes this task easy, but if you've been sewing (as we recommended above) with a straight stitch foot, remember to switch back to your regular presser foot to accommodate the zig zag and avoid breaking a needle.

It's easy to gather tulle or netting. Simply machine baste two rows near the seamline, leaving long thread tails. To gather, simply pull both bobbin threads at once to the desired length, then tie the ends together to secure. For more details, see our tutorial on Gathering by Machine.

Organza

Organza is a sheer, plain-weave fabric available in several different fibers. Most common are silk, nylon and polyester versions. Silk is the softest of the trio, while nylon or polyester offer a crisper hand. 

Though not as crisp as its organdy cousin, organza is widely used for evening and bridal garments, and for elaborate wedding and holiday decorating.

Organzas come in a wide range of colors and range from 45"-118" wide. The wider widths make them an economical choice.

In addition to matte and shimmery organzas, some are embellished with swirls or other design motifs, adding additional sparkle.

Preparation and pressing

It's best not to pretreat organza, as washing and drying will soften it. If pressing is needed, set your iron temperature according to the fiber content. Use a dry iron for silk organza as it is susceptible to water spotting.

Cutting and marking

Like most sheers, organza can be hard to keep in place when cutting. One easy way to solve this is to cover your pressing surface with a flannel-backed table cloth (flannel side up) or a piece of thin cotton batting. The organza adheres to the nap and stays in place, like artwork on a flannel board.

Don’t let your fabric hang over the edge of the cutting surface; it will distort. If it's larger than the cutting area, gently fold one end. As you cut, unfold the fabric to fill the space. 

Sharp scissors are a must for cutting organza, as any drag will cause the fabric to distort. If you prefer to cut with a rotary cutter, you can, but you run into the problem again with slipping and sliding. Try taping the fabric to the cutting mat. And, be sure to have a fresh, sharp blade to avoid snagging.

Marking organza is a challenge because it's so sheer. Like netting, thread tacks or removable tape both work well. Never use dressmaker's carbon paper; it will make a mess. If you opt for any type of removable marker, test first on a scrap to be sure it comes out completely.

Sewing seams

As with any sheer, a small size needle works best to avoid making obvious holes in the seam. Again, use a size 60/8, 65/9 or 70/10 Universal needle. Seams can be sewn with regular sewing-weight thread, or for a finer appearance, choose a 60-weight cotton thread.

Be prepared... organza wiggles while you work! It can also pucker, creating less than attractive seams. Be sure to test stitch on some scraps to find which settings work best for your fabric and machine.

Use a straight stitch presser foot (shown above), a straight stitch plate (shown below). Or use them in combination. They both help keep the fabric from being pulled down into the machine as stitches are formed. 

Adopt a "taut sewing" tactic. This means holding the fabric in front of and behind the presser foot as you sew to lessen the chances of puckering. Hold onto the thread tails when you begin a seam to keep the fabric from heading south into the machine, then securely hold (but don't stretch) the fabric front and back for the duration of the seam. Avoid backstitching; not only does it show through this transparent fabric, it also can cause the seam to scrunch and distort. To anchor the seam, use a lock stitch function, hand knot the thread tails, or shorten the stitch length at the beginning and end of the stitching line.

If you aren't successful with the taut sewing method alone, place a narrow strip of tissue under the seam line and stitch through it and the fabric; it acts as a stabilizer. Once the seam is completed, gently tear away the tissue.

Rather than trying to sew a very narrow seams at the outset, sew in farther from the edge and trim the seam to the desired finished width, usually ¼". Sewing with a straight stitch seam, and then a zig zag seam right next to it, helps secure the ravelly edges of organza. 

Another option for organza is a French seam finish.

Narrow seams can also be sewn on the serger (or overlocker), although the additional thread can make the seam more obvious in sheers. If you opt for this technique, use a three-thread seam and a small needle in the serger.

Edge finishes

The easiest finish for organza is a narrow rolled hem. But if you're making a garment, be sure to let the project hang at least 24 hours before marking the hemline; this gives the fabric time to stretch itself out and ensures you a straight and even hem.

To make a narrow hem, use the narrow rolled hem foot with your sewing machine. We have a great tutorial on making rolled hems by machine

If you don't have a narrow rolled hem foot, another option is to use a serger rolled hem, stitching over tissue or water-soluble stabilizer (for nylon and polyester organza only), or to make a hand-rolled hem.

Folding and pressing a standard ¼" double-fold narrow hem also works well.

A decorative edge is easy to make using narrow lace. Simply lap the lace ½" from the edge, stitch with a narrow zig zag, then trim the extra organza from under the lace right up to the stitching.

Hemming option

Take advantage of fusible technology for a quick and easy organza hem. Press under ⅛" along the fabric edge and then another ⅛". Insert a length of fusible thread under the second fold and gently press the hem in place (remember to watch that heat setting). This technique also adds some body to the soft fabric edge, making it ideal for bows.

Taffeta

Well known for its trademark rustle, taffeta is a tradition for special occasion garments, both on the outside and inside of gowns, as well as for decorating. This tightly woven, plain weave fabric comes in solids, prints and plaids, and often is flocked for added texture or crinkled for interest. It can be made from silk, acetate, nylon, polyester or a combo of these fibers.

Preparation and pressing

Taffeta is crisp, holds its shape, and ruffles superbly. However, it's also a fragile fabric. It creases easily and seams can pull out, especially in snug fitting garments. Overall, taffeta is easy to sew if you can control the raveling.

Be careful when pressing taffeta, as the surface is easily imprinted if the iron temperature is too warm. You can actually melt taffeta if you're not paying attention. Test for the best temperature based on the fabric fiber content, and use a pressing cloth for protection. A dry iron is the safest option to avoid water spotting.

There's no need to pretreat taffeta, as most finished items items and garments made from it will either need to be dry cleaned or spot cleaned.

Cutting and marking

Place pins in the seam allowances of taffeta to avoid permanent holes. Cut with sharp scissors or a rotary cutter.

Marking is best done with thread tacks or removable tape. Avoid using chalk and dressmaker carbon, as both can permanently damage the fabric, especially the lighter colors. Since taffeta ravels considerably, it's best not to clip into the seam allowances; if notches are needed, cut them outward not into the seam allowance.

Sewing seams

Taffeta seams can easily pucker, so use taut sewing techniques, as described above, and a straight stitch. Since the fabric is fragile, use a size 60/8, 65/9 or 70/10 Universal needle to minimize needle holes.

Serging (or overlocking) is an ideal finish for taffeta as it sews the seam and secures the edges at the same time. Seams can be sewn and pressed to one side, or seam allowances can be serged individually and pressed open.

Before gathering or ruching taffeta, finish the seam allowance so it stays intact during the gathering process.

Edge finishes

Rolled hems, as noted above for organza, are also ideal for taffeta. Just feed the hem edge into your rolled hem foot and stitch. 

Another good option, also listed above for organza, is the double-turn ¼" hem sewn with either a straight stitch or a zig zag. 

If you have a serger, serge the raw edge, fold it under the appropriate hem width, and straight stitch in place for a flat, narrow hem.

If your taffeta project requires a firm hem, you can apply horsehair braid to the edge(s). To do this, on the right side, lap the braid over the taffeta edge by ½" and stitch with a narrow zig zag along the overlapping braid edge. Trim the taffeta close to the stitching, turn the hem to the wrong side and topstitch close to the fabric's folded edge.

Burlap

Made from jute fibers, this coarsely woven fabric has come on the decorating scene in a big way in recent years. Its rustic and eco-friendly nature, and inexpensive price, make it a popular choice for giftwrap, table décor, favors, and more. We've even seen beautiful options in pillows, curtains and table runners. We used a jute trim for a stunning pillow back

Burlap's rough nature isn't conducive to wearables; keep it for decorating uses.

Burlap comes in its natural tan color, but is also now available in a multitude of other fun colors. It's even available in white, made by bleaching the original earth-tone fibers. All burlap has minor imperfections and inconsistencies in the weave – that's part of what makes it cool. It's available in 45"- 60" widths and sometimes in multiple weights, depending how much body you need for your project. In addition to yardage, burlap is often available in pre-cut "ribbon widths" and may have coordinating trims and braids.

Preparation and pressing

Burlap does have a characteristic smell, which some people find offensive. Before you use the fabric, let it air out. Ideally, if weather permits, spread it out in the sun. Or, use a fabric deodorizer like Febreze.

There's no preparation needed for burlap, except perhaps pressing out a bolt crease. Be prepared when pressing with steam, the smell will waft your way. Depending on the finish, steam pressing may soften the fabric slightly.

Cutting and marking

With its obvious weave, cutting into burlap is easy—if it's a straight cut, simply follow a thread in the weave. Burlap ravels easily, so gentle handling is needed unless you want to take advantage of that quality to create a fringed edge as we did in our wedding table runner project.

Any marking needed is best done with a small safety pin or removable tape.

Caution: the fibers from burlap will get all over the place. The loose twist of the yarns release lots of fuzz when cut. Keep an adhesive lint remover handy for clean up. All those burlappy fibers will also get into your sewing machine or serger as you stitch. It is super important to clean it several times during, and especially after, your project.

Sewing seams

Compared to the specialty fabrics described above, burlap is very easy to sew. It doesn't slip or slide around as you try to stitch it.

Use regular weight sewing thread and a size 80/12 or 90/14 Universal needle for stitching, depending on the weight of your burlap.

Seams can be stitched with a straight or zig zag stitch. If the pieces you're joining are cut on the straight grain, it's best to use a multiple zig zag to avoid having the seam ravel out to the stitching line; this type of stitch grabs more fibers.

The serger (or overlocker) can also be used to finish seams, either singly or together.

To further prevent seams from raveling, you can coat the cut edges with a fray preventer such as Fray Check.

When using conventional construction with burlap, let's say you're making a pillow, finish the seam allowances inside with a zig zag or by serging to prevent fraying. Since burlap's weave is slightly open, seam allowances can show through - just like with a sheer. If you're installing a zipper, finish the seam allowance edges with a zig zag or by serging and press them open, before installing the zipper.

Edge finishes

Many people love the fact that burlap ravels, and take advantage of that characteristic to highlight flower, banner, runner and garland edges. But you can get too much of a good thing. To tame the fray, stitch a narrow zig zag line at the desired fray distance, then pull threads to this stitching line, creating a controlled edge. The fraying will stop at the stitching line.

Burlap can also be hemmed, with either a single or double hem. For a quick finish, fold up ¼" along the raw edge and stitch in place with a narrow zig zag. Or, use a wide multiple zig zag for extra hold. For a more finished look, turn the ¼" hem under twice and sew with a straight stitch.

If you're trimming burlap with lace or ribbon, simply lap the trim over the cut edge and secure with a narrow zigzag. There's no need to finish the underside.

For a quick and easy edge finish, use ¼" fusible web tape for hemming. Press under ¼" along the raw edge and insert the tape under the fold. Follow the manufacturer's instructions to fuse the layers in place. The web prevents raveling and makes a sturdy edge that can then be stitched down, or not. If desired, trim the fused hem with some decorative machine stitching.

Beyond the basics

Burlap is often used with other fabrics under it, which minimizes the problem of inner construction techniques showing through the weave. For example, on a pillow, a second layer underneath hides the stuffing that otherwise might poke through the burlap weave. This "under-layer" can be the same or similar color, or a contrasting pop of color. 

When pairing burlap with another fabric, use a temporary spray adhesive to secure the layers together and prevent shifting. This also allows you to square up the free-form burlap shape to the more stable under-layer for easier handling.

For a quick way to tame ravelly burlap edges, apply a fray preventer (like Fray Check), let dry, then trim with pinking shears. 

If you want to use burlap for something that will be laundered, like curtains or napkins, pre-wash it. Not only does it shrink, it also softens nicely and takes on the look of linen. Before you wash it, it's best to serge the cut edges using a close, wide stitch; an open stitch will simply pull out in the wash. Clean the washer after running the cycle or all those fibers will be inside waiting for your next load of laundry, or to clog the outtake hose. After drying burlap in the dryer, clean the filter. Press out any dryer wrinkles using a hot steam iron and plenty of steam. Washing also tends to rid the burlap of its characteristic smell.

Contributors

Sample creation and instructional outline: Linda Turner Griepentrog

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Comments (3)

raajia said:
raajia's picture

Merci, Sew4Home! pour tous vos merveilleux tutoriels qui sont un grand aide pour nous. encore mille merci pour vous

j'adore votre site !!!!

DebS said:
DebS's picture

Another fine tutorial. This has always been a problem child for me. This gives me courage to try using these types of fabrics again. The French seam suggestion looks like a good option, also. Thanks, Sew4Home!

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

@ DebS - thanks, Deb! Always happy to offer encourage to try something new -- are try something old again with fresh knowledge 

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