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Happy Holidays with FreeSpirit & Rowan: Working with Velvet and Velveteen

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Velvet and velveteen are definitely members of the fabric world's Specialty category. But, that doesn't mean they're too "special" to be part of your sewing stash. All you need is a little help learning how to properly handle, sew and care for them. And that's what your friends here at Sew4Home are for, right?! As we've shown you in recent weeks, today's fabric collections no longer feature quilting cotton as the only available substrate (or fabric type). Westminster Fibers, through their FreeSpirit and Rowan brands, offers a wonderful range of options from the sheerest voile to heavy canvas to the rich velveteen we're using from Amy Butler's Alchemy collection. But like anything new, unique substrates, such as velvet and velveteen tend to be feared by many home sewers. And... when fear leads you to always err on the same (or safe) side of all these fun new choices, you can end up in a fabric rut. Below we’ve summarized what we know about velvet and velveteen, along with the proper techniques for cutting, sewing, pressing, and more. Spread your wings and try something new! Trust us, the extra care is well worth the finished product.

Velvet

Velvet is considered one of the most luxurious fabrics available. It's only rival might be silk, but velvet is available in a silk version so I think they can officially share the number one position. The pile (or nap) on the right side of velvet is what creates the majority of the sewing challenges.  Fortunately, there are numerous techniques and tips to help guide you through. 

A traditional woven fabric is created with a weft and warp yarn. When velvet is manufactured, two fabrics are woven together on top of one another at the same time. To do this an extra warp yarn is needed. It’s that extra warp yarn that is later cut, creating the pile on the right side of the fabric.

You may think velvet is velvet is velvet. Nope! There is actually a very long list of types and weights of velvets, each available in a variety of colors and prints (some even embossed). You can spend a good bit of time learning about them all, and we encourage you to do so if you truly fall in love with the look and feel of velvet. 

Basically, there are velvets made of rayon, silk, polyester, nylon or cotton. As you can guess, these vary in weight, density and durability. Each of the variables helps determine which type of velvet is suitable for a specific project. For example, a soft velvet made of rayon will drape better for a skirt or dress. A heavy velvet made of cotton is stiff and so best used in upholstery. In this tutorial, we're using medium-weight velvet, which could be used for a jacket, or just as easily for a pillow.

There are certain characteristics that apply to all velvets. 

  • You must always use the "with nap" pattern layouts on commercial patterns, which often require more yardage. 
  • The raw edges tend to shed and/or fray easily. 
  • A specialty foot is needed for sewing (see the list below). 
  • Most importantly, velvet is a delicate fabric that can damage easily from pins, heat and moisture. 

Preshrinking and pressing

Methods for preshrinking velvet depend on the actual type of velvet. Some can be hand washed or machine washed, but most must be professionally dry cleaned. If you’re in doubt, we recommend being cautious and dry cleaning velvet before and after it’s sewn into a project.

That pesky pile on velvet is something to be dealt with when attempting to press this fabric. You cannot, should not and will not ever touch an iron directly to velvet. The magic word here is: steam.

In order to properly steam velvet you should have a pin or needle board or a velvet board. These boards have a pile surface of their own that gives the velvet pile some place to settle into and stay safe while you steam the fabric from the wrong side. You do not want to damage the velvet in any way, unless it’s crushed velvet, which is manipulated and pressed on purpose!

Unfortunately, pin/needle or velvet boards can be hard to locate. If you do find one it may be a professional grade, which is very expensive. So, unless you plan to go into business making velvet items, you may have to use an alternative. Many experts recommend making your own velvet board from another pile fabric or more velvet. 

In addition, if you're a garment sewer, you might also want to make your own velvet pressing ham. A general Internet search will lead you in the right direction.

As for the actual steaming, set your iron to the appropriate setting for the specific fiber content of the velvet. Place the velvet right side down on top of a velvet board and steam, keeping your iron about ½" from the actual surface. Just in case we haven't hit you hard enough over the head, one more time, repeat after us: never, ever PRESS velvet! 

When you start to construct your project, you use the same pressing method. Any seams should be finger pressed open, steamed, then allowed to cool. For hems, place a piece of sturdy paper (a brown paper bag works great) in between the wrong side of the hem allowance and the wrong side of the fabric. It’s super easy to leave an impression in the velvet on the right side; the paper helps prevent this.

If this all sounds a little scary to you, test your settings on scraps first. And, start working out with your dumbbells so you can hold up your iron aloft for extended periods of time!

Cutting and marking

We’ve mentioned how important it is to pay attention to the pile on velvet when pressing. Cutting is no different. If you run your hand up and down the velvet fabric, you will be pushing the pile in one direction or the other. Depending which way you push the pile, the fabric will seem darker or lighter. When the pile is pushed down the fabric will seem darker then when it is pushed up. The more durable direction is down, so that’s the best direction to cut the fabric. This is also the reason you must follow the with nap layout on a commercial pattern. It may be difficult to see in the picture below, but on the left side the nap is pushed up and the right the nap it's pushed down.

Some experts will tell you to make your own decision as to which way you want to cut velvet based on whether you prefer the darker or lighter shading. That's fine, but once you make your decision, you must stay with it throughout or your project will contain pieces that look like they’re two different colors!

When you’re ready to actually cut, place the velvet on your cutting surface pile (or right) side down. Do not fold it over as you do with many other fabric types. With velvet, cut one layer at a time only. If using a pattern, any pieces that are to be cut on the fold, should be duplicated and taped together at the fold line to create one full pattern piece. 

Depending on the type of velvet, it can be helpful to place a layer of tissue paper on the cutting surface first. The tissue helps keep the velvet steady.

Velvet also does not like dull pins or blades. As we’ve mentioned, velvet can mar easily so use fine, sharp pinsand try to keep all pining within the seam allowance. 

Pattern weightsare best for holding pattern pieces in place. 

Sharp or micro-serrated scissors are recommended for cutting, but get ready for the shedding no matter what you use. 

NOTE: This shedding will end up in your machine too! Make sure to care for your machine and clean out the excess lint.

Transfer any markings using a fabric marking penchalk, a chalk wheel, tailor’s tacks or thread basting – all on the wrong side. 

 

If you need to clip anywhere along the raw edge, clip outward into the seam instead of into the seam allowance.

Interfacing and other support

The weight of the velvet and the type of project you're making will determine the type of support you need in specific areas. 

Velvet is not a great candidate for any type of fusible interfacing because (as you know) that would require pressing. And, velvet is bulky, so lighter weight is the watchword when added support is needed, or for areas like facings. A sew-in interfacing is usually the way to go. You can also use other types of fabrics for support, such as silk, cotton, organza or flannel.

Sewing and Finishing

We're back to our number one challenge: the pile on the right side of velvet. The pile fibers fight themselves when two pieces are layered right sides together. As you sew, they will try to push each other out of the way and you’ll end up with an unevenly sewn seam. Fortunately, we have a few solutions.

First, you have to use a specialty foot designed to feed bulky layers under the presser foot of your sewing machine. Depending on the make and model you own, you may have one or more in the standard accessories that come with the machine (such as an even feed or walking foot). Or, you may have to purchase an optional foot. In either case, your sewing machine retailer can help you with find the best foot for sewing with velvet on your machine.

Below are the feet we have in the Sew4Home studio provided by Janome, our exclusive sewing machine sponsor.

Even Feed foot – (Left in picture) Many sewing machine models come with this foot, also known as a Walking foot. It has a separate set of feed dogs that work in conjunction with the feed dogs on the machine to help evenly feed bulky fabrics under the needle. This is a great choice for velvet.

Roller foot – (Middle in picture) The little roller on the front of this foot is where it gets its name. It’s that same roller that helps you get over bulky seams, fabrics, etc. To learn more about this foot, read how we used it to sew velvet in this tutorial.

Ultraglide foot – (Right in picture) This foot is what we normally recommend for sticky fabrics, such as laminate, vinyl and leather. Depending on the pile and type of velvet, it’s anther option you can use for velvet.

Velvet foot – (Not pictured) Some sewing machine manufacturers have a specific foot for sewing velvet. Janome has a version for their straight stitch, semi-industrial model the 1600P-QC.

Needle and thread types 

Use universal sharp needles. The size is dependent on the exact weight/type of velvet. Most will require a size 70/10 or 80/12. Fine velvets could use as small as 60/8. Stretch velvet, of course, requires a stretch needle.

Your best bet for thread is polyester or cotton covered polyester. Unless, the velvet is silk, for which mercerized cotton thread is recommended.

Sewing machine settings and techniques

It’s important to stress again how easily velvet can become marred when sewing. You need to be precise with the actual stitching. You can rip out stitches if you have to, but you won’t be happy with the appearance of the velvet when you’re done, so it's best to avoid any seaming errors altogether.

Use a straight stitch for most velvet, stitch length 2.0 – 3.0mm. You may have to adjust your needle tension and/or lessen the pressure on the foot due to the thickness of the fabric. Always, always test stitch on scraps first. Some velvet, such as stretch, would best be sewn with a small zig zag. Just like cutting, always sew in the direction of the pile! As you sew, hold the fabric taut with your hands in front and behind the needle. If you have a sewing machine with a knee lifter, this is a great time to use it since you need both hands to sew. 

Your ultimate goal is to keep everything nice and even as you sew. This is why you need to use a special foot. However, if you continue to have trouble, you can hand baste the layers together first. There are experts who say this is the only way to truly keep the layers even. On our Janome machines with the Even Feed foot attached, hand basting wasn't necessary.

As we mentioned, velvet tends to fray and shed. Therefore you have to finish the raw edges, unless they are concealed inside a project. You can use pinking shears, zig zag (or multi-zig zag if you have it) the edges on a sewing machine, use an overlock stitch on a serger, or sew a Hong Kong finish. Below, we used a basic zig zag (left) and an overlock stitch (right) so you could see the difference.

Additional tips

  • Mark the nap (or pile) direction on the back of the fabric with an arrow using one of the fabric marking tools listed above. 
  • Temporary spray adhesive or double sided narrow adhesive tape can be used to hold the layers of velvet together within the seam allowance instead of pins. This is a favorite technique of many garment experts. 
  • If you continue to have difficulty sewing velvet layers together because of the pile, you can insert a strip of tissue paper between them. Simply tear it away when the seam is finished.
  • Since pin or velvet boards are so small, you can use a large piece of another pile-like fabric, such as a thick terry cloth bath towel, to cover your ironing board. 
  • Do not store velvet folded, instead hang it from the selvage edge with a pant hanger or roll it onto a tube. 
  • If you’re sewing with velvet for the first time, sew a test project first to help orient yourself to the fabric and practice the techniques needed.
  • When sewing velvet to another type of fabric, like a lining, be sure to put the velvet on the bottom as you sew. The feed dogs will help keep it in place. 
  • Sew on a large surface; the weight of velvet hanging can cause additional issues when sewing.
  • Some experts advise adding a little extra seam allowance to any pattern pieces to give yourself some "play."

Velveteen

Based on its name, you might think velveteen is velvet’s younger teenage sister. Actually, velveteen is made of 100% cotton (or a cotton blend) and has a shorter, denser pile than velvet. By nature, it lacks the luster and drape of velvet too. These distinctions are not meant to sound negative, but to help you see the differences between the two fabrics. Velveteen definitely has its place and purpose. It used to be said that if you did not have enough in your budget for good quality velvet, you should purchase velveteen as an alternative. But with modern technology, both fabrics are of equal quality these days. 

So, what is the actual difference with velveteen? The pile is created by an extra filler yarn, which is later cut by high-speed knives. The wrong side (or woven base) has a slight pile too. Velveteen can be printed and easily combined with other fabric types in projects, which is probably why we see so many of our favorite fabric designers offering it as a substrate within their newer collections. Maybe the best news of all is that velvetenn tends to be easier to sew than velvet.

Preshrinking and pressing

It’s recommended you preshrink velveteen. You can machine wash and dry it on the delicate cycle. I can also be dry cleaned. Regardless of the method you use, it should be the same cleaning method you plan to use for your completed project. 

For pressing, follow the exact same method as for velvet. Set your iron for the cotton setting. Steam press ½" above the actual fabric on the wrong side, using a velvet or pin board (or other nap fabric). Don’t forget to use a pressing cloth.

That said, we have read reviews by some experts who say they have had success lightly pressing velveteen with a medium setting on the wrong side. So, we tried it. The velveteen turned out just fine. We recommend trying both methods on scraps tp decide which is best for your particular velveteen and project.

Cutting and marking

Once again, follow similar guidelines for cutting velveteen as recommended for velvet. 

Use sharp scissors or a rotary cutter with a sharp blade and a cutting mat. Don’t forget to use sharp pins too!

Be sure to determine the direction of the nap; it's best to cut velveteen with the nap in the down direction for better wear over time. In addition, there’s the issue of color shading differences between up and down. The fabric will seem darker when the nap is pushed downward.

The one difference here is you can fold over velveteen, but it must be wrong sides together.

To transfer markings from a pattern to the fabric, use chalk, fabric marking pen or pencils, or tailor’s tacks as mentioned above.

Interfacing and other support

You guessed it! As with velvet, the only type of interfacing you should use with velveteen is a lightweight sew-in. You can also use a lightweight cotton fabric. Depending on the type of project, you may not need any at all since velveteen is a stiffer fabric in general.

Sewing and Finishing

Our recommendations at the sewing machine are much the same as those given for velvet. You can use an Even Feed or Walking foot or Roller foot. This may be a better fabric type for use with the Ultraglide foot

Since velveteen is made of cotton, you can use good quality cotton, polyester, or polyester cotton covered thread.

As with any fabric, the weight will determine the size needle you use. With velveteen, you will use a universal needle ranging from size 70/10 to 90/14. For our sample velveteen, we used a universal needle size 80/12.

To sew, use a straight stitch. Adjust the length to approximately 2.0 - 2.5mm for best results. Remember to sew in the direction of the nap, holding the fabric taut in front and behind the needle, as shown above for velvet.

We decided to give the Ultraglide foot a try, and it worked great! From start to finish, velveteen is just much easier to sew than velvet.

Velveteen frays in long strands from the raw edge. Unless your seams will be enclosed within a lining or are the inside a pillow, you need to finish these quickly raveling edges at all seams and any hemlines. You have a few choices. Use a multi zig zag stitch (which we did on our sample below) on a sewing machine, an overlock stitch on a serger, or cover with a Hong Kong finish. You can also use a flat fell seam finish.

Additional tips

Many of the tips we recommended for velvet above can be applied to velveteen as well, such as using tissue paper between layers, covering your ironing board with a large thick towel for pressing, storage suggestions (hang, don’t fold), and when sewing with other fabrics always keep the velveteen on bottom. 

If you need to revive the pile on velveteen, you can place it in the dryer with a bunch of damp towels (in similar colors to the fabric; light with light and dark with dark) for 15 to 20 minutes.

To help lessen the amount of shedding, you can use a stiff brush or even a handheld vacuum to collect loose fibers from the raw edges.

If preshrinking in the washing machine, you can sew the ends of cut lengths together and wash the fabric inside out.

More Sew4Home fabric related tutorials

If you want to continue to build your fabric knowledge and expand your sewing creative options, review these other fabric related tutorials.

Contributors

Sample Creation and Instructional Outline: Jodi Kelly

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