A Guide to Fabric Shopping II :: Types of fabric and fibre

Following on from yesterday’s post about being prepared before visiting the fabric shop, I thought I’d write a little bit about what to expect when you arrive.  This post, like the first, is aimed at sewing novices or first time visitors.  Perhaps someone taking a dressmaking class or hoping to pick up some skills on their own. 

I know that some people find their first visit daunting or a bit overwhelming and that sometimes they can feel excluded from the “crafting clique” which is a very real phenomenon.  Before I started working in a fabric shop I too felt this way but since I do work in a fabric shop I have a perspective from the other side of the counter and can hopefully help put you at ease.

 Again, this post is all my own views and opinion and has nothing whatsoever to do with the shop I work for.

So, most shops will be divided into at least two sections; fabric and haberdashery.

Here are the basics about fabric…

There are two main types of fabric:


In school you possibly made woven mats or baskets out of paper or raffia?  You start with vertical lines or a frame and then wrap another strand in and out to form a flat surface or structure.  This is weaving in a basic form.

Detail of a diagram of the structure of a bala...

Detail of a diagram of the structure of a balanced “basketweave” textile. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Woven fabrics are usually made on a loom.  The vertical or frame threads are called the warp and they are the ones held fast on the loom.  The horizontal threads which are then woven in and out are known as the weft.

You can tell a woven fabric from looking closely and identifying a pattern like this

Woven fabricPhoto credit: Konnie Kapow

Woven fabric
Photo by Konnie Kapow

  • Woven fabric is structured and therefore will crush or crease to some extent.
  • It will not stretch vertically or horizontally because the threads are perpendicular (or 45° angle) to one another but there will be a varying degree of stretch on the diagonal also known as the bias.
  • Woven material will usually fray at the edges when you cut it.
  • Common woven fabrics are cotton, linen, denim, satin, chiffon, tweed, taffeta, netting such as tulle and canvas.


Knitters are at a distinct advantage when it comes to identifying a knitted fabric, also commonly referred to as “stretch knit.”  If you are a knitter then you will no doubt realise very quickly that this is indeed a knitted fabric and that it’s done in stocking stitch.

Stocking Stitch Photo by Konnie Kapow

Stocking Stitch
Photo by Konnie Kapow

Knits are made from one continuous thread or yarn which is literally knitted

There are warp knit fabrics and weft knit fabrics, a hand knitted jumper is a weft knit:

Schematic of stockinette stitch, the most basi...

Schematic of stockinette stitch, the most basic weft-knit fabric (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

whereas a warp knit has to be done on a machine:

Warp knit thru a microscope

Warp knit thru a microscope (Photo credit: wild.sproket)

  • A weft knit will unravel if you cut it whereas a warp knit will not.
  • Knits will generally spring back to their original shape rather than crease or crush.
  • They have visible ribs running through them and the stretch will generally be greater with the rib rather than across it.
  • Knits don’t have a bias.
  • Knits tend to curl at the raw edges if not hemmed or sewn.
  • Common knit fabrics are jersey, fleece, felt and towelling.

    Knitted Jersey Photo by Konnie Kapow

    Knitted Jersey
    Photo by Konnie Kapow

Once you have established the difference between a woven and a knit, fabrics are further categorised by the fibre they are constructed from which will either be natural or man-made.

Natural Fibres:


  • Grows around the seeds of cotton plants native to tropical and subtropical regions around the world, including the Americas, Africa, and India.


    Cotton (Photo credit: David Stanley)

  • Incredibly versatile, can be woven into cloth and also used in knits.
  • Easily sewn and washed, fabric of choice for quilters as well as very popular for dressmaking.
  • Cotton is known for being a breathable fabric and therefore comfortable to wear in hot weather.
  • There are many types and weights of woven cotton ranging from very light and delicate with a more open weave such as voile and lawn to canvas and drill which are thick and heavy with a dense weave.


  • A product of the flax plant native to the region extending from the eastern Mediterranean to India.


    Flax (Photo credit: kate e. did)

  • The name mostly refers to the specific weave so it can be made from other fibres such as cotton.
  • Known for its breathable qualities.
  • Linen is a crisp fabric so can create a sharp line, it is also very easy to crush or crease.
  • Open weave lends linen to needlework and embroidery.
  • Often used for table er…linen!


  • Is a natural protein fibre produced by worms to make cocoons. (Resists urge to write that it comes out of their bums)
    English: Silk worm

    English: Silk worm (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


  • The process for producing and harvesting silk is complex and time-consuming which is why it can be very expensive.
  • Many customers I see appear to confuse silk the fibre with satin the fabric.  Satin is just any woven fabric with a shiny side and a dull or flat side.
  • Raw silk (also known as Dupion) often has a rough line or slub through it


  • You know that this comes from sheep right?!

    Photo by Konnie Kapow

    Photo by Konnie Kapow

Man-Made Fibres


  • Often used instead of or mixed with wool in knitwear.
  • Warm, washable and hard-wearing.

Leather / Suede

  • Perhaps this should be in the natural fibre section, it’s probbaly debatable but leather is made by tanning the hides of animals such as cows but there is a wide range of suede and leatherettes around which are made from plastics and other manufactured fibres.  


  • Often used in stretch knits such as lingerie and hosiery. 


  • Very popular in fabrics.  A woman walked into the shop and asked me one day “where is your polyester?” and the answer is everywhere!  
  • Used in a wide range of fabrics for a wide range of uses.
  • On the plus side – cheap, mass-produced and washes very well.
  • On the down side – generates static and is not breathable so not the best for hot weather.


  • Rayon is known by the names viscose rayon and art silk in the textile industry. It usually has a high lustre quality giving it a bright sheen. (thanks Wikipedia!)


  • Or Lycra, super strong and stretchy.  Mostly used in sportswear.

3 thoughts on “A Guide to Fabric Shopping II :: Types of fabric and fibre

  1. Pingback: Vogue V8184 – Adventures in Fitting Part I | Sew Kapow!

  2. Pingback: Vogue V8184 – Adventures in Fitting Part I | Konnie Kapow!

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