All of the fabrics you will be looking at can be divided into two types: knit fabrics and woven fabrics. Knit fabrics have stretch, like a t-shirt or underpants, and are made using a knitting process. Wovens as a rule do not have stretch (the exception being if they have a bit of spandex in them), and are made using a loom. As an example, imagine that you have a large hank of wool yarn, and you make it into rectangle. If you knit it into a rectangle, the result will be a wool blanket. If you weave it into a rectangle, the result will be a rug or placemat.
Knits are often used in sewing for babies and children because they can be made very soft, and can stretch to conform to their bumps and wiggles. Types of clothing made from knits include pajamas, t-shirts, swing tops, kimono tops, leggings and playpants, playdresses, flowing skirts, twirling skirts, sleepers, onesies, baby hats, sweatpants/sweatshirts and more. Using a walking foot on your sewing machine to sew your knits or serging your seams on a serger, will help ensure that your knit garments sew up smoothly and have a nice finish. However, even without these tools, using the right types of knit fabrics for your project will allow even the beginning sewer to make beautiful garments with just a little practice.
There are 3 main types of t-shirt knits (which are, by the way, used for a lot more than just making t-shirts, but this gives you an idea of what they feel like): Rib Knit, Jersey and Interlock. Rib Knit is the stretchiest of the t-shirt fabrics and is known for it's "ribs" or vertical lines of texture in the fabric. A rib knit will appear the same from the front side and the back side and is often chosen to be used for collars and cuffs, on pajamas, t-shirts, etc. due to its stretchiness. Jersey has the least stretch and the most drape of the t-shirt fabrics. It is smooth on the front side, and textured but flat on the back side. It can often be identified by it's tendency to curl, rather than lie flat in its unfinished form. Interlock is distinctive in that it is a "double knit" fabric, which makes it extra sturdy and durable. Like rib knit, it looks the same on both back and front, and is actually formed by interlocking 2 sets of rib knits during the knitting process. Interlock has a soft, smooth finish. It is more stretchy than jersey, but not as stretchy as rib knit.
Pile knits have visible fibers that are looped into a knit base, which gives them texture and make them appear thicker and fuller than t-shirt knits. The most commonly found pile fabrics in children's clothing are stretch terry, french terry, brushed french terry and velour. Stretch terry is the most basic pile knit, consisting of a knit base with fibers left loose as loops. Stretch terry is similar to toweling (think hand towels, bath towels, etc) and is very absorbant, but has a knit base, rather than a woven base. French terry primarily differs from stretch terry in that the loops are only on one side of the fabric, and the other side is smooth. It is often found in sweatshirts and sweatpants due to it's ability to at the same time be lightweight, moisture-wicking, and warm. Similar to french terry is brushed french terry, a fabric with loops that are brushed to give it a fuzzy texture (think sweatshirt fleece). Velour is also similar to french terry, but the end of the loops are sheared off, giving it a soft, furry, velvety feel.
Wovens are often used in making quilts for babies and children, slacks, jeans, skirts, blouses, and more. They are more straightforward to sew, since they do not have a lot of give, but require the sewist to be more precise--whereas a knit might be more forgiving of a mismeasurement or a pattern not lining up exactly due to its ability to stretch, a woven is not.
The most commonly used bottom weights in children's clothing are twill, denim, and corduroy. Twill is a highly durable and strong fabric which is notable for its tiny diagonal ribs woven into the face of the fabric. It is often used for pants and shorts, and occasionally for skirts. Denim is a type of twill which especially tightly woven to provide extra durability, and which usually is made from dyed yarns (such as indigo) woven with white or natural yarns. We most frequently see denim in children's jeans, overalls, and jumpers. Corduroy is not a twill. it is a woven pile fabric, with vertical ribs (wales) of extra cut pile fiber woven into a base. Corduroys vary by how wide the wales are and how many wales there are per inch. Baby wale corduroy, which has many small wales, is often used in baby clothing due to its extreme softness, but corduroy in general is commonly found in children's pants, shorts, jumpers, etc. All 3 fabrics can be made with lycra (usually anywhere from 2-4% lycra) to help with ease and make for a more comfortable fit.
Quilting cottons, poplins and flannels are lighter weight woven fabrics that you will come across in making children's clothing. Quilting cottons are smooth, lightweight fabrics, made with a plain weave, that are very readily available in fabric stores, due to their widespread use in both quilting and apparel sewing. They are often used in sewing summer clothing for children such as blouses and dresses, and come in a large variety of patterns, prints and colors. Many designers issue "lines" of quilting cottons, which feature a group of fabrics that coordinate with one another. Poplins are similar to quilting cottons, but more tightly woven, giving them a lot of strength for their weight. They are less commonly available, since they are not typically used for quilting. Flannels can be made with either a twill weave or a plain weave, and are remarkable for their telltale softness that results from brushing their fibers. Flannel is both warm and absorbant, and is commonly used in making pajamas, baby layette items, and shirts.
Fabric Fiber Content
What type of fiber your fabric is made from is another important factor in your choice. Probably the most popular fabric for children's clothing is cotton, because of its combination of softness, durability, and breathability. It is a natural fiber, made from the seed pods of the cotton plant. It is a good idea when sewing with cotton to pre-wash it in hot water a few times, since cotton has a tendency to shrink when first exposed to hot water, and you will want to sew with it pre-shrunk to ensure accurate sizing.
The other commonly found fiber in children's clothing is polyester. Polyester is an artificial fiber that is made from a chemical polymer. It is known for its strength, longevity, and ability to resist wrinkling, but is less breathable and usually less soft. Often, you will see children's fabric that is a blend of cotton and polyester. Cotton-polyester blends are widely used when the desired result is fabric that is reasonably soft, simple to care for, and durable.
If you are trying determine whether your fabric is made from cotton or polyester, you can do what is called a "burn test". Burn testing involves carefully lighting a small piece of fabric on fire with a match or lighter, then blowing it out after a few seconds (please note: this should only be undertaken by a responsible adult, and in a safe manner, such as over a fire-proof dish in a functioning sink). The behavior of the burned fabric will indicate its fabric content: cotton will burn cleanly, turn into ash, and smell like a campfire, while polyester will melt into black beads and give off a chemical odor. A cotton-polyester blend will burn, but leave a hard black edge. The higher the polyester content, the harder and greater the edge.
Less common, but on the rise, is the use of rayon in children's clothing, and most frequently, a type of rayon called modal. Rayon is a manmade material that is made from a natural fiber, cellulose. It is breathable, super absorbant, extremely soft and silky, and drapes well, but on its own is not as durable as cotton or polyester. Modal is one of the stronger types of rayon, and is found in baby/toddler clothing and youth clothing alike.
Making Your Decision
You now have all of the information you need in order to choose the perfect fabric for you sewing project, but are probably a feeling a bit overwhelmed by all of the options available. To help narrow down your choices, ask yourself the following questions:
- How durable does your finished product need to be? For instance, a holiday dress or an infant sleeper that will rapidly be outgrown needs to be far less durable than a pair of pants for a three year old.
- How breathable does your fabric need to be? This will be more of a concern with apparel that is made for athletic activity, for example, then fancy dress.
- How heavy weight and warm does your fabric need to be? Obviously, something that is worn in Florida this winter will require a different fabric from something to be worn in Minnesota.
- How stretchy does your fabric need to be? Your pattern should indicate this—if you look carefully, it will tell you what types of fabrics it will work best with, and usually indicate whether it is intended for wovens or knits. If it is intended for knits, it usually will say that it is intended for fabric "with _% stretch across the grain." The higher that percentage is, the stretchier a fabric you will require.
- What type of garment are you planning on making?
- What age group are you sewing for? If you are sewing pants for an infant, you are probably going to use a knit. If you are sewing pants for an older child, you will probably use a bottomweight unless you are making athletic apparel or yoga pants/leggings.
- Perhaps most importantly, what appeals to you? Multiple fabrics will often work well for the same garment, with each giving the garment a different flare or personality. See what feels most comfortable and instinctual for you to use, and go from there!