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30-Minutes with Workroom Tech: Episode 31 / Working with Challenging Fabrics

Updated: Jan 11, 2020

On Episode 31 of The Sew Much More Podcast: 30-Minutes with Workroom Tech, Ceil DiGuglielmo and Susan Woodcock share tips for working with challenging fabrics (air date, Wednesday, January 8, 2020). You can listen to the podcast here: Episode 31: Working with Challenging Fabrics

There are a lot of fabrics that can be challenging and for many different reasons. From velvet and linen, to sheer and blackout... not all fabrics are ready to roll out, cut, iron and sew. It’s not just the challenge of the type of fabric. It’s the challenge of getting fabrics to perform for a specific project. One fabric might work great for a roman shade, and then be difficult for a valance or drapery. It’s very helpful if you can see and feel a fabric memo. Even then – there are still a lot of unknowns.

Working With Linen

Linen is a big challenge for a lot of workrooms. It’s not always stable, can shrink or stretch, and it wrinkles. For linen, or ANY fabric that comes into the workroom, you should roll it out and see how it drapes. Test the hand. There are many different linens… from stiff and textured to limp as a washed dish towel. Test to see what happens when you use heat and steam.

What you are making can be a big part of the decision for how you will manipulate the fabric. If it’s soft and stretchy linen and you are making a roman shade, or pillows, Susan suggests adding a fusible lining or stabilizer. Adding a fusible product as a backing will stabilize the linen and help to prevent it from stretching. It will add body so that the shade folds neatly. Recommended products: Fusible stabilizer from Rowley Company, which is a soft, polyester material that you iron on the fabric, and the iron-on lining from dofix No Sew, Inc, which is a thin, woven fabric with adhesive on one side.

Some workrooms hang cuts of linen in the workroom so it can shrink or stretch before sewing. Not all workrooms have the space to do this - so it's not a widespread practice. Even if the fabric is allowed to hang first, the home environment can still change the material after it is installed.

You can iron linen fabric to pre-shrink it before sewing. Susan suggests this for smaller pieces of fabric for a roman shade, valance or pillows. Ironing large cuts is very time consuming and the humidity of the room and gravity will change linen fabric when it’s installed, so all that pre-ironing may not be a good use of time.

You can’t guarantee a perfect length on linen unless you know the fabric and have worked with it before. A drapery that breaks or puddles to the floor will be less risky.

Linen, interlined drapery length to "break" to the floor.

Fabricated by Susan Woodcock, Home Dec Gal for Kenny Ball Design, Charlottesville, VA

One workroom that creates beautiful linen draperies and soft furnishings is Cloth Studio, owned by Ravi Ravi Pankhania in Canada. Ravi sources his own Belgium linen and is very familiar with how the fabric will perform. He is not using the customers own material (COM). See the beautiful linen creations by The Cloth Studio and listen to the Sew Much More podcast interview with Ravi Pankhania at

There needs to be a generous tolerance for the finished length when using linen. Even if it’s perfect at installation – it can change after a few weeks of sun exposure, humidity, or gravity. If you don't have room to hang the drapery in the workroom for a few weeks and then get the finished length, you can hang the un-hemmed drapery in the home and then return to mark the length. This is all extra service and you will bill the client for the additional trips and hours to do this.

A lot of linen fabrics have a plain weave and you can pull a thread for a straight cut. This a great way to cut any fabric, but it is even more helpful on fabrics that move and shift when cutting. See the video below for tips on cutting with this method.

Limit the amount of ironing on linen because you can damage the fibers if you are not careful. Once you press in a crease, it’s not going to come out. Susan prefers to steam the drapery after it’s installed. "It’s better to leave cuts folded as large as you can, or draped over the worktable to prevent creases on folds" she shared.

Working with Velvet

There are so many different velvets (cotton, polyester, rayon, acetate, silk…) so you have to test and experiment before you get started. Because it is a napped fabric, you can’t press with an iron or you crush the nap, making permanent marks. When sewing you also have to pay attention to the direction of the nap because it creates shading.

Velvet should be shipped on a roll and ideally suspended inside a box like is shown in the photo below.

The photos below show how velvet is stored in a warehouse. Metal racks with teeth grip the selvage edge to hold the fabric in place.

Unfortunately a lot of velvet is shipped on a roll inside a plastic bag and if it’s left sitting on end, it will be permanently damaged with alligatoring creases. Velvet should not be folded and shipped.

If velvet is wrinkled, you can try hanging and steaming from the reverse. A wrinkle release spray may also help – again, using on the reverse. A needle board of velvet pad is a tool used specifically with velvet. You place the velvet fabric face down and the nap rests in the needles so that it doesn’t get compressed when steamed and lightly ironed. You can also use another napped fabric, or something like a fluffy towel by placing it under with the velvet (which is face down) and steaming / lightly pressing from the back… for pressing seams. Be sure to test first!

When working with velvet it’s a good idea to allow a little extra yardage so you can make a test piece first. For hemming, you might have better results with an adhesive product, or hand stitched hems. Some velvet will work great with a blind hemmer while others will show marks from the machine. You can figure all this out with a sample before jumping in on the clients project.

When sewing velvet, try to sew with the napped side up because the feed dogs can make tracks in the plush surface that you can’t brush out. You might need to stitch with tissue paper between the fabric and the feed dogs. Depending on the fiber content and stability, you may have to hold the fabric with tension to sew and add a lot of pins. Stitch in the direction of the nap and basting may be needed to prevent the fabric from shifting. Sam Sloan, owner of Sloan Machinery Company suggest sewing velvet with the snub nose short or long foot.

You need to plan extra time for a good clean up of your workroom after a velvet project. There will have velvet crumbs everywhere, and lint in the machine. Even the worktable and scissors will be covered in fuzz.

Working with Slippery Fabrics

Cutting a slippery fabric is like shooting at a moving target. It will test your patience!

If you can pull a thread to cut, that’s the best plan. You may find that a rotary cutter and mat is easier to use on a slippery fabric than scissors. Use weights to hold the fabric in place. Another idea is to add something to the worktable to create more texture so it will keep the fabric from sliding like stretched flannel interlining. Slippery fabrics require more pinning, and a table with a pinable underlayment will be very helpful so you can stab pins through the fabric hold your project in place.

When making pleated draperies out of a sheer fabric, Susan recommends changing the order of fabrication. Plan to sew the buckram first.

1) Sew buckram to the wrong side at the top of the drapery panel. Inset the buckram 3 inches on each side to allow for the side hems. Sewing the top edge first, and the the bottom edge of the buckram. Make sure the fabric stays straight and does not twist. Inset the buckram 3 inches on each side to allow for the side hems.

2) After it is sewn, double fold and pin. If possible, blind hem the buckram to secure it in place.

3) After the buckram is finished measure the length and add the bottom hem.

4) The side hems turned and finished last.

General Tips and Supplies for Handling Difficult Fabrics

Change the needle size. Generally a heavy fabric using larger needles while a thin or delicate fabric will need a smaller needles size. A ballpoint needle may also work better for some fabrics.

Use a specialty feed dog on the industrial machine. You can get light, medium, and heavy weight feed dogs. There are also feed dogs with a different pitch to the teeth to prevent marks, and rubberized teeth.

Try different basting methods from needle and thread, to glue or adhesive tapes.

Add stabilizers or linings.

Keep specialty machine feet on hand like roller or compensating feet, and Teflon feet and needle plates.

Adjust thread tension and try different threads.

Every job is unique and with each project you gain experience. Ceil suggests keeping project notes so that you can be prepared for the next time a difficult fabric come into the workroom.

As a wholesale workroom, Susan will let designers know when something was more challenging so that they can look for other options. "Our clients need to know that if a fabric is going to require a lot more time to manage in the workroom, the labor costs will be more" she said. She also shared that it's a good idea to let the client know when a fabric was great to work with, too.

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