Working With Difficult Materials: Part 1

Working With Difficult Materials: Part 1


Garment images are from the project “The Garments May Vary” by Nadine Goepfert via Thisispaper»

Some of the most eye catching new conceptual designs are made from surprising fabric choices that require new methods of construction. From creating the patterns through to sewing the seams there are a number of different approaches that you can try so that the design that you imagine does not become plagued by construction and process issues.

In terms of “difficult fabrics” this may cover a range of different materials, and you may face unusual construction issues when dealing with anything from foam, rubber, latex and plastic to heavily textured or very fragile fabrics. Listed below are some different approaches that you can try to overcome some of these problems.


Planning and Experimenting

To start with it is good to use small samples of the fabrics so that you can find out what your options are in terms of construction.

You should test your fabric to find out:

  • How can you cut the fabric?
  • Is the fabric washable or dry cleanable?
  • Can you iron or steam it?
  • Does it lose it’s shape or damage easily?
  • Can you sew it using normal seam finishes?

Ideally you should do these tests along side the time you spend designing the garments on paper so that both the design and the construction develop simultaneously. If you do construction tests while designing then you are more likely to build possible construction methods into your designs early on. The more that you test and resolve problems, the more possible your design will be.

The following will show how you can systematically work through each of these tests to try out alternative solutions before you even draft the first pattern. Below we have discussed the first 4 of these elements, and in the next post we will discuss options for seam finishes and then move onto good workflows that can be used to allow for exciting designs and ensure accurate patterns.


Techniques for Cutting Out the Fabric

If your fabric is particularly thick, such as the foam in the images, you may find that cutting out using normal scissors will not be possible. You may find it easier to cut out the shape of the pattern using a rotary cutter or even a heavy duty craft knife or scalpel.

Don’t be afraid to try unconventional techniques with new materials, or to research areas outside of fashion design to find solutions to your problems. For example, it may be worth researching into how industrial and product designers deal with cutting similar materials as they may have already developed better tools and methods that will work perfectly.

You will also want to experiment with different ways of keeping the pattern in place while you cut out the design. If you are using a cardboard pattern then you may need to trace around the outside of the pattern before cutting out the material. Alternatively, you may find it more accurate to trace your pattern onto paper and lay this on top of the material, then you can cut right through the paper and the material at the same time. This is particularly helpful if it is likely that you are going to ruin your pattern when cutting out the material, because then you can just ruin the paper tracing but keep the original cardboard pattern intact.

Don’t forget that you will also need to work out how you can temporarily mark any other pattern details onto the materials such as design details and dart positions. If you are working with an easily damaged material such as rubber or latex then you may need to avoid drill holes and notches. Using small amounts of masking tape with pen marks may be perfect to use instead.

Washing and Dry Cleaning

Before you begin using a fabric it is always good to know how it can be cared for. This is true if you intend to make something wearable, but is still relevant even if you are making an exhibition piece. If you somehow mark a garment or accidentally stain it then it is good to know how you can clean it off without having to remake the whole piece from scratch.

Sometimes the best resource for this information is the person or store who supplied you with the material and they may even also be able to supply you with a cleaning solution that matches the material. Alternatively, if you search online forums you may find that other people have already encountered the same problem and that there are solutions available.

To find out if a material can be dry cleaned you could take a swatch to a local dry cleaner so that they can test their chemicals on it, or they can forward it on to a more specialist dry cleaner, such as someone who specifically cares for leathers and furs. Whenever you are doing wash tests and dry cleaning tests it is helpful to keep some of the material in the original condition so that you can compare the wash results. You should also measure the swatch before it is washed so that you can tell if it has shrunk or changes shape in anyway.

Ironing and Steaming

When you are testing for how you can iron or steam a garment you should start with the iron on the coolest setting, with no steam, and iron through a pressing cloth (or just a spare piece of a plain material). You can then slowly build up the heat to test how tolerant the material is before introducing steam.

Some fabrics may be marked by the pressing cloth that you choose so you should be aware of this as well so that you do not accidentally emboss the textile weave of the pressing cloth into a latex material.

Avoiding Damage

Some fabrics may mark easily and will be hard to iron and this should influence how you store and handle the fabric. For example, it can be hard to iron patent leather to a smooth finish if it has been creased so this is a material that is better stored rolled on a cardboard roll rather than being stored folded.

If you can’t iron or steam a fabric this will also affect your construction methods as you have to choose seam finishes that do not require seam allowances to be pressed back on themselves. In some thick foams and neoprenes it may be more helpful to use a lapped seam as discussed previously in Using Seam Allowances to Support Silhouette»

Garment images are from the project “The Garments May Vary” by Nadine Goepfert via Thisispaper»

In the next post we will discuss options for seam finishes and then move onto good workflows that can be used to allow for exciting designs and ensure accurate patterns. Working With Difficult Materials: Part 2»

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