Working With Difficult Materials: Part 2

Working With Difficult Materials: Part 2


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

As we began to discuss in the previous post, Working With Difficult Materials: Part 1», there are many strategies that you can adopt when designing and working with difficult fabrics. In this post we will discuss some tactics you can try to help you to experiment with how you sew the fabric and some ways to streamline your draping and pattern making processes as well.


Before you even draft your first pattern it is helpful to have a complete understanding of what your fabric can do, how you will sew it, how you will cut it and how you can care for the fabric if it becomes marked or damaged. As we discussed in the previous post the best work process is to solve all of these issues while you are actually sketching your designs on paper as this will help your designs to evolve so that they include all of your construction solutions.

Test Swatches

You can learn a lot about your fabric or material by cutting small swatches of fabric and testing many different types of seam finishes on a sewing machine. For example, you can just cut small swatches of the material that are about 10cm square and practise sewing them together in different ways. You should test sewing straight and curved lines, or mimic any difficult intersections that you think will come up in your design.

Also consider areas where there may be a lot of bulk in your garment, such as where many seams intersect each other or where you anticipate there being multiple layers of the material, as these will probably be the areas that will make your work look unprofessional if they are not done correctly.


Sewing and Seam Finishes

If you come across an issue with sewing the material it is good to be aware of the variables that you can adjust, rather than just saying that “it won’t work”.

Often it is in the sewing that some materials become really hard to manage, and one of the best ways to deal with this is to become familiar with any adjustable options on your machine. Don’t forget that sewing machines will let you change the tension of the thread, the type or thickness of the needle and the stitch length and any one of these variables may make the difference to your garment.

There are also different types of sewing machine feet that may be helpful such as teflon feet which can be used to glide more easily over materials such as leather. Other fabrics may benefit from using a walking foot which is often used in quilting to stop multiple layers of fabric from shifting against each other when sewn.

On some machines, particularly industrial machines, you can also adjust the pressure of the presser foot and the height and angle of the feed dog of the machine. The presser foot pressure and feed dogs will affect how tightly the fabric is held by the foot of the sewing machine, and how the material will be pulled under the foot of the machine.

The best thing to do is to get a manual that matches your machine and read through these different terms as you may find that one of these sewing machine functions is what is causing the problem for your fabric.

As a summary, check that you have tried out different variations of these options to see if any of these things will help you with your material:

  • Needle Type (Sharp, Ballpoint, etc)
  • Needle Size
  • Thread Type (Cotton, Polyester, etc)
  • Thread Thickness
  • Thread Tension (Top Thread and Bobbin Thread)
  • Type of Sewing Foot (Normal, Walking Foot, Teflon, etc)
  • Presser Foot Tension
  • Feed Dog Height and Angle
  • The Speed of Sewing
  • Stitch Type (Straight, Zig Zag, etc)
  • Stitch Length (Short or Long Stitches)
  • The Type of Sewing Machine

You may also need to consider sewing with an additional layer of tissue paper or a tear away interfacing to help the material to glide through the machine. This may be particularly useful for sticky materials such as plastics which will tend to get stuck in the sewing machine.

You can test adding a layer of paper to the top of bottom of the fabric as you are sewing, this will work best if you choose something that will tear away easily afterwards. This could also be a good technique if you want to do any sort of machine embroidery on the material. 

Stitching Alternatives

There are some materials that just aren’t made to be sewn at all and you might want to test out some alternatives to sewing entirely. For example if you are using latex you will probably need to use glue instead. You might find it helpful to view this video below from Making Latex Clothing» and if you follow the link you will find lots of other instructions about how to construct intricate details out of latex, such as latex pleating.

Advantages to Your Material

Rather than only thinking about the negative aspects of a material you should also consider any positive attributes that the material may have that a normal fabric doesn’t.

For example, if the material has a large amount of stretch or can mould easily to the body then you may be able to throw all the normal rules about darts and ease out the window and let the material do the work instead.

Is the material particularly stiff or thick? Then you may be able to avoid traditional fusings and interfacings. You may even be able to create silhouette shapes and collar heights that aren’t possible with normal fabrics.

Does the material fray? If the material doesn’t fray then you may be able to just leave the edges of the material cut raw rather than overworking the edges of the material with fussy edge finishings.


Refining Your Work Process

The advantage of having done all these tests is that it will save you time when you get to the pattern making stage of your garment. For example now that you have worked out how you need to finish the seams it will be much easier for you to know how much seam allowance to add to your patterns.

You should now adjust your usual draping, pattern making, toileing / sampling process to adapt to the constraints or advantages of the new material.

Flat Patterns and Draping

If you intend to flat pattern make the basic shape of the garment then you will need to take into consideration how thick the material is. If you are using a thick foam such as the ones that are in the images then you may find it more helpful to drape the shape of the garments in the actual foam and build the garment shapes directly on the mannequin.

You can then trace a pattern off the foam drape and refine this to create your pattern. This will mean that your pattern will be much closer to the shape that you need for your garment.



No matter what materials you use you should make sure that you toile or sample the garment in a material that has the same properties as your final material. You can choose a cheaper version if you need to, but there is no point in using a material for toileing that is drastically different to your final fabric as this will cause too many construction issues.

To avoid surprises you want to make sure that all through the drape, pattern, toile process you are very aware of the properties of your materials. This will mean that your final garment has a much greater chance of success with fewer surprises along the way.

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

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