Designers must know: textile performance

Last November, I proposed a new series (Things you must know if you have a clothing line) but didn’t know what to call it. I think I will call it “Designers must know:…”. Theresa and Sarah suggested names similar to it so they get the credit. There are earlier entries in this series that I can’t rename but I will retag them and include those links at close.

Today’s entry is about understanding textile performance. If there were ever an area for which meta-cognition were invaluable, it would be in textiles which is why I wrote that pre-entry last Friday. As I said then

…specifications, protos and sketches are useful devices to create understanding. However, there are some situations in which it is nearly impossible to have meta-cognition no matter what you do. More specifically, it is almost impossible to have meta-cognition about textile performance… The worst part about it is that the other party doesn’t know you don’t know and since they can’t know you don’t know, they can’t help you with it. That is why designers are expected to know textile performance.

Textiles are tricky on several levels. First is design and then is performance. There are costs and risks associated for each. Because misunderstandings are inevitable, I will tell you some things to watch out for as well as how to try to get around the lack of meta-cognition between you and another party.

Design: A service provider cannot see into your head to know how you picture the product looking in the fabric you selected. What a service provider imagines versus what you do will probably be two different things -if you haven’t worked with a variety of goods. Fabrics look very different depending on weight, color, weave and finish.

If you take an item you’ve mocked up to a pattern maker and ask them to make a pattern for it with a different kind of material, you may be due for some unexpected surprises even if you stipulate the exact measures, lengths etc. The pattern maker probably won’t mention the likely difference in appearance for two reasons. First they think you know what you’re doing and know what your fabric is going to look like in that body. Secondly they won’t because you’ve been very specific about measurements.

Below is an example of three different knits. Left to right is heaviest to lightest weight. Each piece is exactly the same width, a 30″ rectangle gathered to measure 10″. There’s also a larger version of this file.

Note: the white fabric is shorter by 2″, I wish I’d thought to cut each piece to match length exactly for a better comparison, sorry. However, both the peach and pink are the same length. I took the photos from exactly the same position. I realize the peach is more bowed at top than the pink but that (again) is an element of textile behavior. It is a looser weave and won’t mind like the pink will. However, the pink was a nightmare to sew the gathering thread. It broke five times.

This is one of the things they teach in design school, or used to. To get the same gathered effect as with a medium weight, the heavy weight needs less fabric to do the same job. The lightest fabric though, will need quite a bit more to get the same effect. If you were to make a garment with the exact same measures for these three weights of goods, the garment made of the heaviest fabric would look larger than the others. The one made of the lightest fabric would look comparatively skimpy; it would also look longer.

Color selection also affects the appearance. If the mock up you took to a pattern maker was a dull matte and your desired fabric is a shiny bright red, it is going to look significantly larger than the mock up. You may be disappointed with the results but it would be unfair to blame your service provider because they cannot imagine how you envision the final result. As I said, there is no meta-cognition.

Or maybe you think we bear some responsibility? It is considered very rude for us to tell you how to design and if we are dictating your fabric choices, that is what we are doing. Awhile back Zoe wrote about sales reps who crossed that line -and arguably, design direction is a part of their jobs so I cannot imagine how she would react if a pattern maker or a sewing contractor told her what to design. She’d probably become unhinged. I called her for a money quote but she was out. I may update this later, assuming she didn’t become apoplectic at the idea of a contractor telling her what to make and have a stroke before she could call me back. You’re the designer; we are not. We must have confidence and trust and assume you know what you are doing. Anything else is unthinkable.

Design Risks and Costs: Other than being aware that different goods will have different looks and effects in the exact same pattern, you could have samples made of the other colorways if you are diffident about your textile knowledge. I think it is a good idea to confer with other designers too. There is no shame in getting feedback from peers. They may be able to express their opinions in ways that are meaningful to you.

Collecting sample goods for the purposes of comparison and draping lengths of them will be a helpful visual for you. I had the idea that this was something designers did naturally, but maybe not? If would be helpful to tag each length with a card identifying the fiber, weave, care instructions etc in case you forget.

Performance: When it comes to performance, service providers can be a bit more helpful but you have to remember, only you are ultimately responsible, it doesn’t matter who you’re paying to do the work. You should always assume a fabric will shrink so if it does not, that will be a happy coincidence. You should always assume the hand, weight or feel of a textile will change if it is dry cleaned or washed. Again, if it does not, then great!

If you change your fabric after patterns have been made, you should expect that your patterns may need to be re-made. Many designers make the mistake of thinking that a service provider is trying to gouge them. It may even be possible that your pattern maker or contractor advises against using the fabrics you have your heart set on if they shrink more than 5%.

You need to be aware of textile dyeing to some extent. No you don’t have to become an expert but use common sense. For example, it is impossible for a fabric manufacturer to dye an entire run of fabric in the same dye bath. Because this is so commonly known, a great deal of effort goes into tracking fabrics by dye lot. It is to your advantage to have all of your fabric be from the same dye lot but it isn’t always possible. This means you may need to order just a bit more than you’d anticipated to cover your orders. Again, this is no one’s fault. No one is gouging you. If you have any doubts, you can learn about fabric spreading for production (in my book, pgs 114-120) to understand why the marker maker may be telling you a different quantity than you had anticipated.

Now of course I know that not everyone is ethical but you can be proactive to avoid being taken for a ride through self education and reasoning. For example, if you’re being told that you need X more yards of fabric because of a dye lot problem, ask these questions:

  1. How long is the lay?
  2. How many garments to a ply?

It is common sense. If the lay is only 20 feet long and there is one or more garments per ply, then you’re being taken for a ride if they’re telling you to buy twenty more yards to solve the dye lot complication. If you think about it though, the best way to solve this is to have meta-cognition. First you must know (self education) and be certain you are using exact definitions. [Not goosey definitions you read on a lot of websites out there. Some of the stuff I see makes me cringe.] Then you must communicate effectively with the service provider to convey that you know. At that point, it is just as likely that you’ll discover that the contractor may not know much themselves. There are a lot of people out there who don’t know nearly as much as they let on so if they are not sharing your definitions, I’d get another opinion before you make a final decision. Remember, if your gut is telling you that something isn’t right, it probably isn’t.

Performance Risks and Costs: Fortunately, most of these problems can be avoided. The first is by testing your textiles before you ever have a sample made (in my book). It is your responsibility to do this unless you’ve made other arrangements -in writing. If you have done it, I would take samples of both (processed and unprocessed) to the pattern maker so the degree of shrinkage can be determined.

The other way you’re responsible is in the continuity of the fabrics unless you have paid someone else to do this for you. Personally I think you should do this yourself. I know it can be overwhelming, intimidating and frustrating but you know, it will be okay. It really will. Just take it one step at a time. I’ve had innumerable people tell me that my chapter on fabric sourcing was a verbatim rendition of their experiences.

You can have meta-cognition when buying wholesale fabrics but only if you understand sourcing relationships. In this case, it is super important to use exact, precise definitions. A fabric rep is different from a jobber. The context of the sale and the subsequent continuity of goods is wholly dependent upon the party you buy it from. So, if you are confused and thought buying from a jobber was the same thing as buying from a mill’s representative and the error gets you crosswise with a contractor, the contractor is not being unreasonable. He or she has every right to become angry or frustrated and refuse to accept further work.

I realize this entry can’t possibly be all inclusive but I hope it has been helpful.

Related entries:
What we expect from designers
What we expect from designers pt.2
Things you must know if you have a clothing line: garment measuring

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  1. Lesley says:

    I’ve made the mistake of thinking my sewing contractor would know the basics one would expect a sewing contractor to know. Initially I gave her the benefit of the doubt when she complained about another client running out of fabric but when she said my markers were too “close” and that this was hard for her to cut because she likes to leave extra space in between pieces (argh!)- and she lost an entire size within a run – I now I realize SHE is the problem and is wasting my -and other customers’ – fabric! I’ve always been open to suggestions but I’ve come to realize that I am surrounded by idiots whom I should NOT be listening too! I could have used some meta-cognition!

  2. Michael Deibert says:

    While it’s a small side-step from textile performance, there is a method that can be helpful if you are trying to achieve larger sized gathers from lighter materials. It’s actually a historical period method primarily found in cartridge pleating. To achieve nice pleats, a strip of heavier weight fabric is placed underneath where the pleats are stitched (the outer fabric is often turn over to the inside to further add bulk to the pleats. Then when the pleats are stitched, it does not take as much of a lighter weight fabric to have the same results of a heavier weight. Now, in terms of applying this to a manufacturing process of sewing – not sure if it’s beneficial. Also key to remember is that the fabric will still drape and hang the same as the lightweight fabric, just the pleats will stand out more.

    Now, back on topic – excellent post! It may seem like just another thing we must worry about, but those who take the time and sort out textile performance issues before even going into the design phase not only will be more effective, but will end up not wasting money in the long run.

  3. Raquel says:

    When I was in college, my patternmaking teacher (he was a production patternmaker by day) had us make projects in 2 different fabrics, just to see how much a difference it makes.

  4. Lisa Bloodgood says:

    This won’t work in production, most likely, but instead of running parallel basting stitches along a length to gather it up, zigzag over string (like the thickness of crochet cotton), then pull the string. It won’t break this way.

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