Identifying Fabric is Harder Than Remembering Grease II Lyrics

I'm not a scientist. (Shocker!) And, if a piece of information is not tacky song lyrics, bad movie lines or useless commercials from the 70's and 80's, I'm likely not to remember it without lots of effort. So identifying different kinds of fabrics and remembering sewing vocabulary is not something I'm naturally good at. We didn't have a house full of different kinds of fabrics either, so it's not like I had a lot to learn from growing up. We had denim, cotton and polyester. I got those down, so now on to the other hundreds of options. (I do have the entire soundtrack of Grease II memorized, from watching it on Cinemax after school everyday during some very impressionable years of my life. Ahh, wasted braincells.)

One of my troubles with identifying fabric is that I buy them all at thrift stores and garage sales so they are not labeled. I pick what is interesting and feels good or what I think might be fun for a particular purpose. I'm just not always sure what it is I have. Is that acrylic or wool? Is that acetate? polyester? silk? Sometimes it does not matter because they behave the same when sewing. However, the care and cleaning of the fabric often makes a big difference, so how I wash and deal with stains and smells matters much.

I also have some vintage dresses I want to post on Etsy, but I don't know what kind of fabric they are made of, so I find myself making educated guesses and typing five question marks after the word "blend."

I'm taking a class at American River College this fall about textiles, and although fall will come faster than I want it too, it doesn't help me now. I'm enrolled in this class: Fashion 320--This course is a study of natural and man-made fibers, methods of fabrication and finishes. Topics include the selection, use and care of modern fabrics as they relate to clothing and home furnishings. I wanted to take "History of the Western Fashion World" and "Apparel Construction" but those interfere with the classes I'm teaching and I still must make a living I suppose.

There are a number of references for learning more about fabrics on your own. A few months ago I noted that I was checking out a bunch of books from the library and I'd do some reviews if I found some good ones. Here's what I learned: there are entirely too many books out there with almost nothing in them. (And, I check out too many books from too many different libraries and can't remember when to return them to which library. My husband puts all of this information in his digital calendar, but that's so practical. I prefer to wake up sweating in the middle of the night stressed out about returning my library books. I once returned a book to the wrong library and they never found it. I had to replace it. Unfortunately, it was a lame book to begin with so I was irritated that I was perpetuating lameness. I would have rather bought a better book for the collection, but no, rules are rules.)

Besides the books with almost nothing in them or the books with way too many ruffles and appliques, here are two that were most useful to me.

I cannot recommend The Sewing Bible by Ruth Singer enough and I bought one for myself immediately after checking it out from the library. It's got just about everything you need to know about sewing, stitching, and basic techniques like hemming, seaming, and buttoning. The instructions are actually coherent and the photographs are clearly displayed. This is a win.

Sew Any Fabric, by Claire Schaeffer, is probably the best book I've seen as a general reference to fabric types and behaviors. The pictures of made products are quite matronly, but the info is good and the descriptions are very helpful. There is a full page or more devoted to each kind of fabric and they are organized well and cross-referenced. There is also a glossary and each entry has headings and topics organized in the same manner. Useful.


  1. I am glad you are blogging all this. My brand new (two year old) sewing machine remains untouched - collecting dust. (My husband is beginning to suggest I sell it. Gasp!) But, I really do intend to learn to sew some day. And that Sewing Bible looks like a must have. I am glad I can come back here when I need to remember. Or, I guess I could email you...

  2. Hey Lisa, sewing machines don't take up much room, do they? Maybe your first project could be to sew up a machine cover so it doesn't collect dust anymore. ;-) A great reference for newbies, too, is the Reader's Digest Complete Guide to Sewing. (Ours was left in the house by the previous owner with the machine that was here.)

  3. I totally agree that many of the craft references out there are full of nothing. Brett has stopped getting on my case about having four sewing machines but would really prefer that I don't add any more and that is sad.

  4. Okay Erin, I've seen this phenom on the internet of collecting sewing machines. But it's one thing I don't quite get. I understand having a serger and a standard machine or having a vintage machine and then a new one, but you're gonna have to explain the appeal to me. Why do you need four?


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