I hope your head isn’t spinning too badly from the three posts about common and useful cotton fabrics (one, two, three), because it’s time to talk about more fabrics! Today I’ll focus on synthetic fabrics which are often an inexpensive alternative to natural fabrics.
You probably are pretty familiar with polyester, but there are a wide variety of synthetic fabrics available that mimic or enhance natural textiles. Some are used for very specific purposes while others can be adapted to different garments and crafts and blended with other textiles to create a unique fabric. Here is a basic guide to some of the most common synthetic fabrics you’re likely to encounter.
Acetate is a fabric made from cellulose with a silky and lustrous appearance. In clothing it is most often found as the lining for garments like dresses, skirts, and other formal or professional wear. Garments containing acetate usually have to be dry cleaned, so as a beginner you may want to stick to lining materials that can be washed in the machine.
Acrylic fabric is often used to imitate wool or cashmere or in babies’ clothing because it can be cleaned repeatedly without wearing as much as most fabrics. It’s more often used in knitting than in sewing and in home decor. I have never used acrylic since I started sewing, and I feel like a beginner probably will have little use for it and would be better off sticking to natural textiles.
Nylon is one of the oldest truly synthetic fabrics, and it has a million uses. It can be found in home decor, outerwear, athletic wear, swimwear, and even bridal gowns because of its versatility. It’s highly durable and resistant to environmental damage, so it’s often used in outdoor gear. Some say that nylon is a good choice for beginners because it’s inexpensive and versatile, but lots of extra care has to be taken to sew nylon successfully. It can’t be pressed or pinned which are techniques that beginners need to learn, so I would recommend saving nylon for later!
I’ve known some girls who have tried to cut polyester from their wardrobes completely, but I’m not sure that’s possible anymore. Polyester can be found in a wide array of garments and mixed with other fibers to create many different fabrics. I think most people associate polyester with imitation silk and don’t realize how versatile it actually is (Side note: If you’re not sure if a garment is polyester or silk, set it on fire. If it burns, it’s silk; if it melts, it’s polyester. Learned that one in China!). As a beginner, polyester can be a good choice because it’s so inexpensive, but I would still recommend avoiding very stretchy knits because those are difficult for beginners. Make sure you use small needles and polyester threads – cotton thread won’t have enough stretch!
Rayon was first introduced as imitation silk, but has since become pretty well known in its own right because it drapes so well and can be used in a wide variety of garments. Rayon is very lightweight and silky which makes for great garments but can cause a lot of headaches for beginners. Beginners using rayon have difficulty cutting the fabric because it slides so much and often need to use interfacing to be able to stitch the fabric and keep it stable. Maybe after you get more experience sewing stretchy cotton or polyester knits, rayon will be a good choice for making some beautiful garments.
That’s just a quick summary of the most common synthetic fabrics you’ll encounter at your fabric store. The one I would most recommend for beginners is polyester because it’s so inexpensive and versatile. Remember to prewash and preshrink your fabrics, no matter what you’re using!