Tips & Tricks Tuesday

Tips & Tricks Tuesday: Buying Fabric

I just returned from my first and definitely not my last (sorry, Bill) trip to the textile district in downtown Los Angeles.  Actually, to be honest it wasn’t my very first trip; while at UCLA I used to buy formalwear fabric there to sew into the multitude of dresses I needed for various sorority functions.  But never before had I ventured into Spandex-Land, the holy block in the textile/garment district populated nearly exclusively by wholesalers carrying stretch fabric.  It was heaven, or hell, depending on how you look at it (heaven’s-worth of fun, but on a budget, the torture of not buying absolutely everything was hell).

I was able to set up three wholesale accounts with two amazingly wonderful vendors and one not-so-wonderful guy who unfortunately is the exclusive importer of some of the best skatewear and dancewear fabric I’ve seen.  In his defense, it had just started raining, and if you’ve ever been to the textile district, you know that a good portion of most wholesalers’ stock is situated outside their actual buildings; so he was more focused on saving his foiled spandex than dealing with me.

I did purchase quite a bit of stock for my store, but the main goal of the trip was to make contacts, set up accounts, and see what’s new in the industry.  Bad news, I bought more than I could carry (of course), but good news, my favorite importer (who, by this time, had become quite friendly with me, because thanks to the ever-so-protective nature of my bank’s automated security system, my out of town fabric purchases were being blocked…so I spent over an hour in his shop on the phone with the bank, working to convince them that yes, it really is me dropping $500 to a Palestinian address for spandex) carried it for me to a special “secret” shipping company that provides ridiculously cheap shipping for retailers just like me who make multiple purchases from all over the textile district — the wholesale importers hand-deliver my purchases to this shipping warehouse, and when they’ve all been collected, they send them to me in one huge, super cheap box.  So awesome, and now I know why there were lots of guys running around wheeling bags and bins of fabric into the depths of this creepy-looking building.

Anyway, while walking as quickly as possible through the rain (going out of my way to avoid skid row between Central and Alameda and through the produce warehouse district, yet another lovely section of downtown LA) back to the bus station (long story), I started thinking about how difficult a trip like this might be to someone who has an idea of what he or she wants but isn’t quite sure.  The selection could have been completely overwhelming and confusing, had I not known exactly what I wanted and had I not been able to very quickly discern the good stuff from the garbage.  I also witnessed more than one vendor quote very different, much higher prices to shoppers who seemed clueless.

One tiny corner of my favorite textile district shop. The "aisle" is about three inches wide, and the only way to get around is to literally climb over bolts of fabric.  Like an awesome seamstress jungle gym.
One tiny corner of my favorite textile district shop. The “aisle” is about three inches wide, and the only way to get around is to literally climb over bolts of fabric. Like an awesome seamstress jungle gym.

So here’s a quick outline you can use when purchasing stretch fabric.  But first, a quick primer on stretch lingo:


You may see “spandex” and “Lycra” used interchangeably; however, if you want to appear knowledgeable (and therefore get the best prices), “Lycra” is actually a brand name created by the DuPont company, later becoming Invista, and finally sold to the ever-infamous Koch Industries.  Sort of like Kleenex or Band-aid…which we all use interchangeably with “tissues” or “adhesive bandage.”  Spandex is simply the fiber used in the fabric, which, just to be confusing, was created and coined by a guy working for DuPont anyway.  Trivia time, “spandex” comes from rearranging the letters in “expands.”  Now you’re an expert.

The difference between 2-way, 4-way and 6-way stretch fabric

    1. Lay your fabric on a flat surface.  Picture a compass, and try stretching the fabric in all directions.
    2. Can you stretch your fabric either the East-West direction or the North-South direction, but not both?  If so, you have 2-way stretch fabric.
    3. Can you stretch in both directions?  If so, you have 4-way stretch fabric.
    4. Can you also stretch it diagonally (NE-SW or NW-SE)?  If so, you have 6-way stretch fabric.

From easiest to hardest to use:

  • Medium weight 6-way spandex.  If you hold up a piece and blow on it, it moves slowly.
  • Medium weight 4-way spandex. Ditto the blowing method above.
  • 6-way stretch velvet
  • 4-way stretch velvet
  • Lightweight 4-way or 6-way spandex.  If you hold up a piece and blow on it, it moves freely and rapidly.
  • Heavyweight 4-way or 6-way spandex.  If you hold up a piece and blow on it, it barely moves at all.
  • 4-way or 6-way illusion or mesh.  This includes “nude” fabrics.  Illusion is actually easy to sew, but to make seams and elastic look best it involves additional steps — French seams, double turned elastic, etc.  Not difficult at all if you know the tricks involved, but for a basic practice outfit where visible elastic and seam allowances don’t matter, illusion falls ahead of lightweight spandex in the “easiest to hardest” list.
  • Rough spandex.  This includes spandex with a texture to it, but not beaded spandex.  Heavily glittered fabrics fall here and not up with regular 4-way or 6-way spandex only because they tend to make a huge mess (glitter, glitter, everywhere!) and can often clog up your machine.  However, the glitter does help the fabric stay together when sewing, and they’re huge timesavers because they don’t need much in the way of stoning or other decoration later.
  • 2-way spandex or velvet. This includes panne-style velvet, or crushed velvet.  Most crushed velvet is only 2-way stretch, but if you find better quality crushed velvet with a 4-way or 6-way stretch, it may be treated just like regular stretch velvet.
  • Slinky. This fabric lays beautifully and flows better than velvet or spandex, but it can be very frustrating to work with unless you know the tricks to dealing with it.  Mistakes can rarely be remedied without tearing holes in the fabric.  If you are a novice sewer, stay away from slinky.
  • Beaded and sequined stretch fabric.  Great to use in smaller quantities, but crazy-making if you don’t have a good sewing machine.  You must first remove beads from seam allowances, though strong machines may sew through sequins just fine.  Beads and sequins still need to be removed from seam allowances at some point or they’ll scratch the wearer.  If you don’t mind breaking a few needles, pre-beaded stretch fabrics are a huge time saver.
  • Pre-stoned fabric.  Yes, we all try to save money by reusing stones at some point or another – and the fabric left can often be turned into a different dress.  However, E6000 residue is impossible for most machine needles to sew through, and inevitably your machine will find the one stone you forgot to remove, breaking the needle and most likely sending shards of stone and needle everywhere.  Fabric with stones is best hand-sewn only.
  • Non-stretch fabric.  This includes decorative satins and anything that would require a zipper to achieve a close fit.  Not impossible to use, but for skating or dancing, really not worth the extra effort and ensuing lack of easy movement on the part of the wearer.  Fine for quick show costumes as it’s usually pretty cheap, but very difficult to get a good fit without significant pattern drafting experience.

Additional stretch information

Look at the spot where you stretched your fabric.  Can you see your stretch marks?  Did it leave a wavy spot on the fabric or did the fabric not return to its normal position?  If so, put it back…it’s lousy fabric and it won’t last. “rebound,” “return,” “recovery” — these are all words used to describe the fabric’s ability to maintain its original shape.  Fabric without recovery will make you nuts.

Make note of which direction has the greatest degree of stretch – the biggest stretch should go around the skater horizontally, not vertically.  Figuring this out at the fabric store is important when buying expensive fabric where every 1/8 yard counts!  If the best stretch runs the length of the fabric rather than the width, you may not need as much fabric as a bolt where the best stretch runs the width of the fabric.

Remember…You get what you pay for.  While it might seem silly to spend $15/yard on really good fabric, the ease of sewing and the final product will more than make up for what you end up spending.  $5/yard spandex from JoAnn’s is fine for a practice dress, but it doesn’t always hold stone glue well, it doesn’t launder well, the color will most likely run, and the fabric “pills” and snags like crazy.

Also, if you did not spend more than $200 on a sewing machine, you will likely become frustrated when sewing on poor quality stretch fabric.  Many times, sewing difficulties and issues lie with the machine and fabric, NOT with your technique!  It’s much more economical to spend an extra few dollars per yard on nice fabric than to trash your cheap machine to purchase one that will handle cheap stretch fabric without causing it to run, get stuck in your bobbin casing, mess up your tension, etc.

But again, if traveling to the Los Angeles garment district isn’t an option, you can always buy your fabric here and have me do it for you…I’d love an excuse to go back!

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