Fabric for Fashion: The Swatch Book

It seems to me that making beautiful, wearable clothes is as much about choosing the right fabric as it is about the sewing skills and techniques.  Maybe even more so. (But probably not as much as getting the perfect fit.)

I have, many times, been drawn by the beautiful colours and prints of quilting weight cottons to make dresses for my girls, and while they were lovely there was something undeniably, unavoidably ‘stiff’ about them.  Granted, with repeated washing and wearing the cotton can soften, but the print may not look as fresh by then, and your kids may have outgrown the clothes anyway. <

See what I mean - gorgeous prints, very cute dresses, but STIFF

See what I mean – gorgeous prints, very cute dresses, but STIFF

Now I’m embarking in a making-clothes-for-myself adventure, I want them to drape and flow on my body in the same way that ‘proper’ (shop bought) clothes do.

The first step is, obviously, to take note of what fabrics are suggested by the pattern manufacturers/designers. After all, they know how they intended the item to be worn and they want you to get the best result from their design.  But sometimes there are loads of recommended fabrics listed, and how are you supposed to choose between a peach crepe and a cotton poplin?

How about by using a book like this?  I can’t remember how I stumbled across it, it was during one of my many internet meandering, blog-hopping sessions – but however I found it I was pretty excited that I did.

swatch book cover

Fabric for Fashion: The Swatch Book by Clive Hallett and Amanda Johnston.


This version is available cheaper than its RRP all over the internet, probably because a 2nd edition  is due out in September (which I believe will have more fabric swatches).  It has a partner book, “Fabric for Fashion: The Complete Guide” which I think goes into more description on the fabrics and their uses, but I haven’t looked at it and, for me, nothing beats being able to touch and handle examples of fabric, which is what this book’s all about.

swatchbook int

Look at all the lovely, flappy little swatches of fabric. You can spend all day running your fingers through those delicious little fluttery samples.

It has over 100 swatches of fabric samples, most of which are undyed and unbleached so you get a feel for the fabric without being distracted by colour.  Except where colour is unavoidable, like the tweed effect examples in the photo above.

It’s set out in two sections: Animal Fibres and Plant Fibres and is easy enough to navigate.  All the swatches are on the right hand side for ease of flicking through and there are nice, helpful descriptions of the fabric types and uses as well as overviews of different fibres, fabric construction etc.  The swatches themselves aren’t huge, but at about 10cm x 10cm each they are big enough for you to have a good tug, a squish and a feel, and even to rub your cheek against it for softness-testing.

This is going to be a very useful resource for me as I begin to learn about the properties of different fabrics and try to make the right fabric-buying decisions without wasting a lot of money on buying the wrong stuff.  However – nothing beats having a good nose at the actual fabric you’re going to buy before you buy it, and if you’re ordering over the internet, as I tend to do quite a lot, the fabric descriptions don’t always convey the weight, drape or stiffness of a fabric.  In this case, if we’re sensible, I suppose we should be requesting samples before buying them, but at 50p per sample + postage, I usually find myself too impatient to want to get on with the sewing to wait that bit longer and spend that bit more before starting. But I really, really ought to.  And then keep those samples in a folder and label them properly, with a description of the fabric, where it’s from, fabric content, washing instructions (if supplied), etc.

My swatch folder - there isn't much yet but I'm pretty certain it will grown faster than I would like to admit.

My own version of a swatch folder – there isn’t much yet but I’m pretty certain it will grown faster than I would like to admit.

So this is what I will be doing from here on in.  OK, maybe I probably won’t always order a swatch before committing to buying 3m of a lush must-buy-it-now-in-case-it-all-goes-away fabric, but I’m definitely at least going to start keeping my own swatch book of fabrics I have bought and, along with the other stuff I covered above, I’m going to keep a note of what I made with it and any notes on the finished item (was it the right fabric to use?) and where I bought it from, in case I want to make a repeat purchase.  In this way I will build up my own encyclopedia of fabric and start to improve my own knowledge of different fabrics and their characteristics.

And I will make beautiful clothes. And everyone will be amazed.  And I will be smug.

*Happy sigh*



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