How to Choose Lingerie Fabrics
by Maddie Flanigan
Lingerie is not only the most often worn and washed garment but it is also the closest-fitting garment. Because of this, if a bra or knickers are made with an itchy lace, you will notice it within five minutes after putting it on and you will spend the remainder of the day wishing you hadn’t worn it. Lingerie fabric, therefore, needs special attention.
Lingerie, both bras and knickers, can be made with woven fabrics. Because the lengthwise grain of a woven stretches very little and the crosswise grain of a woven stretches only a little more, many seamstresses don’t think that bras and knickers can be made from it. But a bias-cut woven stretches enough to be used in lingerie. Yes, handling bias-cut woven fabric is difficult and requires extra steps (see below for tips) but because the pattern pieces are so small, it’s not too hard.
But I don’t suggest making a pair of knickers entirely from woven fabrics, even if it is bias-cut. Yes, knickers physically can be made entirely of bias-cut woven fabrics without there being a problem of getting it on or off but it will be uncomfortable throughout the day. A lady’s lower region – her waist, hips, and legs – move a lot throughout the day. Because of this, knickers need more stretch than a bias-cut woven can give. If you want to use woven in a pair of knickers, use it for a side or center panel only (example: bias-cut woven side panels and jersey center front (CF) and center back (CB) panels).
Bras, on the other hand, can be made entirely of woven fabric, bias-cut or not. Although a lady’s upper region – her chest – moves a lot throughout the day, it is much less that her lower region. Because of this, and because bras usually have a closure (hook and eye), bras can be made with woven fabric. Many woven fabrics are blended with spandex (trade name LYCRA), to provide stretch. Spandex stretches beautifully and has awesome recovery. It regains its original shape after being stretched over and over again.
Only a small amount of spandex is needed, between 2-8%, to give the fabric just the right amount of stretch so that the garment can be put on and off and worn comfortably. If a woven fabric has spandex in it, it can be used in both bras and knickers. The fabric does not need be cut on the bias and an entire pair of knickers can be made with woven if it has spandex.
TIP: HOW TO CUT, HANG & HANDLE BIAS-CUT WOVEN FABRIC FOR LINGERIE
First, cut a square big enough to accommodate all pattern pieces to be cut on bias – make sure piece is big enough even when folded on the bias – and hang it over a hanger, shower curtain, etc. To speed up the stretching process, pin lightweight necklaces or jewelry at regular intervals throughout the fabric. After 24-48 hours, steam press fabric in the direction of the bias to finish stretching. Let fabric cool before removing fabric from ironing board.
One of the most chosen fabrics for bras and knickers are knits and this is for the obvious reason that knits stretch. Because bras and knickers usually don’t have a closure (an exception being bras with hooks and eyes), they need to stretch to a minimum of the hip or chest measurement (this is called minimum stretch/extend). Knits and other stretch fabrics – stretch lace, mesh, tricot, and wovens blended with spandex - help bras and knickers achieve the minimum stretch needed to get the garment on and off.
In brief, knits are fabrics that are produced by interloping yarns. In the actual construction of a knit, loops are formed and then new loops are made through the previous loops. The continuing addition of new loops creates a knit fabric. Because of the loops, the fabric has ‘crimp,’ which is what makes knits stretch.
Knits come in various weights and widths. Warp knits, weft knits, jersey knit, double knit, cotton knit, and Ponte are just a few. Usually, the heavier and the thicker the knit fabric, the less stretch and the more ‘control’ the garment will have. Because heavier knits usually stretch less, a larger size pattern may need to be used.
Different knits have many different amounts of stretch. It’s important that the direction of stretch goes around the body for both comfort and function and it’s important to take into account the amount a knit stretches. When drafting and perfecting my first bra pattern, my ‘fit samples’ were made with muslin. When I sewed the ‘real garment’ using a stretch woven, I was disappointed when the finished garment was loose. The bra was still wearable but it wasn’t the perfect fit I always strive for – I should have reduced the pattern to accommodate for the stretch.
To determine the amount a knit stretches, cut a swatch of fabric that is 5” x 5”. Holding one end of the swatch at 0” on a ruler, stretch the fabric to its fullest capacity and then let it relax. Make a notation of the new relaxed amount. The difference between the original relaxed amount and the new relaxed amount will determine the ‘percentage of stretch’. Whatever that percentage is is the amount the pattern will need to be reduce, assuming that a woven was being used as the comparison.
Although knits can be used as the face or self fabric in lingerie, it can also be used as a lining. My favorite me-made bras are fully lined with jersey that is soft as butter. There is no right or wrong knit to use. Personal preference and the garment's performance should be used when choosing a knit.
TIP: TO PREVENT KNITS FROM CURLING AFTER CUTTING
Hang fabric over a hanger, shower curtain etc. and spray with liquid starch. Let fabric dry and then cut. Starch adds body, stabilizes fabric, and washes out easily after construction.
The following three fabrics – tricot, lace and mesh – are other types of knit fabrics. Stretch lace and mesh are used more often than tricot (tricot is hardly used) but back in the day, tricot was a de rigueur choice for lingerie and I think it’s good to know the history behind a category of sewing.
Tricot is a warp knit, which means that the loops run vertically down the fabric (as opposed to a weft knit in which the yarns run horizontally across the fabric - from side to side). Tricot fabrics have less stretch in the length in comparison with a jersey knit and do not ravel. The most common tricot used in lingerie is nylon tricot. It’s smooth, thin, and cheap. Available in many varieties such as satin tricot, tricot’s name comes from the French word tricoter, meaning “to knit.”
When nylon was first developed in 1938 as one of the first synthetic fibers, nylon, including nylon tricot, replaced the use of silk, which was in short supply because of the war. But tricot doesn’t breathe well and absorbs moisture poorly. It’s also hard on needles, pins, and scissors – they will need to be replaced often during a project.
For soft, comfortable, and most importantly, pretty lingerie, choose stretch lace. Most laces are blended with nylon or spandex to provide stretch. Because bras and knickers weather so much wear and tear, lace will deteriorate faster than a jersey or a bias-cut woven. To prevent this as well as to help with comfort and handling during sewing, line lace with jersey or mesh.
TIP: FOR CUTTING LACE AND JERSEY
Instead of cutting lace and jersey/mesh separately, baste a square of lace and jersey/mesh together before cutting pattern & then cut (treat as one ply).
Mesh is a knit fabric that has a large circular or hexagonal holes spaced at regular intervals. Although mesh can be and is used for entire pieces of bras and knickers, I see it used most often as a lining.
Bed sheets are an unlikely choice for bras and knickers but a great one! One of my favorite bloggers and designers is Rebecca Williams. Her Etsy shop, Naughty Shorts, sells dresses made of beautiful, shall I say it again, beautiful fabric. Vintage, floral, and bright, they take you on a 70s vibe. On many of her blog posts, she writes about her thrift adventures where she buys vintage bed sheets that she will use later for her dresses. Washed many times, vintage bed sheets have a soft-as-butter hand feel that is a great choice for lingerie. Also, many bras and knickers can be made from a single bed sheet set.
I began sewing lingerie as a way to upcycle old clothing. I never throw away old clothes, instead, I store clothes I don’t wear anymore in boxes that I ‘shop’ months or years later. Over the course of several years, my stash of old clothing grew very large. The silhouettes weren’t in fashion but the fabrics were still beautiful. I couldn’t part with them, so I upcycled them into bras and knickers.