Meg and I freely admit that one of the motivators behind our doll clothes business is a serious love of fabric. We’re going to be buying it anyway, we might as well be sewing something with it. And the best part of this plan is that selling doll clothes earns money which can be spent on more fabric. So it’s definitely a subject that is on our mind a lot, and while I was ironing my way through my latest purchase, I decided to share some of our philosophy with you.
Let me start out with Joni’s Cardinal Rule of Sewing: Never, ever work with fabric that you don’t love. Not fabric that is just okay, or that you feel ‘meh’ about, or that you bought only because it was super cheap. Let me tell you. I have violated my cardinal rule on more than one occasion, and I have always lived to regret it. I’ve always had more problems with construction, and I’ve been less motivated to work through those problems, and in the end I have wound up with a garment that I really hated and never, ever wore. And frankly, that is a waste of time and effort and a one-way ticket to frustration. This goes double for beginning sewists! The quickest way to turn yourself off a new hobby is to struggle with cheap fabric or to spend hours creating a doll outfit you end up hating.
The corollary to my Cardinal Rule is: beware the false economy of cheap fabric. All those bolts of $3.99 quilting fabric at JoAnn’s might seem like a bargain, but they rarely are. (Good quality fabric marked down on clearance, now, that’s another matter.) Cheap fabric is usually stiffer, and stiff fabrics won’t drape right and they wreck the scale of doll-sized items. Plus you see a lot of poly-cotton blends in the cheap seats, and I feel that $100 dolls deserve 100% cotton!
Think about it: unless you are making an incredibly elaborate Revolutionary War-era gown, the most you will need is 1/2 yard. And even at $11.00/yard (and I have honestly never paid that much for a cotton print) you are only looking at $5.50 worth of fabric. And when was the last time you bought an outfit from American Girl for that little?
So, let’s talk about solids first. Yes, you can buy cheap poly-cotton batiste for $1.87 a yard, but we suggest Kona. What is Kona? It’s only our favorite cotton solid ever, manufactured by Robert Kaufman and available in every color you can imagine. It has a lot more body than lesser quality fabrics – I use Kona for Molly’s Route 66 dress, since it holds a nice crisp pleat, and Meg uses Kona for piping on practically everything she makes. If you are lucky enough to live near a Hobby Lobby, you can buy Kona for $4.89 a yard – I tend to buy the white in 2- or 3-yard lengths and then just tear off a chunk as I need it. Moda Fabrics has also gotten into the high-quality-solids game with their Moda Bella fabrics although their color selection is a bit more limited.
However, sometimes you want fabric with a softer hand. Meg is a big fan of batiste and lawn for heirloom sewing (she once paid $25 a yard for Swiss Nelona batiste; I think she’s crazy, but the end result is beautiful). Meg’s also turned me on lately to Kaufman Pimatex which comes in both solids and basic prints, and has the absolutely softest, silkiest hand you’ve ever felt. We recently split a bolt of white Pimatex, since it’s always good to stock up on staples.
But the fun of fabric mainly lies in prints. Now, the conventional wisdom is that you must only buy small-scale prints for sewing doll clothes; I respectfully disagree. I find tiny little prints absolutely boring to work with and therefore a violation of the Cardinal Rule. I think that it’s more important to match the scale of the fabric to the pattern you are using. A prime example is the Little Red Riding Hood Dresses I made earlier in the year. I fell in love hard with the fabric, a fairly large-scale print by Japanese manufacturer Lecien:
Conventional wisdom says that these prints would be waaaay too large for doll clothes, and yet these ended up being some of my favorite doll dresses I’ve ever made. The reason is that I stuck with a fairly simple pattern for the fabric: basic bodice; full, gathered skirt; and short, puffed sleeve. I also added visual weight with the solid red ribbon at the waist, which keeps the doll from looking swallowed up by the large print. I don’t think it would have worked half so well if I’d used a dress style with a lot of pintucks or ruffles or intricate details.
Mixing prints can also be a lot of fun; I do this a lot, I think it’s a holdover from my days as a scrapbooker. I recently made these 1850s ensembles using a floral and a stripe.
The easiest way to match prints is to use prints from the same line. Quilters like to have a lot of prints available, so in one line of fabric you will typically find several florals ranging from small to large, a stripe or dot, and sometimes even a coordinating solid.
So, where do you find your fabrics? You local quilt shop is a great place to start. You can see prints in person, feel up the bolts to your heart’s content, and even buy fabric in odd increments like 7/16ths of a yard. (Online retailers generally limit you to half- or one-yard increments.) Make friends with the salesladies, inquire about classes, and sign up for a frequent-shopper program if one is offered.
But if you don’t have a good store available, or if you are prone to staying up late at night ogling fabric (ahem), buying online is a great option too. Of course, purchasing fabric online can be a dicey proposition, so inquire about any return policies before ordering. When buying online I stick with the manufacturers whose quality I know well – Moda, Windham, and Robert Kaufman are my top three.
We buy a lot from Fabric Dot Com, largely because of their “all orders over $35 ship free” policy. I have noticed that they have a really fast turnover – I’ve waited too long on coveted prints and missed them – but they also have a good sale section. Be sure and hit up the Google for a coupon code before placing your order.
Meg and I are also huge fans of Nauvoo Quilt Co on Etsy. Great customer service, and she does flat rate shipping (and Julie can fit a LOT of fabric into a flat rate envelope). She organizes her shop sections by time period, which is awesome, and she has the best selection of 1930s fabric for you Kit fans.
Whether purchased in person or online, what do you do with your fabric once you get it home? The first thing I do is finish the raw edges to avoid a snarl of ravelly threads later on.
I use my serger for this step, but if you don’t have a serger, the zig-zag stitch on your sewing machine can be used to overcast the edges.
Next up, the washing. Don’t be afraid to throw all your fabric in the sewing machine with your regular laundry, I do it all the time! I’ll prevent dye bleeding with a vinegar rinse or one of those Shout Color Catcher sheets. And I pre-wash everything, even silk. (Yes, you can machine-wash silk, contrary to popular belief. You’ll have to press the dickens out of it afterwards to restore that rustley luster, but I think it’s worth it to avoid the possibility of dye transfer onto your $100 dolls!) Then pop it all into the dryer. I like to remove my fabric from the dryer while it is still damp; there is nothing like struggling with huge, set-in wrinkles to turn a fabric I love into a fabric I hate.
And finally, the most important step, the pressing. (As a side note, a decent iron is worth having. I finally splurged on a Rowenta this year and now I can’t imagine how I lived without it.) Put some nice music on your iPod (we recommend this) and press your still-damp fabric with a hot, dry iron. Press, press, press. It’s kind of mindless and relaxing.
I like to press a crease into the folded edge of the material – this keeps the two layers from shifting around later when you are pinning and cutting. Don’t worry, you can always press out the crease with a spritz of water and a nice hot iron.
Take a moment to admire your handiwork.
Now isn’t that pretty? Try to store your fabric where you can access it quickly and easily – I use a massive open shelf from Target – so you won’t forget what you have in inventory. Otherwise, you might have to go out and buy more. And that would be tragic.