by Shannon Gifford
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Sewing with Sheer Fabrics
Sheer fabrics are lovely to touch, and lovely to wear. Sheers add a touch of elegance to any project. They are soft, feminine, and flattering. But many of us are intimidated by their slippery personality and reputation for fraying. Here are a few tips to help make your sewing with sheer fabrics as pleasurable as wearing them.
Cutting and Marking:
Cutting sheer fabrics can be challenging, particularly if the fabric is slippery. To tame the fabric and provide a stable surface for cutting, sandwich the fabric between layers of tissue paper for cutting. Lay the pattern on top of the paper/fabric sandwich, and use weights instead of pins to secure the pattern on the stack. Cut with your sharpest shears, and keep the fabric stacked within the paper until you are ready to sew.
Mark the pieces just before stitching them. Use tailor’s tacks or long basting stitches to mark pertinent matching and construction points. Do not use ‘clip marking’ with sheers; this weakens the fabric and may cause problems as you sew.
If you are using a solid color sheer fabric, use a third layer of the same fabric as your interfacing. The self-fabric interfacing will be perfect in weight, and it will always match the fabric!
If you are using a print, it is possible to use lightweight tricot fusible interfacing. Test a scrap of your fabric to see if the interfacing shows through after application. If not, use the fusible! If the fusible does show through, use a layer of self-fabric as your interfacing.
Stitching Your Seams:
Sheer fabric is usually quite thin; you’ll want to use a smaller machine needle for construction. Begin with a size 11/75; if you can hear the needle entering the fabric, go down one size. Standard sewing thread in polyester or a cotton covered polyester is a good choice.
A French seam is the preferred seam finish for most sheer fabrics. To create this beautiful seam, begin by placing the seam wrong sides together, and then stitching the fabric with a 3/8” seam allowance. Trim the seam to 1/8” in width, press the seam open, and turn the fabric right sides together. Stitch again, ¼” from the original stitching line. The raw edges are completely enclosed in a small, elegant seam.
If you own a serger, make your French seams even more secure! Create the first pass of stitching with a 3-thread overlock stitch on your serger, fabric wrong sides together. Then turn the fabric right sides together and stitch at the conventional machine, ¼” from the fabric edge. The serged seam is completely enclosed, and will prevent any possibility of fraying.
Sheer fabrics are almost always feather-light in weight. Because of this, you will want to choose closures that are not heavy. Small buttons, covered snaps, and hooks and eyes will be your best choices for most projects. If you must include a zipper, find a nylon coil zipper; it is the lightest in weight.
If you are making buttonholes in your sheer fabric, you will want to be certain to use interfacing in the buttonhole area. Even if you are not using a fusible in the entire button placket, you can use a rectangle of fusible behind each buttonhole for added strength. Mark your buttonhole position on the fabric, and cut a small rectangle of tricot fusible interfacing for each buttonhole. The interfacing should be about ¼” wider and longer than your finished buttonhole. These interfacing rectangles will be applied when you cut and mark the fabric, so they will be enclosed within any facings.
The standard hem for a sheer fabric is called the ‘baby hem’. Run a row of stitching ¼” from the cut edge of the fabric, then turn the fabric along the stitching line and press. Stitch again, 1/8” from the cut edge. In ready-to-wear, this is generally the end of the story; I like to turn the hem under once more and topstitch to completely enclose the raw edges. This creates a tiny, malleable hem, with a little bit of weight to hold it in place.
Again, you can streamline this process with your serger. Use a rolled hem stitch along the edge of the fabric, then turn the fabric under 1/8” and press. Topstitch from the right side of the fabric, very close to the edge. This makes a beautiful hem!
Many vintage garments were created with elegant and tedious hand-stitching on sheer fabrics. These techniques have been updated in recent years with the advent of heirloom machine techniques. While the techniques are currently generally marketed toward children’s clothing, the techniques can be used successfully in adult garments.
Many sheers respond well to heirloom sewing treatments, such as entredeux stitching and hand-rolled hems. If you are up to the challenge, consult your local library for references regarding French Handsewing by Machine. There are several books and magazines with detailed information regarding heirloom sewing techniques.
Use a delicate touch when sewing with sheers. If you find the fabric to be slippery, use a layer of lightweight tear-away or wash-away stabilizer between the fabric and the feed dogs. Gently remove the stabilizer after stitching. Save the selvedge scraps of your sheer silks to use as stabilizers for other garments.