“Let the fabric inform the design direction”

Let the fabric inform the design direction

Let the fabric inform the design direction.

What does that really mean, practically?

It sounds a little nebulous and mysterious, like a departed guru appearing in a dream and bestowing wisdom in that echo-y voice they use in the movies, something like: You must listen to your inner voice, or Use the Force Luke, or I can only show you the door; you must walk through it.

In real life, it simply means looking at and feeling the fabric, seeing how it drapes, how thick it is, if it frays or creases, checking the opacity, seeing how swishy it is, etc. You might do this without even thinking about it. Do you ever hold fabric up to you in front of the mirror, or scrunch it in your hand?

The design direction could also be informed by how much the fabric costs, how wide it comes and how much is available.

Many designers start with the fabric as their inspiration and design a garment that’s informed by the textile. The fabric needs to be made into the best type of garment – all the qualities and characteristics of the fabric need to be shown to their best advantage, and the fabric’s weight, texture, scale, durability etc need to be suitable for the garment.

Have you ever got this wrong? I have! Sometimes it’s not noticeable until we wear it.

Smith pinafore dress
The Smith pinafore is a pattern I made last year, specifically for denim. I used a mustard coloured Cone Mills denim from the USA which was expensive but looks good in the photos. It’s quite stiff to wear (but hopefully will soften up). Then I made one in black denim cut from old jeans, which came from the op shop’s rubbish bin. These cost me nothing, but they were so worn out I wondered if it was worth it. I discovered, though, that a softer denim actually worked better and the black one ended up being my favourite to wear.

So sometimes it’s not a total failure; we just could have made a better choice.

The other part of the process is the details, the nitty-gritty of construction, how the fabric performs when it’s being cut and sewn.

In factories, patternmakers have conversations about this with the designer and machinist: How are we going to finish the seams and edges? What’s the best way to manage the bulk? Are we going to line it? If you’re sewing at home, these are the considerations you need to give thought to.

In a lot of cases, the fabric makes the decisions for you.

Zero waste hooded bathrobe and coat
The zero waste bathrobe from the Zero Waste Sewing book, with a variation to make it as a coat using a blanket. The same pattern is used, but I varied the construction because the blanket was so thick. The bathrobe is mid-weight cotton and the coat is an Onkaparinga blanket from the op shop.
Zero waste bathrobe and coat hem details
The bathrobe had 2.5cm hems, single-turned and neatened by overlocking or using the selvedge.
The coat was too thick to turn hems, so I used the selvedge for the lower edge and bound all the other edges.
Welt pocket and patch pocket on Zero Waste bathrobe and coat
The bathrobe had patch pockets, but the wool blanket was too thick and I didn’t have enough fabric anyway. Instead, I made welt pockets with bound edges and used quilting cotton behind the welts (and also for the pocket bags).
Belts for Zero Waste bathrobe and coat
Even the belts were sewn differently. The bathrobe’s fabric was thin enough to sew a tube and turn it through, but for the coat I just folded the fabric in half and bound the raw edge. The short ends of the belt were the selvedges.

Experience with sewing and handling fabrics is the really the unbeatable way to get better at working well with fabric. It also helps to have a good teacher if you’re a fashion student, or knowledgeable colleagues if you’re at work, and access to a sewing reference library is handy too.



  1. Greta on October 8, 2021 at 4:34 am

    Thank you for writing this! I am a beginner and am currently working on a skirt (?) Made from pretty old crochet linens. I am definitely looking at the fabric, and how it drapes, etc. To see what to make of it.

    • lizhaywood on October 8, 2021 at 10:31 pm

      Thanks for reading, Greta. Best wishes for your sewing adventures!

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