Wool is a fantastic fabric to work with, whether you're a beginning sewist or a seasoned pro. It's available in a wide range of weights, blends, weaves, and patterns, making it great for all kinds of projects. Wool does have some quirks, however, so if you haven't worked with it before, check out these tips and tricks to help your woollen projects come together trouble-free.
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1. Reduce Bulk
Wool can be bulky, especially if you're using felt or heavyweight woven wool fabric designed for use in outerwear. Avoid using finishing techniques like French seams, which would be stiff and awkward. Instead, take advantage of wool's lack of fraying and opt for techniques like pinking and grading to reduce bulk in your seams and keep them flexible. If you want to hide unfinished seams, consider lining your garment. This also adds extra structure and a decorative touch.
2. Use a Press Cloth
Wool doesn't do well with heat. An overheated iron can scorch the fibers, and there's no repairing that kind of damage. Make sure to use the woollen setting on your iron, and always use a press cloth between your iron and your project. A light-colored or undyed press cloth is best, since heat or steam can cause dye to transfer from the cloth to your project. While silk organza is often the best choice for a general press cloth, its smooth surface can cause shiny patches on your wool fabric. Instead, opt for a worsted wool cloth, which will transfer heat evenly without risking damage to your fabric.
3. Expect Shrinkage
The most famous quality of wool is its ability to shrink. Sometimes this is the desired effect, such as when felting a knitted project into its sturdy final form. Other times, however, that shrinking is anything but intended. You can avoid some of this by buying "needle ready" or preshrunk wool, or by preshrinking the wool yourself. Most woollen fabrics are dry clean only, so avoid washing and drying it like standard fabrics. To preshrink it, run it in a low-temperature dryer cycle with a damp towel. This will provide enough shrinking so that your finished project will still fit, but not enough to felt the fibers. It's still enough you'll need to take it into account when purchasing your fabric, however. Make sure to get a bit extra to account for the shrinking.
4. Follow the Care Instructions
Even if you preshrink your fibers, your woollens are not immune to damage from washing and drying. Who hasn't ruined a favorite sweater when it accidentally ended up in the wash? Some wool fabrics, especially wool blends, canbe washed at home. For these, use a woollen cycle in your washer, cool water, and minimal detergent. Hang the clean fabric or garment to air dry, or, for stretchable items, reshape them and dry them flat to avoid overstretching the fibers. Most woollen fabrics, however, are dry clean only. Be sure to make a note of the care instructions on your fabric when you purchase it, and add a care tag to your finished projects, especially if you're planning on giving them as gifts or if you're sewing them for a handmade business.
5. Think Outside Outerwear
Everyone's heard of heavy wool coats, but what about a chic woolen cocktail dress? It's true! Not all wool fabric is stiff and heavy. Lightweight wool crepe and challis are soft enough for dresses and skirts with elegant drape, and are available in a wide range of prints and colors. Unlike heavy suitings, they're light enough that they can be worn year-round. Another option for lightweight wool projects are blended fabrics. These allow you to create lighter items that still need the high-quality look that wool fibers provide.
6. Knit or Woven?
As with other fibers, wool fabrics can be knitted or woven, and the properties of the finished fabric will depend on the technique used to make it. Knitted wool fabrics, like jersey, are typically soft, warm, and fantastically stretchable. One notable exception is boiled wool, which is a knit which has been commercially felted to provide a sturdy, non-stretch fabric that comes in several weights. For both boiled wool and un-felted knits, however, cut edges are resistant to fraying, meaning they require little work for a finished look. Woven fabrics, on the other hand, are preferable for neat, structural garments, like fitted suits, jackets, dresses, and skirts. They hold pleats and folds well, and can support quite a bit of regular wear and tear.
7. Consider Your Lining
Wool may be warm and cozy, but some find its texture too rough to be comfortable against the skin. Lining projects helps resolve this issue, and also protects any exposed raw edges. If you want a natural fiber to line your garment, silk is an excellent choice. Charmeuse is buttery soft, while silk dupioni can add a bit of structure as well as a beautiful interior finish. Less pricey options include rayon and polyester. For a fun surprise, use a patterned lining to finish off your garment.
8. Experiment with Raw Edges
Since wool fibers are highly textured, they are moderately resistant to fraying. This isn't true of all wool fabrics, especially blends. Lightweight fabrics are more likely to fray than their heavier counterparts. For those, techniques like French seams are your best bet, but for mid- and heavy-weight woollens, experiment with less bulky finishing techniques like pinking. You can even leave your edges completely raw, or run a single line of stitching about half an inch from the edge of the fabric to encourage a fringed look.
9. Use the Right Needle
A ball-point needle is usually the best option for a woollen fabric. It has a rounded tip that easily slips through the fibers without snagging or cutting them. This is important for wool fabrics, as pointed needles often develop tiny barbs on their tips, which can snag on the highly textured wool fibers. Pointed needles may be necessary for some types of wool, however, such as sturdy felt that requires a little extra force to pierce. In these cases, be sure to start each project with a new needle to minimize snags and pulls.
10. Try Silk Thread
In general, you want to match the fiber in the thread you're using with the fiber in your fabric. This means that seams will have the same response to washing, drying, and wear as the rest of the garment. With wool, however, that's not an option. Instead, try silk thread, which has similar properties. It's not strictly necessary—a polyester-wrapped cotton thread will also work well in most situations. With lightweight woollens, however, silk thread provides a superior finish, especially with decorative stitching.
11. Blending In
Wool is frequently blended with other fibers to create fabrics with unique properties. For added stretch, look for wool blended with Lycra or Spandex. Wool/silk blends are softer, smoother, and less scratchy than 100% wool, with a luxurious sheen and beautiful finish, perfect for dresses and skirts. Wool can also be blended with synthetic fibers like nylon and polyester to create fabrics that are lighter weight than pure wool, but which still have the texture of woollen fabric.
12. Choose the Right Pattern
Part of the success of any sewing project is knowing which types of fabric are best for different patterns. This doesn't just mean the finished garment—for example, while wool fabrics are great for outerwear, not all coat patterns will work well made up in wool. In general, choose simple shapes without lots of intricate seams. These tend to get bulky and make it difficult to achieve a clean, finished look. Wool can still be sharply tailored, however, so be sure to double-check your measurements and transfer them carefully to your pattern, making adjustments as necessary to get that perfect fit.
13. Store Fabric & Garments Carefully
Wool garments and fabrics are sturdy and can last for years with proper care. Unfortunately, they're also the favorite food of moths, who will devour the threads and leave unsightly chewed holes in your projects. To prevent this, store your woollen clothes and fabrics in sealed containers, like zippered garment bags or vacuum-sealed storage bags. Always have your garments dry cleaned—or wash them in a woollen cycle, for washable wool fabrics—before putting them in storage.
What do you think? Ready to add some wool to your fabric stash? It really is one of the powerhouses of the fabric world, transitioning easily from formal wear to casual comfort. It doesn't require any special tools or techniques to work with, just a little background knowledge and some handy tips and tricks. What's your next wool project going to be?