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Happy Holidays with FreeSpirit & Rowan: Working with Rayon and Linen
Recently, you may have noticed many of your favorite fabric designers are starting to offer their new collections in different substrates (or fabric types). It used to be you would see a specific line in 100% woven cotton only. Now, you are just as likely to also see beautiful combinations of colors and prints in cotton laminate, linen, canvas, voile, rayon, velveteen, corduroy, flannel, fleece, knit and sateen. Westminster Fibers, through both their FreeSpirit and Rowan lines, is an industry leader when it comes to offering these new substrates; and leading designer, Amy Butler has certainly embraced the trend. Among other options, her current collection, Alchemy features both an amazing rayon and a rayon/linen blend. We’ve summarized what we know about each, along with the proper techniques for cutting, sewing, pressing and more.
It’s always good to broaden your creative options, and working with fabric in different textures, weights and finishes does just that. It also pushes you to expand your sewing knowledge, since many of these new substrates require different approaches for successful sewing.
In the Sew4Home studio, we’ve been creating special project tutorials for you featuring Amy Butler’s rayon challis and decorator-weight linen/rayon blend. These two fabrics have a number of common denominators, but one stands out: clean, simple design. Both fabrics are great for items that do not require a lot of fussy detail, which makes them ideal for home décor.
Considered one of the oldest forms of synthetic fabric, rayon was originally developed in the late 1800s as an alternative to expensive silk fabric. Rayon (also known as artificial silk) is made of natural fibers (wood pulp or cotton linters), but once it’s been highly processed into cellulose, it’s considered a synthetic, or semi-synthetic fabric. Some even claim it’s neither a natural or synthetic fiber. We’re not sure what that leaves… perhaps “alien fabric”?!? Whatever it is, rayon is widely used.
Since the 1800s, different manufacturing processes have been developed, allowing rayon to take on the look and feel of wool, linen, cotton or silk. This has led to a stunning variety of types of rayon in different weights, weaves and/or knits, such as: regular rayon, rayon challis, rayon viscose, rayon crepe, rayon chiffon, rayon jersey, rayon velvet, sueded rayon, rayon satin (which has a shine), and more. Depending on the actual rayon fiber/fabric, it is used for everything from clothing to home décor to medical products.
In general, rayon fabric is lightweight, has fantastic drape, and is soft and absorbent. This last trait makes it ideal for warm weather, which is why you see so many loose, comfy garments made with it. Rayon takes dye quite well, and is therefore available in a wide array of popular colors and prints. It’s static-free, resistant to moths and rarely pills. Plus, rayon can be blended with other fibers (both synthetic and natural) to create interesting blends, such as the rayon/linen we’ll talk about later. For the budget conscience, it’s also an economical choice.
Although advances in technology have helped with some of the negative aspects of rayon, you should be aware of these specific characteristics as well. Rayon ravels easily, which means you need to think about how a project’s raw edges will be finished. It can fade easily when exposed to light for long periods of time, wrinkles and shrinks easily, can melt under an incorrect iron setting, and will lose its shape if not laundered correctly. Translation: when using rayon, you do need to take special care during the various steps in the sewing process.
Preshrinking and pressing
Rayon can be a bit tricky when it comes to preshrinking and pressing. We would even go as far to say that, depending on the specific type of rayon, it can be considered a delicate fabric.
As we stated above, rayon fiber is known to shrink. You definitely want to preshrink the fabric before cutting any portion of your project. The preshrinking method you use will depend on the exact type of rayon fabric you’ve selected. Overall, most rayon fabrics require delicate detergents and hand washing. Never wring out rayon fabric. Instead, shake out the excess water and lay it flat to dry. You can also roll it in a towel to absorb moisture. Or, there’s always the option of drycleaning.
Since rayon is usually considered a synthetic fabric, you should definitely use a synthetic setting on your iron. Press from the wrong side when possible. If you must press on the right side, use a pressing cloth.
Cutting and marking
Similar to preshrinking and pressing, rayon requires special care at the cutting table too. Its soft drape gives it a tendency to slide around the cutting surface, making it difficult to cut pattern pieces evenly. To prevent this, first place a layer of tissue paper equal to the fabric on your cutting surface, then place the fabric on top. When you pin tissue pattern pieces to the fabric, you’ll have sort of a “tissue paper sandwich,” which will enable you to cut easily and accurately.
Rayon fabrics tend to feature large prints, so take notice of any directional patterns or pattern matching prior to cutting.
You will also want to evaluate the condition of your fabric scissors. The only way to cut crisp edges on rayon fabric is to use sharp scissors. If you prefer, you can use a rotary cutter, in fact, most experts find this to be the better of the two cutting tools for rayon, however, double-check the sharpness of the blade. In addition, rotary cutters are available with a pinking blade, which is a good idea for rayon due to its tendency to fray.
Along with a sharp cutting tool, sharp pins are a must. If your pins are not sharp, you will know immediately! Believe it or not, rayon fibers can be tough to get through. We recommend using more pins than usual with rayon, spaced closer together, to hold pattern pieces and fabric in place.
An alternative to pins are pattern weights, which some experts prefer for a slippery type of fabric.
Any marking should be done with chalk, tailor’s tacks or a tracing wheel. Other fabric marking implements should always be tested on scraps.
Interfacing and other support
If you have to reinforce or build extra support in any area of a project made with rayon, an appropriate interfacing is needed. Use a lightweight sew-in interfacing or another lightweight fabric, such as organza. Sometimes simply another layer of rayon (known as self-interfacing) is the best solution. Fusible interfacings are generally not recommended because they can become unfused over time. However, depending on the exact type of rayon (like the rayon challis in our example), lightweight fusible tricot knit interfacing is appropriate. Pellon’s Easy-Knit® fusible tricot is a good option.
In garment construction, you need to pay special attention to areas of stress. Some rayon fabrics can simply pull apart at the seam, creating large holes. Stay tape is a good option to help reinforce seams.
Sewing and finishing
Contrary to what we’ve discussed thus far, at the sewing machine, you do not need any special tools! However, the same level of care is required. Rayon can pucker easily at the seam, so you need to use the appropriate needle, thread and stitch length for your specific rayon fabric and weight.
For basic seaming, you can use a Standard foot, this is the one that is usually attached to your sewing machine when you take it out of the box.
Similar to cutting with sharp scissors, start your project with a new, sharp Universal needle. The size of the needle will relate directly to the fabric weight. Therefore, a very lightweight rayon may be best sewn with a 60/8 or 70/10, whereas for a medium weight, use an 80/12.
You may have heard somewhere to always use the same type of thread as fabric. Although this “rule of thumb” isn’t 100% true, with rayon it works. For best results, use polyester or cotton covered polyester thread. Polyester has similar characteristics rayon, and so is a good match. You can find rayon thread on the market; it is normally designed for embroidery. Most find rayon thread a good choice for lightweight rayon only.
Finishing is of upmost importance with rayon, and is something you should normally do before actual construction. If you don’t address fraying, the fabric can actually ravel beyond the sewn seam, leaving you with an unsightly hole. Using flat fell seams or French seams is an option, depending on the type of rayon. And, overcasting raw edges or finishing with a serger are also great for just about any fabric that frays easily.
As for stitch options, use a straight stitch for majority of construction. Depending on the weight of the fabric, you may have to adjust the stitch length slightly. For some rayons, you can try a tiny zig zag stitch, however, for the majority of projects, a straight stitch is the default.
For hems, you can overcast the raw edge just as you did for the seams, then turn up the edge and blind hem, topstitch, or handstitch in place. Or, use a Hong Kong finish (a type of bound edge) on the raw edge, again depending on the type of rayon you’re using. Below we show a serged finish and a blind hem.
The looser weave of a rayon means your blind hem will indeed be virtually invisible from the front.
As we always suggest, test your stitch, thread choice, and needle type/size on scraps before sewing your final project. Remember, each of these aspects will be dependent on the actual type/weight of rayon you’ve selected. If you’re not sure, ask the folks at the cutting table or reference a fabric guide.
- If lined properly to protect from fading, there’s no reason you can’t use rayon for window treatments.
- If you do not like the results you’re getting with a sharp needle, try a ball point needle instead – the type of needle you’d use if sewing knits.
- Depending on the weight of your rayon fabric, if you’re having trouble with the actual stitching on your sewing machine, you may need to tighten the tension, adjust the thread type, needle type or needle size… or all of the above.
- Despite all your best efforts to keep cutting even, it’s not uncommon to have one piece slightly longer then the other. Do not try to cut to shorten; instead, place the longer piece on the bottom when sewing the seams together. The feed dogs of the sewing machine will help ease in the excess – you’ll likely never see one side was longer once your seam is sewn!
- After pressing, if you see a shine on the fabric, you probably have melted the rayon fibers slightly. Always test the heat of your iron on a scarp first.
- Press along the grain line of the fabric in even strokes up and down or side to side.
A perfect example of a rayon blend fabric is rayon/linen. It’s not surprising to see these two fibers brought together in one substrate. Like rayon, linen has a long history. It’s considered the oldest natural fiber, made from the stem of the flax plant, dating back to 8000 BC.
Many of the characteristics of linen are similar to those of rayon. It’s comfortable to wear – especially in warm weather, allows good airflow, is absorbent, dyes well, is resistant to moths, and is static-free. On the flip side, it also ravels quickly, shrinks, and wrinkles easily too.
Linen is available in a variety of weights and blends. When you picture linen, you most likely think of basic colors that preserve the natural fiber content. However, linen is available in many color options, printed versions (like our sample), even embroidered choices.
Some say the biggest challenge in working with linen is determining the appropriate weight for the project. Unlike rayon, linen by itself does not drape particularly well. It can be stiff, unless you cut it on the bias. But, in our example, blending rayon with the linen gives it a soft hand, making it ideal for a number of projects, and a great choice in combination with other substrates. The rayon/linen blend gives you the best of both worlds, the look of linen with the feel of rayon!
Preshrinking and pressing
If you’re not a fan of preshrinking, you’ll need to become one if you want to sew with linen. This fabric is known for its progressive shrinking. The warp and weft yarns that create linen shrink at different rates, creating the progressive shrinkage. In addition, many linens are treated with heavy sizing; once prewashed, the hand of the fabric will change dramatically.
Depending on how you plan to use the fabric, such as for a garment or as a home décor item, you should preshrink accordingly. This means it can be washed by machine or professionally drycleaned. If you plan to wash the finished item in the washing machine, then preshrink the fabric at least three times in the washing machine first. However, as with all fabrics, make note of the specific care instructions off the end of the bolt for the exact type of linen or linen blend you’re purchasing.
Whether you sew or not, everyone knows one major characteristic of linen is how quickly it becomes wrinkled. Pressing with steam is usually a no brainer. However, the rayon/linen blend we’re working with did not need such intense heat. That’s one of the clear positives of blending different fibers. In this case, it lessened the wrinkle-prone nature of 100% linen. In conjunction with knowing the fiber content of your fabric, it’s still a good habit to test your iron settings on scraps.
In addition, always press from the wrong side and use a pressing cloth regardless of the type/weight. Linen scorches easily and is prone to shine. We used a pressing cloth for the linen/rayon, following the same tips as for the rayon above.
Cutting and marking
Cutting and marking linen is similar to basic cotton fabric. However, in the case of blended linen like we’re using, you may want to apply some of the suggested rayon cutting techniques above. Of course, always consider the exact weight.
Use sharp scissors or a sharp rotary blade for cutting. Straight pins of your choice are acceptable, unless you have lightweight linen, then you should use a finer pin.
For marking, you can use chalk, a fabric pen or pencil, rotary wheel, etc. You can also clip into the seam if needed.
Interfacing and other support
You have a variety of choices for interfacing linen. You can use sew in, fusible or do self interfacing. Your indicator for the appropriate type of interfacing is the type/weight of the linen. For example, lightweight linen should be interfaced similar to the rayon example above with French Fuse or Pellon’s Easy-Knit® (shown above).
The rayon/linen we’re using here can be interfaced, but it’s not mandatory. It depends more on the weight of the fabric and what you plan to make with it.
Sewing and Finishing
Actual sewing with rayon/linen is quite easy and worry-free. There are no special accessories or tools needed for basic construction.
Use a straight stitch and the standard foot that comes on your sewing machine. A universal needle and polyester or cotton covered polyester thread is recommended. The weight of the linen will determine the size of the needle. We used an 80/12 for our rayon/linen example, which is considered medium weight. You can use anywhere from a 60/8 to 90/14.
If you’re working with bias cut pieces, a small zig zag stitch will help keep the fabric from puckering. Remember, always test stitch settings on a scrap.
Finishing is an important step with linen because of its tendency to fray. Similar to rayon, decide how you’ll finish the raw edges before seaming. Basic seam finishes include a zig zag on a sewing machine (left in the photo below) or an overlock stitch on a serger (right in the photo below).
Here’s our sample sewn with a straight stitch, after serging the raw edges.
You can also try your hand at some specialty seam finishes, such as flat felled seams, French seams, or a Hong Kong finish, in which the raw edges are wrapped with a bias strip of fabric. If you don’t want to have to worry about seam finishes at all, use a lining in your sewn project to completely conceal the raw edges.
We used a Hong Kong finish on the edges of the rayon/linen seam example below.
Additional tips and tidbits
- Lightweight, loosely woven linen should be dry cleaned; it cannot withstand the stress of the washing machine, even though the fiber is machine washable.
- The more you wash linen the softer the hand becomes.
- Any pressed folds in linen should be accurate; removing them is close to impossible.
- If you find a fabric that is noted to be “linen-like,” it most likely contains no linen at all.
- Linen is stronger then cotton, and is especially strong when wet.
- Linen is a great fabric for adding embellishments. It’s also perfect for pintucking and hemstitching, which you can learn more about in our tutorial on heirloom sewing.
- Be sure to use anti-fray solution, like Fray Check, on buttonholes.
More Sew4Home fabric-related tutorials
If you want to continue to build your fabric knowledge and expand your sewing creative options, below are a few articles you’ll find interesting.
- How to Read a Fabric Bolt Label
- Faux Leather
- Faux Fur
- Thermal Fabrics
Sample Creation and Instructional Outline: Jodi Kelly
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