All about…working with wool fabrics

Steaming iron hovering over wool fabric

Hello – it’s Alice here, with our latest post bringing together all the bits and pieces we’ve published on a particular subject – this time it’s All about… working with wool fabrics. I’ll cover the preparation of your wool fabric before you cut into it, as well as some tips on making the most of the properties of this miraculous fibre as you construct your garment. (How to look after your precious creation is next time around – that’s a whole other story!)

The temptation here is for me to write a love letter to wool – because love is absolutely what I feel about our wool cloths. I adore the heathery mêlée of colours in a tweed; I’m regularly seduced by the ripple of a fine Italian suiting and huggability of a cosy mouflon. Wool comes in so many miraculous forms and describing them all would be a whole other series! But come the autumn, the smell and feel of lanolin on my hands as I work with our latest arrivals is such a treat. However I’m going to try and keep this short and sweet…here goes!

Wool tweed fabric – autumn in fabric form!

What makes wool special?

For our purposes, it’s the way that wool responds to heat and moisture (and this goes for any fabric with a substantial wool content). Add moisture to a wool fabric and it relaxes the fibres in the cloth. Heat then tightens those fibres up. The magic lies in the ability of the fibres to take on and retain a new shape in that process – so if your fabric is flat on an ironing board, it will stay flat. However if it’s shaped around a form such as pressing ham or a sleeve roll, then it will retain the curve it’s pressed around. Steam is a combination of moisture and heat – so your steam iron is effectively a tool for creating a 3-D wool sculpture as you gently steam and press your garment. It’s how tailors shape the curved upper chest and breast area of a jacket – and the gentle roll of a lapel.

The danger of course, is that moisture and excessive heat can also introduce unwanted effects – hands up anyone who’s accidentally put their favourite jumper in the wrong wash programme and seen it shrink to a felted miniature…😳 So we’ve some tips on how to make the most of that wool magic and avoid disaster…

Preparing your wool fabric

We can never know whether a wool cloth has been pre-shrunk, so we’d always advise preparing your fabric before you cut into it. We don’t advise washing your finished wool garment (more on that in the next post) and so we wouldn’t advise pre-washing your wool fabric. However it’s important to tighten up those wool fibres just a little before you start working with them, so that when you press your construction processes as well as the final garment, it doesn’t shrink areas of your garment. We suggest you follow the following guidance:

  • Set your iron to a wool setting with the ‘steam’ function activated
  • Hover the iron 1” away from the fabric for a few seconds and press the ‘steam’ button, gradually covering the whole area of your fabric
  • On some wools you can also press lightly on the wrong side – but always test with a scrap first.
  • Whether you can press a wool on the wrong side depends on the pile as well as other fibres in the fabric.
  • Use a pressing cloth to protect the fabric from the direct heat of the soleplate.
  • If your fabric has a pile on the outer face, you can cushion it by placing it over a fluffy cotton towel.
  • Take your time & allow the fabric to cool and dry naturally and as flat as possible.
  • If you’re hanging it over a clothes horse then try and cushion any protuberances with a towel – remember your wool will try and accommodate any shaping while it’s damp.
Hover your iron about 1″ over your wool fabric

On our website, you can find ‘Fabric care’ and ‘Fabric preparation’ recommendations at the end of each fabric description. We’ll also include any care and preparation advice in the information slip accompanying into your fabric when it arrives. We’ll say if there’s a wool content in the composition we always provide – along with a reminder of how to prepare your fabric.

Look out for our ‘Fabric care’ slips when your fabric arrives

Working with wool fabrics

Wool fabrics are generally relatively easy to work with – they tend to have stable weave patterns and enough substance to stand up to the garment construction process. Occasionally you’ll find wools that are a bit more tricky, for instance wool bouclé and mohair may require interlining to stabilise them.

Working with wool fabrics means you have the opportunity to use some of that wool magic in sculpting your fabric to fit your body shape. We’d suggest using pressing tools such as a tailor’s ham and a sleeve roll to help form curves and subtle shaping in your garment. (Details here – although a rolled-up towel and piece of plain cotton are great substitutes!)

A tailor’s ham is wonderful for all kinds of shaping, from bust darts to collars, on dresses, trousers and day-to-day clothing as well more substantial garments such as as coats and jackets.

In this image you can see how we used the tailor’s ham to shape a piece of donegal tweed, woven from a blend of wool and polyester.

Shaping a wool-mix fabric around a tailor’s ham

It began the process as a flat piece of fabric – and this is what it looked like after being pressed into a curve.

Our wool-mix after shaping

This is a deliberately extreme shape in a relatively stiff fabric but it illustrates the sculptural qualities of wool. Here you can see the ham being used to press a rounded shape above a vertical bust dart on a finely-woven wool blazer.

Pressing a curve above a bust dart.

In all these instances we were working on the reverse of fabrics without pile, and we wanted to show the pressing in action. However you may want to protect your fabric with a pressing cloth, particularly if you’re pressing a detail that will show on the outside of a garment.

When pressing your construction processes in wool, particularly with heavier cloths, you may also want to use a tailor’s clapper to help achieve a professional finish. A tailor’s clapper is a multi-purpose tool which is used when pressing to trap the heat and moisture in the fabric. In the bottom image below, you can see it being used to press open a seam. First the seam is pressed as usual with the steam iron, then the clapper is placed firmly over the pressed area and held down for 5-10 seconds to ensure that the heat and moisture can really do their work.

Above – a tailor’s clapper – and below – the clapper being used to help press a seam open.

If used to press a visible detail (e.g. a welt pocket or flap) then you’d always want to use a pressing cloth under the iron and then under the clapper, in order to protect the texture of the fabric.

Using a pressing cloth to protect a visible element on a garment.

Finally, a reminder that as with your fabric preparation, we’d always recommend testing pressing and using the clapper on your fabric, using a spare scrap of fabric.

Suggestions & questions welcome!

I hope this is a useful starter for how to prepare and work with wool fabrics. As with much sewing – there’s been much written on this subject – we just wanted to pick out some important highlights and hopefully reassure you that there’s no great mystique here! Be confident to have a go, test as you go and as we all have, learn by doing.

If you have any questions – or suggestions that you’d like to add – then please do post a comment below – we’d love to share what you know!

I’ll be back next time with some tips on how to look after your lovely wool garments once they’ve been created and worn.

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