All about…working with viscose fabrics

Pink viscose twill fabric with entomology pins

In this latest ‘All about…’ post I thought it would be useful to pull together all the hints and tips we’ve accumulated for working with viscose fabrics. To start with…

…what’s so special about viscose fabrics?

Viscose fibres are manufactured using natural cellulose extracted from woody-stemmed plants. They’re used to create breathable fabrics that have exceptional drape and which are very soft and comfortable to wear next to the skin. Viscose fibres are often very fine and all these qualities make the resulting fabrics very popular for tops and blouses as well as lingerie such as camisoles and robes.

Although viscose fibres can be used for knitted fabrics, we’re making those the subject of our next ‘All about…’ post – this one’s all about woven viscose fabrics; specifically those finer, lighter-weight fabrics that can be trickier to work with. (Oh – and if you’re reading from the US – ‘viscose’ is the term we use in the UK for ‘rayon’ – apologies for any confusion!)

Different types of woven viscose fabrics

Viscose can be part of the composition of many types of woven fabric – from coatings to suitings and dress fabrics where it’s used to bring softness and drape to a cloth. However 100% viscose fabrics are usually light-to-medium weight dress and blouse fabrics. The soft viscose fibres mean that they share many features including drape and softness; they’re not structured fabrics and don’t hold a shape.

Here are four common examples that you’re likely to encounter.

Viscose challis

A challis is the name given for any plain-woven, lighter weight fabric (including lighter-weight wools) where the weave is comparatively relaxed. The combination of the simple, slightly looser weave pattern and the soft viscose fibres mean that these are fluid, highly-draping fabrics. They’re most often used for tops and blouses. It’s possible to gather these fabrics without adding bulk so they’re also often used for more voluminous tiered and gathered dresses too. Compared to a cotton lawn a challis is much more fluid and less crisp.

Viscose challis fabrics have a distinctive smoothness and fluidity

Viscose twill

Any twill fabric can be distinguished from the diagonal lines created by the weave pattern. Most types of fibre have distinctive twills, from wool suitings to sturdy drill-like cottons. Viscose twills encompass a wide range of fabrics from linings to suitings but we’re really talking here about the lighter-weight dress fabrics. These tend to be very soft and draping. They’re more opaque than challis fabrics and because of the diagonal twill weave, can be tricky to lay flat and cut straight along the grain line. They often have a slightly ‘brushed’ finish, adding to their softness and making them particularly suitable for shirts, blouses and draping dresses.

The distinctive diagonal weave lines of a viscose twill

Viscose crepe

Like any crepe fabric, a viscose crepe is woven using highly-twisted yarns in a distinctive weave pattern which creates a gently-textured surface on the fabric. That ‘crepey’ texture is the distinguishing factor which gives this type of fabric its name. As with other viscose fabrics, viscose crepes tend to be particularly soft and draping. Any viscose fabric is going to be prone to initial shrinkage (see below) but viscose crepes are particular culprits because of the twisting of the fibres and the complex weave structure, so pre-washing is especially important for these. The crepe weave makes these fabrics very ‘lively’ in terms of their movement – and they come in a wider range of weights which makes them more likely to be used for dresses and separates as well as tops and blouses.

The softly-textured surface of a viscose crepe

Viscose crepe-de-chine

Technically a form of crepe fabric, a crepe-de-chine is woven in a pattern which gives it a finely ribbed appearance. The tighter weave means the surface finish often has a slight lustre and the density of the fabric means that it hangs and moves with the appearance of more weight than you might expect. Finer crepe-de-chine fabrics are lovely as tops and blouses; heavier cloths work particularly well as draping dresses, skirts and palazzo pants.

The slightly ribbed surface of a viscose crepe-de-chine

Working with viscose fabrics

It’s easy to spot the characteristics shared by all these viscose fabrics. They’re full of movement, love to drape, lack the crisp stability of cottons and they’re very soft and gentle against the skin. All delightful qualities – but they’re also what makes these fabrics tricky to work with.

Here, then, are some tips gathered from across our ClothSpot posts. Some are based on our experience with these fabrics – others are suggestions from comments. It’s far from an exhaustive list I’m sure – so if you’ve any bright ideas then please do post in the Comments below! Here goes…

Pre-wash

Pre-washing your fabric will eliminate subsequent shrinkage, meaning that your garment will continue to fit you once you’ve made it. Viscose fibres need gentle washing – 30 or 40 degrees maximum. Don’t forget to finish the ends of your fabric length (using a zig-zag or overlocking stitch) before you wash, to minimise fraying.

Take your time!

You really can’t rush working with viscose fabric. That time you spend smoothing, pinning, basting – it all helps avoid disappointment and tears.

Lay flat

When you’re cutting your fabric lay it out flat across the largest flat surface you can. If you have to use the floor, avoid carpet – and if your table isn’t big enough for the whole length, support one end with a chair so it doesn’t drag the fabric off the end. If you need to, work in short sections.

Fine pins

We recommend using the finest possible pins you can to avoid snagging. My favourites are entomology pins, used for mounting insect specimens. They come in different grades – mine are 38mm x 0.45mm. Use as many pins as you need – more is usually better!

Super-fine entomology pins

Pin selvedges

When you’re laying out your fabric take special care to match your selvedges. If your fabric’s folded down the centre, take special care to ensure that it’s not ‘skewed’ into the fold. Once you’re certain that the selvedges are properly matched, pin them together to secure them while you place, pin and cut your pattern pieces.

Pin your selvedges together to stabilise your fabric while cutting

Consider your cutting tools

Heavy tailoring shears with wide blades risk lifting your fabric out of position while you cut pattern pieces. Where possible, use scissors with narrower blades. Serrated blades can help keep fabric in position while you cut. If you have a rotary cutter and mat then these can also help minimising the movement of viscose fabrics while you cut.

Pattern paper helps

We’d always suggest keeping your pattern pieces attached to the paper pattern pieces until you’re ready to use them. This will minimise fraying and creasing; it will also ensure the fabric pieces don’t warp from the grain line while it’s waiting to be constructed.

We had a fabulous tip from Gillian on our Instagram, which is to place a sheet of pattern paper underneath your viscose fabric before you cut. She suggests this reduces the likelihood of slippage and also allows you to move your fabric around the table without disrupting your layout. Each pattern piece you cut is then a ‘fabric sandwich’ of paper/fabric/paper.

Block your interfacing

If pattern pieces require interfacing then don’t try and cut your interfacing to the shape of your pattern piece. Instead, cut a block of interfacing and fuse it to a larger section of fabric before then cutting out the pre-interfaced fabric.

Use a new needle!

With fine fabrics like these, new needles are essential to avoid pulling and puckering. We suggest a ‘Sharp’ or ‘Microtex’ needle, Size 70 for most fine viscose fabrics.

Spray starch

Particularly when you’re working with smaller pattern pieces such as collars and cuffs, don’t be afraid to use spray starch to stabilise your fabric and make it easier to work with. Do test your starch on a spare offcut of your fabric first though.

Knits next!

Thank you for dropping by! Next time I’ll be moving onto viscose jersey fabrics – but if you’d like to let us know about your favourite tips for working with woven viscose fabrics then please post them in the Comments below. This list is just our ‘starter for ten’ – we’re sure there are plenty more bright ideas out there…

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