Does Silk-Wool Have Fabric “Nap?”

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If you sew, you probably already have an understanding about the industry references to fabric nap, or "pile."

Black Velvet Dance Dress, Dior. L’Officiel, October 1959
Black Velvet Dance Dress, by Dior. L’Officiel, October 1959

One way I initially explain fabric nap to beginners is to ask them to examine their carpet or a rug. Have you ever noticed, depending on what side you stand on, that the carpet looks different? Or, just try a little experiment the next time you vacuum. "Pushing" the vacuum will create a different pattern than when you "pull" the vacuum towards you. One side will absorb light, and the other side, seems to reflect light.

This is a similar to what happens with fashion fabrics as well, especially velvets, corduroy's, and some silks.

So when I am sewing and designing, I always consider, among many variables, the effect that light will have on the texture and appearance of a particular garment. In particular, I ask how the garment will look when considering light shining from all possible angles, 360 degrees around the body.

If your dress is made from a fabric with fabric nap, you’ll need to place the pattern pieces in the same direction of the grain line, so your dress doesn't end up looking like a pieced-together quilt.

Let's examine a velvet sample, below. Velvet has significant fabric nap, and will reflect light differently depending on the direction of the fabric.

Can you believe this is the same fabric? This photo was taken in natural light. It is one photograph, with the fabric folded over.

Sample piece of black velvet, in opposite directions. What is nap?
Same piece of black velvet, cut in opposing directions

There isn't a "right" or "wrong" fabric nap. The key is to keep the cut consistent. Also, consider the eye level. If one likes the dull, absorbant light of the direction, remember, people aren't looking up at you from the floor. If the sewist intends for the garment to look the way it was meant to be designed, it is important to consider the eye-level, and then cut in that direction.

There isn't a "right" or "wrong" fabric nap. The key is to keep the cut consistent.

Since layout can be confusing if there are many pattern pieces, I will mark an arrow on the grain-line to remind me of the direction in which I'm laying out the pieces.

What about Silk-Wool?

Some fabrics are not as obvious about fabric nap, like this silk-wool fabric that I've selected for the Nina Ricci dress.

In the photograph above, the silk wool fabric is folded over in one photograph taken in natural light. I personally cannot see a dramatic contrast, compared to the velvet sample above, but I do sense a subtle difference.

To play it safe, I am going to cut the fabric as if it does have a fabric nap, because this red silk-wool is woven with black thread. Although subtle, the light bounces off the fabric slightly differently, depending on the direction. Do you see it, too?

How to tell if you can cut multi-directionally

The envelope on the back of most commercial sewing patterns will usually tell you if the pattern is suited for directional fabrics. Some patterns will directly warn you to not use a fabric with fabric nap, or direction.

This Nina Ricci pattern allows for piled and directional fabrics, but it requires more yardage to cover the one-directional layout. So, during the planning phase, it is important to understand which fabric one will be using, and then ordering enough of it.

...and because the pieces are layed out in a completely different manner, the pattern instructions will help with pattern layout, to minimize the amount of fabric one uses. The chart the company provides is helpful to create as little waste as possible, and to help us save our pennies, since fabric can be quite expensive.

Although the conversation about fabric nap is one of the first things that one learns when they begin sewing, I hope this blog post shows that even an intermediate or advanced sewist will run into obstacles, and need to make important judgment calls.

The next blog post will cover the underbodice, or corselette. So, stay tuned for some interesting corselette construction details! I hope you enjoyed this post on the interplay between light and fashion fabric.

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