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Choosing Fabric

Some Advice on Fabrics for Women Considering
Home-sewing Plain and Modest Dresses

Also see

  • Advice on Purchasing Custom-made Plain/Modest Dress Online

I highly recommend that anyone wishing to adopt plain and modest dress consider learning how to sew their own dresses. It is more economical than paying someone to make the dress and, with some practice, the dress can be fitted to the wearer more precisely than standard-sizing. It is also beneficial for those looking for their own plain "look" to avoid simply copying an Amish, Mennonite or Quaker design. One of the single largest expenses for the home-sewer, and the most daunting commitment, is the purchase of the garment fabric. For those with good suppliers locally, please frequent the local fabric shop. But not everyone has good resources available. Online purchases of fabric can be nerve-wracking, but also economical, if a few precautionary steps are taken. I link to Fabric.com on this page, but the advice can be applied to any online fabric shop.

This page is designed to guide those looking to purchase fabric for home-sewn plain and modest dresses and to offer some good information for the novice (and nervous) home-sewer.

When I sew a dress, I like to use a good-quality 100% cotton broadcloth fabric, medium weight. They are somewhat hot in the summer, but the lighter-weight cottons are a little too see-through for my comfort, particularly in lighter colors. For myself, the cotton has proven much more durable. The cotton dresses I wear have faded a tiny bit but not gotten thin in the ten years I have had them. It may help that I don't put them in an electric dryer but remove them wet from the washing machine, iron them, and then hang them to finish drying. My poly-cotton dresses have faded decidedly and gotten thin, particularly in the elbows. But the poly-cotton is easy to care for and usually cheaper fabric, so that might be a consideration. I also personally find 100% cotton more pleasant and responsive to sew. I made an apron from a pattern out of 100% cotton and then did another from the same pattern in poly-cotton. The 100% cotton felt like sewing butter, soft, pliable, a delight really, and I felt like I fought to get the poly-cotton garment into shape. But ironing can be tedious, and the poly-cotton dresses I have can just be washed and dried, and that is a serious consideration.

I highly recommend copying any pattern using something like pattern ease tracing material. This can help preserve the original pattern for future use, as well as offer opportunities to preserve other sizes of a multi-size pattern.

Hemp Trader's Muslin-weave Hemp fabric swatch 55% Hemp, 45% Organic Cotton Muslin

Another recommendation for a beginning sewer is to consider sewing a "muslin" out of more inexpensive fabric, like muslin, so that mistakes can be made (and corrected) with less expense. Some patterns offer more specifics (suggestions on how to finish seam edges) while others just say, finish the seam edge. Actually tackling the pattern with a less-expensive fabric can help iron out these procedural wrinkles and also offer an opportunity to produce a better fit. Keep in mind that actual muslin can be a little unkind to work with and will often shrink a very great deal, even those advertised as "pre-shrunk." Consider making it out of another inexpensive fabric (like a clearance fabric from Fabric.com)that is similar to what thee is wanting to use if that is feasible.

Another suggestion is to start by sewing undergarments and nightgowns, where the mistakes and errors won't show. Flannel bloomers or a soft 100% cotton or poly-cotton batiste slip are relatively easy projects that are useful and forgiving for the novice seamstress. (Poly-cotton batiste is something I also like to use to make caps.)

Most of the links on this page are to Fabric.com. I can recommend them for an online purveyor of home-sew fabrics at a good price. I recommend getting swatches, and taking seriously their advice to test the shrinkage of the fabric with a 4x4 inch fabric square. One factoid: black and darker-dyed fabrics will shrink more than other colors (source). I also recommend paying attention to whether a fabric is "Reorderable" or a "Special Purchase," which (on Fabric.com) is indicated by an icon once thee is looking at the specific fabric thee is interested in. Another good source of fabric online is a Mennonite-run store called Gehman's Country Fabrics. They also offer swatches and are very nice to work with.

Cotton and Poly-cotton Broadcloth

Hemp Trader's Silk-satin-weave Hemp Fabric 60% Hemp, 40% Silk Satin
Cotton and poly-cotton broadcloth in solid colors are what most people think of when they think of plain dress. Before I had a child, it was my preference. Now I find that calicos and small florals are nice as they disguise small spills and stains better, and I prefer a neat and tidy appearance. But aprons can also be used to preserve solid-color dresses. One of the most popular fabric lines for 100% cotton broadcloths are Kona Cotton from Robert Kaufman Fabric. Another relatively inexpensive option for a 100% cotton fabric that has a "soft hand" would be Moda Bella. A popular poly-cotton fabric is Kaufman Breezy poly-cotton blend fabric. A little less expensive, but similar, is Fabric.com's cotton blend broadcloth in 65% polyester/35% cotton.

I know at least one home-sewer who really likes linen/rayon blend fabric. Quaker Jane reader Carolyn says, "Another source for 100% linen is fabrics-store.com. Most linen is 54-60 inches wide, lovely colors and light to heavy weights, easy to care for and lasts a long time."

I like the print quilting fabrics for their old-time look and their easy-wear, hide-dirt-and-stains qualities, particularly floral print quilting fabric and old-fashioned calicos.

Other Fabrics used by Conservative and
Old Order Mennonite and Amish Women Today

Many people are surprised to learn that polyester fabrics are popular among Conservative and Old Order Mennonite and Amish women today: jewel-tone satin (usually 100% polyester) fabric is favored for its feminine look and ease of care/wearability. Some people don't like its potentially sheer qualities, requiring slips with shadow panels, and that it is hot and doesn't breathe. Polyester knits (popular with some Old Order Amish) are favored for its ease of care/wearability and that it is inexpensive. One major drawback is it snags easily. I'm not going to recommend any, as I find them difficult to work with and unpleasant to wear, but that is the route some Amish women have opted to go, so it may suit thee as well.

Eco-Friendly

Hemp Trader's Linen-weave hemp 100% Fine Hemp Linen
Some home-sewers like to use "eco-friendly" fabrics like organic cottons, hemp and bamboo fabrics. One relatively less-expensive option would be a hemp/cotton blend. Hemp has many excellent qualities, being a strong and long-lasting fabric that can handle multiple washings well, most weaves can be machine washed and dried. It is available by the yard, pricier than some other fabrics, so one has to be commited to wearing the garment for some time for it to "earn" its keep. Bamboo fabric by the yard is also available. Pay close attention to the care instructions. Some benefits of bamboo is that it is naturally flame resistant, so it can be made into nightgowns that meet the legal standard for flame resistance without chemical treatment. But bamboo will shrink and is weaker when wet. (Hemp and linen are some of the only textiles that are actually stronger when wet.)

Also useful are some of the utility fabrics, which are somewhat hard to find: birdseye diaper cloth, buckram, cheese cloth, muslins . . ..

A reader offers some info on a mail-order fabric option:

"'Good's Store' or Traditional Good Family Shopping is an actual store (with about 3 or 4 locations) that sends out "free" fabric samples every few months. The samples are usually Tropical Breeze, sometimes some others. A few months back I called and asked for some solid 100% cotton samples. They asked what colors I was looking for, then mailed them to me. I found out about them on someones web or blog. I have ordered from them and was happy with my fabric, as well as the speed of my order arriving.

"To request that they add you to their mailing list just call, ask for the fabric department, and ask to be added to their fabric sample mailing list. They are located in East Earl, Pa. Their phone # is (717) 354-4026. Having a fabric sample is, to me, the best way to purchase fabric by mail. The best part of this, the samples are free!"

Another reader offers this info:

Carolina Calicoes has 60" wide 100% linen at very nice prices. I picked up enough fabric for 2 dresses from their tent at a medieval reenactment event this summer for about $6/yd, though it looks like they sell linens online for $10/yd (which is still better than the common $15/yd). Their cottons appear to be nicely priced as well.

For heavy wool melton, such as for making a cloak, cape, or shawl, I recommend PeriodFabric.com. I got some nice heavy black wool for a cloak there for $12/yd, while finding prices elsewhere in the $20-22/yd range.


Advice From Fabric.com

"It is very important to treat/ wash your new fabrics exactly as you plan to treat/wash them after the garment or home decor item is made. Even dry cleaning can produce some shrinkage. We recommend you test a 4'' x 4'' square of your new fabric if you are at all unsure how it will react to your chosen laundering method. If you always test the same sized square, you will be able to check the percentage of shrinkage."

For more in-depth information on fabrics

  • Fabrics.net's Learning Center
  • Fabric.com's Glossary

Good books for learning basic sewing skills

  • The Complete Book of Sewing - Dressmaking and Sewing for the Home Made Easy, by Constance Talbot
    The classic sewing reference book The Complete Book of Sewing - Dressmaking and Sewing for the Home Made Easy, by Constance Talbot, circa the 1940s, available as a reprint.
  • Christian Light Publications offers two Home Economics courses on preparing a Cape Dress and sewing a Cape Dress. I own and have used these books to aid in preparing to sew and sewing a cape dress.
  • Reader's Digest New Complete Guide to Sewing
    I have the 1976 edition of this sewing reference book and have used it since I was in high school. It is almost like a glossary or dictionary. It is easy to look up specific techniques and see extensive illustrations explaining how to implement them. I hope thee finds the newly available one is just as useful.
quakers society of friends spirituality plain dress simplicity limiting your palette quaker meeting peace witness George Fox quakerism
quakers society of friends spirituality plain dress simplicity limiting your palette quaker meeting peace witness George Fox quakerism
quakers society of friends spirituality plain dress simplicity limiting your palette quaker meeting peace witness George Fox quakerism
plain dress
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daily george fox quote

Epistle 96
1655

"Guided up to God"

FRIENDS, I do warn and exhort you all in the Presence of the Lord God, to Meet together in the Measure of Life, that with it ye may be guided up to God, and in Unity kept together up to him, the Father of Light and Life; and God Almighty be with you! And that the Dread and Terror of the Lord may among you be, and Deceit confounded; and that with the Measure of Life all your Minds may be guided up to God, that so ye all in Peace and Love may be kept.

And let this be sent among Friends, to be read ...

... view full quote



Quaker Jane's
Recommended Reading


Reader's Digest New Complete Guide to Sewing

I have the 1976 edition of this sewing reference book and have used it since I was in high school. I use it like a glossary or dictionary, to look up specific sewing techniques.


The Complete Book of Sewing - Dressmaking and Sewing for the Home Made Easy, by Constance Talbot

The classic sewing reference book, circa the 1940s, available as a reprint.

(More Recommended Books
for Basic Sewing Skills . . . )