“You’ll want some velvet for fall.” That was a headline to a recent New York Times article about the popularity of velvet this season, and we have to admit we’ve fallen for the luxe fabric as well.
But just as we start dreaming of all the chic velvet pieces we want to make, reality hits and we remember this cold, hard fact: silk or rayon velvet is a beast to sew. It slips, slides, shifts, and stretches. We wondered: How can we sew silk or rayon velvet and live to tell the tale?
Fortunately Vogue Patterns designer Marcy Tilton is a pro at working with tricky fabrics like velvet, and she gladly volunteered to write a post about how she conquers velvet. Read on and get ready to sew some velvet! (And if you’re in the market for velvet, check out Marcy’s selection here at her online fabric store.)
Tips for Sewing Velvet
by Marcy Tilton
Silk velvet can be slippery, slides around in handling and the nap grabs itself so the fabric shifts—in fact, can shift in length and width. Pressing is tricky too. The iron can leave marks, seams can show through, hand stitching can be obvious. Your ‘touch’ and how you handle the fabric make a big difference every step of the way: preparation, testing, cutting, pressing, stitching and final touches.
Buy extra fabric to play with!
Échatillion is a beautiful French word for sample. In couture houses they make many to test the fabric using swatches, and these swatches are lovely, and are saved for future reference. This is an essential step before you leap into your project, and in making a series of samples you are carrying on in the tradition of the finest couture seamstresses.
• Seams, width and finishes.
• Needle size and stitch length
• Pressing – try to make every mistake you might make to see just how to handle the fabric and iron, and what is the best ‘touch’ to develop to handle the fabric.
• Paper for cutting out (see below)
• An iron with LOTS of steam. I use a Reliable Pro with a boiler tank and use the steam in tandem with pressing, often letting the steam do the work.
• A teflon shoe for the iron
• Smooth terry towel or a piece of cotton velveteen to cover the ironing board
• Silk thread (works better than a good quality long staple polyester)
• 505 brand Temporary Fabric Adhesive spray
• Fine, sharp needle
• Walking foot for your sewing machine
Cutting out your pattern:
Cut with a layer of paper underneath the fabric. Place a layer of paper down on your cutting surface, trim both ends at right angles
Tear or pull a thread to establish the cross grain of your velvet. Silk velvet tears easily, don’t be afraid! (Editor’s note: Sadly, rayon velvet does not tear easily.) Place the fabric on top of the paper, lining up the selvedges and cross grain with the paper. Pin the fabric through all layers.
Cut through all the layers including the paper. The paper allows you to move the pieces around on the design table so you can transfer markings without distorting the pattern pieces.
Suggestion: Cut the velvet with the nap running down, not up. True, if you run the velvet up, the color looks darker and richer, but the problem is in wearing. The fanny area will get crushed out of shape, it will ‘grab’ other clothes, like coats, and will stick to chairs. One of those things that sounds good in theory but not so much in practice.
Transfer markings before removing the pattern and fabric from the bottom layer of paper. Mark with tailor’s tacks. I use embroidery thread for this as it does not pull out easily. Take one stitch through the fabric leaving ¾” tails. One stitch only. Then gently separate the layers and clip the threads. Or, mark with a dressmaker’s pencil, making a dot at each marking. I lick the pencil to give it a bit more color and lasting power.
The biggest challenge is to keep the fabric from shifting as you sew.
Option #1: Hand basting. In the old days, I relied on hand basting every seam using a diagonal basting stitch and silk thread. The seam is machine stitched right over the basting thread, which is easily removed as the silk thread slides out easily.
Option #2: Spray adhesive (my preferred method)
My preferred method is to use a spray adhesive like 505 Spray. Cover your work surface with paper, and carefully mask off the seam allowance with paper. Spray a light, consistent amount of spray within the seam allowance, then carefully line up the edges of your fabric pieces. Stitch. This is quick and works beautifully. It is a little-known secret of couture houses that for years the seamstresses have relied on similar spray adhesives for just this purpose. [Meg Carter reports that she tried this tip and considers it a game-changer for sewing velvet.]
Keep a light hand, under-press and go for a soft look. Do NOT use a velvet board! This old school tool is never big enough and the edges and corners can leave indelible marks on the fabric. Pad the ironing board instead so you have a large surface to work on. If you use a sleeve board and/or ham, pad those surfaces too.
Pad the ironing board with terry towels and a layer of cotton velveteen or inexpensive polyester stretch velvet on top. Having another fabric with a pile and nap on top of the ironing surface keeps the pile on the silk velvet and prevents marks and seam show-through.
Press seams flat after stitching. When using spray adhesive you can serge the seams first or I serge the two seams together after stitching, then press the serged seam to one side. In some cases you can separate the seams and press open, and a bit of the adhesive remains. But if the spray is light enough to hold the layers for stitching and can be peeled open, the residue will dissipate some. Testing is essential to determine which is the best pressing strategy.
Experiment with pressing seams open to see how much pressure to apply with the iron, using a combination of steam, light iron pressure and finger pressing.
To hold two layers of silk velvet together firmly for stitching a seam or to form a smooth enclosed edge as on the front edge of a jacket or collar, there is nothing that beats diagonal basting.
• Use silk thread.
• Use a single strand.
• No knots, just take a couple of short stitches to secure.
• Don’t make the strand too long or it tangles.
• Don’t pull too tight, the fabric should not distort.
• It does not need to look beautiful, though in time your stitches will look neater.
• Take a stitch with the needle at right angle to the edge. Stitches are about 1/2″ apart. Keep stitches firm but not too tight. Silk thread slips out easily after the seam is stitched.
More tips for feeling comfortable working with velvet:
Silk velvet appears delicate but in fact is a workhorse fabric which takes as well to the street as the ballroom. You can take different approaches to sewing with it depending on the result you want. I’ve used these two approaches to sewing velvet:
1. Keep your velvet in its original condition—pristine and smooth and flat. This takes more care, patience, practice and skill. I recommend you start with #2 below, a project that is crushed or crinkled.
2. Beat up your velvet! Toss the fabric in the washer/dryer. When your velvet garment is finished, you wet and pleat/crinkle your velvet à la Fortuny (see instructions below). Working over your velvet first is like using training wheels so you get the feel of working on the fabric, while upping your skills on stitching and pressing.
The pleating process for finished velvet garments:
This technique can be used with almost any garment—jackets, shirts, skirts and pants. Helps if there is plenty of ease in the garment so the pleats can hang without being stretched out by the body. This is the process I use on soft, loose fitting silk velvet pants. These instructions are for a jacket, but follow the same guidelines to pleat pants, pleating each leg separately.
Evenly dampen the finished pressed garment. Use a spray bottle or run it through the washing machine on a gentle cycle so the garment is evenly damp, NOT sopping wet.
Fold the damp garment in half and smooth out on a clean surface, keeping the sleeves free and aligning the side seams and center front edges. Starting at center back and working from the neck edge to the hem, form small pleats, making them as even as you can. The damp fabric will hold the pleats in place. Go for consistency rather than perfection. Pleat from center back to the side seam.
Keeping the top sleeve out of the way, pleat the front of the jacket in the same way. The front edges of the jacket should not be pleated as tightly as the body of the garment.
Flip the entire piece over to the other side, keeping the pleats in place as best as you can. Finesse/touch up the pleats on this side of the garment and pleat the sleeve. Do your best so the pleating is consistent throughout.
Gently but firmly, keep the pleating in place and roll the entire piece into a twisted bundle. Put the damp twisted bundle in a warm dry place and allow to dry. In summer I put it on a table in the sun. In winter I place it on a towel close to a heater. It does not have to be bone-dry to untwist. I keep and eye on it and open the bundle gradually to check on the moisture. When it is almost dry, shake it out and hang on a shaped/padded hanger to dry completely. At this stage, I smooth out the front edges, sometimes give it a VERY light touch up press so that the front buttons smoothly, but not too much, you want to keep the pleats. The pleats WILL relax as you wear the garment. I re-twist to store the jacket in between wearings.
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Thanks, Marcy! Meg Carter just made a kimino jacket using Marcy’s tips and she says this is the first time she’s sewn rayon velvet and not wanted to pull her hair out. She made this quick little video below that showcases Marcy’s tips here and includes some of Meg’s own. Next week—easy patterns to sew that will look chic in velvet. Stay tuned!