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What is the difference between knit fabrics and woven fabrics?

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As a seasoned seamstress, I tend to take it for granted that people know the difference between a knit and woven fabric, but plenty of people don’t. As evidenced by the questions I get at least once a week both in my clothing shop and my pattern shop like: “Can I use 100% cotton with this pattern?” or “Is this dress made of cotton or is it stretchy?”

The problem with both questions is that fabrics can be knit/stretch and be 100% cotton. But people have come to confuse 100% cotton with woven.

When you think of woven fabrics, think of fabric you’d use to make a quilt or curtains or upholstery. Woven fabric is generally crisp and not stretchy*. It can be as thin as chiffon or as thick as denim.

*Some woven fabrics, like stretch denim or stretch poplin, have spandex woven in to give it some stretch. A stretch poplin may have 15% stretch across the grain, which means a 10″ piece of fabric can stretch up to 11.5″.

When you think of knit fabrics, think of t-shirts and leggings. Knit fabric is usually stretchy and supple. It can be as thin as mesh or as thick as sweatshirt fleece.

Knit fabrics tend to offer a superior amount of stretch compared with wovens, perhaps 30-50% for a t-shirt or up to 100% for something like a nylon spandex. 50% stretch would mean a 10″ piece of fabric can stretch up to 15″. 100% would mean a 10″ piece of fabric could stretch up to 20″. That’s quite a difference from the 11.5″ from the stretch poplin example.

This handy little drawing (courtesy of Threads magazine) is a close-up of how woven fabric is constructed. Notice it’s a sort of basket-weave pattern, with the threads running perpendicular to each other. Each thread is separate from the next, meaning that when it’s cut, the edges fray.

 

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