Tips For Sewing With Velvet

This month Folkwear is featuring the 111 Nepali Blouse Pattern, which is a beautiful piece, often worn by Nepali women as an over blouse.  While this blouse is considered a traditional garment, typically made of velvet, it has a truly contemporary feel, which makes it a perfect complement to any wardrobe.

This versatile pattern can be made for any season or occasion. For everyday wear it would be lovely made of fabrics such as cotton, linen, rayon, light wools, or even knits. Any fabric with a bit of drape and a light to medium weight would be suitable. When made in velvet or silk it is transformed into an elegant and comfortable garment whether for a special occasion or for blissfully lounging about. Shorten the sleeves for warmer temps and enjoy year round.  The blouse can be worn open at the collar (simply omit the top sets of ties and cut just four ties for the waist). The ties could also be made of ribbon or even be replaced with buttons, hooks, frogs, or snaps.

Dark red velvet wrap blouse, close up of front.

Since the Nepali Blouse is traditionally made of velvet, this is a perfect opportunity to learn more about velvet and how to handle it.  Velvet can be a tricky fabric to sew with, but the tips below will make it much easier and less intimidating to work with.

Most velvets available today are made of rayon or silk. They generally have a very drapey effect and sometimes a bit of stretch, that work well for tops, blouse, skirts, dresses, pants, and scarfs. The photos below shows the soft silky drape of silk rayon velvet. This type of velvet has a distinct nap, which captures the light creating a beautiful shimmer.

photo showing soft drape of silk/rayon velvet
Photo showng drape of silk/rayon velvet

 Velvet can also be made of cotton and polyester blends, which generally have a more stiff hand or feel, and are perfect  for  more structured pieces, like coats and jackets. The velvets in the photos below are made of cotton and have a stiffer drape and the sheen is typically more subdued than silk and rayon velvets.

photo of stiffer drape of cotton velvet
photo showing cotton velvet drape

 

While silk and rayon velvets are stunning and rich fabrics, they are not the easiest fabrics to control and require a bit of extra attention. This blog will help provide some tips to ensure successful sewing for any velvet sewing project on your list. Use these tips for making the 111 Nepali Blouse, as well as the 120 Navajo Blouse and the 124 Bolivian Milkmaid Jacket, which are also traditionally made in velvet. 

Also view or download these tips as a PDF.

PREPARING THE PATTERN AND CUTTING THE FABRIC

  • Velvet is a napped (or pile) fabric.  This means that the right side of the fabric has a direction that the pile (or fuzzy stuff on top) runs.  The fabic has a different feel and look depending on whether the nap is running up or down. To determine the direction of the nap, rub your hand along the lengthwise grain. The fabric will feel smooth in one direction (with the nap) and rough in the opposite direction (against the nap). Also, the fabric’s color or shade will appear darker with the nap going in one direction than the other. An upward nap creates a deeper and richer effect. A downward nap creates a more glistening or shimmering effect. There is no right or wrong when deciding on the nap effect you like, just personal preference.
  • Once you have determined the desired nap direction, be sure that all pattern pieces are placed pointing in the same direction (e.g., top edges of all pieces pointing in same direction). In pattern directions, this is a “With Nap” cutting layout, which usually requires more fabric than a “Without Nap” layout.  
  • If you cut the pattern out of a double layer of fabric, baste the two layers together along the selvage edges before pinning the pattern to the fabric. This will help keep the material from shifting and sliding.
  • If working with a double layer of fabric is too slippery and difficult, cut the pattern out of a single layer of fabric. Just be sure to cut both right and left pieces when appropriate (e.g., fronts, sleeves, facings). To do this, place the pattern piece on the fabric printed side up and cut out; then place it printed side down and cut out. Remember to point the pieces in the same direction.
  • Working with a single layer of velvet can be easier. Adding a layer of disposable fabric as a base, such as muslin or a thrifted cotton sheet, can make all the difference in creating more stability. Lay a single layer of stabilizing fabric on a cutting surface, then sandwiching the velvet between the disposable fabric base and the pattern. Pin and cut through all the layers of fabric. Paper could be substituted for the base layer of fabric, but this is not generally recommended because cutting paper dulls scissors or blades. The extra layer of disposable fabric really does a good job to stabilize squirmy velvet and silk fabrics.
  • Pin pattern pieces to the fabric only in the seam allowances. Pinholes often remain visible, because they punch out some of the pile threads, and you won't want these holes to show in the finished garment.
  • If the fabric frays or unravels badly, apply a small amount of fray retardant to all raw edges as soon as you cut out the pattern pieces.
  • Use silk thread for marking and basting, as it does not leave holes or imprints in the fabric.

INTERFACING

  • Fusible interfacing is generally not a good choice for velvets or other pile fabrics, be­ cause the pressure you apply with the iron to fuse the adhesive also crushes the pile of the material. Therefore, select a sew-in interfacing and baste the interfacing to the wrong side of the pattern pieces before assembling the garment. Baste only in the seam allowances.
  • You can purchase different weights of non­fusible interfacing, or you can use a light­ weight cotton (e.g., batiste) or silk organza for a low-bulk, sew-in interfacing. Test a sample of fabric to see how it feels and drapes with the different interfacing possibilities.
  • For a more structured result, cut the interfacing on the straight grain. For a drapey, less structured effect, cut the interfacing on the bias.
  • There are very-low-heat fusible interfacings on the market today. If you choose one of these, place the fabric’s right side on a needleboard (or another piece of velvet set right-side-up) before fusing the interfacing to the wrong side, so you won’t crush the pile, and use as little pressure as possible. Experiment on fabric scraps first!
  • It is not recommended to iron or press the right side of velvet, this will crush the pile or nap. Remove creases by steaming. Steam the wrong side with an iron, but avoid placing the weight of the iron on the fabric. Using a clothing/fabric steamer on the wrong side of the velvet is ideal.

STITCHING TIPS

  • When sewing with plush velvets or other heavily napped fabrics, increase the stitch length a bit. Experiment with different stitch lengths on fabric scraps to achieve smooth, secure, pucker-free seams. 
  • Use silk thread for stitching, which result in easier and smooth stitching. 
  • Baste all seams before stitching, to keep the various layers from shifting. Use a baste stitch and then make a small backstitch every three inches or so as you go. Baste diagonally across the stitching line, rather than along it or parallel to it (see illustration below). If the layers still shift, baste on each side of the stitching line as well as diagonally across it.

  • You may want to shave or trim the pile or nap from seam allowances before stitching, to reduce bulk in the seams.
  • Double-check the sewing instructions before stitching any seam permanently, to be sure you are completing the next step correctly. Ripped-out seams leave behind unsightly holes that cannot be hidden.
  • Stitch seams in the same direction as the nap, as much as possible. If the nap is running down the garment, stitch seams from top to bottom; if the nap is running up the garment, stitch from bottom to top.
  • If the fabric is especially slippery, encase it between two layers of tissue paper. Stitch the seam through tissue and fabric, then tear away the tissue paper.
  • Stitch slowly! Stop every few inches, with the needle down in the fabric, and lift the presser foot to let the fabric relax. Lower the presser foot and continue stitching. 
  • When sewing pile and non-pile fabrics together, such as velvet and lining, stitch the seam with the non-pile fabric on top and sew in the direction of the nap.
  •  When hand stitching, catch a thread in the foundation fabric only, leaving the pile threads free.

 PRESSING TIPS

  • Use scraps left over from cutting out the pattern to experiment with different heat settings and pressing surfaces, to determine what’s best for the selected fabric.
  • To avoid crushing the pile or nap, use a needleboard, fluffy terrycloth towel, or piece of velvet fabric as the pressing surface. Press garment with nap down against the needles, towel loops, or fabric pile. Press very lightly and use lots of steam if appropriate for the selected fabric.
  • If you must press the right side, use a piece of self-fabric or terrycloth as a pressing cloth and apply as little pressure as possible, to prevent crushing the pile.
  • Steam the seams open. Finger press the seams to secure an open seam. Do not directly touch the iron to the velvet.
  • To ”refresh” the nap of a garment made out of pile fabric, put it in the dryer with a few terrycloth towels. Set on air fluff (no heat) and run for just a few minutes, checking it often.

TEST SWATCHES

Because of the different nature of velvet fabric, it is a good idea to practice and experiment on a few scraps before you make your final project. Here are a few experiments to try using velvet.

  • Try cutting two layers of velvet to see how it behaves.
  • Experiment with how the naps directions look when stitched.
  • Pin and baste in the seam allowances before cutting.
  • Practice machine stitching the seams to see how the fabric behaves on the straight grain and in a curve.
  • Evaluate the thickness of turned seams.
  • Experiment with different stitch lengths and adjust if you get any puckers.
  • Practice steaming to remove creases.
  • Practice steaming and finger pressing the seams open.
  • See how the velvet behaves going through a serger.
Making swatches will help you get better acquainted with how velvet behaves. With a bit of experimentation, velvet is a pleasure to sew.  

While working with velvet takes more time and effort, the benefits are well worth it. No other fabric compares with the unique quality of a stunning velvet. Use these tips to make a 111 Nepali Blouse and for all your other velvet sewing projects. 

View or download this as a PDF.

 Back of dark red velvet blouse