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Here are the most popular fabrics used for dresses. I’ve listed their names, described what each fabric is like, and what types of dresses they’re used for.
I also interviewed a fashion industry veteran on how to choose the best fabric for your DIY dresses. Polina spent over a decade doing fashion development and production for brands like Burberry, Ted Baker, Missoma, and Anya Hindmarch. She now runs a sustainability-focused fabric store: Good Fabric. Her tips are at the end of the post.
Remember, fabric is fiber + how it’s constructed. For example, cotton is a fiber that’s knitted or woven using different methods to create very different fabrics, from stretchy cotton jersey’s to textured cotton velvet’s.
|Fabric name:||Used for these dresses:|
|Cotton (lawn, batiste, poplin, twill, broderie anglais)||Casual, summer|
|Rayon / viscose / lyocell / Tencel / modal||Flowy, summer|
|Polyester||Many uses (except summer)|
|Cotton knit||Casual, summer|
|Drapey knits||Body-hugging styles|
|Heavyweight knits (french terry, ponte, sweatshirting)||Winter|
|Wool (merino, crepe, cashmere, tweed, jersey)||Casual and formal, winter|
Which fabric is best for dresses?
For daily use, light and medium weight fabrics in cotton, polyester, linen, and rayon/viscose are popular for dresses. For evening dresses, silk, polyester, velvet, chiffon, georgette, crepe, and lace are best for different styles. For summer dresses, cotton and linen are best for feeling cooler.
Good fabrics for summer dresses:
The best fabrics for summer are lightweight and breathable. Fabrics made from cotton and linen fibers are the most popular choices.
Which fabric is best for flowy dresses?
The best fabrics for flowy dresses will be lightweight and drapey. Here are some good examples:
- Chiffon – lightweight and see-through. Often made from polyester or silk.
- Georgette – similar to chiffon, but slightly thicker and semi-sheer. Often made from polyester or silk.
- Rayon / Viscose / Tencel / Lyocell / Modal – light to medium weight, smooth, and generally non-see-through.
- Satin – silky fabric with a glossy shine. Often made from polyester or silk.
Cotton is the most commonly used natural fiber. It’s made from cotton plants. It’s woven and knitted into a huge variety of cotton fabrics, from thick denim to stretchy cotton jersey. The most common type used for dresses is light and medium weight plain-weave versions. These look matte, fine, and smooth. Cotton is absorbent and breathable. It’s generally not very drapey and does wrinkle.
Here are some common names that you’ll come across:
- Cotton lawn: lightweight, smooth, and a bit crisp. It’s well known for being semi-transparent. Very light versions aren’t as durable, so they suit loose and unstructured garments where the fabric will be under less strain.
- Cotton batiste: lightweight and slightly thicker than lawn, so it’s more non-see-through.
- Cotton poplin: a strong, structured, medium weight fabric. It does not suit drapey clothes.
- Cotton broderie anglais: lightweight fabric with embroidery and cut work, normally in a floral design. Often used for summer dresses.
- Cotton twill: made using a twill weave (not plain weave), so it has diagonal ribs running along the fabric. These ribs can be fine and barely visible, or very pronounced. Twill weave fabrics are generally harder-wearing than plain weave fabrics of a similar weight. Cotton twill comes in many weights, from lightweight for fine shirts to heavyweight for trench coats.
How does it feel?
Normally smooth with a dry feel. Luxury cottons that go through the “mercerization” treatment will have a smoother and silkier touch.
Generally no, standard cotton fabrics aren’t drapey. They don’t suit drapey dresses with cowl necks or drapey ruffles. The fabric is slightly structured and stands away from the body, but some varieties are less structured than others.
It varies greatly depending on construction. Some types of cotton are see-through, like cotton mousseline and cotton organdie. Others are semi-sheer, like cotton voile and cotton lawn. And others are non-see-through, like cotton poplin and cotton twill.
Everyday dresses, particularly in the summer. Cotton batiste, lawn, and broderie anglais suit light and loose summer dresses with swishy skirts. Cotton poplin, which is strong and structured, is more formal looking. Think office and school shirts and shirt dresses.
Related: 71 Types of Cotton Fabric
Linen is a natural fiber made from flax plants. It looks matte, wrinkles easily, and is often slightly loosely woven (so you can see small gaps between each thread). It’s typically lint-free and doesn’t “bobble”. It comes in many thicknesses, but light and medium weight versions are most commonly used for tops and dresses, and heavier weights for pants and skirts. It’s normally turned into clothing using a plain weave construction, so the yarn is woven together in a simple grid pattern.
Linen has cooling properties, making it ideal for hot weather.
During the manufacturing process, the fibers from the flax plant stems are cleaned to remove impurities, making the fibers “hygroscopic”. This allows it to absorb up to 20% of its weight in moisture (like sweat) and quickly release this into the atmosphere. This means linen feels dry when touched.
The fiber also doesn’t trap air and insulate us, so it feels less hot than other fibers.
Linen is stronger and firmer than cotton yarns of similar weights, so it can be woven more loosely than cotton before becoming too weak. The looser weave allows more air to flow through the garment, making us feel cooler (source, p.49).
How does it feel?
Smooth with a dry feel.
No, it’s normally quite crisp and structured. This firmness does soften slightly when the fabric is washed and worn.
Generally no, it’s non-see-through. However, a lightweight version may let a small amount of light through when exposed to strong sunlight. Normally just enough to show the shape of limbs. White linen is also semi-sheer even in medium-to-heavy weight versions, so your skin color and bra color will be slightly visible.
Casual summer dresses where wrinkles don’t matter. Linen is often used in loose and non-fitted dresses.
Pros & cons:
|Feels cool and dry. Ideal for hot weather.||Wrinkles easily|
|Mostly non-see-through||Doesn’t suit drapey clothes|
Rayon / Viscose / Lyocell / Tencel / Modal
Rayon (USA) or viscose (Europe) is a drapey fabric that’s normally made in light and medium weights for clothing. It feels soft and smooth. It’s absorbent but not durable when wet, so it’s best to dry clean it. It does not have insulating properties, so it suits warm weather rather than cold weather (source, p.72).
It comes from regenerated cellulose fibers from wood or cotton linters and it’s highly processed. So it’s part natural and part man-made. The term “rayon” was first seen in the US in 1924. It later became known as “viscose” in Europe (source, p.86). Both words are referring to the same fabric.
Today a new version of rayon is becoming popular: lyocell. It uses a more environmentally friendly manufacturing process (source). It’s also stronger and less likely to shrink than traditional rayon or viscose (source, p.72). “Tencel” is a trademarked brand name for lyocell (source).
Modal is a type of lyocell. It’s processed from beech trees which are thought to improve soil quality. Any chemicals used in the process are recycled. Bleaching is done through oxygen technology. And the fabric is biodegradable, so it can be broken down naturally by bacteria and living organisms (source, p.72).
How does it feel?
Soft, smooth, and silky.
Yes, they’re all very drapey fabrics.
Generally no, but white-colored versions are semi-sheer and will show your skin color and bra color.
Drapey dresses. Lightweight versions suit details like ruffles, cowl necks, and gathers.
Polyester is the most commonly used man-made synthetic fabric. It’s woven and knitted into a huge range of fabrics with different looks and feels. Polyester fibers are strong, resist wrinkles, and are often cheaper than other fibers. They don’t absorb moisture. This is good for taking waterproofing and fire-retardent finishes, and good for resisting stains. But it’s bad for summer weather because it traps moisture (like sweat) inside. Polyester fabrics can also be static-y at times, particularly lightweight versions for tops and dresses. (source, p.70).
How does it feel?
This varies greatly depending on how the fabric is constructed. Light and medium weight plain-weave polyester fabrics are generally smooth. A lightweight polyester satin feels smooth and silky. A swishy medium weight polyester crepe feels textured and bumpy. A polyester fleece feels dense and fluffy.
It depends on how the fabric is constructed. Generally light and medium weight polyester fabrics for dresses are drapey.
It depends on how the fabric is constructed. Polyester chiffon is see-through, but a thicker polyester crepe is non-see-through.
It’s a very versatile fabric. It’s frequently used for everyday and formal dresses with drapey qualities.
A drapey fabric with a glossy shine at the front and a dull back. It’s constructed using a satin weave – many flat threads lie on the surface uninterrupted and reflect light.
It’s commonly made from silk (from silkworms) or polyester fibers. Viscose satin also exists but is less common. It looks similar to other satin fabrics but wrinkles quite easily. Polyester versions are wrinkle-resistant, strong, suit regular wash and wear, but do trap moisture (like sweat) making them less comfortable in hot weather.
A common silk satin version that you’ll come across is silk charmeuse. It’s made using a satin-weave construction using creped yarns. It has a liquid drape, shiny front, and matte “peach” feel back.
How does it feel?
Yes, satin fabrics for clothing are very drapey.
Formal evening dresses, luxury sleepwear and lingerie.
A stretchy fabric made from cotton fibers. It feels comfortable and absorbent. It’s a knit fabric, meaning it’s constructed by knitting the yarns into a series of connected loops. Jersey typically comes in single knit or double knit versions. Single knit cotton jersey is thinner. Cotton interlock, a type of double knit jersey, looks the same on both sides and is slightly thicker and more stable than single jersey.
Elastane (or the brand name lycra) will often be added to help the fabric bounce back to its original form after being stretched (“recovery”). Normally less than 10% of the fabric composition will be elastane or lycra. 100% cotton jersey’s without elastane or lycra don’t suit tight clothes that need good recovery. They’re more likely to become stretched out and lose their shape.
How does it feel?
Soft, smooth, and stretchy.
No, it’s a little structured, so it stands away from the body rather than drapes.
Casual stretchy dresses, like t-shirt dresses.
Drapey knit fabrics
These are a group of stretchy knit fabrics that drape well, making them ideal for body-hugging dresses. Viscose or rayon jersey is the most common type. Less common versions are made from silk and bamboo. Silk jersey is very slinky and drapey. Bamboo jersey is drapey and very soft. Elastane is often added to help the fabric bounce back to its original shape after being stretched.
How does it feel?
Soft, smooth, slinky, and stretchy.
Stretchy dresses that hug the body and need a good drape. And comfortable everyday dresses.
Heavyweight knit fabrics
These are a group of stretchy fabrics that are thick, making them ideal for colder weather. They tend to be quite structured and stand away from the body, so they don’t suit drapey styles. Elastane or lycra is often added to improve the recovery of these fabrics (meaning they’ll bounce back to their original form after being stretched).
- French terry – a medium to heavy weight fabric that’s stable and stretchy. It’s smooth on the front and has a looped back. It tends not to pill (source, p.207).
- Ponte roma – a medium to heavy weight fabric that’s stable and stretchy. It’s made using the double-knit technique – 2 layers of fabric are knitted together with 2 sets of needles. It feels smooth and has a slightly ribbed appearance horizontally (source).
- Sweatshirting – a thick fabric with a soft and smooth appearance on the front, and a warm brushed, fleece, or loop back. It’s structured. It normally has slightly less stretch than thinner jersey fabrics. It’s often made from cotton or polyester. It suits casual sweatshirt dresses.
How does it feel?
Smooth on the front and dense.
Casual dresses and loungewear for cold weather.
Fabrics with a subtle crinkle texture made from highly twisted yarns. They can be found in light and heavy weights. Crepe fabrics designed for clothing are often drapey.
They’re normally made from polyester, and luxury versions are made from silk and wool fibers. The fibers will impact the properties of the fabric. Polyester versions are cheaper, stronger, and suit regular wash and wear, but do trap moisture (eg. sweat) making them less comfortable in hot weather.
Crepe de chine is the lightest and finest version of crepe fabrics. It’s made with a plain weave and high twist alternating ‘S’ and ‘Z’ yarns that give it a subtle crinkle look and slightly rough feel. It’s common to see this made from silk or polyester fibers. Polyester versions are drapey, but they don’t have the same liquid drape that silk has.
How does it feel?
The crinkled texture means crepe fabrics feel slightly bumpy, and sometimes a bit rough.
Generally no. If it’s white though, it may be semi-sheer.
Drapey dresses for evening or formal wear.
Velvet is a textured fabric with a thick, plush, high pile. Pile means the fabric is made from cut loops. Velvet has a shine to it. It doesn’t stretch. It’s available in many weights, from light to heavy.
Velvets today are normally made from a blend of fibers like cotton, silk, viscose, and polyester. Silk velvet is the most expensive and luxurious option. It’s shiny, smooth, and very drapey. Cotton velvets feel less smooth and a bit rougher and dryer.
How does it feel?
You can get velvets with a smooth texture (like silk), and others with a stiffer feel (like cotton). The front (with the pile) has a smooth feel when you’re moving your hand in a downward direction. When you move your hand up, it pushes the pile up and feels a bit rougher and more textured. The back is smoother and doesn’t have a pile.
Some light and medium weight velvets are drapey, like silk velvet. Others are more structured.
Silk velvet is beautiful for drapey evening dresses. Polyester velvet in a light or medium weight will also suit dresses but lack the same luster that silk has.
Related: Velvet vs Velveteen vs Velour
A group of fabrics that are transparent, light, and flowy. Under a magnifying glass, chiffon looks like a very fine mesh, which is where the transparency comes from (source, p.40). They’re most commonly made from silk or polyester. Polyester versions are stronger, cheaper, and resist creases. However, they do trap moisture (eg. sweat) so they aren’t summer-friendly, and they don’t mold to the body as well as silk.
A “true” chiffon uses alternating ‘S’ and ‘Z’ high-twist crepe yarns, so the fabric has a slightly rough and dry feel (like crepe). The twisted yarn also gives the fabric a little stretch. But the term chiffon is still used more broadly to describe similar-looking fabrics that are transparent and light, but have not been constructed using high-twist crepe yarns (source, p.74). These versions feel smooth. You’ll see many budget polyester chiffons like this.
How does it feel?
A “true” chiffon made with high-twist crepe yarns feels light, slightly rough, and dry. Chiffons that aren’t made in this way feel smooth.
Evening gowns with a sheer overlay, or sheer sections (often in the bodice or sleeves). Lingerie.
Georgette is similar to chiffon, but it’s slightly thicker and semi-sheer rather than transparent. It’s a more stable alternative too, making cutting and sewing georgette easier than chiffon. It’s drapey and has a matte look. It’s often made from polyester or silk fibers.
How does it feel?
Smooth and more substantial than chiffon (meaning a bit thicker).
Drapey evening gowns and formal dresses that are semi-sheer.
Decorative openwork fabric made into detailed designs by interlacing, twisting, braiding, and looping the threads (source). Floral designs are popular.
How does it feel?
Textured but still generally soft. Some versions will be stretchy, and others won’t.
Generally yes, but a thicker lace edging fabric may be more structured.
Evening dresses, bridesmaid dresses, and wedding gowns.
Wool fibers are often knitted into warm and stretchy winter dresses for casual use. Polyester and acrylic are normally blended in to improve the strength of the garments and sometimes make them machine washable.
Or wool fibers are woven into tailored office-wear dresses like close-fitting shift and sheath dresses. Elastane or lycra will normally be added to give these woven garments some stretch and allow the person to move more freely.
- Merino wool: a finer, softer, and warmer type of wool that comes in different classes from ultra fine to strong. It comes from merino sheep.
- Wool crepe: woven from twisted wool yarns, giving the surface a grainy, crinkled, textured feel.
- Cashmere wool: It’s warmer, finer, and softer than lambswool, but also less durable and more expensive. It has a nap, so it requires extra care when cutting and pressing. It comes from hand-combing Himalayan mountain goats (also called Cashmere or Kashmir goats).
- Wool tweed: Wool tweed is a generic name given to woolen, rough-textured wool fabrics. Tweeds often feature a number of colors and patterns, such as the classic herringbone or the more subtle heathered variety. Formal office dresses are sometimes made from tweed wool. Due to its rough texture, they often require a lining to be comfortably worn.
- Wool jersey: soft, fuzzy, and stretchy. It comes in light and thicker weights. It’s often blended with other fibers to improve strength and add drape.
How does it feel?
This varies greatly depending on how the fabric is constructed, and if it’s blended with other fibers. Merino and cashmere wools are very soft. Wool crepe feels textured and a little rough and dry. Wool tweeds are normally quite rough feeling, so they need to be lined if turned into a dress.
This varies greatly depending on how the fabric is constructed, and if it’s blended with other fibers. Merino, cashmere, and wool jersey are often drapey. Wool tweed is normally more structured, suiting close-fitting shift dresses for the office. Wool crepe tends to have some “body” and structure.
This varies greatly depending on how the fabric is constructed. Wool gauze is light, loosely woven, and see-through. But many other types of wool, depending on their thickness, are not see-through at all.
Merino, cashmere, and wool jersey suit soft, stretchy, and casual dresses for winter. A sweater dress is a good example. More structured wools, like tweed and crepe, suit more structured dresses for office and evening wear.
How to choose the best fabric for your dress project (step-by-step process)
If you want to make a dress, here’s how to choose the right fabric for your sewing project. Polina, a fashion industry veteran, has some tips. She spent years doing product development and production for brands like Burberry, Ted Baker, Missoma, and Anya Hindmarch. She then used her fabric sourcing skills to start a sustainable fabric store called Good Fabric.
I asked her to look at some product photos and teach us how to recreate dresses that we love.
Let’s start with a casual jersey dress from Boden.
- First look at the product description to see what fabric it’s made from. What’s the fiber composition? And is the fabric a knit or woven construction? In this case, it’s 95% viscose and 5% elastane. And jersey’s are always a knit fabric (the fibers are knitted together into interconnected loops, creating a stretchy cloth).
- What are the characteristics of the dress? Is it crisp and structured, or soft and drapey? What design features does it have? This dress is drapey with a gathered and swishy skirt. The top fits tightly. The gathers are gentle, not thick and pouffy, so the fabric seems to be light or medium weight.
So we’re looking for:
- A light-medium weight knit fabric that’s
- stretchy with good recovery (since it’s tight-fitting at the top),
- and made from 95% viscose and 5% elastane ideally. The elastane will help with recovery (meaning the fabric will snap back to its original shape after being stretched).
Polina explains “Viscose jersey, unlike cotton jersey, has a great amount of drape, which is the key difference between those two types of jersey fabrics.
The drape is very important in this style, as it will allow the skirt to have that swish feel when you walk. This dress would also work very well in Tencel jersey but it will have a more slinky feel.
Sometimes you can come across viscose jersey without any added elastane, as lovely as it is, it wouldn’t allow you to create a tight fit at the top [or a] swishy skirt, so look out for 3%-7% added elastane in your fabric composition.”
“All sewing patterns will have suggested fabric recommendations, and some will specify if the fabric needs to have stretch or not. As much as we love rebelling, this is one recommendation that we like to follow as patterns have been designed with fabric in mind.”
Now let’s try a more complex dress from Reformation.
“As we mentioned before, the first step would be to check fabric composition but it’s not always possible, especially if it’s an old picture or something you found on Pinterest. This stunning Melba dress from The Reformation is a prime example of not being [able] to see fabric composition online, so let’s put our powers of deduction to a test.
First, you need to decide if this is a knit or a woven type of fabric.
You need to have thin fabric in order to create carefully positioned gathering on the bodice and thin wrap ties. [Knit] fabrics would be too bulky for gathering in [this] particular design, so this is definitely a woven fabric.
Now onto deciding the best fiber composition for this wrap dress.
Cotton fabric can be very smooth, soft and gentle on the skin, but drapey-ness is not its strongest point. Often woven cotton dresses are used on designs that have tiers and loads of gathers which create the movement of the fabric. But this design is a very clean a-line style skirt so you wouldn’t be able to create that swish feeling with a cotton fabric. Viscose fabric is known for its swish-swoosh, drapey, bouncy, floaty characteristics so it would be a great fabric option for sewing a wrap dress, but there are so many types of viscose, so how do you choose one?
We are huge fans of viscose crepe, it has a super bouncy feel and is perfect for creating feminine silhouettes. Crepe fabric has little textured bumps, feels matte to touch and has that cosy feel.
…Viscose twill has distinctive diagonal lines in the weave, adding a new dimension to the fabric. It often feels a bit silkier and shinier.
When fabric is described as woven viscose, it usually means it has no distinctive weave like a twill or crepe, but it still has all the wonderful properties like drape and fluidity…
We can’t choose our favorite type of viscose fabric, so head over to our viscose category and hopefully you will [find the] perfect fabric for your project…”
These sources were referenced in June 2022.
- Email interview with Polina from Good Fabrics on 25 April 2022.
- C. Hallett and A. Johnston (2014). ‘Fabric for fashion: the swatch book’ 2016 edition. Laurence King Publishing, London.
- J. Fallon (2017). ‘Complete dressmaking: essential skills and techniques for beginners’. Quarto Press, London.