When the hot weather kicks in, the difference between feeling like heaven and feeling like hell can come down to the cut of your cloth. Or rather, the weight of it.
Thick, heavyweight fabrics can leave you feeling hot, sweaty, and uncomfortable before you’ve even started your day. Clothes made from lightweight fabrics, on the other hand, will keep you as cool as the proverbial cucumber from dawn to dusk.
If you’re looking to make your own lightweight summer wardrobe, there’s a heap of things to learn. Lightweight fabrics come in a vast array of options, not all of which are going to be suitable for each and every project.
What are lightweight fabrics? Some are almost opaque, others are nearly transparent. Some will let your skin breathe, others will have you sweating up a storm in no time.
Unless you’re happy to waste your time and money on something entirely unsuitable, it pays to learn the basics on each type of lightweight fabric… not to mention pick up a few hints and tips while you’re there.
What makes a fabric lightweight rather than mid or heavyweight? Simple – the GSM (or, in other words, the grams per square meter).
Lightweight fabrics typically weigh between 30- 150 GSM. In comparison, medium weight fabrics tip the scales at 150-350 GSM, while heavyweight fabrics can weigh upwards of 350 GSM.
Some of the most popular and commonly known lightweight fabrics include chiffon, linen, organza, cheesecloth, lace, voile, mesh, and habotai… although as you’ll soon see, that’s by no means an exhaustive list.
Before we look into the question of whether sheer fabric is transparent or translucent, a brief explanation of the terms might be in order.
Transparent objects and garments are clear enough that you can see right through them, almost to the point that it's like there’s nothing there. Glass and cellophane are both good examples of this type of material.
Translucent fabrics, on the other hand, will let light through, but with enough diffusion that you can’t see through them in quite the same way as you could a transparent fabric.
So, explanation over, what category do sheer materials fall under? As a rule, translucent. Sheer fabric is made from the kind of thin thread that results in a flimsy, lightweight cloth that’s best described as translucent, or semi-transparent.
And how do you know just how translucent the fabric is? Look at the denier. The lower the denier, the more see-through the fabric. For something that’s barely visible, look for a denier of around 3. For the level of sheerness you’d get with stockings, look for a 15 denier. On the higher end of the scale, a 30 denier will get you a semi-opaque finish, while a 100 denier will be fully opaque.
Lightweight fabrics have a lot of perks. Unfortunately, they also come with one or two flipsides… their tendency to fray being one of them.
As a general rule of thumb, lighter fabrics made of a loose weave will fray easier than those with a tighter weave. Knits tend to fray the least, so look for an option like silk if you want to keep fraying to a minimum.
Some fabrics are so thin, they feel like a fairy’s kiss against your skin. For quite some time, the world’s thinnest fabric was the appropriately named Fairy Feather silk, a featherweight creation made from 8-denier silk microfibers that felt almost weightless in the hand.
But then along came a new contender for the crown. For the past five years, the title of the thinnest fabric has gone to Super Organza, a superbly light fabric that weighs a tiny 5 grams per meter. Just to put that into perspective, that’s around the same weight as a nickel.
Cotton is one of the most popular and widely available materials around. But is it lightweight? The answer is…. sometimes. Cotton can be just about anything you want it to be, from the heavy-weight velvet and moleskin to the featherweight lawn and voile.
There’s a reason polyester is such a popular option for workout gear and activewear… and it’s not just down to its moisture-wicking qualities. Polyester is lightweight, making it a great option for those days the weather calls for something light and breezy.
Linen is a natural material made from flax. Despite its strength (it’s a whopping two times stronger than cotton), it’s incredibly lightweight… which probably explains why it’s such a popular choice when summer comes around.
Twill is a type of textile weave that’s characterized by a diagonal pattern created by the particular process that goes into its creation.
Usually, twill is considered a medium to heavyweight fabric that’s best suited to structured, fitted garments, and workwear. You can, however, occasionally find printed twills on lightweight fabrics, but these tend to be few and far between.
Viscose is a synthetic material that’s soft, airy, breathable, and, yes, supremely lightweight. It’s not, however, the most environmentally friendly fabric available, so look to other options if you want to keep your eco-conscious squeaky clean.
Sheer fabric can be made from both synthetic and natural fibers. Some of the most common types include:
A structured, heavyweight dress might make good sense in the winter months, but come summer, you’re going to want something a little breezier. A little lighter. But which lightweight fabric is the best for dresses?
As with most things, it depends. Some people prefer the feel of silk, others like the easy-to-care-for qualities of voile. Whatever your preference, you won’t go far wrong by choosing any one of these top fabrics:
Chiffon - Light and sheer, chiffon has a romantic feel to it thanks to its lustrous sheen and soft to the touch feel. Chiffon can be made from silk, rayon, or a synthetic like polyester… but whatever it’s made of, you can be assured of a gorgeous drape and elegant finish.
Georgette - Georgette is an incredibly thin fabric with a gorgeous drape. A favorite with fashion designers, it has an almost sandy texture that’s a little rougher to the touch than chiffon and endowed with a more opaque finish.
Crepe - Crepe is an all-encompassing term that can be used to describe a wide variety of fabric types. Most varieties are soft to the touch and thin, with a light, fluid quality. Thanks to its soft luster and free-flowing nature, is a great choice for dresses.
Cotton Voile - If you want something sheer, thin, and very, very soft, you’ll be hard pushed to find many fabrics better than cotton voile. Despite the slightly crisp feel of the fabric, it has a gorgeous drape, making it a fine choice for light-as-air summer dresses.
Organdy - Despite being crisp to the point of stiffness, organdy is also sheer smooth and fine to the touch. Choose a soft organdy for dresses: the stiff varieties might look lovely for formal attire, but are a little much for everyday wear. Just be aware that this is a fabric that likes to wrinkle. A lot…
Silk Fabrics - Thin, sheer, and with the kind of luster dreams are made of, silk fabrics are excellent for dresses. Thanks to its slightly stiff finish, it’s also great for creating structured garments that need to hold their shape.
Batiste - Batiste is a slightly sheer fabric that looks something similar to voile, although with a slightly finer finish. Usually made of wool, cotton, silk, rayon, or linen, it’s great for summer dresses.
Heavy curtains might be great for privacy, but sometimes, we want something a little lighter. So, what’s the best lightweight fabric for curtains? Actually, there’s two:
Eyelet Cotton - Eyelet cotton is an affordable option that has the lightweight appearance of an open weave fabric. If you want something that’s lightweight but not completely sheer, this could be your best option.
Voile - Voile is a sheer, soft, and wonderfully lightweight material that’s typically made of cotton, but can also come in polyester varieties. With its gorgeous drape and fine surface, it allows light into a room while still affording you privacy.
Sewing sheer fabrics might seem a headache, but it’s a lot easier than you think when you’ve got a few tips and tricks up your sleeves.
Use Tissue Paper - When you’re cutting sheer fabric, place a sheet of tissue paper underneath the fabric, and leave it there as you stitch. It’ll make sure you don’t end up stretching or tearing the fabric.
Avoid All-Purpose Thread - Always choose a machine embroidery thread or lingerie thread over an all-purpose thread when you’re working with sheer, delicate fabrics.
Stick to Super Fine Glass Head Pins - Normal pins can easily snag or leave puncture holes in sheer or lightweight fabrics. Avoid damaging delicate fabrics by using super fine glass head pins.
Serge Before Washing - Most lightweight fabrics fray a lot quicker and easier than most of us would like. As you‘ll need to wash the fabric before starting the project, it’s best to serge the edge before washing to avoid the risk of any fraying.
Prewash and Dry - Unless you’re working with silk (in which case, ignore this next tip completely), always wash and dry the fabric before you begin sewing. This will make sure it does all the shrinking it’s likely to do before you start cutting.
Let Your Sewing Machine Do The Work - Lightweight fabrics tend to be more delicate than medium or heavyweight fabrics. If you’re using a sewing machine, resist the urge to push or pull the fabric through the machine; simply feed it through and let the machine do the hard work. If you haven’t worked with lightweight or sheer fabrics before, it's always helpful to take a trial run with a scrap piece of fabric first so you can get used to the different style of working.
Keep Stitches Small - A lightweight fabric is no place for a big stitch. Minimize the risk of the raw edges pulling out by keeping stitches as small and neat as possible.
Embrace Starch - Working with a delicate fabric becomes a lot easier when you use a little starch. Spray some starch on the fabric to stabilize it before you start sewing or cutting. And don’t worry about being stuck with a stiff, crispy garment forever– it’ll wash out in a jiffy once you’ve finished.
Lightweight fabrics aren’t just light, they’re delicate. And that means they need a little extra TLC. When it comes to needles, skip anything blunt or thick and stick to sharp sewing machine needles in a size 10/70 or 9/65.
If you skip the advise and try using a universal needle, you're likely to snag or puncture that delicate fabric. And don't even think about using anything blunt...
If you’re not used to working with lightweight fabrics, you’ve probably not paid too much attention to the setting on your machine before. But you’re going to need to start. Most sewing machines have a standard-setting of 5… which works well enough for most fabrics, but not sheers.
When you’re working with sheer fabrics, lower everything: lower the stitch size, lower the pressure, and lower the tension… and always be sure to check the tension and stitch on a scrap piece of fabric before you start so you can make any adjustments necessary.