Monday, January 25, 2010

Fleece...and what to make of it.

This has been the winter of fleece for me!  I've made jackets for me and Logan, tunics, tops, blankets, pants - you name it!  I love sewing with fleece, and I thought I'd share some of what I've learned along the way.

Whenever I sew a new to me fabric, I first look it up in Sandra Betzina's More Fabric Savvy, which my mother gave me when I first started sewing again, so that is where much of my information comes from, as well as what I have learned along the way.

So, what is fleece?  The first fleece (Polar Fleece) was a polyester knit with a cut pile.  It has a generous 2 way stretch, sheds water and holds in body heat.  It was designed for cold weather activewear.  In the intervening years, fleece has been transformed, and is available in many fibers, prints, styles and colors.  You can even find burnout fleece that could be suitable for eveningwear!  Want silk, bamboo, organic cotton?  No problem!  Still, the vast majority of fleece is still polyester, and more exotic types are generally only available online.  I buy lots of fabric online, but with fleece, I really want to be able to touch and feel.  There is a lot of variability in the loft and density of the pile, all of which effect durability, drape and appropriateness of your fleece to your project.  This is one fabric that I do buy locally, which limits me to what Hancock, Hobby Lobby and Walmart carries.  One thing to look for is that the fleece is labelled "anti-pill".  This is generally going to be a denser, more durable fleece.  It often has an almost fur-like feel - very cozy.

So, what can you make out of fleece?  Nearly anything!  It is a knitted fabric, and quite stretchy on the cross grain, making it great for tops, pullovers and jackets.  I love it for PJ pants - so warm in the winter!  Of course, it was originally designed for activewear, so it is great for any kind of cold weather gear, like ski tops and pants, running shirts, and other layering pieces.  Since it it a knit, it can be made into garments that are quite close fitting, making it perfect for an under layer.  It is absolutely one of my favorite fabrics for casual baby clothes.  It's easy care, warm and soft.  There are tons of patterns out there designed for fleece, but don't let that limit you!!  You can use any pattern, although those intended for knits will give you the best results.

When sewing fleece, you basically can treat it like you would a knit fabric.  There are a few things that you may want to do differently, however.  When laying out your pattern, you will find that pins rip right through your tissue, so pattern weights are a better option, although since I use soil separator paper for my patterns I just use extra long pins and that works fine.  remember when you are laying out your pattern that fleece does have a right and wrong side!   It curls to the wrong side when stretched.  You can use either side, but be consistent.  The length of the pile tends to differ, so the two sides will wear very differently, even if they look the same when new.  It may help to put a chalk mark or piece of tape on the wrong side.  When transferring pattern markings, the pile of the fleece will make a tracing wheel and paper impossible, but chalk works well.

Once you are all cut out, you're ready to sew!  You can sew fleece with any needle type.  I commonly use a universal needle, but sharps and stretch/ballpoint needles work just as well.  One thing to remember is that fleece will dull your needles quickly, so you may need more than one for a complicated project, and be sure to change your needle after you've finished.  Fleece, much like fur, also tends to create a lot of lint, so give your machine a thorough cleaning after sewing it.  Seam fleece the same way that you would a knit.  I like to use the "lightning" stitch, but a narrow zigzag or triple stitch are also fine.  As with other knits. seams sewn with a straight stitch won't stretch and will tend to break.  I know you want to press that seam open now, but don't.  Fleece is pretty sensitive to the heat of the iron and melts easily.  You can end up crushing the pile, which i not pretty!  The seams lie quite flat in their own, so don't worry that this will make your project look unprofessional.  For seam finishes I prefer just to trim the fleece to about a 1/4 seam allowance.  Fleece doesn't ravel at all, and is very soft.  Serging or binding the edges will not be as soft, so I don't.  You can topstitch the seam allowances down, which will give your garment a sporty look.

Here is the inside of Mitch's running top.  You can see that the seams are trimmed but otherwise left alone.  The shoulder seam is stabilized with a strip of French Fuse (Fusi-Knit) interfacing.  I know, I just said don't iron your fleece, but if you are careful with your temperature, you can get away with fusing interfacing.  There are a few places that you might need it.  Shoulder seams will do better if they are stabilized, and zippers require some interfacing as well.

Here is the zipper of Logan's jacket - interfaced with regular lightweight nonwoven fusible.  Again, just test the temperature of your iron on a scrap of fabric.  You can use fusible interfacing!

But, if you'd rather, I stabilized this shoulder seam with a strip of twill selvage.

While most fleece garments are casual and minimally shaped, you may occasionally want to sew a dart.  This is no big deal, but since the fleece is bulky, I like to trim the dart down to about 1/8 inch and press it as flat as possible.

It fills in nicely and isn't terribly visible on the right side.

So, your seams are sewn.  You garment is shaped.  Your zippers are in.  How to hem?  Well, one option is to leave the edges raw.  Like jersey, fleece doesn't ravel at all, so if you are looking to reduce bulk, just skip the hem.  If you are going to sew a hem, avoid folding multiple layers, unless you want to add some body.  A single fold hem, topstitched with a stretchy lightning stitch is the way I usually go.  While the lightning stitch usually isn't suitable for topstitching, since it can look uneven, on fleece, it ends up buried in the pile, so you can't see the unevenness, but it stretches with the garment.

Here is how it looks.  You can also use a twin needle for a nice stretchy hem.  Theoretically, you could use a narrow zigzag, but I think this looks unprofessional, so I never do it.

OK, you're done!  Go enjoy your cuddly soft garment!


  1. Thanks for this very useful information on fleece. I've sewn a sweater with fleecefabric only recently and it was real fun with a great outcome. Hope to see more of your projects (in fleece).

  2. What a great post about fleece. The one thing I notice is the difference in a really quality fleece and chain-store quality. There is a huge difference in the feel and wear.

  3. Definitely a fabric to be bought in person, I bought some online and it was too lightweight for what I wanted. When you make a poncho, something loose, you can use a straight stitch hem, I had no problems, but it was out and flared away from the body. Also I tend to slow my stitching down so it doesn't shift. For marking, I use the pen that washed out (blue)

  4. Great tutorial - I love it. So far, I've been using stretch needles - and that works just a bit better than universal but I have used both! Also, I'd like to get some high end Polar Fleece but like you, I'll probably have to do so when I go to Seattle in July. Patagonia HQ is just down the street from my house and I'm always jealous of their fleece. Thanks for the post!

  5. I love fleece for pajamas, so quick to sew up and warm to wear.

  6. Very informative post - Thank you!

  7. Informative article. I was spoilt years ago when some of the first fleece I bought was from a sportswear manufacturer so top quality. Still, there are some very nice fleeces available. The chenille and minky feel fleeces are soooo soft.

  8. I love fleece, too, and I definitely want to touch it and feel it before I buy it or sew it.

  9. Ooo.. thanks for the tips! I'll have to refer to this next time I sew with fleece. :)