Fabric Sewing Tips: Sewing Outdoor Fabrics

Sewing outdoor fabrics can create some real problems, but you can overcome them if you know what steps to take.

Working with outdoor fabrics is much different than doing a project with typical cottons and rayons. The outdoor fabrics are less pliable and are heavier, making it more difficult to shuffle the pieces around. Some people cut the cloth out on a table or other flat surface, but some prefer to lay it on a newly vacuumed floor for easier handling. A regular home sewing machine might work when it comes to sewing some outdoor fabrics, but for the most part, these fabrics are heavyweight and rigid. Because of this, you might be risking damage to your machine, so if at all possible, use an industrial type sewing machine for a heavy duty job. Another machine choice is the overlock machine which is available in home or industrial models. An overlock cuts and binds the edges of the fabric as you sew. Overlocks are quicker than home machines, but since most outdoor fabrics don't ravel, this kind of machine is not mandatory. When sewing on an industrial machine, you'll use a cone of thread, slightly different than the spools used on home machines. The needle, also, is different when using an industrial machine. For a home machine, use a size 16 to size 19 needle and a heavy weight cotton or nylon thread for the construction.

There are different types of outdoor fabrics, each creating a unique challenge when stitching. Fleece fabrics sometimes slide during seaming, so use average to heavy pressure on the foot and set your feed dog accordingly. Use a nylon thread to zig-zag closely to the edges, then trim, or, use an overlock with nylon thread to bind the edges of the fleece. Nylon fabrics are slick, causing the fabric to slide under the presser foot. Use nylon thread, set and try feed dog, and use a good amount of pressure on the foot. Outdoor netting is a special challenge and requires binding tape, easy pressure and a small plate hole. Use the binding on every seam when sewing netting. Use care to not let the netting bunch up under the foot. Backstitch often. Packcloth, which is perfect for backpacks, is thick, heavy and difficult to maneuver. It will be next to impossible to sew this fabric on a home machine. If you'll attempt it on a home machine anyway, use the largest needle, the largest plate hole and the heaviest pressure on the foot. Fabrics which have been treated with waterproofing have a sticky feel, making it troublesome to slide them under the presser foot. It's helpful to sprinkle talc, but make sure it doesn't go directly into the bobbin area. After using talc, clean machine, bobbin and casing, and oil well. This type of fabric also has a tendency to let the top layer scoot ahead of the bottom layer. Loosen the pressure on the foot and use a heavyweight thread of nylon or cotton. When sewing waterproof materials, your needle might begin to feel sticky, or have trouble penetrating the fabric. If this happens, dip a cotton ball in rubbing alcohol and use it to wipe off the needle. Be careful not to drip the alcohol into the bobbin area. After several stitches, wipe needle with cotton ball, then sew a few more stitches; wipe again. Breathable waterproof fabrics are somewhat costly, so take extra care when working with them. Don't use pins to hold the pieces together when cutting. A better method is to use something to weight the fabric down for cutting.

It will help tremendously if you have someone to assist you in turning the fabric in various directions while sewing. If the top layer seems to pull away from the bottom layer, hold the bottom layer tighter, tugging it slight out and away from the needle. Likewise, if the bottom layer seems to pull away from the top, tug it slightly outward while stitching. If you experience breaking of the needle or thread, go to a larger size, if available. After sewing an initial seam, it's often a good idea to open the seam up, and top stitch the seam edges down. During this procedure, some people use a thick binding tape and stitch one edge of the tape on one side of the seam, the other side of the tape on the opposite side of the seam. When sewing several layers of fabric at once, you might find it helpful to increase the amount of pressure on the foot. If stitches are placed, then removed, you will need to use a seam tape or spray in that area to prevent future leakage. Upon completing the sewing project, it might be necessary to re-treat the cloth with waterproofing, since handling the fabric and sliding it against the sewing table might wear off the original treatment. Usually this can be purchased in a spray can at fabric stores. Spray all binding tapes and spray anywhere that there has been a seam taken. Waterproofing treatment has to be reapplied on occasion, particularly after any laundering or after a hard rain.

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