Sewing with flannel is fun and easy. What distinguishes this type of fabric from other fabric is its soft brushed surface that makes it especially comfortable and warm. It is also relatively stable, inexpensive and versatile. Cold and damp winter weather is the perfect time to sew with soft, snuggly flannel. Flannel is typically “brushed” in the factory on both the face and underside, which enhances its warm, cozy quality by trapping air between the fibers. Before we proceed to the tips and techniques in dealing with this fabric, here are some important information about it.
Flannel fabric has been around for centuries and is a softly woven cloth made from wool, cotton or synthetic fibers. Much of what’s sold in the brick-and-mortar stores these days, however, is made of cotton, so I will focus my attention to that type of fabric for this post.
What gives the fabric its soft and fluffy surface is a mechanical process that uses a fine metal brush to raise the woven cloth’s fibers, creating its characteristic napped effect. While both sides can technically be brushed, the most widely distributed flannels are brushed on one side only. Flannel brushed surface and the open weave of the cloth help to trap air which is what makes the cloth warm to wear.
Brushing the cotton fibers requires special care and the use of sewing and pressing techniques. Here are some tips and techniques that might help you:
Flannel fabric shrinks a lot more than typical quilt store cottons, so you really need to pre-wash flannel prior to cutting. To get optimal shrinkage, you can choose cold or warm water. If you have dark, saturated colors, you may prefer cold water because it is gentler on dyes. Pre-washing flannel will also "snug up" the weave, soften the fabrics and allow the nap to rise. Be sure to open the yardage up completely when you add it to the washer instead of taking it out of the bag and tossing it in still folded neatly.
Give An Allowance
Buy a bit more than the pattern recommends. Generally 1/8 to 1/4 yard more is best to allow for the shrinkage the fabric will undergo when pre-shrinking.
Dry At The Right Time
It is important to dry flannel on the hottest cotton setting. Cotton expands when wet and shrinks as it dries. The hotter the air during drying, the more intense and faster the shrinkage. You want your flannel to totally shrink before you begin cutting. Adding a large bath towel to the dryer will help keep the yardage from twisting. Again, open it up and shake it out as you put it into your dryer. Completely dry does not mean over drying. Over drying will set deep wrinkles and twists into flannel that will translate into more time spent at the ironing board.
Extra Care With Seams
Because of its looser weave, flannel is more delicate than most hard cotton fabrics, so exercise caution when undoing or ripping out seams to prevent the yarns from breaking, which can create holes in the fabric.
Pressing Over Ironing
Ironing means you move the hot iron back and forth on the flannel. Pressing means you lift and hold it in place for a couple seconds. Flannel likes pressing with a hot iron; lift the iron, squirt on the Best Press, then press and hold again in the next area. Do not slide the iron along the fabric as you would when removing wrinkles from clothing because that will stretch the flannel.
Flannel is rough on needles and cutting tools, so always start with a fresh 80/12 size machine needle and a fresh blade if using a rotary cutter. Regular all-purpose polyester thread works just fine for cotton flannel.
Extend The Stitches
Try a stitch length of 3 (12 stitches per inch) instead of 2.5 (10 stitches per inch) when piercing your project. You’ll get a smoother result with a slightly longer stitch as a shorter stitch length tends to stretch the flannel. It will also embed the thread in the flannel’s loose weave, making it much harder to rip out seams if necessary.
The looser weave and brushed surface lends itself to lots of lint, especially in and around the sewing machine, so be sure to clean the bobbin case and around the needle shaft of your machine after working with flannel.
Don’t Lose Patience
If you make a mistake and need to rip out a seam or two, do so gingerly. Pulling and tugging on a mistake in frustration will stretch the piece out of shape, and then you’ll have to go cut a brand new piece. Don’t forget to press it back into squared position with a squirt of Best Press before continuing.