7 DIY Fabric Tests to Increase the Life of Your Designs

Photographer: Marite

Loved clothes last – but if you aren’t ensuring the durability of your fabrics, you may be relegating your designs to a premature grave.

Published 10th September 2020 by Nicole Obidowski

This single biggest problem within the fashion industry has to be the sheer volume of clothing that is being produced and consumed. We churn out 150 billion new items of apparel every year, and the average fast fashion garment is worn for just 12 months before being disposed of.

Even the most eco-friendly shirt requires a lot of resources during textile processing, weaving, dyeing, cutting, sewing, and shipping. If that shirt is made durably enough to be wearable for 6 years instead of 3, thus delaying the need to purchase a replacement, you have effectively halved it’s environmental impact. According to research by WRAP, even extending the life of a garment for just 9 months could cut it’s environmental footprint by as much as 20-30%.

When you begin to factor consumption into the sustainability puzzle, one’s outlook on eco-friendly fashion shifts significantly. It can be convincingly argued that an organic cotton shirt that is worn three times before being discarded is way less sustainable than a polyester top that is worn a hundred times.

That’s nice, but my brand needs to be accessibly priced.

Many associate expensive luxury clothing with durability and affordable clothing with disposability. But maximising the wearable life of a garment doesn’t actually need to increase it’s cost.

One of the most important factors in a garment’s longevity is the fabric that it is made from. High-quality luxury fabrics are often made with aesthetics as top priority and can actually be made from some of the weakest and most fragile fibres. Relying on a fabric’s price point or country of origin to determine it’s sturdiness will not be accurate.

Each fabric must therefore be individually tested by the designer. While this can seem like a daunting process, in reality it only requires a few simple techniques that anyone can implementeven in a bedroom atelier.

So What is Fabric Testing all About?

Most large fashion companies will have a textiles and/or QC team who will run laboratory testing on fabrics that the design team is planning on ordering, to determine it’s unique characteristics against a set of standard parameters. The most common things that will be tested include:

  • Pilling Resistance: Sometimes also referred to as “bobbling”, testing is undertaken to determine how prone the fabric is to developing balls of loose fibres on it’s surface over time.
  • Abrasion Resistance: This tests how prone your fabric is to snagging, running, or even disintegrating when it has to endure frequent rubbing against a textured surface.
  • Dimensional Stability: A fancy term for shrinkage. Testing is undertaken using the appropriate washing procedure (hot machine, cold machine, dry cleaning etc) to ensure that it does not shrink up in the wash.
  • Stretch Recovery: Ever have a pair of joggers that bag out at the knees as soon as you sit down? This test seeks to ensure that once stretched, the fabric snaps all the way back to it’s original shape.
  • Seam Slippage: Believe it or not, some fabrics do not like to be stitched, and often you will find this with very expensive fabrics in particular. To test this, a seam will be sewn and then pulled apart to see how much force it can handle before the fabric begins to come apart.
  • Tear Strength: Just as it sounds, this tests how much force would need to be applied to actually rip the fabric in two.
  • Colourfastness: This tests how well the textile maintains it’s original colour against a variety of factors including sunlight, washing, sweat or bleach. You can also test if the fabric is likely to bleed dye onto other fabrics (known as “crocking”) through washing or wearing.

Many other tests can be ordered on the fabric and on finished garments as well, but these form the most important core characteristics that will affect the longevity of any piece of clothing.

Of course, laboratory testing of each fabric at the sampling stage is prohibitively time-consuming and expensive for most small labels. Furthermore, unless you have a technical understanding of textiles, you might not be able to make heads or tails of the results when you learn that your poplin has a tear strength of 900 grams.

While controlled laboratory testing would be ideal, you can still implement DIY versions of each test at home or in your studio to catch issues from the very beginning, using a more intuitive approach.

Image: Pilling knitewear (Lark About)

Test #1: Pilling Resistance

Testing for pilling is tedious but simple. Just take two pieces of the fabric, or even one piece folded over, and rub it together. And rub it together. And rub and rub and rub. This is a good job to do while watching a bit of telly or listening to a podcast.

I would recommend rubbing the fabric briskly for at least 10 minutes to get an idea of how it may fare, but the longer you can be bothered the better the results. If you see any sign of bobbling starting to form after this simple test, you should be concerned about how long the garment may be wearable before it begins to look tatty.

Test #2: Abrasion Resistance

This test is especially important for satin or metallic fabrics which tend to snag terribly against almost anything and then can’t be recovered.

A very simple test can help you spot trouble textiles. Get yourself a piece of Velcro and rub the scratchy side against the fabric several times, in all directions. Almost all delicate textiles will show some damage from this test, but it is useful to be able to compare different fabric options to choose the most robust.

Test #3: Dimensional Stability (Shrinkage)

This is perhaps the most important test of all, as a shrinking dress will not only risk reducing your garment’s lifespan but also form a negative association of your brand for the customer. And it’s very simple to check for.

Cut a square out of your fabric. A square 1m x 1m is ideal, but even 30cm x 30cm would do if you don’t have much fabric to spare. Note on the fabric which side is the warp (the side parallel to the selvedge) and which is the weft. The easiest method for this is just to cut a couple of notches in the warp side, or leave the selvedge on the square.

Now record the dimensions of your square, and perhaps how you’ve denoted the warp, and run it through the washing machine. It’s best to try this using the same method of washing you will put on your care label.

Once the square has been washed and has dried, measure it again and calculate the difference in percentage. Different companies tolerate different levels of shrinkage, anywhere from 3% – 7%. But consider that if the shrinkage is going above 5%, that might start pushing towards a size worth of change. So if your size 10 garment shrinks 6% in the wash, it could suddenly fit more like a size 8. And that’s not great.

If your garment will be dry clean only, you can skip this test, but make sure you test run your sample at the dry cleaners before production to catch any potential issues.

Test #4: Stretch Recovery

I would highly recommend this test on any stretchy fabric, but especially for anything with a knee or an elbow.

Take two squares of your fabric, and again record the length on each side. A smaller square should do, between 20-40cm. Again keep track of the warp and record the original size of each square.

Give the warp of one square a good strong pull and hold for 30 seconds. Then do the same to the weft of the other square. Let the fabric settle for a half hour and measure the change.

Again industry tolerances vary but I would advise not to accept much more than a 5% increase in measurement.

Image: Seam slippage (A&E)

Test #5: Seam Slippage

To test for seam slippage, you can simply sew a seam into a square of fabric (preferably the type of seam you will use on the final garment), and give it a couple of strong tugs.

Look closely at the fabric where it meets the seam for runs where the weave of the fabric has been disturbed.

Seam slippage tends to be more prominent along the warp, so try to sew the seam parallel to the selvedge, or, ideally, make two seams so you can test both the warp and weft.

If your seams are slipping, you can try increasing the Stitches Per Inch (SPI), changing the seam finish, using a finer needle and thread, or adding a fusing tape to the seam. But some fabrics, unfortunately, will be a lost cause.

Test #6: Tear Strength

This one is quite simple as well. Just take a small square of the fabric in your hands and attempt to rip it on the warp edge, and then on the weft edge.

You shouldn’t be able to rip it very easily by hand. If you can, it will mean the fabric will be prone to tearing if the garment gets caught in a door or stepped on.

Test #7: Colourfastness and Crocking

This testing will need to be done on the real final colour, and you will need to test each colourway, as different dye combinations will respond differently.

The most important test for most fabrics will be a wash test. Cut two squares out of the fabric you are testing, and one square of a white material (preferrably of the same fibre type). Stitch the white square to one of the coloured squares, and wash the stitched pieces only.

Once it has been washed and is completely dry, compare your washed colour square against the unwashed piece to see if the colour has faded. Also look closely at the white square to see if any dye has run off of the colour square.

I would also suggest taking a moment to run a quick dry crocking test, by rubbing a square of your coloured fabric against some white fabric for 10 minutes or so, to see if any of the dyestuff wears off onto the white fabric. Dry crocking is not as common as wet crocking, but some types of dye such as natural indigo are more prone to this effect.

Don’t Forget To Wear Test Your Samples!

As much as possible I would recommend every designer wear tests each and every style before it goes into production. That means putting it on and wearing it for at least 8 hours. If you aren’t your sample size, find someone close to you who is.

So many little things can crop up that you could never test for any other way. Are the pocket bags shaped such that things are frequently falling out of them? Does your lovely sleeve detail get in the way every 5 minutes and drive you mad? Does the back neck facing get scratchy over time? Keep a notepad nearby as you are wear testing to jot down any little things you notice about the garment, good or bad, so that you can address it before you send out to the customer.

We have all encountered clothing that we wore once and never returned to because it was such an unexpectedly unpleasant experience. You definitely don’t want your products to be one of those.

The slogan “Loved Clothes Last” has become ubiquitous in the eco-conscious fashion sphere. Yet not all emerging sustainable brands are turning out product of high quality.

By putting a little extra time and attention into each piece, we can ensure that they are ready to withstand being worn again and again, and even survive to be handed down or sold on as vintage goods. After all, there are still perfectly wearable garments being circulated that are 30, 40, even 60 years old.

We shouldn’t continue to view clothing as a disposable commodity, and this attitude change needs to take place not just with the consumer but with the producer as well. We put so much blood sweat and tears into the garments we create: let’s do what we can to make sure they go on to live the longest lives possible.

Category: Industry Advice

Tags: Fabric, Durability, DIY

For more helpful tips and tricks on running a sustainable fashion brand, make sure to follow us on Instagram: @n.o.development

about * freelance services * consulting + mentoring * blog * contact