How to Sew with Outdoor Fabrics

on April 19 | in Sewing + Quilting Tips | by | with 8 Comments

Jen Frost from Faith and Fabric is a pattern writer, quilt designer and book author. You can learn more about her in this introduction. Jen does lots of sewing with outdoor fabrics and is here to help you jump into a new season of sewing with her best tips! Add your experiences in the comments…

Looking for something to sew with outdoor fabric? How about Perfectly Portable Cushions, Basic Pillows or even a Scalloped Fabric Garland to last all summer long?!

Summer is just around the corner, and warmer evenings have everyone dreaming of dinners on the patio, drinks on the front porch and days by the pool under the umbrella. It’s also the time where we take a second look at the flattened outdoor pillows, torn rattan chairs and sun-bleached cabanas. Whether it’s dressing up your patio, making a pool-ready tote or simply giving a second life to sun damaged pillows, sewing with outdoor fabric is a fun project to take on this spring!

Select Your Project + Outdoor Fabric
Outdoor fabric is very different from traditional indoor fabrics often used in quilting, upholstering and garment sewing. Often made from synthetic fibers, outdoor fabric is specially designed to hold up against the harsh conditions Mother Nature throws its way. Rain, hail, snow and wind can cause a lot of damage, but biggest culprit for breakdown are harmful UV rays. Outdoor fabrics are treated with a special coating to help prevent fading and breakdown often caused by UV. To the touch, this means that outdoor fabrics often have a more smooth, slick feel and are thicker with less give.

When selecting your outdoor fabric, you’ll find there are many types of fabric to choose from; you’ll first want to pick a project and then determine which fabric best fits your needs. Want to start with a simple project? Perhaps a draw-string bag to hold wet swimsuits or simple placemats for the picnic table will work! Ready for a mid-size project? Try recovering the cushions on the lounge chairs. Want a big challenge? Redo the faded umbrella. Looking to bring the outdoors inside? Use the outdoor fabric to reupholster high-traffic kitchen chairs!

Once you pick your project, you’re ready to select the outdoor fabric that best suits your needs. Some of the most popular choices include:

  • 100% Polyester: Most common outdoor fabric, come in a wide variety of prints. Water resistant, but not waterproof.
  • Nylon Fabrics: Often used in banners or flags, nylon itself is waterproof but– when woven into fabrics– just how waterproof it is depends on how tightly the strands are woven together.
  • Acrylic Canvas: Water resistant, but not waterproof.
  • Vinyl + Denim/Cloth-Backed Vinyl: Waterproof (as the vinyl side is the “right” side).

Select Your Outdoor Thread
Much like outdoor fabric, outdoor thread has been specially formulated to withstand the elements and not crack or disintegrate as quickly as a cotton or blended thread. In the close-up here, you’ll see right away the difference between cotton and outdoor thread. Often a multifilament polyester thread, outdoor thread is thicker, smoother and has a stiffer feel to the touch.

Let’s Start Sewing!
Once you select your fabric and thread, you’re ready to start sewing! That’s because outdoor fabric doesn’t need to be prewashed or preshrunk. You can purchase it, bring it home and get to work right away. If you purchase your fabric and don’t plan to use it right away, consider rolling the fabric while it is stored; folding outdoor fabric can create permanent creases in the material due to its unique design.

Select Your Seam
Once you are ready to cut into your new fabric, consider what type of seam will work best for the integrity of your finished product. Are you making pillow covers that will get just a bit of use and are more decorative in nature? Or are you recovering the chaise lounge cushions that will be sunbathed and wrestled upon, and turned into forts by the kids? For the former, the standard seam will do. For the latter, consider a flat fell seam. Often seen on the side of your favorite pair of jeans, a flat fell seam is one where the seam is overlapped and then sewn flat. This type of seam looks great and provides increased durability, ensuring your sewing project will survive everything your family throws at it.

Change Your Foot + Needle
As outdoor fabrics are both thicker– and more slippery– than traditional cotton and cotton blends, it is helpful to sew with a walking foot as opposed to a quarter-inch foot. The lift created by the walking foot will decrease the chance of bulk build-up as well as slip.

When it comes to needles, sewing with synthetic fabrics and threads will wear down your needle faster than sewing with cotton and cotton blends. This means you’ll need to change your needle more often, as the needle itself will dull faster and can develop sharp burrs or frays that will shred your thread.

Care + Cleaning
Due to its rugged nature, outdoor fabric is naturally more resistant to stain and dirt… But because it lives outside, and is exposed to not only to nature but human elements (think of that stray softball that knocked the cranberry juice all over the cushions last summer), it’s more likely to need a cleaning.
Many outdoor fabrics (though not all) can be spot cleaned with mild soap and water. It’s important to not use any harsh chemicals as you don’t want to strip the UV protectant from the fibers. For those fabrics requiring a more gentle touch, you may need to either purchase an at-home dry-cleaning kit or take your fabric to a dry cleaner. Be sure to read the directions for care on the fabric you purchase.

If your outdoor fabric does get heavily saturated, it’s important to give it a chance to dry to prevent the build-up of mildew, which will eat away at the fibers and cause fading and staining. After a rainstorm, open up umbrellas and cabanas so the sun can dry any residual moisture. If you have pillows that have soaked through to the interior stuffing, remove the fabric covers and let both the inside and outside dry out.

To extend the life of your outdoor fabrics, keep them out of direct sun, wind and rain as much as possible when not in use. Spraying the fabrics with a good UV protectant spray specifically designed for fabrics will add an additional layer of protection, as well as help keep out unwanted moisture.

I look forward to seeing your outdoor summer sewing projects!

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8 Responses to How to Sew with Outdoor Fabrics

  1. Boo says:

    What is a great resource for outdoor fabrics?

  2. Wendy says:

    Thank you for the tips! l am making double side table runners but one side just does not lie flat can you help me? I have clipped the seam all the way down as well.

  3. Carol Fish says:

    I used to do boat tops, sail covers & other custom canvas. Usually Sunbrella, which is a polyester that we cut with a hot knife, sewed on an industrial machine, sometimes customers wanted canvas. Also used clear vinyl for windows. And, I made an inflatable advertising balloon 30′ tall purple monkey with green eyes! I must have a picture of it somewhere. …

    • Jen Frost says:

      Carol, wow! Boat tops and sail covers? That’s definitely big-scale sewing, and canvas sounds like a great option for those jobs. I look forward to seeing the purple monkey when you find a pic!

  4. Silvia says:

    Thanks for the tips, and what great timing! I’m a beginner sewer and bought some bright yellow outdoor fabric on sale some months ago before even knowing what to do with it. A few days ago I was inspired to transform it into a yoga mat bag, so that’s what I’m working on now!

    • Jen Frost says:

      Sylvia, I can’t wait to see how your yoga bag turns out – and what a great use for these heavy duty fabrics!

  5. Michele says:

    Great tips! I love using outdoor fabrics indoors for projects like shower curtains and tablecloths. The variety of prints is great, and the fabric is very sturdy and stain resistant.

    • Jen Frost says:

      Michele, what a great idea to use as shower curtains! With all the summer prints out there, I may have to borrow your idea and make a beach inspired curtain for my son’s bathroom.

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