Sunday, December 30, 2012

Top 10 Tips for Working with Silky Furry Fleece

1.  Accept that sewing with Silky Furry Fleece will turn your house into a Muppet barber shop.  The mess won't stay contained to your sewing space either -- you'll track it all over the house.  If you would never shave Chewbacca in your living room just for the joy of the thing, this is probably not your fabric of choice.

Okay, now that we're over that hurdle, read on.  (Take comfort in knowing I'm a classic Type-A freak.  If I can work with it, anyone can.)

So what is this stuff?  It's a synthetic polyester knit with approximately 1.5 inch wavy pile on one side that's crazy silky soft to the touch.  The other side is a webby foundation.

The thing that really separates it from synthetic fur is that it's machine washable.  It's stretch, too, but whatev.  You can also dry it in the dryer on low heat.  It's not the same thing as the family of fabrics commonly referred to as "minky," but it's similar.  Minky can also be messy and difficult to use with precision, but it's much more stable than SFF.  On the flip side, SFF has a longer, harrier pile that camouflages wear and lasts forever with relative ease. 

I have worked with SFF for about 8 years, since it came in a rainbow of colors and textures.  The choices died out as fewer and fewer sewing mavens were willing to fool with the mess and persnickety nature of this fabric, but I'm hard-headed.  Now my goal is to get more people proficient with it so they'll bring back the gorgeous variety of colors they once carried.  Joann's is about the only place to get it, so you'll have to pocket your fabric snobbery to get some. These days they carry it in bright white, off-white, brown, primary red and black.  It runs around $15/yd, so hoard those big coupons and purchase when the fabric is not on sale.  UNLESS you're blessed enough to find it 50 percent off.  In that case, buy enough for future projects, because that only happens about twice a year.

If you follow a few simple steps when you sew with this stuff, you'll learn to LOVE it.  You can make really soft, warm gifts from it.  In fact, the Olivia Furry Blanket is perhaps one of the most coveted gifts in the world.  ;)  Seriously, OFBs have not only migrated across the States, but they've traveled the world to Germany, Afghanistan, Iraq and other unnamed operating locations, not to mention numerous hospital stays and trips to chemo suites.  Everyone in my family sleeps under his or hers every single night without exception, and in most cases, we've been using the same OFB for years.  I limit production to 3 or 4 a year reserved for those special recipients in our lives who've done something wonderful or kind, or exceptionally brave.

No more serious stuff -- I'm in danger of becoming weepy.  Back to the tips!

2.  Get exact cuts and trim the fabric as little as possible.  I'm not above "helping" the cutting counter employees get this right.  I've gotten cuts that were so messed up -- 8 inches difference from one selvage to the other -- that I've returned them.  (They love the help.  Really.  No, not really.  In fact, it drives them crazy, but when you drive more than 20 miles to get there like I do, and the fabric is expensive, you want them to get it right.)  Keeping the cutting to a minimum will save you a little mess -- though not all.  See #1 above.  Likewise, if you're layering another fabric with the SFF and the widths don't match up, use pins to mark where the seam-line should be, but try your best to avoid having to cut the fabric unnecessarily.   And you should never plan to leave raw edges on your finished project.  Although SFF is a knit, it takes many, many washings to get it to stop shedding, and it can tear up your washing machine or dryer.  (Ask me how I know.)  It's also an appearance thing.  If you encase all the edges, it will look very posh and high-end.  If you don't, it looks like Grover lost a knife fight.  No tied blankets from this fabric.  Trust me.  (This is experience talking.)

And one more tidbit to go along with that:  Never, ever use your rotary cutter and self-healing mat to cut silky furry fleece.  It dulls your cutter rapidly, but more importantly, it completely jacks your mat.  Fur gets permanently trapped in it.  It's a nightmare.  (Ask me...oh, nevermind.)

3.  Pin, pin, pin.  No matter how well you sew or how long you've been doing it, you will be ready to throw an Animal-sized fit if you don't pin your project thoroughly.  Pin your straight seams a MINIMUM of every 4-5 inches.  Curved seams even more.  Use big, colorful pins, like the flower-headed pins.  Anything else gets lost in the fur, and trust me, it's no fun finding them later.

4.  Always keep the furry side UP when running this fabric through your machine. The polyester knit that forms the foundation of this fabric will move smoothly over your feed dogs.  The long, hairy, wiggly stuff can find a million different ways to get stuck in your machine or foot. If you try to sew fur-side down, you will spend your morning driving to the sewing machine repair guru.  (Do I even need to say it?)

5.  Invest in the widest foot you can find.  Bonus points if it's a closed-toed rolling foot (below left).  Anything you can do to keep the machine from funneling fur under the needle is a plus.  (Don't worry, you can do it with a standard foot, it just hurts more.)  Oh, and laugh in the face of anyone who tells you to try a walking foot on SFF...unless you need a new walking foot.  In that case, feign ignorance and sew away!

Left: Close-toed rolling foot.  Right:  Standard foot.  The slit in the center of the standard foot channels fur into the needle, and the narrower width allows the long pile to overwhelm the foot, even getting trapped under the needle from the sides.  Using a slightly wider foot without a channel will prevent many of the headaches associated with sewing this fabric.

6.  Make sure your work surface is large enough to support the project effectively as you sew.   This stuff's heavy and slinky.  The layers will move around and get doubled up before you can say wookie.  Good support helps, but check that everything stays lined up after every 2 or 3 inches of stitching.  Don't just operate on "feel" like you might with thin cottons or blizzard fleece.  Actually pick the layers up at the front of the machine and take a look.

7.  Sew with large stitches.  I seam this fabric with size 3.5 stitches and top-stitch it with 4.0 or 5.0 stitches. 

8.  Sew S-L-O-W-L-Y and stop frequently.  Seriously.  This isn't like normal fleece or even ultra cuddle fleece.  It's virtually impossible to pick stitches back out of this heavily-furred stretch knit, and for your hours of seam-ripping effort you usually end up with a big, ugly hole in your project.

9.  Use your fingers to part the fur in front of the foot to keep it out from under the needle.  You should feel a bit like Moses parting the Red Sea, only he had a lot more help!

10.  This isn't a fragile product.  Don't be afraid to manhandle the fabric to keep it on track -- just don't damage your machine in the process.  If I'm using my closed rolling foot to do a lot of the jam-prevention work, (see #5 above), I can avoid many hiccups just by gently grabbing the fabric both in front of and behind the needle.  With my right hand, I keep the fabric lined up that's feeding into the needle.  With my left, I keep gentle pressure on the fabric exiting the rear of the foot.  Obviously, you can't do #9 and #10 at the same time, but you'll quickly get a feel for which technique is working best for you at any given time.