Choosing Fabrics for Doll Clothes

It's a real challenge to find fabrics appropriate for fashion doll clothes.  The first obvious problem is the scale of the fabric design; but the weave, texture, fibres used, and the hand of the fabric are also likely to ambush your careful work.  

Let's start by considering the visual aspect of fabric pattern.  The dolls at Perestroika are limited to Mattel's Barbie and Ken; although Hamilton's Candi, and Integrity dolls are waiting in the wings . . .

These are 1/6 scale of adult human size (well, more or less).  So while a 1" check looks great on your shirt, consider what it would look like if it was a 6" pattern!  Our eyes need training to translate the scale. 


Try using a negative template, which is a standby "audition" trick quilters have long used to choose fabrics and to place the pattern.  Trace around a doll, cut the shape out with a craft knife, and place the template on the fabric to see what the pattern might look like on a doll.   Use card stock or, for a more durable template, try the vinyl cover from an old binder.

 If it's a very large pattern, move the template around to check the possibilities - those of us who favour asymmetry can find some wonderful possibilities!


Make partial templates, for tops, jackets, skirts, pants . . . Here's a candidate for Ken's wardrobe.



If you use the Real Clothes patterns, print an extra copy, and make a negative template from the major pattern piece(s).  Cut on the seam lines, to get a more accurate idea of how the fabric will look.



Drape the fabric on a doll - these "has-beens" are essential partners in the Perestroika studio!  If you're a free spirit, take one with you to the fabric store - you'll probably start a conversation or two, and the assistants will see what you want!


The weave,  texture, fiber content and drape-ability of the fabric are important, too.  

Loosely woven fabrics can be extremely difficult to sew, but especially in small scale; sometimes the instability and the fraying can be controlled by backing the fabric with a very lightweight fusible interfacing.  The same trick can be used with very unstable fabrics, but this will of course change the drape of the fabric.  Any fabric with a twill weave, which gives the appearance of a diagonal ridge on the surface of the fabric, will ravel more than a plain weave, and will drape differently.

Fabrics with a pronounced texture (for instance, corduroy, velveteen, velvet, satin) are sometimes heavy and stiff for doll clothes; drape the fabric over your hand, or on a doll, to check this.   

Thick fabrics (artic fleece, some faux furs, coatings, heavier woolens) don't work on dolls; imagine if your coat  or jeans fabric were 6 layers thick!  

Lycra in a fabric blend is a blessing for doll clothes sewers!  As usual, choose the thinner, lightweight fabrics - 10 oz. denim won't do! - and remember to put the stretch around the doll.  These fabrics can be more closely fitted than non-stretch fabrics, and are easier to put on and take off the doll.  Use a narrow zigzag stitch, to maintain the stretch - the stretch stitches usually make the seams too bulky and rigid.  Lycra is often found in sportswear fabrics, especially in the spring, and it's a staple for pants for the Perestroika models.  

Recycled fabrics can be the very best!  Wool sweaters can be shrunk to make Barbie boiled wool; so can single-knit wool jersey fabrics.  Miniature prints often are used in children's clothing.  Watch the thrift stores for garments that can yield doll fabric - even handkerchiefs, scarves and ties can be used.  Worn wool crepe garments often have useable sections - and try washing some of this, to make it softer!  And don't forget socks, which turn into wonderful doll garments.

I prefer natural fibers: cotton, wool, silk, rayon. I most often have trouble with polyester fabrics, although the new microfibres are super!  For guy doll suits, I've had good luck with rayon-and-poly suitings, which often come in small check patterns just like real suits.  I tend to avoid polyester thread for non-polyester fabrics - it has a tendency to stretch a bit as it goes through the machine, leaving the seam a bit puckered - but I always use poly thread for stretch and knit fabrics.  (I use a neutral grey thread for construction work on most colours - it won't show if your tension and stitch length are properly adjusted.)

And never forget that fabric comes with 2 sides - sometimes different enough to look like 2 fabrics, which can be coordinated! 


Many fabrics are seasonal; sportswear fabrics appear in the shops in the spring, and the fancy sheers and metallics appear at Christmas.  Add these to your stash - 6 months later, you won't find them.  The good news here is that you can often find them on sale.  Browse the classy fabric stores occasionally, and especially watch the remnant bins here.  And, if you can, take a look into the specialty fabric retailers - outdoor fabrics, bridal/eveningwear fabrics (these come with lycra added, too!), dance and exercise wear.

How much to buy?  I usually buy a minimum of .3 metre (12" non-metric); if it's a real staple, like light-weight stretch denim, or if it has a spectacular pattern, perhaps more.  Buy enough to be able to place the garment on the lengthwise grain.  If you have a buddy or two who also sew doll clothes, consider sharing; split the .3 metre on the lengthwise grain into 2 or 3 pieces.  

Quilt stores usually have miniature prints, checked and plaid fabrics - including flannelette for his shirts! - and sell "fat quarters" (usually about 22" square), which are perfect for doll clothes!


 Slippery and sheer fabrics can make exciting doll clothes - try tear-away stabilizers (see the Primer for Knits article) or, better yet, the paper-piecing techniques used in the Real Clothes patterns to keep control of them while you cut and sew.  And don't forget that fabrics that can be washed (and many can, experiment!) can be stabilized with starch, with purchased liquid stabilizers, or with the scraps of the clear wash-away stabilizer dissolved in water - spray onto the fabric, or soak the fabric in the mixture, and let dry.  Wash it out when you're finished.

Sometimes underlining can help with these fabrics;  layer the fabric over a more stable fabric, pin or baste together, and cut and sew as one fabric.  Test, to make sure the underlining you have selected doesn't change the weight or drape of the fabric more than desirable.

Use a tear-away stabilizer (onionskin paper is a studio staple here) under any fabric, or any garment piece, that threatens to vanish down the needle-hole of your machine, and under any fabric to zigzag overcast the edges of a garment - preferably before the garment is assembled. 

Lining fabrics, like interfacings, must be good quality - buy the best you can, because they can make or spoil your work even if they're not visible.  I prefer rayon (Bemberg is one reliable brand) or silk fabrics for staple lining materials; they tend not to be as slippery and unstable as most poly linings.  But you can use fabrics other than those sold as linings - and printed linings can be fun!  A good lining fabric is an appropriate weight, so it doesn't change the drape of the garment fabric or add bulk; it will be stable, smooth, and easy to sew.  I have used tricot to line garments, particularly when I'm working with a paper-pieced construction technique; this can be a great lining in a knit fabric.

Fabrics which fray easily can be worth the extra care needed.  Handle very gently, especially when turning out points and corners.  Don't trim the seam allowances unless absolutely necessary.  Use a short stitch length.  Finish the edges, using a stabilizer under the piece, as soon as you cut it out.  Test a scrap to see if "painting" the edges of the fabric with a tiny bit of FrayCheck or a similar product will work.  Try an underlining, sewn to the garment piece just outside the seam lines.  Try a very light-weight fusible interfacing, fused to the fabric before cutting the garment out.  Perhaps some areas of the garment (neckline/shoulders/collar) could be interfaced even if this is not appropriate for the whole garment.  Try using the wash-out basting glue as a temporary stabilizer (for fabrics which you can wash) on especially tricky areas like the neckline and armholes.  Use a stabilizer under the fabric, and use the clear wash-out stabilizer (which does tear away very nicely without moisture) over the fabric when you're stitching it, to avoid stress on the cut edges.  Line the garment to minimize wear on the edges.  There is no magic solution here - or if you have one, let me know! -but these ideas might be worth trying.

Always test needle size, stitch length, and thread on a scrap of the fabric you're using, and examine the results carefully, to save disappointment, undoing, or a spoiled garment.  And don't forget - damaged needles (and pins) can spoil your work.  A sewing machine needle should be changed after 10 hours of use, even if you haven't nicked it on a pin.