Rayon challis is one of my favorite fabrics to sew garments with and wear, for all these reasons: it drapes beautifully, it feels airy and soft against the skin, it comes in a variety of prints and solids, and high-quality rayon challis is readily available at most fabric suppliers. Its versatility lends itself to all kinds of garments – woven t-shirts, blouses, loose pants or joggers, flowing skirts and dresses. Ruffles and flounces look beautiful in rayon challis, but you can also make a sleek shell or tailored blouse to wear under a blazer or sweater. It is usually opaque enough that it will not require a lining, and I love this about it. Even with all of its upsides, rayon challis does take a little bit of special handling, from start to finish! Rayon challis can be a little trickier to handle than a stable cotton woven (like quilting cotton or broadcloth), but with a few pointers, you too can have sewing success with rayon challis and you’ll be glad you gave it a try. Choose a good quality rayon challis, and follow these tips for a garment you’ll wear and cherish for years to come!
1. Buy extra yardage to allow for shrinkage
Unless you plan on dry cleaning your finished garment, expect some shrinkage when you pre-wash your fabric. Rayon challis is a semi-loose weave, and it isn’t unusual to have as much 20% shrinkage, which will add up if you purchase multiple yards. As a general rule, feel free to practice your rayon challis skills on a bargain or less expensive cut of the fabric, but the higher the quality, the lower the shrinkage you’ll experience.
2. True the fabric’s cut ends and serge them together
Sometimes fabric gets cut along a somewhat diagonal or crooked line with respect to the weft of the woven fabric. Truing these cut lines, and then bringing them together to be run through the serger saves a step, overlocking both ends at once. The overlocking prevents the fabric from fraying in the wash, and the folding helps to minimize stretching and twisting that happens when you wash any long, narrow, continuous piece of yardage. A tube-shaped piece of fabric will tend to be stretched out much less.
3. Pre-wash the way you intend to wash the finished garment
An important step is to pre-wash your fabric before sewing, in the same way you plan on laundering the finished garment. I like to make clothing that doesn’t require dry-cleaning or even air drying. Many fabrics like rayon challis, even silks, can be washed in the gentle cycle with cold water, and machine dried on low, or even fluff air. Remember to remove the fabric promptly from the dryer, and fold to minimize wrinkles.
4. Press the fabric, but don’t drag the iron
Press the rayon challis on medium heat with plenty of steam, but do not drag the iron across the fabric. This will stretch it, and result in an uneven, wavy appearance, which will skew your pattern pieces. Instead, press and lift the iron in overlapping sections. You can be a little less delicate with ironing your finished garment, once you know it fits. If you stretch the rayon challis during this process before construction, it will shrink back to its unstretched state after washing, and some pieces can be more stretched than others, leading to a wonky garment. Press and lift, press and lift.
5. Use of starch is optional
Using a light spray starch when pressing the rayon challis is optional, but I find that it helps to stabilize the fabric very nicely for the cutting and sewing process. It will wash out in the first washing, and you don’t have to commit to starching your garment with every wear, but it will make the construction process easier.
6. Use a rotary cutter and pattern weights
Cutting out shifty lightweight fabrics is much easier when using a rotary cutter. A rotary cutter handles curves easily without shifting or lifting the fabric. For straight lines, you can get a clean, crisp line by using a ruler to guide your rotary cutter. I also like to use pattern weights to hold the pattern pieces and fabric stable while cutting. Together, these tools result in a much neater cutting job. A rotary cutter also requires the use of a cutting mat to protect the cutting surface under the fabric. If you don’t already own these tools, investing in a rotary cutter, pattern weights, and cutting mat is a wise investment, as they may soon become your favorite pattern cutting tools.
7. Cut your fabric on a grid or the floor
I like to cut out my fabric on the grid of my cutting mat, lining up the selvage edge with a straight line. This helps me to smooth out the fabric true to its weave since I can also line up the cut edge with a perpendicular line on the grid. If you are using scissors instead of a rotary cutter, try spreading out the fabric on the floor, and lining up with grout lines or hardwood floor seams. I’ve also used a yardstick and T-square when nothing else was available or lined up one edge of the fabric with a wall or other straight line.
8. Don’t let the excess fabric drape off the cutting surface
If cutting on a table or elevated surface instead of the floor, be sure to support the weight of the fabric. In other words, be sure not to let the excess fabric hang off the edges of the table, or the weight of the fabric will warp the weave of the fabric as you are cutting. Simply puddle the excess length at the edge of the cutting surface.
9. Cut out your pattern with fabric in a single layer
Cutting in a single layer is always a good idea when working with slinky or shifty fabrics. Just remember to flip your pattern pieces over before cutting out the same piece twice.
10. Handle pattern pieces carefully between the cutting table and the sewing machine
Rayon challis will stretch and warp easily on the cut edges of your pattern pieces, so be sure to lay them flat instead of hanging them over the back of a chair, for instance. I like to stack them flat with the cut fabric pieces under their corresponding pattern pieces near my sewing machine for easy handling.
11. Stay stitch bias edges immediately
Do not skip this step, all cut edges that are cut on the bias, or partially on the bias will need stay stitching. This will be the case for necklines, armholes, and other circular shaped cuts. They will grow with handling if you don’t stabilize them with a stay stitch. Simply sew with a slightly longer stitch length (3 -3.5) in the seam allowance along the cut edges. Be sure to handle the fabric delicately – no pulling or tugging while sewing.
12. Use finer pins
Use sharp, fine pins, to avoid snagging the delicate weave of the fabric. I recommend using silk pins, which are finer and shorter than quilting pins.
13. Use a smaller sewing machine needle
Use a smaller sewing machine needle. The light weight of rayon challis does best with a universal needle in a small size, like a 10 or 12. Start your project with a fresh needle. Use a high quality needle like Schmetz otherwise an old or dull needle could snag the fabric.
14. Shorten your sewing machine stitch length
Shorter stitches give a neater finish to your seams on a rayon challis garment. It looks and moves better with the weave of the fabric. I like to use a stitch length of 2.5 – 3 on my sewing machine. Regular multi-purpose sewing thread will do the job just fine.
15. Test your stitches on a scrap of your rayon challis
Always test your sewing with the correct needle, thread and stitch length on a scrap before sewing to fine-tune your settings. This is when you can troubleshoot without the worry of having to rip out stitches of your delicate final garment fabric. For example, if you find that your sewing machine’s feed dogs want to pull the fabric down into a bunch at the start of a seam, try using a small piece of tissue paper under the first few stitches. This is especially helpful if you are backstitching to secure the start of a seam, but shouldn’t be a problem when using a serger.
16. Hang before you hem
Always hang your garment for 1-2 days before hemming, as the length of the fabric will grow with hanging! This happens because some of the fabric will be on a bias, and any little bit of the woven fabric that is off-grain will stretch to a certain degree. If you skip this step and hem your fabric before allowing it to hang, you will be left with a visibly uneven hem.
My favorite self-sewn rayon challis garments were all made using these steps to create them. Putting in the extra time and effort to follow some or all of these steps will help you avoid some common missteps that can occur when sewing with rayon challis. Take the time to practice, and build these good habits when working with rayon challis and you will be happy you did!