Sewing Made Fleecy This Versatile Fabric Is A Godsend For The Seamstress Of The ‘90s

Though many home sewers are in the game to save money, others are lining up to get “fleeced” - Polarfleeced, that is.

The warm, cuddly fabric has proven such a hot ticket in home sewing, organizers of the upcoming Sewing and Stitchery Expo in Puyallup have added additional seminars featuring Polarfleece expert Nancy Cornwell of Lynnwood. Cornwell, author of the recently published book “Adventures in Polarfleece - A Sewing Expedition,” will give her presentation eight times during the four-day event.

During a telephone interview, Cornwell attributed the popularity of Polarfleece to its overall attractiveness and to the fact it is very “forgiving” - that is, easy to work with. This means garments sew up fast, a boon for the modern seamstress.

“We’re not making tailored garments,” Cornwell points out. “Most of us work a 40-hour week. We want to sew it, have fun with it, and wear it.” She adds, the non-raveling nature of fleece means “you can do a lot of cheating” in the area of finishing seams.

Another benefit of Polarfleece is its burgeoning versatility.

While “some people just want to make the basic vest, jacket or pullover,” others have tapped into Polarfleece for blankets, baby items, hats, mittens, slippers, gloves and scarves. The fabric is even showing up in lightweight upholstery, Cornwell says.

“Fleece is replacing sweatshirting,” she says.

While that may be true, Cornwell’s primary emphasis is on fashion garments, and embellishments of patterns and fabric. She says common ready-to-wear items, such as jackets and vests sold at Nordstrom, Eddie Bauer, REI and Coldwater Creek, can easily be copied for fraction of the cost.

“You see a vest for $69-$89 in the store, but you can take a yard of fabric for $15 and make it yourself,” the author says.

Cornwell says she duplicated a $150 jacket from Coldwater Creek for $75. The project took 2-1/2 yards of fabric and just four hours of sewing time.

These days, she prefers to push the envelop and venture into pintucking, cutwork and machine embroidery on fleece creations. She will share these techniques with participants during her seminars at the expo.

“This is geared toward fashion, not ‘weatherbeater’ or downhill-skiing looks,” Cornwell says.

During the past two years, fleece has become much more accessible to the home sewer, with bolts piled high in major fabric chains including Fabricland and JoAnn Fabrics, she says. Pattern companies like Butterick, McCalls and Simplicity have responded with a slew of new patterns to meet demand.

The cover of the current Threads magazine features a fancified Polarfleece jacket designed by Rochelle Harper. In the accompanying article, Harper describes how she used twin needle topstitching to create a ribbed look for the collar, cuffs and hem of the coat. She also outlined the shapes printed on the jacquard material, causing them to spring into sharp relief.

“Given (the fabric’s) nonraveling edges and thick, cushy texture, fleece takes easily to an impressive range of embellishment,” Harper writes, listing free-motion stitching, applique, decorative topstitching, corded edges and hot-cut nylon overlays as examples.

Cornwell emphasizes, not all fleece is created equal. Polarfleece and Polartec are trademarked products of Malden Mills and retail for about $15 a yard and up. Fabric stores often carry other brands which may be similar in price and quality. At the low end of the price scale, however, lookalike fleecy material can be found in discount department store chains.

But “for $6.44 a yard, you can’t expect it to perform the same” as higher quality yardage, Cornwell contends. She anticipates problems such as piling and poor wear, as the cheaper fleece is “not as dense, not as beefy” as its costlier counterparts.

Polarfleece comes in two general types, plush, the familiar, furry pile, and berber, shorter napped, resembling lambswool or sherpa. Plush is often made of 100 percent polyester, with berber composed of polyester or acrylic.

Weights of the Malden Mills products vary from Polartec 100, the lightest of the line, to Polartec 1,000, composed of a windproof fabric sandwiched between two layers of pile.

Given the nippy temperatures and snowy landscapes of the Inland Empire, it’s no surprise home sewers here have bought into fleece in a big way

“We can’t keep it in the store. We sell it year round,” says Marlene Diehl, merchandise manager for JoAnn Fabrics in Coeur d’Alene. She says entrepreneurs involved in cottage industries snap up the snuggly stuff for hats and scarves to sell at ski resorts and craft fairs.

JoAnn’s carries “alpine” fleece, which Diehl describes as a medium- to upper-quality product, as opposed to actual Polarfleece. Prices, however, are comparable to Polarfleece, with solids retailing for $8.99 a yard and prints going for $13.99.

At JoAnn’s in Opportunity, supervisor Gloria Henning says people buy fleece to make baby blankets and “head socks,” hoods with a turn-up neck to cover the face.

Genuine Polarfleece can be found at Fabricland branches and at EZ Fabrics in Colville, as well as at the recently opened Sew EZ Too, located at 2901 W. Northwest Blvd. in Spokane. Both local stores are owned by Vickie Black, who says opting for the real thing will result in a “high quality garment.”

“It sold like hotcakes in our Colville store,” says Black.

Black’s prices for Polarfleece are in the neighborhood of $10.98 to $16.98 per yard, with Polartec 300 running about $16.98 to $17.98 per yard.

Northwest Fabric and Craft, with two stores in Spokane, caries “arctic fleece” and “nordic fleece.” Kathy Olewiler, manager of the North Side outlet located at 102 E. Francis, says her customers like the fabric for sweatshirts, menswear and “TV blankets” (throws.) She’s noted a trend toward color blocking, using different colors of the same fabric to make yokes, sleeves, collars, etc.

Interestingly, Olewiler says fleece has also proven popular for people making soft hats for cancer patients.

Prices at Northwest Fabrics are in the $7.97-$12.97 range, with some fleece currently on clearance at 30 percent off. Olewiler notes she recently received an additional 60 bolts.

Cornwell, the expert, encourages people to be creative. She has come up with an entire baby collection using 1-1/2 yards of Polarfleece. She cuts part of the yardage into 4-inch blocks to make a quilt with fringed edges, then uses leftovers to create a hat, toy and pillow.

“You can lose yourself in the design,” Cornwell says of Polarfleece. “It’s not hard to sew with.”

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