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How to Sew with Outdoor Fabrics

Planning to spruce up the back garden with some new cushions or other outdoor accessories? Make sure your fabric is designed for outdoor use. The wind, rain, and UV rays can easily degrade lightweight synthetic or natural fibres. Outdoor fabrics are made of sturdier stuff. Fully synthetic fibres, usually nylon or polyester, make the material water resistant, while the heavier weight makes them more resistant to being broken down by sunlight.

These traits make outdoor fabrics perfect for their intended use, but a bit of a challenge if you’ve not sewn with them before. Check out the tips and tricks below for turning out the perfect projects for your outdoor space.

Know your material

Different outdoor fabrics behave differently. Polyester and nylon fibres are waterproof, but unless they’re tightly woven, the fabrics they make will only be water resistant. Cloth backed vinyl, on the other hand, is waterproof. Generally, water resistance is all you’ll need, unless you’re planning on making a project designed specifically to keep out the damp. For cushions and awnings, water resistant woven materials will do the trick.

Get thread to match

Whenever possible, choose thread designed for outdoor use. It’s thicker and sturdier, perfect for use with the heavier material your projects will call for. It’s also been treated with UV protectant, which is very important for outdoor use. The last thing you want is threads wearing out and snapping due to sun damage. If you absolutely can’t find an outdoor thread that suits your needs, choose a cotton/polyester blend, and use a spray-on protectant to treat your entire finished project.

Use the right size needle

Thicker thread and heavier material calls for a sturdier and larger needle. Using a needle that’s too small can cause your thread to fray and snap. If your material is particularly sturdy, it can even bend or snap a regular, all-purpose needle. Instead, opt for a heavy duty needle with a larger eye. You may find you need to change your needle more frequently when working with outdoor fabrics. Synthetic fibres are very unforgiving, and can easily blunt the tip of your needle or cause it to curve and form a barb. If you start to notice your needle catching on your fabric, swap it for a new one.

Try a flat-felled seam

Bulky fabrics mean bulky seams. There’s just no way around it. Or is there? Instead of using a standard seam, with the seam allowances hidden inside the project, try a flat felled seam, which tucks one seam allowance neatly inside the other and stitches them flat on the right side of the project. Another, similar option is a lapped seam, which leaves raw edges exposed, but does an even better job reducing bulk at the seam line.

Cut one layer at a time

Not only are outdoor fabrics tough and sturdy and tricky to cut through, they’re also surprisingly slippery. Avoid misaligned pattern pieces by cutting out only one layer at a time. Depending on your fabric, pins might be a challenge to use to hold down your pattern pieces. Opt for pattern weights instead.

Be aware of needle holes

The plastic fibres of outdoor materials are unforgiving when it comes to needle and pin marks. When pinning, be sure to stick to your seam allowances. If necessary, cut your seam allowance extra wide and trim it once you’ve stitched your seams to give yourself room to pin properly. Always mark your seam lines before stitching and test your sewing machine settings on scraps of your fabric to make sure you won’t have to unpick your work and start again.

Use a longer stitch length

Bulky fabric and thick thread can leave your seams stiff and rigid, especially if your stitch length is too short. Adjust your settings to use longer stitches. Not only will this make your finished project more flexible and shapely, it can also help you get your tension settings correct, as very short stitch lengths may have issues getting through the heavy fabric properly.

Don’t pretreat your fabric

You’re probably tired of being endlessly reminded to pre-shrink, pre-rinse, and pre-press your fabrics before you cut your pattern pieces. In the case of outdoor fabrics, that’s one procedure you’ll want to skip. While they’re water resistant and can certainly be cleaned, you want to avoid just tossing them in the wash with hot water and soap. This strips away the UV treatment and can cause your fabric to wear out prematurely. Instead, press away any fold marks using the correct settings on your iron, and cut your fabric as-is.

Opt for a walking foot

These fabrics are slippery! For the same reason you want to cut only one layer at a time, you’ll want to switch your sewing machine over to a walking foot when sewing outdoor fabrics. This foot uses a second set of feed dogs so the top layer of fabric, instead of just going along for the ride as it would with a standard presser foot, is actively being fed under the needle at the same rate as the bottom layer. This will also cut down a bit on the amount of pinning you’ll have to do; instead of needing pins every inch or so, you’ll be able to use fewer and space them further apart.

Care for your finished projects

Once your outdoor projects are finished, you can help them last longer by taking proper care of them. While the material is water and mildew resistant, constant soakings will reduce its lifespan. If you suspect rain is on the way, move your cushions to a drier location; if it’s too late and they’re already sodden, remove any covers and hang both cover and cushion to air dry completely. This will cut down on mildew, which can cause stains and wear. Don’t allow your cushions to sit out in the elements all winter. Putting them in a box in the attic or garage will extend their usefulness considerably by keeping them out of the rain and snow.

If you start to see signs of UV damage—fading colours, popped seams, or brittle patches of material—it may be time to consider replacing your outdoor accessories. Luckily, you’re now an outdoor fabric pro, so you can whip up replacements in no time!

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