Subsections: Fibers vs. Weaves | Thread | Rings
I get asked about what fabrics are good for baby carriers on a regular basis, so here's a FAQ.
I want to use a pretty cotton calico print I found in the quilting section of my local chain fabric store. Why do you say I shouldn't use it for a sling?
I don't recommend calicos (generally 100% cotton, usually found in many gorgeous patterns and colors) because, simply put, they do not generally stand up to the everyday wear and tear a sling will go through. Calicos are really quilting fabrics. If you've ever quilted, you know that quilts are made of three layers: the pieced top, a middle batting layer for thickness, and a backing. Then the layers are fur ther streng thened with stitching that goes through them all. Quilts are also not generally washed on a regular basis (most quilters recommend hand-washing or vacuuming to clean them). So calico fabrics are not made to stand up to a great deal of stress. If you think about a sling, on the other hand... slings go through a lot of stress every day. We pull on the tails to adjust them, the babies strain against them trying to reach things, and when they get dirty, we throw them in the wash, which is a very stressful process in and of itself.
I haven't used calicos to make slings for myself because I did use them to make nursing pillows... both of which self-destructed after just a few washings. The cotton quickly becomes too thin to stand up to any stress, so the slightest tug causes a major tear. Once I saw that happen on my nursing pillow, I decided then and there I'd never sell a sling made of it! I know some manufacturers do, but I wish they wouldn't. They are, to be blunt, potentially putting children at risk. (And honestly, I am not saying that because I also sell slings and want the market all to myself or something -- I'd really love to be able to use calicos myself for slings, because there *are* so many pretty ones, and they are relatively inexpensive and easy to find. But having seen what happened to my nursing pillows, I just can't. And I can't recommend that others do, either. It really has nothing to do with my business.)
Now, you can use calico if you are prepared to line it with something, or use a double layer. You can just fold the material in half and hem it that way (like a pillowcase), but the resulting sling is usually just 22" wide. In a ring sling, that's a bit too narrow for my tastes, at least for an infant; though it's just right for a pouch sling. For a ring sling, if you cut it to 30" and line it with another material, that works, too. But I would never, ever trust my baby to a single layer of calico. Yes, the patterns and colors are very pretty... but the safety of your child is more important than that.
The same is true of many of the fabrics in the same area of the store as calico -- broadcloth, muslin, etc. These are meant for crafting and quilting. I find that apparel fabrics make much more comfortable and long-lasting slings. If you think about it, it makes sense: quilting fabrics are meant to lie flat on a bed. Apparel fabrics are meant to follow your body's curves, and to be laundered on a regular basis. Which do you think would make a better sling?
One more thing to ponder: within a group of fabrics, there will be differences in quality from manufacturer to manufacturer. It's entirely possible that there are some quilting cottons that have excellent fiber strength, and that will stand up to washing and wearing. But I am highly doubtful that any of those will be found on the quilting wall at JoAnn's or Hancock fabrics, and certainly not at WalMart; and I would expect to have to pay a premium for cottons of such high quality (at least $8-10 per yard, if not far more). We had a long discussion about this on the DIY forum at the Babywearer -- here's the thread (you will have to register to read it). If you want to experiment with different grades of calicos, that is your prerogative; I would suggest testing as close to real-world as possible (i.e. not just loading a sling tied as a hammock with books or something, since that's hardly a realistic picture of what a sling goes through when it's under stress). Wear will tend to concentrate in the body part of the sling (where the baby sits or lies) and where the fabric passes through the rings (both in the sling and where the rings are tied in), and tearing, when it occurs, will be sudden and catastrophic, though it will generally occur in a worn area. Should you decide to ignore my suggestions and use quilting cotton anyway, please be very vigilant when using the sling, and check on a regular basis for wear and tear, especially after washing!
Here are some other links about quilting fabric quality (thanks, LeAnn!):
What about batiks? they're soooo pretty...
That's a good question. Generally, hand-batiked fabrics are slightly stronger than their printed quilting counterparts, as the fabric has to be stronger to begin with to stand up to the stresses of the batiking process (layers of hot wax, repeated dyeing, hot iron to get rid of the wax). (This doesn't hold for printed "batiks", obviously.) However, they are still a plain-weave cotton (meaning the threads just go over and under each other, as opposed to twill/denim, which has a diagonal rib because the threads go over/over/under) and that means they will still tear easily in worn spots. I would say that it's all right to use real hand-batiks IF you are vigilant about wear. If, after having worn and washed the sling for a while, you find worn spots in areas that are under stress (especially where the fabric goes through or around the rings), I would stop using it. Those worn spots can tear spontaneously, and that tearing will happen when you're adjusting the sling -- not a time you want it to rip! In general, less sturdy fabrics won't last as long as bottomweights, so if you're using something that just looks pretty instead of also being practical, be aware that you will probably have to retire it before your baby stops wanting to be carried.
What about stretchy knitted fabrics?
You can certainly use a knitted fabric (interlock or jersey). Just keep a few things in mind:
What about gauze?
While cotton gauze is very nice for a wrap (especially one that isn't sewn in any way, besides hemming), it is generally not strong enough in a single layer for any other sewn carrier. The thinner it is, the more likely it is to tear out in a seam. You can make a sling with it in a double layer, but that may actually make it heavier than a single layer of a slightly thicker, sturdier material. I do not recommend it for a pouch, which has a very important, weight-bearing seam, which will almost certainly rip out in a single layer, and will probably be uncomfortable if doubled. The same is true of a mei tai -- you may be able to use multiple layers to construct a safe carrier, but it will likely be heavier than a single layer of a more appropriate material.
What about flannel? It's so nice and soft!
I don't recommend flannel for the same reasons I don't recommend calico. Flannel is a lovely fabric for clothing, bedding, and blankets... but if you ever had a flannel lovie as a child, or slept on a set of flannel sheets for a couple of years, you probably know that flannel just doesn't hold up well under high-stress conditions, and babywearing is definitely stressful on a fabric! Flannel is soft because the cotton fibers that make it up have been distressed -- the softness basically comes from the fraying cotton threads. In other words, it's already starting to wear out when it's on the bolt. Yes, it's wonderfully soft, but it is never meant to be used in a weight-bearing application, and no matter how many layers you may want to use (and you'd have to use a lot), it's still going to wear out quickly. And once it's worn for a while, any stress will tend to result in a catastrophic tear -- that is, the fabric will tear suddenly and all at once. In a sling or carrier, this is most likely to occur during adjustment, and that is not a time you want your carrier to rip.
Are there safe ways to use flannel? Sure -- as long as the flannel is there as an addition, not as a weight-bearing element. So you could line the body of a mei tai with flannel, provided you had at least two (and preferably more) layers of a more appropriate material, like duck, thick twill, denim, or canvas. You could make a double layer pouch, where the outer layer is a safe bottomweight and the inner layer is flannel. I wouldn't recommend making a ring sling with a flannel layer, because any fabric that's thick enough for the outside will make the sling too thick to adjust easily paired with a layer of flannel. And I would never make a wrap out of flannel for the reasons outlined above.
What about silk?
Silk is a very popular material for slings being sold right now, thanks mainly to manufacturers like ZoloWear, whose founder, Darien, pioneered the double-layer brocade/dupioni sling. Silk, like any other fiber, can be woven in many different ways; some of these weaves are suitable for slings, while others are not. A fairly solid dupioni or shantung is a fine choice for slings, either single or double layer; many users find that a double-layer dupioni sling offers great support and comfort, while a single layer tends to be cooler and a bit easier to thread through the rings. Shantung is also nice for a single or double layer.
Brocades that are found at chain stores like JoAnn Fabrics are usually not real silk at all, but a rayon/polyester blend -- still pretty, and more washable than real silk brocades. (Real silk brocades can be found at online retailers like Transprism and Thai Silks (links below) or, if you're fortunate enough to live near a city with a Chinatown, you can often find real bargains at Chinatown fabric stores.) They are also fine for a single-layer sling, or, if you're feeling ambitious, they can be lined with a lighter silk, like dupioni. That combination is quite challenging to sew, and I personally no longer do it, as the wear and tear on my machine (and my patience!) is too much.
Be aware that some "brocades" are actually just printed on -- a true brocade has the motifs woven in, not printed on, and if you buy a print, it will probably not be as strong as a real woven brocade. (Indeed, I once received a printed "brocade" from a customer for a custom sling, and it was completely unsuitable for a sling -- the threads just pulled right out along any seam!) Lighter-weight silks, like charmeuse and some "raw" silks, are not appropriate for a sling! their threads are so slippery that, like the printed brocade, stitching pulls the fabric apart, and of course that's not something you want in a fabric that will be used to hold a child! Printed charmeuse does make a pretty accent, but it should not be used in the body of the sling unless it's lined with a sturdier fabric.
When shopping for silk, be aware that fake silk (usually polyester) does not have the same qualtities as real silk. This is particularly true of "Silkessence" (sold at JoAnn fabrics) -- being 100% polyester in a very tight weave, it's a very hot fabric (doesn't brea the) and is also thinner than the silk it's pretending to be, which makes it ra ther uncomfortable to wear. Better to spend the extra money for real silk, which will be far more comfortable and longer lasting. While silk fibers are exceptionally strong, you will still need to be a bit more careful with a silk sling than with other materials, because of the relative thinness of the weave. I would recommend a rolled or folded hem ra ther than a serged edge, since serging can tear with the fabric when under stress. Some weaves, particularly brocades, are prone to snagging, as well, which you might keep in mind when selecting a fabric for your sling.
What kind of general-purpose fabric should I use?
In general, you'll want to look for "bottomweights" -- that is, fabrics that are used for sewing pants and skirts. This includes twills, denims, linens, and heavier woven cottons. Within that category, you'll want something fairly lightweight for a sling-- a thinner denim or twill, for example. Some lighter upholstery fabrics are also suitable. If in doubt, try wrapping the fabric from the bolt around yourself, or giving it a crosswise stretch. If it feels sturdy to you, but also drapes well around you, it's probably a good fit for a sling. For a mei tai, you can use a medium weight in the heavyweights -- most of the upholstery fabrics will be fine. Ask a sales associate (if applicable) how easily the material tears. Weaves like denim and twill, which are woven in a complex pattern, will not tear easily (good!). Simpler weaves, often called "plain weave" because the threads just go over and under each other, like a checkerboard, can tear more easily (bad). This is the case with calico and many shirtweight fabrics.
As far as fiber contents go, you're free to choose whatever feels good to you! For a long time, the slings I grabbed most often were not 100% cotton -- one was a cotton/poly blend, and the other was microfiber, which is made of nylon, so don't feel that you have to use natural fibers unless you prefer them. As long as the weave is strong, it should be fine. Linen is an especially nice choice, as it wicks away moisture instead of keeping it against your skin, but pure linen is quite expensive. Linen blends are thus a fine compromise -- just make sure you're getting a medium-weight linen, rather than light or handkerchief weight, both of which are too thin. (Heavyweight linen is too thick.) Many hemp blends make a nice, sturdy sling; hemp, like linen, gets softer with use and wear, so while it feels pretty crunchy off the bolt, it'll soften up if you wash/dry it a few times. Some pure hemp twills and denims in lighter weights are great for a sling, and the heavier weights make a nice mei tai.
If a numerical weight for fabric is given, it will generally be in ounces per square yard. Anything from 6 oz up to about 9 oz is fine for a sling; you'll want 9 to 12 oz/yard for a mei tai. Generally, the heavier the material, the thicker it will be. Of course, some fibers are stronger than others; you can use a lower-weight linen (if you're willing to check it frequently for wear) than the same weight in cotton. A good weight for a single layer linen sling is 5.3 oz; 3.5 is fine for double layers. If you really want to do a single layer of linen at 3.5 oz FOR YOURSELF, you can get away with it, but you must check it often for wear, and I would never recommend selling a single layer linen sling at that weight, because you can't control whether your customers will check for wear.
Where do you buy fabric online?
My favorite online fabric stores are:
How do I choose the right colors for my sling?
For a little help in choosing colors and accents, you can try Color Wheel Pro - a program that allows you to create color schemes and preview them on real examples.
I often get questions about what a certain fabric is, and there is some confusion about the differences between the fiber and the weave. So here's a little chart: (links go to Wikipedia, which also has an excellent page on general fabric/textile terminology)
|Cotton||Very common, natural fiber, grown in warm climates, usually white or off-white until dyed, but can be "color grown" as well (color-grown cottons are usually an earthtoned green or brown). Shrinks when washed (always pre-wash before sewing with cotton!).||T-shirts, sheets, jeans, tablecloths, diapers... pretty much everything!|
|Linen||Made with fibers from the flax plant. One of the oldest fibers in use, used very often in hot climates. Excellent "wicking" properties, will absorb and release perspiration quickly. Strong and breathable. Downside: wrinkles very easily. Some weaves are stiff, others can be more flowing and comfortable. Shrinks between 6-10% when washed.||Shirts, sheets, tablecloths, napkins. Often blended with rayon or cotton to add softness and reduce wrinkling.|
|Silk||Spun from the cocoon of the silkworm family -- highly labor-intensive process. Silk is a good insulator, but also brea thes well. Commonly blended with less expensive fibers like rayon to reduce cost.||Common styles include dupioni, raw silk, shantung, etc. Seen in higher-end clothing and draperies.|
|Hemp||Illegal to grow in the US, tends to be quite expensive, despite its low production cost and high efficiency. Usually blended with other fibers due to its cost and tendancy towards roughness; softens with use.||Blended with other fibers, found in clothing and other apparel items, and rope.|
|Wool||Spun from the fur of many animals (sheep, alpaca, goats, etc.). Varies considerably from animal to animal -- some are quite soft, others less so. Excellent insulative properties. Proteins on the surface can cause allergic reactions in susceptible people. Shrinks considerably when washed, and can "felt" when agitated because of the way the fibers interact.||Usually found in yarn and knit items; can also be spun into thinner threads and woven or knit as needed.|
|Tencel||Like rayon, spun from wood cellulose in an ecologically-friendly process. *Very* soft in most weaves, excellent drape, strong when wet or dry, great wicking properties, resists wrinkling... I love tencel!||Blended with rayon, linen, hemp, or cotton; generally found in higher-end apparel.|
|Rayon||Known as "viscose" in Europe. Man-made, but with wood cellulose, so technically a natural fiber. Introduced as artificial silk when first created. Strong when dry, it loses much of its strength when wet, and should never be used when the fabric might get wet. Shrinks a little when washed.||Blended with silk to reduce cost; usually has a silky texture, so will be found in blouses, scarves, etc.|
|Polyester||Man-made, a long chain of extruded molecules. Very strong, but often doesn't brea the well in common weaves. Found in blends with cotton, silk, rayon, etc. to add strength and washability. Generally does not shrink when washed.||Blends in t-shirts, sheets, polyester pants; knit into fleece and other fabrics.|
|Nylon||Similar to polyester; usually seen woven into microfiber fabrics.||Blended with other fibers, or made into microfiber|
Most of those fibers can be knit or woven into these weaves:
|Plain weave||Threads are woven in a simple over and under pattern.||Quilting cotton, sateen, taffeta, canvas, muslin, etc.|
|Flannel||A form of plainweave where one surface (or both) is treated to break down the fibers and create a soft finish. Breaks down more quickly than other weaves due to the napping process.||Sheets, infant clothing, the ubiquitous 90's flannel shirt|
|Twill||Threads are woven so that the cross threads may go over one, then under two or more, up-and-down threads. Slightly stronger than plain weave.||Denim, chino, gabardine and tweed are all forms of twill.|
|Jacquard||A complex weave where two and more colors of thread are woven in a pattern to give a colored pattern, often graphical in nature, in the fabric.||Tablecloths, Didymos wraps :)|
|Knit||Knits exist in many forms, the most common being that which t-shirts and sweaters are made of (usually a stockingette knit, where one side looks like little Vs and the other side looks like little Us). Knits are generally very stretchy, no matter what fiber they're made from.||Jersey (a stockingette knit); interlock (Vs on both sides); slinky (exceptionally stretchy, often slightly shiny)|
|Fleece||Fleece is usually knit or made in a non-woven process (neither knit nor woven) from polyester fibers, though it can be made from a blend as well.||Polar fleece; microfleece|
There are, of course, numerous other weaves, but rather than list them all here, I would recommend the Wikipedia page on textiles, which has links to dozens of kinds.
So, when you're in the fabric store reading the ends of bolts, you'll usually find several pieces of information: the kind of fibers the fabric is made of; the weave; the width; and sometimes, the fabric's weight per yard. I think the very best way to learn about fabric is to spend a couple of hours in the fabric store, browsing the aisles, feeling the fabric, and making mental notes about what feels good and what doesn't. You could even bring a digital camera and make a scrapbook, or, when you've bought a number of different types, use your scraps to put together a notebook of fabrics for quick reference.
What kind of thread do you recommend?
I like the name brands -- in thread, you do tend to get what you pay for. I use only Gutermann polyester for strength and durability, though it is definitely on the pricey side. Coats & Clark mercerized cotton is also okay, although I tend to stay away from cotton thread because it's not as strong as polyester. While the colors are lovely, Sulky 40 weight thread is not strong enough for making baby carriers -- it is intended for embroidery, not actual sewing.
I would NOT recommend WalMart's house brand. I had more breakage problems with it than with any other thread. It's cheap in both senses of the word. Spend a dollar more and get good thread -- you'll be far happier with the results.
Where do you buy thread? It's so expensive at the store!
I adore Sew True for thread and other notions. They have 1100 yard spools of Gutermann thread for $3.50/spool, with quantity discount breaks at 10 and 25 spools. At my local fabric store, I can easily pay $3.50 for a 500m spool, and it's usually more than that, so Sew True is a real bargain. They also send out a newsletter on a fairly regular basis with free shipping, so it's worth signing up for that. I haven't bought thread anywhere else since I found Sew True. (And I was not paid or otherwise compensated for writing this -- lol!)
|Aluminum SlingRings:||Nylon SlingRings:|
||2 1/4 "||2 5/8 "||2 7/8"|
|Outer||2.5"||3"||3.5"||Outer||2 3/4 "||3 1/8 "||3 3/8 "|
I use only SlingRings rings on the slings I sell. They are specifically weight-tested for use in baby slings, and come in a wide range of gorgeous colors. I recommend them without hesitation!
General sizing for SlingRings aluminum rings:
For SlingRings nylon rings:
For steel/chrome-plated rings:
1/8" thick craft rings (sold at craft stores like JoAnn Fabrics, Hancock Fabrics, Michaels, and at WalMart) ARE NOT SAFE for slings! They can break or bend, and either of those *will* result in an injury, unless you're really, really lucky. Seriously, spend a little more and get safe rings. Your child is worth it. I've also seen rings for embellishing handbags lately at stores like JoAnn's. Don't use those, either! the size is all wrong, and on rings where the size might be right, the strength is definitely NOT there. PLEASE buy safe rings!!! At right, you can see a pair of craft rings that someone used in a homemade sling and then passed on to a second-hand buyer. The buyer used the sling for a few days, and then the weld on one of the rings snapped! Luckily, her baby wasn't hurt when it broke, but I think this illustrates pretty starkly that craft rings are not made to stand up to the stress of babywearing appications.
Have a question that's not covered here? Please email me to ask!