Sewing With PVC And Vinyl

While PVC was once associated almost exclusively with rainwear, it can be used for a variety of wet-look articles. Its use in the film, The Matrix, has helped boost its popularity among the masses. Trench coats, catsuits, leotards and other dancewear are all getting an update with the use of shiny, wet-look PVC. Skirts, halter tops, pants and even evening gowns are getting a new lease of life in this quite versatile material. PVC is also gaining popularity as a fabric suitable for use in interior design.

PVC was originally an acronym for Poly-Vinyl Chloride but is now often called Patent Vinyl Cloth as a distinction from the PVC pipe used in the plumbing industry. The right side of the fabric is of polyurethane and is shiny like patent leather. The fabric is self-lined with a stretch knit backing giving the same flexibility as a medium weight cloth. The backing may be of polyester or lycra. Dark PVC generally has black lining with white lining used for lighter colours.

When backed with polyester, the PVC has a 2-way stretch with an increase of 12 to 15% across the grain. When backed with Lyrca, the stretch is similar but goes with the grain as well as across the grain.

PVC Shorts and TopCredit: Wikimedia

Two-way stretch is suited to items such as jackets or raincoats. Anything with a flared hem can usually be constructed with 2-way stretch. Patterns designed for stretch fabrics are more likely to need 4-way stretch PVC.

When deciding if PVC will adapt to a non-PVC pattern, consider how much stretch is required, whether pressing is recommended and whether there are darts in the design.

Choosing a pattern
Most commercial patterns give a list of 'suggested fabrics'. They may also give the minimum amount of stretch needed. If not, find the stretch guide along the side of the envelope. Hold a piece of PVC at the marker and stretch the fabric towards the second arrow. If it reaches or goes beyond the marker, the pattern can be used with your PVC. If the stretch is quite enough, you may want to experiment with a larger sized pattern.

To choose the length of PVC you need to use with a particular pattern, use the 'with nap' yardage.

Placing the material
The PVC and its lining may be less solid near the selvage and pattern pieces may need to be laid out slightly off the selvage. Follow the grain-lines when laying out your pattern. Two-way stretch material needs to stretch around the body.

Lay out your material on a cutting surface and let it settle for 24 hours before proceeding with cutting. Use weights to hold pattern pieces in place. Mark any features with tailor's chalk or a water-soluble pen. Don't use anything that will puncture the fabric. Ensure your scissors are very sharp.

Instead of pins, use double-faced basting tape. Place along the cut edge within the seam allowance. It will stick easily to PVC and can be peeled or cut away after stitching. If you have to use pins for whatever reason, use extra-fine-grade pins and use a thimble.

Stitch with a sharp size 11 needle for sewing seams and top-stitching. A ballpoint needle will tear holes in the polyurethane. To put in zips, use a 'leather' needle which is designed with a razor tip. A normal needle cannot cut through leather, PVC and similar products.

A stretch thread must be used. Although all-cotton is stronger, it will not stretch. If it shrinks when washed, it will cause puckering in non-cotton materials. One hundred percent polyester thread is best but 60% polyester may be easier to find.

The rubber-like texture of PVC tends to adhere to the presser foot. This can be counteracted in several ways. Water-soluble stabiliser can be applied before stitching. This is sold in sheets or rolls. Although the directions will say to attach it with a hot iron, it will also stick if you wipe the topside of the PVC with a damp sponge then press (with your fingers) 2 to 3 inch wide strips to the seamline. Allow to dry completely. This 'interfacing' will now glide smoothly over the presser foot and throat-plate. When finished, remove the stabiliser by wiping with a sponge soaked in cold water.

The other method is to use a Teflon presser foot. To prevent the PVC from stretching down through the hole in the throat-plate, use strips of tear-away stabiliser underneath.

Red CatsuitCredit: Wikimedia

Whichever method you use, grip the material both sides of the presser foot and pull tight while guiding the material over the feeder teeth. Start seams at the widest part of the pattern piece and sew towards the narrow part. Sew with the grain. Use a straight stitch of medium length for 2-way stretch and a narrow zigzag stitch for 4-way stretch.

There is no need to overlock, zigzag or otherwise neaten the raw edges as they will not fray. Any garments requiring hemming should be allowed to hang for 24 hours. This will ensure an even hemline.

PVC cannot be pressed. High heat will melt the polyurethane surface while low heat will result in the knit backing coming away from the top surface. The pattern you choose to make will need to lay flat and drape nicely without pressing when made up. Pleated skirts and creased pants are not suitable for PVC. It also means that any interfacing must be sewn in rather than fused on.

Darts and gathers
Darts and gathers are also generally unsatisfactory in a PVC garment. You may get away with vertical darts but diagonal darts such as are common near the bustline will not look good in PVC. If you need to set-in a sleeve, reduce the ease allowed by trimming the cap of the sleeve by 1/8 to ¼ of an inch. Run an upholstery thread over beeswax to encourage smooth sewing and use a long, straight stitch to make a single line of ease stitching.

Making up the garment in a cheap muslin or cotton is a good idea and will save you wasting your lovely PVC. You will know that the pattern will fit correctly and you can make any minor adjustments to ensure it does. Any holes put in PVC by pins or needles will remain so unpicking is not an option which makes sewing a 'draft' a sensible option.

PVC fabrics can also be combined with other materials to create interesting effects. Plain coats or jackets can be enlivened with wet-look trimmings such as buttons, yokes, cuffs or elbow patches. Contrasting insets of PVC used with a compatible fabric can also create a striking effect.

Used with a bulky fabric, PVC is very effective when incorporated as bands down the front or as waist-bands or collars. PVC can also be used for the yoke, sleeves and skirt of an outfit combined with a double knit jersey for the bodice to give a softer fit.

PVC fabrics are a great boon to those who make their own clothes adding a whole new dimension to creative dress-making.