Selecting fabrics for Gemma

Orange Gemma Tank

Gemma tanks are a great summer staple, and we at MBR have been been putting ours into heavy rotation now that the weather’s warming up. Jess has easily made more Gemmas than I have, and I dare say has become a bit of an expert at selecting good fabrics for this pattern, to the point that I might even be a wee bit envious of hers (all I’m saying is she’s lucky she’s a size smaller than me otherwise they might start to disappear).

Orange Gemma Tank

Jess is general manager here at Made By Rae (she is in charge of wholesale, coordinates pattern testing, serves as project manager, and answers a ton of email), and she does a lot of sewing both for work and for fun. Jess made this particular Gemma tank with Robert Kaufman Manchester cotton in Poppy, a looser weave medium-weight cotton that has turned out to be a really comfortable Gemma.

The other day we were discussing this tank, and that led to a discussion about our favorite fabrics for Gemma, because ultimately the ones made with fabrics that are more comfortable will get worn, and the ones that aren’t, won’t. That seemed like a great topic to share on the blog, as I know many of you are also sewing Gemma tanks of your own (check out #gemmatank for some great examples).

Orange Gemma Tank

Fabric choice is one of the most important factors if you want to end up with a comfortable garment, especially when you are working with woven fabrics (knits are, by their nature, usually more comfortable to wear, but Gemma is designed for wovens). Here are a few things to consider when selecting fabric for Gemma:

  • a fabric with a looser weave tends to be more comfortable than tighter weave.
  • a fabric with a lighter weight tends to be more comfortable than heavier weight
  • a fabric with more drape tends to be more comfortable than fabric with less.

Every fabric has some degree of each of these characteristics (weave, weight, drape), as well as other characteristics that have less impact on comfort, but in general, I find these useful when choosing fabrics for Gemma.

Orange Gemma Tank

Here are some more fabrics to consider making your next Gemma out of:

double gauze – while it’s not super drapey, it’s fairly lightweight and has a very loose weave, to the point that you might even need to go down a size. Double gauze frays quite easily (so seam finishing is a must!), but the darts are easy to get to lay smoothly and it’s actually quite manageable to sew with, due to the stabilizing effect of the two layers. Manufacturers include Kokka, Andover, Monaluna, Cloud9, and Cotton and Steel.

shot cotton – also lightweight and with a looser weave but very little drape, this is a nice option if you can find it (as far as I know, Kaffe Fassett is the only one who designs shot cottons). I love the depth of solids due to the different colors in the warp and weft threads. Manufactured by Free Spirit.

cotton lawn / voile – lawn has the advantage of being widely available in many different prints due to an increased number of manufacturers producing it in recent years, and it is light weight. Be careful when using lawn for Gemma, however, as some of the lawns (looking at you, Cotton and Steel) are very tightly woven and less lightweight than others, and even have a bit of a silky sheen to them, making it less comfortable to wear and a more difficult to sew the dart smoothly without a noticeable pucker at the end. Manufacturers include Windham, Andover, Robert Kaufman, Liberty of London, Free Spirit (under “voile”), Cloud9, Monaluna, and Cotton and Steel.

chambray – most chambray is medium-weight, fairly tightly woven, and has very little drape, so in general I would avoid it for Gemma. However, the fabrics under the category “union chambray” produced by Robert Kaufman have become popular in recent years because they are lighter, drapier, and even have a bit of stretch to them. Manufactured by Robert Kaufman

rayon / rayon challis – a synthetic fiber that drapes beautifully, the quality will determine how easy it is to sew with, but one thing to consider (and one that I need to do more research on, frankly) is that rayon production can be pretty horrid for the environment; rayon tencel is the most eco-friendly rayon. Manufacturers include Free Spirit and Cotton and Steel.

batiste – in the past year Cloud9 (the organic fabric company that produces my fabric designs), has begun producing a fabric on a new “batiste” substrate for them; it’s loose-weave and light, so it’s almost a single gauze, but it’s less sheer than gauze. The prints they’ve released so far on batiste are quite lovely; however, it’s best to choose prints with darker backgrounds if you use this fabric for Gemma as they are still pretty sheer.  Manufactured by Cloud9.

Orange Gemma Tank

And now, a note about quilting cotton (dum dum DUMMMMMM): It’s not a great fabric for Gemma (or garments in general, really). I know…there are so many awesome prints, but it’s not going to be as comfortable to wear as the fabrics listed above. Even the quilting cottons that are lighter weight (like the one I made with Alison Glass’ Handcrafted fabric) end up looking great on the hanger but not so great to wear. I’d recommend QC for making a wearable muslin, but that’s pretty much it. Sorry.

Orange Gemma Tank

Do you have a favorite fabric for Gemma? Let us know in comments! You might also want to check out this post: My top five fabrics for clothing.

The Gemma Sewing Pattern is available as a PDF in my shop.

16 thoughts on “Selecting fabrics for Gemma

  1. I definitely love my double gauze Gemma but I have to say that I have had great luck with some quilting cottons for Gemma’s and other garments both in terms of how they look and how comfortable they are to wear. Especially for garments worn in the summer, I appreciate how low maintenance the fabric is and it is definitely more affordable than many alternatives. So maybe even though not officially recommended, it is also a matter of personal preference. Also it is definitely true that not all quilting cotton is created equal.

    That is worrisome about rayon. It is hard to keep on top of all the issues involved when trying to make ethical choices. Definitely better for my budget to avoid rayon but it there are some beautiful new rayons out there.

    • Good point, Julie! I agree, there are definitely lighter QCs that could work, and I’m really glad you like yours!!

      Yes, the fabric manufacturing process (for ALL fabrics, not just rayon) can be (but isn’t always) really terrible for the environment. I really wish companies would be transparent about their environmental practices to make it easier for consumers to discern. But it’s understandably difficult; for example, when a process is better than most but not 100% awesome, you’re still not going to want to go around advertising it.

  2. I just made my first Gemma out of rayon (did NOT know about rayon and the environment – big sad face) and I love love love it. So comfortable and even though I made it for casual wear, it looked fantastic under my jacket for work. And my favorite feature of Gemma was that I didn’t have to continuously shift the shirt around to cover my bra straps through the day – my biggest pet peeve about tank tops. Thank you for a fantastic pattern – I have many more already planned for my future. I have another rayon and a voile already cut and ready to be sewn this weekend!

    • Aww yay so glad you love it, Amy!!

      And I should be more specific about the rayon: it’s entirely possible that a particular rayon is made in an environmentally-friendly way, so don’t write them all off yet. But do the research when you can!!!

  3. I made my first Gemma from a Kaffe shot cotton in “blueberry” and bound the neck with black and white polka dots. It’s soft and comfy and I agree it has a better drape than the QC versions I’ve made. I chose a Cotton+Steel octopus print to wear when I sub at elementary schools and it’s cute but kinda make me look like I’m pregnant.

    • Ooh that’s too bad — i love that Octopus print so much!! Maybe tucked in it could be better??

  4. I love missmatatabi! I’ve been buying fabric from that shop for years. After you posted this, I decided to see if there was anything new, and discovered the shop is having a sale! I got some adorable cream lawn with tiny cats embroidered on it, and a lightweight chambray with woven stripes. Now to make time to see more things! Right now I’m trying to finish shirts for my boys, before school ends.

  5. Hi Rae, can I just tell you how much I love this pattern? I have just sewn a big batch of these tanks and am planning to do a blog post on Monday about the lovely Gemma. I’ve tried some different fabrics but ones that came out most lovely are the two I did with Alison Glass Knits. It is tshirt material that is 100% cotton and I’ve been wearing them nonstop. I’ll be sure to tag you on Instagram when I do the post. ❤️

    • oh hi Kim!! I’d been reading your blog posts about Gemma lately so your versions have totally been on my radar!! I’m so glad you love the pattern!!! woot!!


  6. Gemma is high in my queue this summer. I’m trying to decide between a double gauze and a Nani Iro sateen. I have a feeling both would be lovely but I wish I could touch the fabrics before I have to buy them.

    • Linen is a great option! It has a nice amount of drape and is very breathable and comfortable, so it makes a really nice fabric for summer Gemmas. The two things I watch for are weight (it can get too thick, so the lighter linens are really nice) and also wrinkling…sometimes a cotton-linen blend can be better than 100% if you’ve got a super wrinkly linen. That said, I don’t mind the rumpled linen look as much as some people do — so maybe that’s not an issue for you either!

  7. I’ve made 2 Gemmas so far. One in Kaffe Fassett shot cotton which I love for the lightweight and the coolness of the fabric. The drape is nice. The second I made in knit from Dana’s Ice Cream fabric line. It was a wee bit harder to work with, but well worth the time. I love the result. Very nice drape and very “swishy”. I do recommend careful handling and stay stitching, but it did not seem to stretch out of shape. I have some rayon challis and some yarn dyed shirting by Kauffman to try next. Can’t wait!

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