Fabric Philosophy: Rayon Challis

I’m working on a series of posts about what fabrics I like and what my favorite fabrics are used for. I thought I’d start the series out with one of my super dupes favorites: rayon challis.

What is Rayon Challis?

Rayon Challis (pronounced sha-lee, not chal-iss as I pronounce it in my head as I type it out) is this sorta natural, sorta synthetic fabric made from cellulose fibers (bark, wood, leaves, you get the idea, but usually made from wood pulp). It’s considered a natural fabric because according to manufacturing terms, rayon is “a fiber formed by regenerating natural materials into a usable form.” But uses the natural polymers from the wood pulp and is highly processed, giving it that “sorta synthetic” label in my book. Modern techniques mean that no chemicals stay in the fabric so nothing is transferred to your skin or anything and rayon is actually more biodegradable than cotton according to some researchers.

Rayon refers to the material it’s made from and challis refers to the type of fabric. Challis is lightweight with a drapey feel with an ever so slight brushed finish. It’s similar to Norwich crepe. Challis can also be made from fibers like wool and silk but, for the sake of keeping things on point and not tangent-y, I’ll only talk about the rayon version here.

What is Rayon Challis used for?

Rayon challis is used in all those drapey sundresses you see at the mall and in a ton of beautiful blouses. Wrinkles seem to just fall out of the fabric with just your body heat so rayon challis tends to make you look more put together and polished than if you were wearing a linen or cotton or other fabric that wrinkles easily.

My personal experience is that rayon tends to hold the pigment more than other fabric bases. This results in really rich, deeply colored fabrics that look expensive but aren’t. Even some of my most coveted Cotton + Steel rayons are only in the $14-16/yd range. Pricy but not so much so that I’m afraid of cutting into it like some fabrics I have (*cough, I’mlookingatyouLibertyofLondoncottonlawn, *cough*). But, I make a TON of basic blouses for Girly with $4/yd solids that look MUCH more expensive than they really are.

But… How easy is it to work with?

Well, easy. And not easy. Once you’re used to it, it’s a breeze but it does take a bit to get used to it. Because it’s so drapey, it does shift around a bit when you’re working with it. It’s harder to work with than, say a quilting cotton that sort of “sticks” to other layers when you stack them, but definitely better than something like a silk chiffon. Where I would skip pins on a quilting cotton, I’d opt for a few when working with rayon.

Another quirk of rayon challis is that it can shift and distort a bit. You’ll get less of this when you’re working with a higher-end fabric that’s a bit thicker than the cheapy stuff but all will distort to some extent.

Sewing Tips:

  • Lay your fabric flat. When you’re preparing your fabric to trace and cut (or just cut), make sure everything is flat and square. Like I mentioned earlier, it has a tendency to shift around a bit and if something gets pulled out of whack, it can cause big problems later on in the project.
  • Rotary cutters are your friends. Because of the “shiftyness” of rayon challis, it’s best if you can cut with a rotary cutter as much as possible and leave your fabric laying on your table without moving it. Picking it up and trying to cut with scissors will make all sorts of a mess. If you have to use scissors, make sure they’re sharp and only cut one layer at a time. You can generally get away with cutting multiple layers of a stickier cotton with scissors but the rayon will slide and distort.
  • Make sure your fabric is opaque enough for your needs. Sometimes the thinner rayon challis can be a wee bit on the sheer side. Generally, I’m okay with that in a blouse because I usually wear a cami underneath but I’d hate that in a dress. Line your garment if needed or stick to higher-end rayons if you are worried.
  • Be careful when ironing. The threads can become shiny (it’s that semi-synthetic quality coming out here) if you press it at too high of a temp. Most irons have a rayon setting; if your’s doesn’t, use a medium setting. If you are worried, grab yourself a press cloth.
  • Sheerweight interfacing is your friend. It will be light enough to not be obvious in the places you need a bit of interfacing.
  • A universal needle is all you need. It’s delicate but not delicate-delicate. A universal needle is fine.
  • Don’t stretch your fabric when you sew. Remember who rayon challis can distort? Yeah, this is where it’s crucial that you don’t stretch and distort your fabric. Use interfacing or staystitch as needed. Hell, I’ll even go as far as to say that you should staystitch every piece before you even start assembling the pattern.
  • Let your garment hang a bit before hemming. You’ll want to put your new dress or blouse on a dress form or hanger for at least 24 hours to let it relax into its natural shape before you hem it or you could end up with some wonkiness.
  • Speaking of hems, don’t go too bulky. Keep your hems minimal; don’t fold too many times. That extra weight can affect how the whole garment hangs.

Caring for your new Rayon Challis garment

First things first: always prewash. Duh, right? Well, sometimes I get lazy and don’t. Most (not all, but most) rayon will shrink in warm or hot water. I usually wash in cold so it’s not that big of a deal but you should do as I say and not as I do…

Once your garment is done, you can wash in warm or cold and hang to dry. It dries pretty quickly. If I want to look extra put together that day (because sometimes I need all the help in that department; I work from home-my work uniform consists of pjs) I will iron on medium. But really, the wrinkles will fall away once you wear it for a bit.

Special note: Cotton + Steel recommends dry cleaning only. A certain someone may or may not have washed Cotton + Steel with no problems but that certain person will neither confirm nor deny such accusations.

Which of our patterns are suited for rayon challis?

And that’s it! I hope this blog post has been comprehensive enough to give you a good idea about what’s involved when sewing rayon challis!

Do you enjoy working with rayon challis? What do you like to make with it?

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