Taffeta is a plain-weave fabric with a very stiff – or crisp – hand. It has a very distinctive rustle when it moves and heavier weights will stand away from the body when gathered to any degree. It’s gorgeous stuff and I love it.
Historically, taffeta was made from silk – here’s a separate entry about silk taffeta.- but, these days, it’s also made from acetate and polyester – and that’s what you’ll find at your main street fabric store. The difference between the two is that acetate is usually heavier in weight – but not always. Check the bolt end if you’re looking for a specific fiber type.
Taffetas are usually unadorned, but machine-embroidered taffetas exist. Taffeta is often produced with a cross-woven or “two-tone” effect where the warp thread is one color, such as blue and the the weft is another color, such as red. This can create some really eye-catching looks as the color changes depending on the angle of view.
It’s very popular for formal dresses and corsets. If you want to make a Disney princess dress, you’re probably going to use either satin or taffeta. It can be used for shirts and even pants if you like, but be sure to pick something light enough for your purpose.
If you’re trying to decide between satin and taffeta, think about how “soft” you want the garment to look. Satin looks softer and more luminous than taffeta. Taffeta, however, loves strutting it’s stuff, especially for big skirts. The Victorians loved their acetate taffeta. Victorians loved a lot of artificial fibers and dyes, in fact, but that’s fodder for another entry.
Taffeta should always be dry cleaned, as it’ll lose most of it’s crispness when hand-washed. That said, I quite like the effect of hand-washed taffeta and have done that deliberately a time or two myself. So if you want to pre-treat your taffeta before cutting it, take it to a dry-cleaner. And this where I confess that sometimes I don’t because I like the way it looks straight off the bolt.
Polyester and acetate taffetas can be found for as little as five dollars a yard, if you hunt around. Pure silk taffetas start at $20/yard for lighter weight and can go as high as a kite from there. If you see a price that’s too good to be true, it probably is – too good to be true. If you can, perform a burn test to verify the fiber before committing to buy.
Taffeta can and will fray when cut. It is not very forgiving of needle holes, so use silk pins inside the seam allowance, and use a fine needle when sewing. Acetate taffeta is extremely unforgiving of needle-holes so be extra-careful!
Always use as cool an iron as possible on taffeta. It can scorch and even melt at relatively low temperature.
Depending on the fiber, your taffeta might take pleats or it might not. The risk factor is in the ironing. In my experience silk taffeta will pleat well when lightly sprayed with water before folding and then pressed with a medium-temperature iron with lots of steam.
I’ve made acetate taffeta take a crease, but it was a race between what happens first – the crease going in or the fabric scorching. Meanwhile, I wouldn’t dare try ironing polyester taffeta with a hot-enough iron to crease it. Misting the fabric with water sometimes helps, but not always. As usual, when there’s any doubt, try on a scrap or swatch, first and use a press cloth!
Use a midweight needle for jeans or denim – yes really – and if you have a straight-stitch foot and a single-hole plate for your machine, break those out too. Lighter-weight taffetas can get pulled down into the guts of your machine and cause heartbreak. The specialized foot and plate will reduce the chance of that. Hold the fabric taut fore-and-aft when running it through your machine to reduce puckering – definitely practice on some scraps first.