Sometimes you need a dress that clings in all the right places or a swimsuit that offers firm support. For either of these handy garments, you will have to choose one of the many stretchy fabric types. These days, stretch material has so many popular uses that you can select from 18 stretchy fabric types!
Stretchy fabric can expand to a greater length or width and then recoil into its original shape. Most stretchable fabric contains a small percentage of an elastic material like spandex. Knit fabric also has some stretch because of the way its threads loop over each other instead of crisscrossing in a typical weave.
In this article, you’ll find out what makes fabric expand and recoil. You’ll also learn the key characteristics of 18 stretchy fabrics. Finally, you’ll discover tips on picking the best stretchy material for a dress or headband.
What Makes Fabric Stretchy?
Elastic fibers, knit structure, and bias cutting can all make fabric stretchy. These three types of stretch all function in different ways. They each cause varying levels of stretchiness in a garment or piece of cloth.
Most stretch fabric contains some percentage of elastic fibers twisted into the yarns of the material. You may see this elastic described as Lycra, spandex, or elastane. All of the names describe the same synthetic elastomer that gives stretch fabrics the ability to expand and then recoil.
For this reason, you can find many popular types of material described as a “stretch” version of that material. Denim, for example, comes in both a sturdy, unstretchable version and in a stretch denim version.
The second most common type of elasticity in cloth is called mechanical stretch. It comes from the construction of the threads in the material.
You might think of all cloth beginning its life on giant factory looms where shuttles push the threads over-under, over-under. Lots of cloth does not use a plain crisscross weave at all!
Knit fabric contains a series of interlocking loops connected in stitches. This pattern of threads looks like a hand-knitted sweater! The loops of thread allow a lot more expansion than a plain weave.
You can test this by tugging on the hem of your t-shirt. Most t-shirts are made out of a cloth called jersey knit. Jersey knit uses this looped thread method to make a soft kind of stretch fabric that can mold to the shape of your body.
In contrast, picture squares of quilting material. These quilting fabrics also contain cotton threads but in a plain weave instead of knitted loops. Unlike knit fabric, the plain weave does not stretch!
Well, it won’t stretch most of the time. You can find one final type of elasticity in pretty much any cloth made of any material, in any type of weave.
If you take a square piece of cloth and fold it into a triangle and then pull on opposite points of the triangle, you will find that it stretches a tiny bit. This is because even a plain weave material stretches on the diagonal!
Famous couture designers in the 1930s launched a trend for making clothing cut out diagonal to the grain of the fabric. This is called cutting on the bias. Think of Gretta Garbo smoldering at the camera in a black-and-white shot while wearing a long, artfully draped evening gown!
These bias-cut clothes drape and cling almost like today’s spandex-infused stretch fabrics! Bias-cutting revolutionized the fashion industry and the concept remains popular today.
Finally, you will also see stretch fabrics described as having either a 2-way or 4-way stretch.
Stretch fabrics that have a 2-way can expand either vertically or horizontally, usually from one selvage to the other. Most knit fabrics fall into this category.
A 4-way stretch fabric, on the other hand, expands both vertically and horizontally. This usually only happens when the actual material used to make the threads contains some elasticity. In other words, this category contains stretch fabrics like stretch denim, stretch satin, and any other “stretch” fabric with spandex woven into it.
18 Stretchy Fabric Types and Names
Each of the eighteen popular stretch fabrics described here falls into the elastic fiber or knit construction categories. The “stretch” materials that contain spandex expand in all four directions. Knit fabrics usually only have a 2-way stretch.
Some of these types of cloth have unique, specific uses. Others, like jersey knits, show up in everything from t-shirts to tank tops to sundresses!
The cool thing to think about is that a few decades ago, you couldn’t wear any of the fashions that depend on stretch fabric! Knit fabric existed earlier in the 1900s but didn’t become popular until the 1970s. Stretch fabric containing elastic fibers didn’t trend until the 1980s.
It’s easy to take for granted your comfy, stretchy modern swimwear and nicely fitted skinny jeans. But really, these are all innovative designs inspired by advances in textile sciences in recent decades!
1. Cotton Shirting or Stretch Cotton PoplinCotton shirting or stretch cotton poplin typically contains about 97% cotton and 3% spandex or Lycra.
When poplin first showed up in the Middle Ages, it featured silk and wool woven crosswise over each other. Today, poplin usually contains cotton but has fine, silky warp threads and thicker, textured weft threads. This creates a unique texture in the material.
Adding a tiny percentage of Lycra to the threads creates stretch cotton poplin. You sometimes also see this material called shirting material.
This cloth looks and feels like cotton but expands just a little along the grain. It makes comfortable button-down dress shirts, pencil skirts, and dresses.
Traditionally, these kinds of garments get their shape from the cut of the individual pieces. Sewing the curved pieces together turns two-dimensional cloth shapes into three-dimensional garments.
Adding some elasticity gives these garments a much more personalized, fitted feel. It allows the material to mold to your form instead of hanging stiffly in its precut shape!
2. Jersey KnitsJersey knit uses a single-knit structure to create a light, soft, slightly stretchy material. Most t-shirts use jersey knit fabric, as do lots of tank tops and sundresses!
Most jersey knit uses fine cotton threads to create its trademark lightweight, soft texture. In more recent years, manufacturers often replace expensive natural fibers with less expensive polyester. The polyester threads get knitted into loops just the same way, though you may find that cotton still feels a tad softer.
Either way, both cotton and polyester have a bit of elasticity created by the jersey knit. This material usually has a 2-way stretch caused by the looped threads in the cloth.
The “jersey” in the name comes from an English island once known for its knitted “jersey” sweaters. More recently, jersey-knit became popular for underwear because of its softness and breathability.
Icons like James Dean made t-shirts famous in the 1950s. At that time, the knit fabric had a bad reputation as a scratchy “double knit,” but this changed quickly. By the 1970s, the knit fabric formed an integral part of the changing fashion world!
3. Lycra, Spandex, and ElastaneLycra, spandex, and elastane are all names for the same material. This synthetic material comes from polyurethane and has a unique elastic nature. It can expand to more than five times its length and then recoil into its original shape!
The invention of spandex revolutionized many types of clothing, from jeans to swimsuits. That said, spandex rarely features on its own in any garment. Instead, manufacturers twist a tiny percentage of spandex in with the fibers of another material, like cotton or polyester.
This creates a kind of blended cloth. A fabric blend marries the best of both worlds, containing the stretchiness of the elastic fibers and the softness of another type of cloth.
Spandex or lycra blends make clothes like leggings, tights, skinny jeans, and bathing suits possible! Anytime you see the word “stretch” in a clothing description, you can bet the garment contains some spandex!
4. Neoprene RubberA chemical process that turns chloroprene into rubbery plastic makes a modern kind of cloth called neoprene rubber. This material makes excellent wetsuits for scuba diving.
Fashion designers also use it for some designs that need extra bulk or body. You may see more of this foam-backed synthetic rubber in the near future as it becomes more popular for everyday fashion!
Neoprene rubber has a smooth, rubbery outer surface and a padded, thick reverse side. On its own, this material has a lot of flexibility and some stretch. When used in clothing, a small percentage of elastane blended in makes it even more elastic.
5. NylonNylon is another synthetic material, this one made out of chemicals derived from petroleum. Though nylon is essentially plastic, it has a high level of flexibility and a silky texture. It replaced silk in women’s pantyhose shortly after its invention in the 1940s!
On its own, nylon has a lightness and elasticity that makes it flexible enough to knit into sheer stockings or tights. This cloth doesn’t stretch like a rubber band, but it will expand a little bit quite easily and then contract into its original shape.
Today, nylon does better in most types of clothing when blended with other types of material. For example, nylon is the most popular material for use in swimwear when it contains a generous percentage of spandex. It also features in a fair amount of athletic wear because it has good weather resistance.
6. Power MeshPower mesh is a strong mesh fabric with a large percentage of elastic fibers. It has some limited fashion uses, but its real strength lies in compression garments and underwear. Power mesh typically contains 50%-75% nylon and a whopping 25%-50% spandex! You can imagine the strength and support of a slimming garment made out of that kind of material!
On top of this, the fine mesh structure of the material uses knitted loops, which gives it additional stretch on top of its elasticity. The high spandex percentage and knitted structure give this material a 4-way stretch capability.
7. Stretch ChiffonChiffon has a natural elasticity due to its loose weave. This sheer, silky cloth used to contain pure silk fibers. These days, it typically uses polyester to recreate this beautiful material in a cheaper, synthetic way. Stretch chiffon takes the elasticity to a new level by incorporating 5%-10% of spandex into the mix.
This unique material gets its classic, shimmery look from a special weaving process. Before weaving, one set of threads gets twisted clockwise, and the other set gets twisted counterclockwise. These twisted threads are called an S and Z twist pattern.
The twisted threads create a slightly puckered surface on the cloth. You have almost certainly seen it in almost every bridesmaid’s dress ever made!
Chiffon and stretch chiffon make excellent formal wear for weddings, proms, or other fancy occasions. More casual clothing like a floral-printed sheer sundress also probably includes some stretch chiffon!
8. Stretch Cotton JacquardJacquard refers to a type of weaving rather than a particular kind of material. Cloth woven on a jacquard loom will feature raised designs, often in a floral, damask, or paisley pattern. It looks like a silky brocade, though it can contain many different types of material, from wool to polyester to cotton.
This fabric gains a smooth, matte finish when made out of a less silky material like cotton. Stretch cotton jacquard adds the element of a small percentage of spandex that gives the fabric elasticity. This means stretch cotton jacquard can make form-fitting garments like evening gowns and pencil skirts.Stretch cotton jacquard makes a unique type of light, stretchy fabric with specially raised designs woven in. You won’t see it a whole lot in everyday fashion because it costs a lot to weave fabric on jacquard looms.
That said, stretch cotton jacquard makes lovely formal wear. You also see it used in things like business-casual clothes and elegant men’s jackets.
9. Stretch Cotton SateenCotton sateen uses a special treatment called mercerization to create extra-shiny cotton strands. These strands use a satin weaving pattern to create a thick, lustrous fabric that looks like satin. Adding about 3% of spandex to this material gives it a slight elasticity that makes it perfect for dresses or formal clothing. Stretch cotton sateen drapes quite well for thicker material. It holds, shaping like pleats despite its glossy surface. This material is one of the most versatile and popular out of all the stretch fabrics!
It shows up often in linings and bedsheets. It also has enduring popularity for use in dresses, shirts, and formal wear.
This fabric melds together beauty and practicality with its satiny luster and airy breathability. Unfortunately, its high quality also makes it one of the most expensive kinds of cotton you can buy.
10. Stretch DenimStretch denim usually contains indigo-dyed cotton and anywhere from 2%-8% spandex. Denim has made classic blue jeans popular for a long time, but skinny jeans became popular when famous 80s rockstars started wearing them!
Denim uses blue warp threads and white weft threads to create its instantly recognizable faded blue-grey look.
On its own, the sturdy, tough weave that makes denim doesn’t mold well to fit individual body shapes. Adding in spandex makes it possible to wear jeans that wrap tightly around any individual, unique body!
11. Stretch LaceStretch lace twists elastic thread into elaborate patterns using a special bobbin weaving method. You can find this elasticky lace in dozens of designs, from geometric to floral.
The most common application for stretch lace is in undergarments, where the stretchiness helps keep those essential garments in place! You can also buy this lace by the yard and use it to create a top layer for dresses or sheer cardigans.Stretch lace is one of the prettiest and most unique of all the stretch fabrics. Its open webbed pattern makes it look super delicate, but its elastic threads make it strong and supple! It typically has a 4-way stretch because of its extreme elasticity.
12. Stretch SatinA satin weave places four or more weft yarns on top of a single warp yarn and then four warp yarns on top of single weft yarn. This special weave creates the shiny, lustrous surface of this fancy fabric. Stretch satin adds a hint of spandex to the typically unyielding weave of satin.
Today, most satin fabric contains synthetic fibers such as polyester. Regular satin does not expand or recoil much at all, but stretch satin becomes much more flexible.
This kind of satin covers ballet slippers and other dressy shoes because it stretches so well to conform to a 3D shape!
Regular satin can have a bit of stretch when it is bias cut, which is a common way to style it into evening wear. However, stretch satin also makes lovely fitted gowns!
13. Stretch Silk LiningStretch silk lining adds a bit of spandex to the smooth, light weave of silk to create a supple fabric with the trademark silk sheen to its surface. A lining, in case you’re wondering, is an inner layer of fabric inside a garment. Jackets, dresses, skirts, and some pants use linings to keep you warm and give a garment a special shape or smooth lines.
Today, synthetic material like polyester, nylon, or rayon gets used more often than actual silk in this material. Some high-end designers still use real silk, though!
While this kind of silk lining does see many applications as the interior layer of clothing, it also gets used in classy lingerie. La Perla, for example, uses real silk to make slips and other elegant items that feature stretch silk lining!
14. Stretch TulleTulle is a very fine netting often made out of synthetic like nylon or polyester. This sheer mesh comes in almost any color imaginable! Of course, stretch tulle also adds around 3% of spandex to make the fine webbed netting even more expandable!
Tulle has a finer, softer texture than powernet. It provides less support than this strong material but feels more comfortable against your skin.
You see stretch tulle used a lot in undergarments and also in bridal veils!
15. Stretch Viscose JacquardMuch like cotton jacquard, a special loom creates raised patterns on the surface of this material. Viscose is a semi-synthetic substance made out of a chemically altered wood pulp. This type of rayon looks and feels a lot like a silky form of cotton.
Of course, stretch viscose jacquard also includes some elastane to make it more giving! This makes the thick, stiff fabric much more wearable. That said, this fabric costs a lot to produce, even when made from synthetic material. For this reason, this kind of stretch fabric is mostly used for business or formal wear.
16. Stretch VelvetVelvet has a whiff of royalty and wealth in its soft, luxurious pile. On its own, velvet drapes beautifully, and cutting it on the bais adds quite a bit of elasticity to it as well! Lots of the gorgeous 1930s movie star gowns you can find in old black-and-white photos feature bias-cut velvet.
Modern dresses, though, typically use velvet that adds just a touch of spandex into its fibers. The spandex makes this already flexible fabric even more elastic.
Most stretch velvet today is made from polyester and spandex. The complex weaving process creates two layers of fabric sandwiched together. When the top and bottom layers of the fabric sandwich are sliced apart, the thick, soft pile of velvet remains on the surface of each piece of fabric!
Velvet has a luxurious style that lends itself well to formal wear. You also see trendy bohemian velvet jackets and fun velvet pants become stylish quite often!
17. Stretch WoolWool has a springy, breathable quality to it that can have a tiny bit of elasticity on its own. As you know, of course, wool comes from sheep, and the special fibers get twisted into yarns that make soft, cozy yarns.
You don’t see stretch wool that often, but this specialty fabric combines a bit of spandex with the all-natural wool fibers. Suits and dress pants sometimes feature this unique fabric.
Even though it doesn’t see a lot of use quite yet, this kind of wool might end up as the cutting edge of men’s business wear. Stretch fabric has led consumers to expect clothes that comfortably fit them. Even traditionally stiff clothes like professional clothes may start to use more elastic fibers and get more comfortable!
18. Woolen Jersey FabricWool jersey fabric uses interlocking loops of wool yarns to create a fine, sweater-like texture. This material has innate elasticity because of its knit structure.
Most jersey knit contains cotton or polyester these days. But wool gets its own subcategory as a popular stretch fabric used in sweaters and cardigans.
As a fun fact, the first jersey knit fabric was all made from wool! The development of machines that could create knit fabric led to the widespread popularity of wool jersey. Eventually, this launched the craze for jersey cotton tees as well!
What is the Most Stretchy Material?
Spandex (also known as Lycra or elastane) wins the most stretchy fabric award without question. This material contains pure elastomers. You can think of these as tiny bits of elastic!
You can measure the stretch percentage of any kind of elastic material in this way. Place a piece of fabric alongside a ruler. Gently stretch the material until it does not have any more easy give in it.
Note the point on the ruler where your hand stopped. That measurement gives you the stretch percentage. To calculate this percentage, simply divide the width of your fabric when stretched by the width when unstretched.
Some sewing patterns require a type of material that has a specific stretch percentage.
Types of Non-Stretch Fabric
Most plain-weave or satin-weave material does not expand vertically or horizontally. That said, almost any material will stretch on the diagonal.
Percale or plain weave cotton, for example, has hardly any give in it. Think of your bedsheets–they spread out smooth, flat, and unstretched across your bed!
Many synthetic fibers likewise do not have any give in an individual thread. When you weave those threads into a piece of cloth, though, the cloth might gain some elasticity. This depends on whether or not you weave or knit the threads together.
That said, to find a material with absolutely no give in it, you would need a sheet of flexible acrylic plastic or something of that nature. Most types of fabric can expand and recoil, at least in an incremental amount.
Stretchable Fabric for a DressThe best stretchable fabric for a dress marries the form-fitting elasticity of the material with your style and the need of the occasion. For example, stretchy satin or velvet all make elegant formal wear.
Jersey knit makes loose, comfy summer dresses. Stretch chiffon or lace can add a touch of elegance to a more casual outfit.
Even a tulle-spandex blend would make a great underskirt for a dress!
Of course, you also want to consider the weather. Stretch wool and velvet feel quite warm, while chiffon has a light, airy quality that makes it best suited to the summer months.
Stretchy Fabric for HeadbandsThe best stretchy fabric for headbands looks cute, has enough elasticity to keep your hair in place, and provides moisture-wicking abilities to keep sweat out of your eyes!
For athletic wear, you will find that synthetic fabrics like stretch nylon work well. Many synthetic fibers can suck moisture away from your skin and transport it to the outside of the material, where it can evaporate into the air. This helps a lot when you’re running and sweat drips down your face!
For a cuter, everyday look, you can go with a fun, printed jersey knit. This won’t do great at wicking sweat, but it will feel more soft and cozy on your head! Jersey knits have a lot of elasticity because of the interlocking loops in their material, so these headbands can easily fit the shape of your head.
Stretchable Upholstery Fabric
Some rare types of upholstery fabric contain elastane fibers to help the fabric expand to cover oddly shaped furniture.
Most upholstery uses cut-out shapes of fabric sewn into a 3D covering to create the padded surface of a chair or sofa. However, stretchable upholstery material makes upholstering very curvy or oddly shaped pieces much easier.
You can buy this material by the yard from online sellers or specialty stores like Mood Fabrics. You will need to follow a few special steps, such as stretching it out and using weights to hold it in place as you cut out the pieces.
The stretchable fabric gives us clothes like leggings, skinny jeans, and fitted dresses! Stretch fabrics often contain elastic fibers such as spandex to give them a 4-way stretch capability. These kinds of materials include stretch lace and denim.
Other kinds of material have a mechanical stretch created by the interlocking loops of threads in the cloth. These include jersey knits and wool jersey knit.
What is your favorite kind of stretchy material? Leave a comment below to let us know!