What exactly is ponte? Why is it desirable? What about pilling issues? I've been getting this question in my newest Craftsy Class and on internet sewing forums.
Ponte de Roma is a double knit constructed with interlocking stitches that connect the front and the back surfaces like a 'Roman bridge.' It originated in Italy, hence the name and now is a generic term for double knits in a variety of weights, patterns and prints and comes in a wide array of fibers and the quality can range from top level to cheap-o
Ponte is the ideal 'starter' knit if you have any fear of sewing with knits. Ponte knits have the forgiveness of a knit, but can be used like a woven. It is one of the easiest knit fabrics to work with. With 2 or 4 way stretch, ponte is smooth and resilient and comes in different weights. Lighter weight pontes are good for warmer weather for tops, skirts and dresses, while the heavier weight pontes are perfect for pants, skirts, dress and tailored shapes.
Ponte is the generic term to describe the construction of the knit. The fiber content is another thing entirely, and is important to understand in how a ponte fabric can wear.
This question comes from a former student.
"I bought some high percentage rayon blend ponte. The original price per yard was $30 so I thought it might be like the Eileen Fisher type pontes The weight was right for pants and I made pants. After the first wearing, the surface on the seat started pilling. By the fourth or fifth wearing, they looked like I had worn them for ages. Is this a common problem? Is there a way to predict this outcome and avoid it?"
Sometimes I end up with a pilly ponte too…..for the web store, I might risk buying one with an unknown fiber content if I like the color or print. Usually it is the pontes with a high percentage of polyester that pill. Yes, the ideal fiber content is a blend of rayon/nylon/lycra. As a general fabric rule, nylon is an indication of quality. European mills use nylon fibers to add smoothness and or texture, and it seems to show up in the better quality pontes and fabrics in general. It is usually polyester that is the culprit that leads to pilling but I am not positive about this and it has never been scientifically proved! A burn test will reveal if the fabric is a synthetic. Polyester bubbles, has a toxic chemical smell and leaves a crisp black edge. Nylon is similar, but melts more quickly and burns less, so there is no clear way to sort out the two.
BUT, it is not only the fiber content that causes pilling. It is the way the yarn is made and processed. We like ponte for a certain stability (which comes from the construction) and softness (which comes from the fibers). In order to make polyester yarn soft, the original smooth extruded fiber (often textured too) is cut into short lengths, spun into yarn and that yarn itself might be a mix of different fibers. The yarn is then constructed into fabric and in the case of ponte, is made into a double knit. Because the polyester synthetic yarns are so strong, when they are rubbed, tiny elements of those short fibers pop out from the yarn and form pills along the surface. And then we freak out!
I ‘groom’ these fabrics (and pilly cashmere too), by lightly pressing and steaming. (My iron has a LOT of steam and always a teflon sole plate which minimizes shine) But the secret ingredient is a tailor’s brush; a rectangular wooden brush with a center section that has brass bristles and an outer edge of softer bristles. While the fabric is warm from steaming (not hard pressing which could make it shiny) I give those pesky pills a brisk smoothing/brushing. This is a temporary solution, the pills can come back, but it does the trick. WAWAK sells this brush, shown in the photo, which I use for grooming pilly sweaters too. It is one of my staple tools, not expensive, costs around $11.
Old school tailors would use a brush like this with a light hand to lift shine or touch up an edge that had been flattened too much pressing. I’ve tried the home sewists little sweater shaver, but it pales by comparison. This is pfutzy but it redeems the garment!
I am a great fan of ponte. One of the easiest fabrics to sew, it works for both tops and bottoms, jackets, coats, skirts, dresses, you name it.
Eileen Fisher uses different varieties and weights of ponte for her garments, one current pant lists the fiber content as: Italian fabric. 69% Viscose/25% Nylon/6% Spandex, and described as Eileen’s essential slim pant, black only, selling for $208, while a heavier weight ponte double knit pant has a fiber content of 56% Rayon/38% Nylon/6% Spandex, and ponte leggings are billed as made in China of Italian fabric. 69% Viscose/25% Nylon/6% Spandex and sell for $228. Each of these pontes will have a different weight and feel.
Sometimes I find a ponte from Eileen Fisher, Donna Karan or St. John, always a happy indication of good quality, but not necessarily a guarantee of no pilling.
Unfortunately there is no absolute guarantee.