We all want our garments to look marvelous. A lot of how they turn out is based on how we cut out the pieces. Their layout needs to work as a team with the weave of the fabric. Cutting patterns on the straight of grain is crucial for the garment to hang correctly on the body. It can make the difference between *fabulous* and, well… not so hot.
The grain could run in tandem with the main grainline, the cross grain, or even the bias grain. But your pieces need to be aligned correctly to whichever way you’ve decided before cutting them out.
Let’s take a moment to refresh our memory on grainlines – and better our sewing projects too.
How a fabric is woven determines the grainline. The long vertical threads – warps – are considered the main grainline of a fabric because they are the sturdiest fibers and support the woven length. These threads run parallel to the selvage, or factory-finished edge.
The horizontal threads – wefts – are woven into the warp threads to create the fabric. The manner in how the wefts are put in establishes the type of weave & identifies the fabric (satin, plain, brocade, etc.). These cross threads run perpendicular to the selvage with this direction considered the “cross grain” of the fabric.
(Side note: this is about my extent of textile weaving, so you’ll need to google for other resources for more knowledge of the craft.)
So how do you use grainlines to your advantage while sewing?
Align Your Pattern to Grain:
First, lay out your pattern pieces onto the fabric with the grainline marked on the pattern running parallel to the selvage. Then measure each end of the marked grainline to the selvage to make sure it is parallel and “on grain” and pin or weight down, preparing for cutting out.
Tip: Remember to measure EVERY pattern piece’s marked grainline to the fabric selvage or fold before cutting your fabric.
Cross Grain Training:
Sometimes you will have a design to be cut “on the cross”. This happens when you have a striped fabric or directional patterned fabric such as printed words or flowers all with a definite “top”.
Sometimes it is just more cost-effective to cut garments in a cross-grain direction. Then again, sometimes you have to be creative in your cutting, as you may have a limited amount of fabric, and this way of cutting can be a solution for you.
Many late Victorian patterns found in contemporary periodicals would list instructions for cutting skirt patterns on the cross. A visual example would be a 1880s bustle dress with the stripes running horizontally around the skirt.
Cutting “on the cross” means you must find the exact perpendicular line to the selvedge that runs across the fabric between the selvages. Remember, the cross grain follows the weft threads.
One trick is to open your fabric full and fold widthwise, matching the selvages down each side. You now have a widthwise fold to which you will measure from the grainline on your pattern piece.
Remember to pay attention to one-directional and napped fabrics when folding and cutting like this. Sometimes it might be easier to cut one layer at a time when cutting patterns on the cross.
Bias grain is any degree angle line that goes diagonally across the fabric. True bias is a 45° angle to the selvage. Most often, when you need to cut a piece on the bias, find the true 45 bias line before pinning and cutting your fabric as your piece will handle better and fold and drape the way you want. (Many of the heavy duty quilting rulers have 45 degree lines marked for handy bias placement.)
Bias cut fabric pieces can give you amazing garment shaping and draped designs. Use a bias grainline to cut narrow strips for finishing the neckline and lower edge of bodices. Cut wider bias strips for hem facings on shaped gored skirts of the late 1860s through 1890s. The bias cut will allow you to shape the strip around curved edges. Use your steam iron to help hold it in place. (Watch those fingers under the steam!)
When making piping cut only on the true bias (45 degree angle to the selvage). Do not cheat and cut on the straight or on a slight bias. Your piping will look neater and higher-quality when cut true.
Years ago a good friend was making a 1840s taffeta day bodice and skirt, and she only had a small amount of yardage left after cutting the major pattern pieces. (Haven’t we all been there when the fabric runs short?) To make sure she actually got piping strips cut from the taffeta fabric, she cut them on-grain.
Well, they didn’t do so well for piping along curved bodice seams. They puckered, were evidence of “happy hands at home” and showed a poor dressmaking technique in what was otherwise a superb ensemble.
We both learned that it’s better to not put in piping at all rather than poorly made piping to be period accurate. She could have also sewn in contrasting piping or chosen another complimentary fabric just for the piping.
As with all sewing projects and fabric shortages, you might find yourself shifting a pattern piece off grain a bit to get every piece cut out. Don’t be afraid to do this if necessary – but be careful here! And don’t make it a regular custom, too, as if you get too off-grain the garment will not fit correctly and poor workmanship will show through.
Folding Fabric on Grain:
Here’s a video tutorial on how to get your washed & pressed fabric folded on-grain so you’re sure your pieces will be cut out correctly.
Be mindful of fabric grains and have them work for you in your costume projects. Play with them; mold them; shape them; but listen to them. They will tell you their most comfortable position.
Have you ever experienced working with a project that was (accidentally) cut off-grain?