Quilting Trivia: Ten Tidbits About Fabric Grain

bias plaid skirt

The look of this skirt comes from carefully cutting it on the bias - not on the true grain!

Many years ago, when I first learned to sew, a lot more attention was paid to the grain of a fabric.  Whether sewing with cotton, wool, or the brand new polyester fabrics, we always “trued” the fabric before cutting out a pattern.  That meant we made sure the grain was “true,” that the threads that went across from selvage to selvage were perfectly perpendicular to the lengthwise threads.  Mom and I tugged the fabric to get the fibers lined up right. At first it seemed a silly exercise to me, but over time I came to appreciate just how important fabric grain really is.
 

pattern showing grain marking

Sewing patterns usually tell you how to use the grain.

When you sew clothing, the patterns are marked for layout on the lengthwise or crosswise grain.  Cut a pair of pants the wrong way and you will find they hang poorly and twist on the leg. If you cut one sleeve on the cross grain, but the other on the lengthwise grain, they will come out mismatched and look uneven.  Make a skirt with a bias plaid, and not get the bias line set perfectly, and the skirt will look odd, and also hang funny.
 
The grain of the fabric can make a big difference in how well a quilt turns out as well.  This is particularly noticeable when working with triangles or diamonds, which require you to sew seams along bias or off-grain lengths.  But understanding the grain can help you make a stable quilt that will handle wear and washing for many years.
 
Whether you cut with a scissors, a rotary cutter, or a die cutter, you should try to cut squares, rectangles, and other straight cuts so they align cleanly on a straight grain of the fabric. Obviously, the more layers you stack before cutting, the more difficult this is to attain.  Balance in all things! Cutting several pieces at once is a time-saver, but aim for straight-grain when you need the stability.
 
Here are some interesting tidbits about the grain of fabric, which may help you as you cut your quilt fabric:

  1. Lengthwise Grain of FabricLengthwise grain is the warp thread on the loom, and runs the long direction on the fabric as it comes off the bolt.  It is a straight grain. There is minimal ‘give’ in this direction; when you tug along the length you will feel very little stretching.  When you drape fabric with the lengthwise grain going up and down, it drapes in a straight manner. This grain is the strongest direction on the fabric, and sashing or long borders are often cut on the lengthwise grain to provide stability for a quilt.  Besides its stability, the tension from the pressure foot and pulling through the machine will have little effect when sewing on the lengthwise grain.
  2. Cross Grain of FabricCross-grain is the weft thread, and runs from selvage to selvage as the fabric comes off the bolt. It is also a straight grain.  There is a fair amount of ‘give’ in the cross grain; when you tug across from selvage to selvage you will feel some stretching.  When you drape fabric with the cross-grain going up and down, it hangs more fully than when you drape on the lengthwise grain. There are times that this extra bit of ‘give’ is useful to a quilter.  If you choose to cut straight-grain binding instead of bias binding, cutting it from the cross-grain will give you some ability to shape and manipulate it as you attach it.  You may notice that you can stretch or even slightly distort the fabric as it goes under the pressure foot on your machine. When sewing a long seam on the cross-grain, be careful not to stretch your fabric.
  3. Bias: Off the Grain of FabricTrue bias is the line that is at a 45 degree angle to the lengthwise grain of the fabric.  It has a lot of stretch, and is not a straight grain.  In clothing, bias cuts are helpful to make form-fitting or softly draped looks.  Many quilters first encounter the issues of the bias-grain stretch when working with triangles (see item 10 for triangle tricks.)  Care must be taken not to stretch the fabric when stitching across the bias, or the seam may distort. This same stretch factor can be a great advantage for binding.  Many people doing needle-turned applique also find the bias edges to be easier to turn.
  4. On today’s modern looms, all fabric comes off the loom true and square, with the lengthwise and cross grains perpendicular to each other.  During the finishing processes like dying, printing, or applying other finishes, the fabric may distort and no longer be truly squared.  Then, as the finished fabric is rolled on a bolt, additional distortion can appear.  If the fabric is rolled flat on a round bolt, there is less distortion than when it is folded and place on a flat bolt.
  5. Some fabrics will revert to being ‘true’ after being washed, with a bit of care being taken in the pressing process.  But often that is not the case.  Try tugging gently across the bias of the full piece before cutting, to see if you can better align the fabric.  Don’t panic if you can’t.  When fabric is deeply distorted, and cannot be ‘trued,’ care must be taken when cutting your pieces. Try to cut on the straight grain whenever possible.
  6. Blue Plaid FabricYarn-dyed plaids or stripes, like homespuns, and some shirtings and flannel plaids, clearly show the grain of the fabric.  On a yarn-dyed plaid, the color is the same on both sides of the fabric as the actual threads are dyed before weaving.  They may come off the bolt in the store with the grain skewed, however, just as other fabrics do.  At the store, as the clerk to open the fold and cut along one line of the plaid pattern, to ensure that you are getting it cut ‘true.’  If they do not understand, talk to a manager.  As customers, we have the right to request this, even at the big-box fabric stores.
  7. Printed plaids and stripes may or may not be straight on the grain.  These are printed on one side, the fabric back will not be the same as the front. You may find it useful to buy a few extra inches of fabric when the plaid or stripes wander across the grain.  (A quarter-yard cut of a printed plaid that has a three-inch repeat may only give you two usable repeats if it is far off-grain.) Take a close look before buying, if the stripes clearly wander across the threads and do not align, you will have to cut off-grain to get the stripes straight in your quilt.  When using small pieces, that may be just fine, but if you are planning on stripes for a long border run, being off-grain will lessen the stability of your quilt, and may distort as you sew.  If you are committed to using it, cut the fabric so the plaid or stripe looks right.  To minimize distortion, you can starch the fabric before cutting, or at least starch the pieces after cutting.
  8. There was a time when many shops used a “pulled thread” method to ensure a straight cut.  This meant that they used a pin to help them remove one thread on the cross-grain at the desired cutting point.  The gap left was used as a cutting line. It works really well, but is a bit tedious and rarely done now.  People also used to tear fabric.  While tearing does mean that you are getting on the straight grain, it distorts the fabric considerably and should not be done on quilting fabric.
  9. Fussy-cut two-inch squares.

    These fussy-cut two-inch squares are all a bit off-grain, so the critters are in the middle.

    Feel free to go off-grain when you fussy-cut pieces, like centering a cute cat for a square in an I-Spy quilt.  It will help if you make sure the pieces that your fussy-cut square will be attached to are cut squarely on-grain.  If your quilt requires many off-grain pieces next to each other, good choices in batting, backing, and quilting can help to improve stability in the finished quilt.
  10. Starch can be your friend, especially when working with triangles and other off-grain seams.  Be sure that all pieces are lightly starched before assembling your quilt block.  That way the bias-edge will be less likely to distort as you stitch.  Careful pinning can also help, as well as taking care not to pull on the fabric as it passes under the pressure foot.

There are several other good sites to learn more about the grain of quilting fabrics. You may find these helpful:

Please take a minute to share your own experiences or tips about how to best use fabric grain in quilting.  After all, quilting is a learning experience, and we are all still learning!
Needle and thread line copyright The Curious Quilter at WordPress dot com
©2011, The Curious Quilter, thecuriousquilter.net, maryeoriginals.com.

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About thecuriousquilter

Quilter, sewer, writer, gardener, mother, sister, friend, always learning, always curious.
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3 Responses to Quilting Trivia: Ten Tidbits About Fabric Grain

  1. Great information! Thank you for sharing. I know I rely on the weft stretch, maybe more than I should, to make my piecing look good. I can pull and push to get the points to line up. It makes me sad when I run into a warp piece at the wrong time and can’t take advantage of the movement to correct minor errors.

  2. Martin says:

    I would never go “off grain!” LOL yeah right…

    But I once sashed a set of blocks without paying attention to the grain when I cut the sashing. It was random, and the blocks never laid flat, despite how heavily I quilted them. I learned the hard way.

  3. Very useful information, I believed that but now I’m more sure about it. Thanks!

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