Don’t Go Against the Grain

Once upon a time, a long time ago, I used to teach heirloom sewing.  Heirloom sewing is a type of garment construction primarily aimed at children – or rather the parents and grandmothers of children – and primarily female children.  The clothing drips in shaped lace, entredeux, yards and yards of batiste, and hand embroidery.  It is decadent, gorgeous, and tons of fun to create.

One of the first details I had to learn (and in turn, teach my students), was to make sure that the fabric was put “on grain.”  This term means that the warp and weft threads of the material were as close to 90-degree angles as I could get it.  If the fabric was nearly perfect in warp and weft, it meant that the skirts of the dresses wouldn’t sag in the middle of the hem – the hem would lie at an evenly, parallel to the floor all around the  skirt of the dress.  And when a garment takes three yards of material for a dress for a three-year old, “on grain” becomes very important.  No one wants to put that kind of money and time in a frock only to have it sag in the middle of the front.

When I began quilting, I assumed that warp and weft and being “on grain” didn’t matter that much since the pieces in quilt blocks were so much smaller than the pieces in a dress for a little girl.  But with quilting, as in lots of fiber arts, the devil is in the details and it really does matter.  The larger the quilt and the larger the blocks, the more apparent it comes when something is off-grain instead of on-grain.  If you’re making a large quilt with large blocks (and by definition, this for me is any block eight inches or larger), the blocks can distort far more easily and the top sag in places.

So, let’s consider the following drawing:

warp and weft

With fabric, when it is cut from the bolt and unfolded, on either edge of the length of fabric is the selvage.  The material that runs parallel to the selvage is the lengthwise (warp) grain of fabric.  The material that runs perpendicular to the selvage is the crosswise (weft) fabric.  When quilters cut strips of fabric to sub cut into other pieces, the strips are generally cut along the crosswise grain because this gives the pieces a little more ability to stretch.  That may not sound important, but when you have anywhere from an eighth of an inch to a quarter of an inch difference in pieces, that added ability to meet ends of rows or points becomes very important.  Ideally, borders are cut on the lengthwise grain because that grain cut is not stretchy.  Borders should be firm, framing your quilt, and keeping the finished measurements stable.  The 45-degree angle cut across the lengthwise and crosswise grain is the bias cut, and this cut has the most stretch in it.  Bias cuts are sometimes used for binding, such as if the border is scalloped.  The ability of the bias binding to stretch and lie flat around curves and sink easily into the valleys of the scallops make this cut ideal for those situations.  And for those of us that applique, the bias cuts are particularly wonderful for loopy stems and vines and curvy petals and leaves.

Scalloped borders

When purchasing fabric from a quilt shop, the material is usually of better quality than big box store fabric and it’s handled a little differently.  Salespeople generally use a rotary cutter or tear the fabric, which helps keep the grain straight – especially if the fabric is torn.  Fabric will always tear on the straight of grain, which means that when you fold the fabric to cut it, when you match up the torn sides, it’s automatically on the straight of grain.  Fabric from big box stores is often the second-runs and may be really off grain.  However, we all buy that fabric, so how do you correct it?


The easiest way is to tear it from selvage to selvage. Snip the fabric about one inch from one of the sides of the fabric, making sure to cut through the selvage and then tear it.  When you get a clear tear from selvage to selvage the fabric is now on grain.  This could take place in one try or it may take several. “Now wait a minute,” I’m hearing some of you say.  “That’s wasting fabric.”  And clearly it could be.  Sometimes straightening fabric this way can use as much as an eighth of a yard.


So, what’s a quilter to do?  If the quilt blocks are comprised of tiny pieces, then don’t worry about it too much.  By the time all the pieces are sewed together and quilted, the quilt is stabilized and it won’t matter too much.  However, if the blocks are large and have large pieces, it will matter.  And if you’re sinking that much money and time in a quilt, and you’re worried about the fabric being on grain, purchase a little extra and give it a tear to make sure that warp and weft are on 90-degrees.

Large blocks, such as these from The Country Inn Quilt, should definitely be cut on the straight of grain.  Small blocks, such as the ones below from  The Farmer’s Wife Quilt wouldn’t necessarily need to be cut on the straight of grain because the blocks are 6-inches finished, the pieces are so small, and I paper-pieced them


There are a couple of exceptions to this rule – stripes and plaids.  Sometimes putting these fabrics on grain will skew the print of the stripes or plaids, since fabric isn’t always printed on the grain.  When cutting these fabrics, follow the design and not the grainline.  If, while working with these prints, you discover that the fabric is so horribly off-grain that it’s bowing and skewing, you may want to completely discard it.  Or you may want to try paper piecing the blocks, if they lend themselves to this technique.  Quite often, the additional paper or muslin foundation will add a little more stability to the fabric.


I hope that everyone made it through Irma safely.  I read truly heartbreaking accounts of quilters faced with hard choices – what to take and what to leave.  And their hopes that when they did get to return home, that everything they held dear would somehow make it through the storm.  We got a little wind and about two days’ worth of rain but that was it.  For that I am very thankful, but am worried about my quilter friends in Florida that I haven’t heard from yet.


Love and Stitches,

Sherri and Sam


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