When you first learn to sew you might wonder why every pattern piece has a grain arrow on it. What exactly is the grain, and why is it important?
Grain is the direction of the weave in fabric. It’s important for draping and cutting apparel, and it’s crucial to understand so your sewing projects will be successful. But don’t worry; it’s not very complicated.
There are three types of grain:
- Lengthwise, or warp
- Crosswise, or weft
Lengthwise and crosswise grain are both straight grains that align with the threads in woven fabric. Bias, however, is at a 45-degree angle to the length and cross grains.
When you see grain arrows on your pattern pieces, they are usually intended to line up with the lengthwise grain on your fabric. (Sometimes it’s fine to use the cross grain instead, and I’ll talk more about that below.) It’s important to cut your garments so they are on grain because if they’re cut off grain they will torque, twist, and generally hang awkwardly. Grain is also important for a garment that’s cut on bias. A dress that’s cut on true bias will drape and cling nicely, but if it’s cut off grain, or at an angle that’s not 45 degrees from the length or cross grains, it will twist and look and feel unpleasant.
Here are a few additional tips to help you understand each type of grain.
- Runs parallel to the selvedges, or tightly woven sides to a piece of fabric.
- Has the least amount of stretch because the warp threads are usually the strongest and closest together.
- Most garments are cut on the length grain because it drapes well and the threads are strong. A garment cut on this grain will wear the longest because of the strong threads.
- Runs across the fabric, from selvedge to selvedge.
- Usually has some stretch, or give. This can be really useful for making garments that are comfortable to wear and last longer, too, since the cross grain will stretch across the shoulders with arm movement, etc.
- Doesn’t hang as well as length grain. (For cotton this difference isn’t terribly important, so don’t worry about it too much–see below.)
- Can be used for special effects like stripes or borders. Occasionally you’ll want to cut a garment on the cross grain to take advantage of a pattern like horizontal stripes or a border print along the selvedge of the fabric. Don’t worry too much about the difference between cross grain and length grain when this is the case; the difference isn’t so important.
- Runs at a 45-degree angle to the length and cross grains.
- Has a lot of stretch or give.
- Can be difficult to work with because of the stretch. Bias needs to be handled with care because once it has stretched it can’t always recover.
- Very clingy when draped. Think of those beautiful gowns from the 1930’s which were often cut on bias and looked so elegant and luxurious.
A Few Additional Tips
- If you’re not sure which is the length grain and which is the cross grain (for example, if your selvages have already been cut off), try stretching the fabric in both directions. The stretchier direction is mostly likely the cross grain.
- Length grain threads are usually smoother, while cross grain threads can be coarse and slubby (bumpy).
- Sometimes a fabric will get stretched and distorted during the finishing process, and the length and cross grain threads won’t be at a 90-degree angle to each other. This can be easily corrected by tugging at the corners of the fabric to pull the threads back into position. Then press the fabric with steam to re-set the grain. Here’s a mini example for you:
I hope this helps and that you’ve learned something new about grain, even if you’ve been sewing for a long time.
By the way, knit fabric is something entirely different, and we can talk more about that another day. (Here is a post to get you started if you simply can’t wait.)
Tell us about your experiences working with fabric grain. Have you learned anything I didn’t cover that you’d like to share?
Generally speaking, is there any harm/risk to rotating some pattern pieces by 180 degrees? So still on the lengthwise grain, but essentially placing the arrow on the pattern upside down? I know there are obvious implications for patterned fabric or things like corduroy or velvet that have a nap, but for solids/non-directional prints in a smooth finish, can you generally get away with it?
As long as you don’t have a nap or a directional pattern you should be fine. I tend to keep everything going the same way just in case, but that’s just my personal preference. If you’re running short on fabric, rotate away!
This is very helpful. Thank you!
Thanks for the comment, Carol. It’s always nice to know when a post is appreciated!
Thank you! I can always stand to learn more about bias. I like the reassurance about cotton; I do use cross grain to catch that gorgeous border print and so far, so good, but I like knowing for sure. So, a pattern designed for a knit but not particular tight – for example, the onesie costume I made for my grandkids, can that be done with a woven if the pattern is pinned to catch bias? Seems like a lot of work, but I wonder if it’s possible.
I’m not sure I’m following you, Michele. Do you mean to ask whether a knit pattern can be used for wovens? I think it really depends on the pattern. If it’s not fitted, maybe. But it’s always a good idea to check with a muslin.
A lot of patterns I have call for straight of grain.This is the cross grain, right?
Are you referring to quilting patterns, Cheryl? The phrase “straight of grain” sounds so archaic to me! But I assume it means that you should cut on either the length or cross grain–as long as it’s on grain and not on bias or off grain.
How timely… I just used the Pinwheel Dress pattern to make a camisole for my daughter to wear under a knit dress. I made it out of a slippery lining type fabric and cut it on the bias. It worked fantastically well.
Sounds cute! As long as the bias doesn’t stretch so much that the check is too wide, etc., it should be doable. Staystitching is definitely your friend when it comes to bias. Staystitching and keeping everything flat on the table, no stretching… I always read that you should let a garment hang, but that’s definitely not recommended until the VERY end, once all the seams have been sewn. I had a professor in design school who almost passed out when I suggested that I hang something cut on bias before it was finished!
Sounds awesome! Did you catch Zede and Mallory’s podcast about sewing on the bias last week? One tip I took away: if the print allows cutting sleeves on the bias can make them easier to set in because they have more give.
Also thanks for this post!
What a useful post. Thanks so much.X
Great informative post. Learnt a lot!
This is great info! Thanks!!
I am making drapes and have pulled a thread to make sure it’s straight on 4 panels. This last panel will allow me to get only 1/4 the way across 52 inch material. Is there another way to make sure it’s straight. Will ripping work without damaging the way it hangs?
I bought striped fabric and realized the stripes were horizontal and not vertical I am just going to make a loose
pair of pants so can I reverse the grain when cutting out? Its a polyester without much stretch but drapey
Thanks this was very educational! I have a pattern for a blouse with a line that runs from the top to the bottom of it, and it says “straight of grain” which can be lenghwise or crosswise. So how should i cut the fabric?
Need help.I have a fabric have the most stretch vertically and do not have stretch horizontal. Which way should I can the fabric. The pattern I want to use called for Pointe knit or tway stretch. Thank you