Fabric Preparation and the Importance of the Grain Line | Commercially Alternative

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Fabric Preparation and the Importance of the Grain Line

What is a grain line anyway?
The grain line has to do with how a woven fabric is constructed. Do you remember weaving with yarn back in elementary school art class? If your class was anything like mine, you had yarn tightly wrapped and evenly spaced around a square of cardboard. Then you wove in and out of these strands with the color you wanted your little woven square to be. This is similar to how the fabric you get from the store is constructed. The tight yarn wrapped around the cardboard is known as the lengthwise grain and the yarn you wove in is the crosswise grain. The lengthwise grain is very strong with little stretch. The crosswise grain gives a little and stretches. In addition, if you grab it 45 degrees from either grain, otherwise known as the bias, it stretches a lot!

Why is this important?
This all affects how a garment fits and hangs. Have you ever bought some pants or a top from the store and after you washed them, they twisted on your body? That’s because that garment was not cut with the grain. After washing, the strong lengthwise grain wants to hang perpendicular to the ground so it will twist if the fabric is not properly cut out. You don’t want this happen to your lovely OP you worked months on! Preventing this starts with fabric preparation.

Wash and dry your fabric
The first step to fabric preparation is to prewash. Wash and dry the fabric how you would the finished garment and be sure to follow the instructions on the end of the bolt. Remember, even if it says preshrunk, it’s still going to shrink in the wash. Nevertheless, you want this to happen before you sew your garment, not after. When the fabric has been washed and dried, cut off all the loose threads and fuzz balls you’re bound to get on the cut ends.

Press the fabric
If your fabric is cotton, as most Lolita clothes are, turn your iron up to cotton or high heat and turn the steam all the way up. Don’t be afraid of heat and your cotton, since it’s a natural fiber. If it’s not cotton, make sure you read the end of the bolt for iron instructions. Now press the fabric in a small up and down motion, lifting and pressing the iron in small motions. Do not drag the iron across the top as this will stretch and distort your fabric. Get all of the wrinkles out so you have a smooth and beautiful looking piece of fabric.

Make the cut ends parallel to the crosswise grain
Now, look at your fabric. Do you see the non-cut edges on either side? They are sometimes white if you have a print and are usually tougher and thicker. These are the selvages of the fabric. The selvages run parallel to the lengthwise grain. From one cut end, go in about an inch and cut through the selvage and slightly into the fabric parallel to the cut edge.

What you do next depends on if you have a tightly woven or loosely woven fabric. If you have a tightly woven fabric, you can tell by the feel and the look of your fabric, grab both sides of the cut and pull hard and fast ripping the top strip clean off. If you can’t cleanly rip your fabric and it tends to come apart rather than rip the cotton is probably woven too loosely and you will have to use the method discussed later. The top should rip completely through to the other selvage. If it does not, cut a little further down and rip again. Again, the rip should go from selvage to selvage. Do the same to the other cut end so you have two very straight cut ends.

If you have loosely woven fabric, you have to go through a very tedious process, pulling the thread. Why? Because it is very hard to rip loosely woven fabric and, if you do, you may distort your fabric. Cut through the selvage, slightly into the fabric, as above. This time work out one of the crosswise grains. [INCLUDE PICTURE OF CUT AND WORKED OUT CROSS WISE GRAIN] Gently, pull on this single thread, working it out of the fabric. This thread will have a tendency to break, a very obnoxious thing. Anyway, when it breaks you will see that a straight line has been created in the fabric. Cut along this line until you get to the end of the thread and start pulling again until you reach the other selvage. This creates a guideline that you can cut along to get a perfectly straight edge. Do the same to the other cut end. (I know, it hurts just thinking about it) I suggest doing this while you're watching TV or sitting around and want something to do with your hands.
Example of pulling the thread
Why is this important? When one buys fabric from the store, most of the time the fabric has not been wound onto the bolt perfectly straight. So when the wonderful people working at your local fabric store cut the fabric, the cut edge is not parallel to the crosswise grain. After you go through the process above, you will probably see just how off the fabric is. You need the cut edge to be perfectly parallel with the crosswise grain for the following step described below. It will allow you to line up the crosswise grain so that it is parallel to the floor so you can see if your fabric is off grain. The following picture shows an exaggerated view of what the ripped off piece of fabric may look like.

Checking and Straightening the Grain
Now fold your fabric in half. Hold it by the corners of a cut end, one hand at the fold and the other at the two selvages. Raise up the fabric over your head so that the fabric isn’t touching the floor and shake it out a bit so the fabric hangs and doesn’t cling to itself. Make sure that the top edge is completely aligned. Look at the selvages. It helps to have a mirror or someone else to see the other side while you’re holding the fabric up. Do the selvages line up? If they do… huzzah! It’s a miracle! However, odds are they won’t line up. (Especially, I’ve found, if the fabric is from Joann’s) This shows that your fabric is off grain. Have someone else grab the bottom corner that is higher than the other and you grab the opposite corner from it. Get a good hold of the fabric with your hands on either side of the corner about 10 or 12 inches from the corner on each side. Now pull hard! If there was only a little difference between the selvages go easy on the fabric or you could pull it off grain the other way. But if there was a big difference, really go to town! Hold the fabric up again, lining up one cut edge, shake it out and the selvages should hang perpendicular to the floor. If not, repeat the process.
The shape on the left is an example of folded fabric that is off grain. The rectangle on the right is what folded fabric that is with a straight grain will look like.

If your fabric is too long and touches the floor when you hold it up, lay it on a clean flat surface. Fold in half and line up one cut edge. I think it helps if you pin this edge together. Now gently go down the fabric and work out any bumps so that the fabric is completely flat and folded. Don’t force the selvages to line up, let the fabric fold where it wants. If the selvages don’t line up, go through the process described above.

Give your fabric a touch up press if it needs it and then you’re ready to lay out your pattern pieces. It’s a lot of work and pretty time consuming, but it’s worth it if you don’t want your garments to instantly scream handmade. As long as you lay out your pattern pieces such that the marked grain line is lined up with the fabric’s grain line, everything will hang beautifully.

I really suggest buying the book Readers Digest New Complete Guide to Sewing. It goes through this process and much more with very clear pictures. I always have this out whenever I sew anything.

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