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Donna Babylon: Quick Tip – How To Tell If Your Fabric Is "On Grain"

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It's something you might not have noticed until you started sewing. The pattern on a printed fabric is not always lined up with the grain of the fabric (the up-and-down and side-to-side direction of the thread -- the warp and weft). Back when all patterns were woven into fabrics this wasn't a problem because the weave was the pattern. But now with most patterns being printed onto the fabric after it's woven, the 'registration' can be off a little. Or a lot. And that can wreak havoc with your sewing.

For instance, if you're making curtains out of fabric with a row of diamonds, the diamond on the left side of your fabric panel may be two inches lower than the diamond on the far right. This can present real problems when you need to sew two panels together to make your full width. Not to mention that a cock-eyed design will drive you slowly insane as you look at it every day.

Fortunately, there are experts, like Donna Babylon, who have figured out not only how to tell if the fabric you're using is out of registration, but how you can sometimes "fudge" it back into line.

She has graciously allowed us to borrow from her book Decorating Sewlutions: Learn to Sew as You Decorate Your Home .

What do you mean by 'on grain'?

In theory, fabric needs to be 'on grain.' The grain of the fabric refers to the direction of the threads. Being on grain means the crosswise threads (the weft) are exactly perpendicular (at a right angle) to the lengthwise threads (the warp).

For more about fabric weaves, see our tutorial.

Ideally, the printed pattern should align with the grain line. In reality, few fabrics are printed precisely on grain. In fact, it is more common to find the design to be printed off grain as much as 1½" to 2". Fabric mills consider this amount to fall within their acceptable range of print deviation. If stripes and plaids are printed off grain, the error is especially obvious.

Pulling and stretching the fabric (described below) may partially or completely correct the situation. However, many decorator fabrics have a finish applied to the surface. Consequently, the threads are more secure and cannot be easily manipulated.

How to tell if your fabric is on grain and how to try to straighten it

  1. Work on a large, flat surface. Place your fabric right side up.
  2. Fold the fabric, bringing the selvages together. The fabric should lie flat and the motifs should match.
  3. Make a small snip with your scissors in the selvages through both layers. You will trim this amount off so snip close to the end of your piece of fabric.
  4. If the motifs don't match, don't bother snipping, go to step 8 now.
  5. Open the fabric to a single thickness, right side up.
  6. At the snip, align one side of a carpenter's square along the selvage. Using the other side as a straight edge, draw a line across the width of the fabric.
    Diagram
  7. Ideally, the line will connect to the snip at the opposite edge, forming a perfect right angle with the selvage. Cut along the line. You can now consider the fabric ready to use.
  8. If the selvages don't match or if the line is slightly off (1" or less) from the snip at the opposite selvage, you may be able to straighten the design by pulling the fabric.
    Diagram
  9. First, trim the selvage from the side that appears short. Then, pull the fabric from that corner to the opposite diagonal corner.
    Diagram
  10. For fabric longer than 2 yards, work by pulling shorter diagonal sections. If all attempts to straighten the design are unsuccessful and the difference is still more than ½", you might want to consider using another fabric - especially if your project calls for a large swath of fabric, like for curtains or a duvet cover.
  11. For smaller projects, you can carefully fussy cut your pieces to insure your design is straight.

Excerpted from Decorating Sewlutions by Donna Babylon.

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Comments (4)

Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home said:
Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home's picture
@ Damo -- I do not have a diagram from Donna like the one you describe, but - yes, the idea is that the pattern on the two sides should line up when you fold the fabric together... along the selvedge as well as further back - many fabrics, especially the quilting cottons, are lightweight enough that you can actually see through the layers to be able to tell whether the two sides are lining up well. Hope that helps.
Damo said:
Damo's picture
Maybe you could explain what you mean by "the motifs should match". Where should they match? along the selvages? A diagram to show matching and not matching might help. Thanks for posting!
Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home said:
Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home's picture
Sorry LiLo -- the pictures are pretty self-explanatory. Maybe read through it again??

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