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What Is Fabric Grain And How To Fix It If It's Off

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You might have heard the term, "fabric grain." It sounds like it could be a breakfast cereal just for sewists. But in reality, it's a technical term that describes the direction your fabric has been woven. It's important to know which way the grain is running. Because, fabric that is off-grain when you are cutting pattern pieces can cause your completed project to stretch out of shape. We're here to give you a better understanding of fabric grain and some tips on how to straighten it.

When you buy fabric off the bolt (in store or online), they unwind however many yards you want, then cut it off with scissors. Along either side (perpendicular to the cut edge) are the factory-finished edges called the selvage (or selvedge). These edges are bound to keep the the fabric from unraveling.

The grain of the fabric is made up of the threads running parallel to the selvage and the threads running side-to-side (perpendicular).

The three types of fabric grain

Lengthwise Grain: Sometimes referred to as the grainline or simply grain, lengthwise grain refers to the threads that run parallel to the selvage. The technical name for these is "warp threads."

Crosswise Grain: Crosswise grain refers to the threads that run parallel to the cut edge of the fabric (the width) and so are perpendicular to the selvage. The technical name for these is "weft threads."

For more about the fascinating world of warp and weft, check out our tutorial, All About Fabric Weaves.

Bias: While technically not a grain, it's the 45˚ angle between lengthwise and crosswise grain. Fabric cut on the bias is stretchy, and often used for covering piping in apparel projects where you want a soft, flattering shape or anywhere you need the fabric to "bend" more smoothly around a curve.

Why does grain matter?  

When a fabric is "on-grain," the lengthwise and crosswise threads are at an exact right angle to each other. Woven fabrics always follow the grain because they are made with the actual warp and weft threads. With wovens, when the grain is off, so is the pattern. With printed fabrics, their designs are printed on top of the woven threads. So the grain can be off and the pattern can still look okay.  

Your fabric grain can be off a little bit and it won't affect your project. But if it's off by too much, your designs won't line up when you're trying to match panels and your seams can bunch or stretch because they're actually being sewn too close to the bias.

How to check your fabric's grain

You can check to see if your fabric is on-grain by establishing a straight line across, from selvage to selvage, then folding the fabric to see if it squares-up. 

To do this, lay out your fabric panel right side up and flat on your work surface.

Near the top cut edge of one side of the selvage, find one thread that goes all the way across (crossways). Start pulling it.

Ideally, you can simply pull the thread right out of the fabric. But if not, just pull until the fabric puckers along the thread, then keep bunching the fabric and pulling every few inches until the pucker reaches the opposite selvage.

Either way, pulling out this single thread will give you a straight line across the fabric.

Using this thread line as your guide, cut all the way across the fabric.

Fold the fabric lengthwise so the selvages match up. If the two sides of the edge you just cut line up, your fabric is on-grain.

If they don't, proceed to the next section.

How to straighten your grain

There are two ways to do this.

Ironing: Fold your fabric in half (selvages together) so your cut edges are aligned. Pin along the cut line and pin the selvages together. Iron your fabric until flat.

If this doesn't correct your grain, you can try stretching the fabric.

Stretching: Fold your fabric in half (selvages together). When your grain is off, you'll see that one of your corners is short. Hold the short corner with one hand and with the other hand, grasp the opposite corner. Gently stretch the fabric on the diagonal.

Fold it in half again to see if the edges now align. Repeat the gentle stretching if necessary. Be careful not to stretch too strenuously or the fabric's design motif can be stretched out of shape.

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Comments (23)

Liz Aucoin said:
Liz Aucoin's picture

i bought Christmas prints that have metallic paint patterns on them, and pulling a thread to find the grain is impossible, because that metallic print is like glue on the threads.   My question is, is that "glue" effect enough to keep the fabric from getting out of shape in the washer?

Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home said:
Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home's picture

@ Liz Aucoin - we haven't run in to this issue yet. Are you worried your fabric is off grain or just wondering about it? Is it just a standard quilting cotton or a different/heavier substrate? If possible, test launder a small piece that features the metallic and see what happens. 

Liz Aucoin said:
Liz Aucoin's picture

This is my first foray into quilting and I have been away from sewing for awhile.     I tried the "cut into the salvage and tear method" and that worked fine.   It's not my favourite way, but I will remember this issue the next time I am tempted by metallic painted cotton.   Thank you for your prompt reply, this is a great forum!    It's like having a whole bunch of aunts who sew!

Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home said:
Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home's picture

@ Liz Aucoin - great - glad the other method workde. So glad to have you as a website fan... "Auntie Sew4Home"

Kerri said:
Kerri's picture

I am having a really hard time getting a thread pulled all the way across as they keep breaking on me after a few inches. What am I doing wrong?

Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home said:
Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home's picture

@ Kerri - to give yourself a better grip, you can try grabbing two or three at a time. The result is the same. You should get a straight line across where the last one was.

milpeg said:
milpeg's picture

Wonderfull discussion from everyone.  I learned and remember a few things.  Just last week I ran across this same topic on How to get your fabric on straight grain, or something like that.  Is a tutorial on YouTube from a company that sells sewing classes.  No it is not the one that starts with C.  The class video is free and it was very informative.  I like Sew4Home technique of ironing the fabric better.  I will try this method too. The fabric stretching on diagonal method that I learned on YouTube which is similar to Sew4Home rendition, left me with sore shoulders but a good workout.  Before I forget, I applied the stretching with two receiving blankets and they turned out so square and perfect I cannot believe I finished them in a day.  Thank you for the tutorial.

1garrjenn said:
1garrjenn's picture

If the selvages are missing from some fabric in your stash, you can still identify the grainlines. If you listen to the fabric while sharply snapping it between your hands one way and then the other way. The lengthwise, warp grain, will sound slightly higher in pitch than the sound made by the crosswise grain.

(This tip originaly came from Threads magazine.)

4crooks@comcast.net said:
4crooks@comcast.net's picture

I have pretty bad arthritis and cannot pull a thread like that.  I snip about 1/2 inch in from the cut edge and then rip the fabric across.  If it doesn't make it all the way across, then I snip about 1/4 inch in again, until I find that even edge.

Is there something wrong with that method?  Granted, it leaves the cut edge a bit wrinkly, but I press it back and would normally trim that off anyway.

It drives me nuts when prints or directional fabrics are not printed on the straight grain!  UGH!

Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home said:
Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home's picture

@ 4crooks - an off-printed motif is indeed frustrating. If your method is working for you, we say go for it. No need to fix something that isn't broken. 

Nancy DeRodeff said:
Nancy DeRodeff's picture

All of this is true, of course, and I have fallen prey to bad habits over the years, like being too lazy to pull a thread and being in dismay at the waste when I did use the proper method.  One debate I run into with  myself when I'm using crooked fabric, even good quilting fabric, is whether to follow the print or the straight of grain.....I usually opt for the print when things won't line up.  Any suggestions?

Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home said:
Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home's picture

@ Nancy - as we mentioned below in another comment, quilting pieces are usually small so you can get away with following the print to get a great fussy cut, even if you are slightly off grain. 

Rachel Bates said:
Rachel Bates's picture

Is there a way to determine the "grain" of fabric that is missing the selvages.  Quilters share scraps and it would help to have a method.

Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home said:
Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home's picture

@ Rachel Bates - the methods listed above still work without a selvage. It just makes it a bit harder to find the horizontal thread to pull. Place the fabric on your work surface oriented so the weft is running as it should: horizontal. If you're not sure, make your best guess. At one corner, fray the fabric so you can get ahold of one thread and pull as described above. If your pieces are small, there may not be much you can do since the cuts from the larger fabric have already been made.

Rachel Bates said:
Rachel Bates's picture

Thank you Liz.  I really appreciate the help.

Rosemary (nellieduclos@yahoo.com) said:
Rosemary (nellieduclos@yahoo.com)'s picture

I'm dating myself, but when I first started working in the Fabric Department at Macy's, (yes they did sell fabric in the 60's) I was taught to snip perpendicular to the selvage and then using equal pressure with both hands to gently pull all the way across the fabric and then snip again if it didn't tear easily.  I don't know when the practice was stopped, but now fabric is cut either with a rotary cutter or scissors and it is frequently off-grain and requires us to purchase more if we are really concerned about grainline.  

By the way, I like your Friday recap.  While I have good intentions of trying to keep up on a daily basis, I get so busy sometimes that I forget. So thanks for the Friday email.

Kathleen H said:
Kathleen H's picture

This is one my big peeves with fabric stores bricks and mortar and on-line. I want my fabric cut straight of the grain. I usually have to buy an extra 1/8 to straighten it. I may be telling my age but I remember when fabric stores would straighten the grain on new bolts and check for flaws when fabric came in.

Cornwoman said:
Cornwoman's picture

You are absolutely right, and back then there weren't that many that needed straightening either.  I've had stores refuse to cut to the straight of grain on flannel, which was off by almost half a yard!  The manager of the stores said that they would be losing money for all of the fabric that didn't get sold by doing that.  lol  I wonder if they thought that I was so stupid that I  wouldn't figure out that the unspoken part was that it was okay for me to pay for the unusable part?  If I was their corporate buyer I would be sending the bolts back and getting a new supplier.   I don't care how cute it is, or how cheap per yard, I won't pay for that much extra fabric just to get a straight cut.  I will pay more to get a quality product, if need be, but I hate wasting resources...my money or fabric that can't be used and goes into a land fill.

Cornwoman said:
Cornwoman's picture

An easy way to see whether the grain is straight is to unroll the bolt about a yard and hold the cut end corners together with your right hand at the selvage and the selvage edges together about 1/3-1/2 yard along the fabric piece.  Then give it a hard snap of a shake, like you were getting ready to hang a piece of laundry.  If the straight of grain is really straight, your fabric will look like it did when you began.  If it's off, there is a sort of diagonal bulge in the bias.  Slide the corners in your right hand apart until the diagonal bulge goes away, repositioning the selvages in your left hand as you are moving the fabric to straighten the grain.  Pin and look at your now flat fabric cut ends to see just how far off the straight of grain really is, trimming it to be straight.

Samantha said:
Samantha 's picture

Unfortunately, that won't get your fabric on grain. It may give you a square piece of fabric, but it won't make your warp and weft threads align at a right angle. If you sew something and your fabric is off grain, then you will have problems later when you try to wash it.

Jane Coombs said:
Jane Coombs's picture

This should be cutting lesson number one. I am in the midst of finishing curtains, serging and hemming, cut by someone else who didn't know or obey this "given". What a headache!

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