Susan and I were well into her Portrait of a Seamstress interview when she started talking about grain perfection. “Then there was Billie Hamilton, one of my mentors and my high school sewing teacher. She taught me about grain perfection. By picking out one thread on the cross grain at two points (the process is similar to gathering), folding the fabric in half lengthwise, sewing next to the line with the picked-out thread (cross grain) as well as the selvedge, prewashing, and then ironing or steaming, you can ensure that the fabric is on grain before cutting.” I wanted to shrivel up like a raisin. Why? Because she said it as if every seamstress straightened a fabric’s grain prior to cutting; like it was a common practice similar to brushing your teeth. But I didn’t do it, and to be honest, it’s because the effects of it haven’t been visible up until this point in my sewing career. Unless it’s a patterned or a striped fabric, an off grain garment is not very noticeable in person or in a photograph. A dart point that is not pressed correctly, now that catches the eye, but grainline? I’ve never heard a seamstress say, “Look at the grain on that one!” Also, I heard about jeans twisting out of shape because they were not cut correctly, but I don’t make jeans, Sallie does. I make dresses, ridiculous, maxi, and polka dotted ones. But in my quest to become a better seamstress, I want to do things the right way, regardless of whether it can be seen or not by others. Remember what Mishka said? “You can sew and you can sew, and there’s a difference. There are people who sew out of passion and there are people that sew for fame or money.” I want to be the former. Last proving point. As Susan Khalje says in her Craftsy class, The Couture Dress, “In grain we trust.”
Have you ever heard of The Bishop Method of Sewing? Edna Bryte Bishop, the woman who developed the method, was a notable sewing figure in the 1950s whose fame was similar to today’s Nancy Zieman or Claire Schaeffer. She taught programs of clothing construction in girls’ trade schools in Massachusetts and new Jersey, and her goal was to teach the home seamstress industry techniques to “eliminated the fireside touches” prevalent in me-made clothing. A modern day seamstress might think the information in her books, which are basic step by step construction for different types of garments, are infantile (many techniques are intrinsic sewing skills), but she did have some great theories. One was unit construction, which is completing as many operations on a single piece before sewing it to another piece, and another one was grain perfection. The perfect alignment of grain from beginning to end during construction was so important that the first projects sewers completed under her auspices were “torn projects.” No scissors were used and pattern pieces were torn from the fabric. Of course, the shapes had no curves, but it beat into sewers head how important grainline is to the hang of a garment. “Cut to perfection,” “stitch to perfection,” and “press to perfection” were popular bywords made by Edna.
In addition to Edna’s TBMOS, there’s another reason why grain is important. Fabric is flat, but the human figure is three-dimensional, yet both the body and the fabric have perpendicular and vertical lines at their base. Darts and gathers are made with grain lines in mind, and usually, the lengthwise grain runs vertically and the crosswise grain runs horizontally. Making sure that the lines on a human figure and fabric align guarantees an impeccable hang.
So, how does a fabric become off grain? There are several possible reasons. In some cases, the grain is pulled out of shape as a permanent finishes are applied. Sometimes, permanent presses lock the grainline into place, which means that the fabric cannot be straightened (i.e. synthetic woven that have been heat set off grain). Being imperfectly rolled can also be a cause, but can be fixed using easy home processes (washer, dryer, steam iron).
So, the process of getting a fabric back on grain. The first step is to determine if fabric is off grain. There are ways to check in the store – unroll a yard or so from the bolt, match up the edges, and see if the cross grain runs at a right angle – but this method has its weaknesses because the grain in some fabrics is hard to see. For patterned fabrics such as stripes or plaids, this would be a good habit to start – you’ll know what you’ll be getting into before purchasing. Another thing to consider is that if you see that a printed fabric is not on grain, no amount of correction at home will fix it. It’s the printing that is messed up, not the weave.
In all the cases I’ve had since picking this up this habit, I’ve used the following method to check grain. One because it’s more accurate, and two, because when I’m shopping, I’m so excited about the fabric that I’m not worrying about grain (#sewingproblems). At one edge of the fabric, use a needle or a seam ripper to pull up/out one cross grain thread. Sometimes this is easy to do and sometimes it is not. On my green dress, the cross grain thread on the self fabric came out in one swoop, but on the lining, which was a cotton, it took some time. It had short staple fibers, so I could only pull out a little at a time. My solution was after the thread broke, I picked up another one right next to it and used my eye as a gauge that I was pulling in a straight line. Another tip – if you’re dealing with a lot of yardage like I was for my green dress, pull out a thread at every yard or so, or consider your pattern pieces for your project. Example: if the bodice will take up approximately one yard, and the skirt approximately two, the pick out the cross grain thread at the top of the fabric, at one yard, and at three yards. After you’ve picked out the thread, fold the fabric lengthwise and pin the cross grain lines together. If selvedges match and the fabric lays flat without any bubbling or twisting, then can proceed and cut your pattern pieces (don’t forget to prewash!), but if they don’t, then you’ll have to get that grain back on, well, grain.
There are a couple of ways to do this.
Stretching the bias: With fabric lying flat, start pulling on the bias at intervals. Start at one end and continue until the other end is reached. For large amounts of fabric, two people may be needed. After, check if the fabric is on grain, and if it isn’t, repeat the entire procedure.
I use this method when I’m making a muslin, mostly because the following two methods are quicker than standing around and stretching the fabric back into shape. Netflix and Craftsy can only hold my attention for so long. Also, I think it’s not very accurate. How do you know you’re pulling exactly the bias with exactly the same amount of stretch and at regular intervals. Sure, you could mark it, but that takes even more time.
Dampening the fabric: With right sides together and selvedges matching, fold the fabric lengthwise and baste/serge/sew along the cross grain thread lines and the selvedges. Some like to cut off the selvedge before basting/serging, but I like to keep it in tact. Dampen a sheet as if it just came out of the washer and fold it lengthwise. Place the wet sheet on a flat surface and then place fabric on top. Roll the two horizontally, keeping it slightly taught (see diagram). Wrap with a towel to prevent it from drying and leave for 6-12 hours. Just before the two are dry, unroll onto a flat surface. Using an iron, steam in the direction of the lengthwise grain.
I like this method more than the first, but it still takes a lot of time. I used it once, as a trial, but switched to the next method because it’s faster and in my opinion, the most accurate.
Washing the fabric: With right sides together and selvedges matching, fold the fabric lengthwise and baste/serge/sew all edges except for fold. Machine wash and dry fabric, making sure to use the correct setting for your fabric (i.e. delicate cycle). After, use a steam iron and press in the direction of the lengthwise grain.
This is my favorite method. One, because it’s fast, and two, because it preshrinks, and three, it removes finishings that may have caused fabric to be off grain in the first place. If a fabric was pulled off grain when it was rolled onto a bolt, then washing and drying allows the fabric to relax and return to shape.
Now here’s where it gets interesting. Some fabrics, because of their weave, will never be on grain, and by that I mean the cross grain will never be at a right angle (perpendicular) to the lengthwise grain. In a basket weave, also called a plain weave, one weft thread passes over one warp thread and then under one warp thread, but in a twill weave, one weft thread passes over two warp threads, and then under one warp thread. Over the course of the entire fabric, the direction of the weave is diagonal. So, when you pull a cross grain thread at two points on a twill, what you’ll end up with is not a square or a rectangle, but a parallelogram. This is what I experienced on my green dress. And whether that parallelogram is a 35 degree reclining angle or a 65 degree steep angle depends on the density and the type of twill weave (straight, point, extended point, broken, two up one down, one up two down). There are a lot of opinions and theories on how to “straighten” a twill weave, and as Amy said in a recent post, it’s an art form. When I was researching online, the consensus seemed to be “the even fold” technique. After washing and drying the fabric (don’t basting/serge ends together like in previous methods), smooth out on a flat surface, and then fold lengthwise. Sometimes, you’ll get lucky and the angles will align, but in most cases, it will twist or bubble. When it does this, shift the top layer so that it will lie flat. Either the selvedges or the raw edges won’t match, and that all depends on the type of weave, but once you have an “even fold,” you have found the grainline (see diagram).
At the mention of a twill you, you probably think of denim, but there are many other fabrics that are twills – herringbone, houndstooth, chino, drill, fancy twill (for fancy dresses!), gabardine. After plain weave, it is the most common structure and is usually the second structure weavers learn.
I know it’s a lot of work that you think doesn’t matter, but let’s all be better sewers and do it right. Let’s not only make the right moves, construction wise, because they’ll be visible to others or in photos. I’ll end with a quote from Edna’s book: “Learning to do each step of clothing construction correctly is important in making quality-looking garments, but cutting to perfection is the foundation of all good sewing. There is no question that you cut much of the good construction and real perfection into you garment. If you do not cut on grain, how can you sew on grain? And if you do not cut to perfection, how can you sew to perfection? Cutting properly takes a long time compared to the speed of sewing techniques, but it is time well spent.” Touche Edna!
So, about this giveaway. Well, for no rhyme of reason, I bought an extra book to give to one of you. To enter, like Madalynne on Facebook and follow Madalynne on Bloglovin. After, leave a comment stating your method of entry and contact information. Contest will close on March 5h, when a winner will be chosen and featured on the blog. Finally, contest is open internationally. Good luck!