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Respect the Grainline

Paying close attention to the grain of fabric is something I was taught to do at a young age. When fabric-shopping, my mom would unwrap a large swath of goods and see how the material would hang, on straight-grain and on bias, and maybe scrunch it up to see the effect of it when gathered.   She showed me warp versus weft yarns, the difference between one-way and two-way prints (and border prints), and explained that you could choose to cut velvet with the nap going down for a frosted effect, or the nap going up for the deepest, richest color….but if you cut the front going “up” and back going “down” it would be a disaster.  At home she used the dining room table  to carefully place pattern pieces in the most efficient layout, evaluating the “with nap” and “without nap” guides in the instructions, and measuring the pattern grainline guides to the selvedge of the fabric, making sure every piece was parallel to the grain.

She also taught me that you don’t need to be a “slave” to the pattern instructions: deliberately changing the grain can be used to great effect. My mom loved to play with stripes:


However, just as in the fine arts or cooking, you must understand the rules in order to break them: she didn’t place ANY pattern pieces willy-nilly.  Every step was thoughtful and deliberate.

The summer when I graduated from high school, my sister Nancy got married and I made the bridesmaid dresses (well I made 3 of them; her best friend wanted to sew her own). It was the ’70s and Flower Power was still the trend…Nancy’s wedding dress was white-on-white dotted Swiss and she carried daisies.  This advertisement featuring the  Colby sisters was the look; they were the “it” models and this was  totally on trend:


Nancy wanted yellow dotted Swiss for the maids. We searched high and low and the only thing close to it was a striped yellow mini-floral. This was the dress pattern:


I changed the fabric layout so that the waistband and cuffs would be cut on the length-wise grain instead of the cross-wise grain in the directions, to give this effect:


And, you can probably guess what happened. Her friend didn’t pay attention to what I said, and cut hers like this:


So the wedding photos show 4 maids in the same dress…except one is cut wonky. Yeah, grainlines are sort of a “thing” with me.


Cut to the present: last week a new indie pdf pattern was released, the very cute “Foxglove” girl’s tunic top from Pumpkin and Bunny.  It has a unique open cross-back bodice and comes in an enormous size range from newborn through girls 14.   I was considering it when I noticed this memo in the online description of the yardage required:


Sizes infant through girls 6 have the skirt portion of the tunic cut length-wise, then sizes 7 through 14 “must be” cut width-wise? This sort of thing makes me shake my head and wonder “Do you realize the repercussions possible here?” Just like the one bridesmaid dress that didn’t match the group, these instructions could lead to a small-batch dressmaker cutting a range with sizes 2,4,6 looking one way and then size 8 looking another.  A customer ordering a size 8 dress from an photo on Etsy of a sample in size 4 with lengthwise stripes, would receive crosswise stripes.

My point is, yes you as an individual sewist are free to improvise on the fabric and pattern-pieces layout to your heart’s content…but when publishing a pattern, it’s important to use consistency. The patternmaker can’t know if the pattern (at home or in industry) is going to be used for solids, stripes or plaids….on one-way prints or two-way prints…on napped or un-napped fabrics. As much as possible, the pattern must be developed to cover all possibilities. Ideally there are 3 layouts:

  1. Napped fabric and one-way prints
  2. Un-napped fabrics and two-way prints
  3. Border-print layouts, if the style is suited to that


So, back to the Foxglove pattern:  let’s say a customer purchases this pattern and wants to cut a size 4 and a size 8 for her two daughters. According to the instructions, this is her cutting layout for the skirt portion of the tunic:


Little sister gets pineapples sitting upright; big sister gets pineapples that fell down. Instead, the cutting instructions should advise to unfold the fabric before cutting larger sizes, and cut the front and back individually like this:


This way, all sizes get pineapples standing up.

Now I do understand why you might want to cut the skirt fabric “sideways”:

  • Most home-sewers are accustomed to cutting with fabric on-the-fold. Fabric is sold pre-folded to the home-sewing  market (as opposed to industry….if you’ve ever shopped at mill outlets you know that factory-production fabric is sold unfolded on  long rolls, not folded on short bolts).
  • Most people sewing at home don’t have huge flat surfaces to unfold fabric.
  • It’s faster to cut both front-and-back pieces simultaneously through 2 layers of fabric.
  • There’s a lot of “wastage” when you shift into the larger sizes. In full-size-range factory production this is not a big deal, because all sizes are wedged together into a single “marker”, but at home you may be cutting only a single size. I’ve seen many online garment-sellers offering  kids clothes only up to size 6, because that fabric-consumption jump going into size 8 is a big one and you can suddenly lose money (personally I split my sizes between 2-to-6 and 8-to-14 with a jump in price, just like retail stores do).

And it’s perfectly fine to cut fabric however you want to when sewing for yourself: if you want to cut the skirt on the cross-grain, be my guest.  Play with cutting pockets and collar off-grain for effect? Great. Split up the skirt and create a horizontal cross-grain border against a vertical straight-grain body? Lovely. But making a pattern with instructions to cut half the size range on one grain-line and the other half of the size range differently?  Not a good idea.


  • fat lady

    This post should be compulsory reading for the swarms of untaught indie so-called pattern ‘drafters’ who infest social media, selling their ill-conceived wares at stupid prices – and for the legions of hopeful novice sewers who buy from them, are disappointed at the results and who blame their own lack of *sewing* experience.
    I have just about enough formal education in drafting – ie very little, and that half a century ago! – to recognise how little I know and – perhaps more importantly – to recognise the fundamental errors resulting from a complete lack of actual knowledge, competence, experience and education in anything other than marketing and Illustrator.

  • Marsha

    The first garment I ever made, about 40 years ago in junior high home ec, was a simple nightgown. My teacher didn’t notice that the fabric my mother had bought for the project was a 1-one design (everyone else in class had no-nap fabric), and had me cut out the pattern without considering the design. I wore the result–bunnies on the front sitting up, bunnies on the back upside down–for at least a year, because Mom had “paid good money for it” so by gum, I was going to wear it. (Never mind that her 14-old-old didn’t want to wear bunnies of any orientation even at night.)
    I guess the psychological scarring has paid off, however. I’ve messed up in myriad ways over the years when sewing, but I’ve always done the nap perfectly!

  • [email protected]

    That’s so funny! Learning by experiencing…the hard way of course. MY first garment was a nightgown too! I recommend sleepwear for kids’ sewing classes simply because you’ll be less mortified wearing your mistakes indoors. Although at 14 maybe that’s asking too much! Dreaming of upside-down bunnies lol

  • [email protected]

    Ah the “hopeful novices”! (so well put) My hearts truly bleeds for the mum who is taken in by the fancy photos of pretty children twirling in the meadows in new dresses with big prints such that you can’t quite see the design lines or construction details but WOW does it make your emotions sing with the idea of “Yes I can make that!”. Then if they have difficulties with the instructions, the “designer groups” online are quick to advise that it must be their fault because the pattern is “perfect”. The sheer volume of indie patterns has exploded, and often it’s “the blind leading the blind”: I see so many copycat patterns, each new “designer” copying the same poorly-drafted pattern, making the same errors in drafting and grading. It makes me wonder where DID they learn their craft? Yes, as you know it takes years and years to learn pattern drafting, yet far too often I read the same story in the “about” pages: “I learned to sew when my children were born”. How is it possible to study drafting while taking care of babies?

  • fat lady

    Well, of course lots of them learnt the craft of the snake-oil salesman, not that of drafting or designing (or even sewing or pressing, judging by some finished samples used by indies).
    Their marketing and ‘recruitment’ strategies, however, are frankly brilliant. If just a fraction of that effort, energy and sheer dogged persistence was put into – oh, I don’t know, world peace or a solution to hunger or the ending of FGM – something more constructive than such horrid patterns, at least – just think what could be achieved!

  • [email protected]

    (FGM…shudder…how does such barbarism exist??) YES, the marketing and recruitment is indeed brilliant. They have found an audience ready and willing to provide models, fabric, time, free photography, and social-media support (blog-tours, instagram, facebook, etc) in exchange for “testing” (and I use that term lightly) a “free” pattern.

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