Q: What is the difference between
crosswise grain and lengthwise grain?
Why should I select one over the other?
A: “To answer the first question, grain is the direction the threads run through
the fabric. Which type of grain is defined by how the fabric is manufactured.
Lengthwise grain runs the direction of the selvages.This is the warp on the loom when the fabric is made; so it is tight and does not have much give. The crosswise grain runs perpendicular (ideally) to the lengthwise and is called the weft. It is not pulled as tight when the fabric is made. Otherwise the fabric would draw in from the sides as you may have seen on someone’s first attempt at weaving. Because it is not as tight, there is some give in this direction of the fabric. Checking the amount of stretch with the grain is a great way to test a piece of fabric, if you need to know which direction had the selvages.
Any other direction is bias. True bias, which has the most stretch, is 45 degrees from both grains.
Knowing these main properties of the grain can help you choose when to use them to your advantage. Many quilters elect to use the lengthwise grain for borders because it does not stretch as much as the crosswise. Marti Michell chooses to cut lengthwise grain strips for strip piecing. (She often buys 3/4 yd lengths.) Then, when she is piecing the sub-cuts together, she uses the stretch of the crosswise
grain to match points. (This is exactly opposite of most strip-piecing instructions which start with crosswise cut strips.) Marti cuts crosswise strips for binding because she stretches the binding as it is applied to draw up any excess in the edges of the quilt.
In my teaching, I have found that a majority of quilters align the lengthwise grain (by aligning selvages) and cut crosswise strips.
If the fabric is woven well, this will also mean that the crosswise grain is aligned. If the weave is not square, there will be some extra stretch on the edges of the strips because of the slight bias and the fabric will ravel a lot. To remove these effects, cut crosswise strips with crosswise grain aligned. See description below. To minimize these effects, consider following Harriet Hargrave’s recommendation of applying starch or sizing to washed fabrics to stabilize the grain.
Now that you know some reasons why to select one over the other, here is how to align each for cutting:
To cut strips aligned with the crosswise grain (rather than assuming that the fabric is woven perfectly), tear one end of the fabric. Fold the fabric in half as usual, selvage to selvage, but align the torn edge with itself and allow the selvages to be askew if needed.
Keep the ruler lines parallel to the fold and strips will be cut following the crosswise grain.
One caution on this method, if the fabric is of poor quality and the crosswise grain is bowed, there is no easy way to cut a straight strip that is in line with the grain across the entire strip.
To cut strips aligned with the lengthwise grain, for borders, open fabric completely, fold end to end, aligning selvages on both sides and smoothing out any twisting.
The shorter the yardage the easier this is to manage. Keep the ruler lines parallel to the fold and strips will be cut following the lengthwise grain.
Cutting a straight strip, without an elbow or “V”, does not depend on the grain of the
fabric. If you get crooked strips every now and then, learn how to always get a straight strip, even when folding the fabric a second time, from our Know Before You Sew, Rotary Cutting, Basics reference card.