I need to be brutally frank with you…
A poor choice of fabric will frack up our garment project and leave us with some “thing” whose only destination can be the trash can and have us cursing our wasted dollars and ruined dreams.
To avoid all this nonsense, we need to really understand fabric, so we can make wise choices more often than not. Because we ain’t got no time to sew or flaunt ugly.
By the end of this article, you will be able to identify the three types of wovens in the wild, the four grainlines, and the general properties of woven fabrics.
Now, let’s begin…
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A woven fabric is made on a loom. Essentially, a weaver joins two yarns, starting first with the warp or lengthwise threads and then interweaves the weft or crosswise threads.
The two yarns are woven perpendicularly to each other, which creates our grain lines.
Because of how woven fabrics are woven, they are very stable. In other words, they have hardly any to no stretch in the lengthwise direction and just a tiny bit in the crosswise direction.
Now, let’s dig deeper…
Understanding Fabric Grain lines
If we are to sew garments that lure, entice, disarm, and seduce, we must acquire an intimate understanding of and respect for grainlines.
Before we begin, I want you to keep in mind that only woven fabric has “grainlines.” Knits and nonwovens do not have grain lines.
So how many grain lines are there?!
Three, officially. But I think there are actually four…
- Lengthwise (warp)
- Crosswise (weft)
- Bias, which is any diagonal direction on the fabric.
- True bias, which is exactly a 45-degree angle between the crosswise and lengthwise grainlines
Grainline plays a co-starring role in how a garment will behave and drape once it is constructed — whether it is prim and proper or whether it floats and flirts!
Here’s the very least you need to know about woven fabric and grainlines…
Identifying the Lengthwise Grain (Warp)
Every length of fabric has two factory-finished edges along the length of the fabric. They are created during the process of weaving. These are called the selvage (American) or the selvedge (British).
Oftentimes, there will be information printed in the selvage, such as the colour code used, the manufacturer, and safety precautions.
The lengthwise or straight grain (warp) is parallel to the selvages. It is tightly woven and has very little give or stretch. Therefore, it is very strong so that garments cut on this grainline will hold their shape well and resist bagging and sagging over time.
Pro tip: If the selvages have been cut off, you can determine the lengthwise grainline by pulling the fabric with two hands first in one direction, and then the next. The side with the least amount of give is the lengthwise grain.
Identifying the Crossgrain: The Cut Ends
The crosswise grain (weft) is perpendicular or 90 degrees to the lengthwise grain.
Since it has a slight stretch, the fabric is a bit weaker in the crosswise grain.
When you purchase a length of fabric, the crosswise grain is the cut ends, or the width of the fabric.
How to Find the Bias
Bias is ANY diagonal line on the fabric.
Whereas, true bias is exactly 45-degrees in relation to the lengthwise and the crosswise grain lines.
To find TRUE bias, simply fold a selvaged towards a cut end. In the image below, the fold is the bias:
On the bias, a woven fabric will have maximum stretch, which also means that the bias is unstable.
Pro tip: Dresses cut on the bias can be quite stretchy, clingy, and have a lovely drape. But they are also very unstable. Therefore, special care must be taken in the handling of bias-cut garments if a successful outcome is to be had.
Fabric Is Two-Faced
That is, every fabric has two sides:
- A right side (RS) or face of the fabric
- A wrong side (WS) or back of the fabric
The RS is the public side or the side that others will see once the garment is sewn and you are flaunting it.
The WS is closest to your body. And it is typically, faded and less vibrant than the RS.
However, there are some fabrics that look the same from the RS and the WS, such as a Ponte or a double knit.
And some fabrics have a luminous side and a matte size, such as the very yummilicious (and one of my personal favorites): Charmeuse.
Wovens Can Be Classified
There are two main categories to which a woven fiber can belong:
And natural fibers can be further categorized into to one of two groups:
Examples of plant fibers are cotton from the cotton plant and linen from the flax plant.
The great thing about natural fibers is that they inhale and exhale (breathe), so they don’t keep you hot, sweaty, and uncomfortable.
Examples of animal fibers are silk from silkworms; wool from the fleece of sheep; and cashmere, a soft, delicate wool, from the Cashmere (Kashmir) goat.
Of course, we also have manmade wovens too, such as polyester, nylon, and acrylic (a triple EWWWW to acrylic!).
Synthetics are made in a lab from 100% chemicals.
The pros to synthetics are that they are strong and often wrinkle-resistant.
I must admit that lately, the idea of a closet full of synthetics is leaving me colder than an evening stroll along the East Antarctica Plateau.
With few exceptions, synthetics always look so sad, pilly, and dingy after just a few washings. And then there is the whole idea of marinating my body in a chemical soup.
Pro tip: Still there are beautiful synthetics to drape one’s body in. But sadly, they are the exception. You’ll need luck finding them locally! Do check out my favorite online fabric resources on my Resources Page.
And we have a hybrid: Rayon. It goes by other names such as Viscose, Modal, and Tencel or Lyocell.
I don’t care what name it goes by, it does have the most scrumptious drape.
Are you wondering what makes rayon a hybrid?!
Well, it is made from cellulose, which is the natural part.
But in order to get rayon, the cellulose has to be processed extensively. This is the manmade, manufactured part.
And finally, fibres can be blended. That is, two or more fibres can be mated to create a “super” fibre, a fibre blend that shares the strengths of its “co-parenting” fibers.
For example, let’s consider a cotton-polyester blend. If a high-quality cotton is used and blended with good polyester, you end up with a length of fabric that has the beauty and strength of cotton. But it doesn’t wrinkle when washed because of the polyester. Rather sweet, I think!
The Three Main Types of Woven Weaves
- Plain Weave ~ A single crosswise (weft) thread is woven over one lengthwise (warp) thread, then under one warp, over one, under one on from one selvage to the other selvage. With plain weave fabrics, you can make a snip in one selvages and tear the fabric straight across the crosswise grain line to the other selvage. Think cotton or chiffon.
- Satin Weave ~ A single weft thread is woven over three or more warp but only under one warp, or vice versa, from one selvage to the next. The right side of a satin weave fabric is luxuriously glossy to the eyes and to the touch as a result of the weft threads “floating” over multiple warp threads. And the wrong side is duller but still beautiful. With satin weave fabrics, you cannot tear the fabric across the crosswise grain line from selvage to selvage. Think satin, charmeuse, and sateen.
- Twill Weave ~ A single weft thread is woven over two warp threads, then under two warp threads, over two, under two, etc., creating an offset, diagonal pattern. Twill weave fabrics also cannot be torn across the crosswise grain line. Think denim, herringbone, or gabardine.
Woven fabrics can be created using a single colour of thread or yarn, which yields solid-coloured fabrics. Or, they can be created using threads of multiple colours to create prints, stripes, or plaids.
Pro tip: Satin does not refer to a type of fiber, but rather, as you now know, to a method of weaving yarns or threads.
Understanding the Properties of Fabric
In addition to grainline, all fabric (including wovens, knits, and nonwovens) have properties.
It is a failure to understand these properties that will frack with your projects.
Without any further ado…
Pinch the fabric between your thumb and index finger to get a feel for whether the fabric is light-, medium-, or heavyweight.
How does the fabric feel to the touch? Is it soft? Or is it rough?
Body & Drape
Honestly, this particular property is probably the most important one to focus on if you want your garment projects to be a success!
Drape and body dictate how the fabric falls and floats around our body.
To get an idea of a fabric’s body, hold it up against your body. And examine how the folds fall.
Now, ask yourself this…
Does it flow over your curves? Or is it stiff and stands away from your body?
Here’s what you need to understand about body and drape…
If a fabric has body, it is stiff. This makes it ideal for garments that are structured and sculpted around your body with seams and darts.
But if a fabric has drape, then it is fluid. That is, it clings and flows around your body. And this makes it ideal for garments that don’t have too many seams or darts.
And because all of this isn’t enough to remember, you must keep this in mind too: the drape of a fabric has nothing to do with its weight!
Let me say that again…
A fabric’s drape has nothing to do with its weight!
In other words, while you do often find that drapey fabrics are lightweight. It is a mistake to assume that lightweight and drape are always bedfellows.
For example, silk organza is sheer and lightweight, BUT it has fewer folds that will stand away from the body. Therefore, it is said to have lots of body but not very much drape.
On the other hand, charmeuse is relatively heavier, but it kisses –that is, drapes around– female curves like a dream. See all those lovely folds.
Therefore, it is important to keep in mind that it is totally possible for two fabrics to be identical in weight, BUT radically different in body and drape.
Personally, as a curvy girl, I love fabrics that have a fluid, lovely drape. To me, they are divinely feminine, fun, and flirty.
Whereas fabrics with too much body or weight, tend to make me look and feel like the Michelin Man, which I think you would agree is not a good look for any woman!
What Is Thread Count?
Only woven fabrics have a thread count.
And it is simply the number vertical and horizontal threads per square inch. Anything over 180 x 180 is considered a high thread count.
Which makes me wonder: How the heck does one fit 1,000 x 1,000 threads in a square inch? Mmm.
How to Store Your Fabric Stash
The best way to protect your fabric stash from fading is to store it far away from direct sunlight.
In future articles, we’ll be talking about specific types of fabric fibers in more detail. But this is introduction enough, I think.
You should now know how to identify the lengthwise, crosswise, and bias grain lines of woven fabric blindfolded.
Also, please reread the section on body and drape. I know I will. Because I really don’t want you or me to suffer too many ruined dreams and wasted fabric dollars.
And finally, I encourage you to go to your closet and pick out the clothing that you reach for repeatedly, the clothing you just love to wear. And study how much body or drape they have.
Okay. Now that you have a solid understanding of wovens, you will be unstoppable!
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