Grainlines, and when can you ignore them?

Thanks for all the feedback on the Sew-Along! I really appreciate everyone’s comments, especially those that spoke up with what they didn’t like. You’re not offending me! It’s great to hear all the little ways I could make it better next time.

Today’s question: when can you ignore the grainline? When can you disregard the little arrows on your pattern pieces and cut them any direction you like? Misty asked the question a little while ago, and while I gave it my best shot answering her, I’d love to hear what everyone else thinks! I feel like this could turn into a heated debate, let’s start with pros and cons!

Are you a beginner and perhaps wondering what we mean by grainline? Let me explain!

Here’s what a grainline looks like, marked on your pattern piece:

A grainline is usually an arrow, printed on your pattern piece, that tells you how to align the grain of your fabric. The grain is the lengthwise direction of your fabric, running parallel to the selvage. Think of a vertically striped fabric, where the stripes go up and down the fabric. That’s what the grainline would look like, if you could see it!

Take a look at this striped fabric below. See how the grainline arrows are following the direction of the stripes? Striped fabric makes it easy to see where the grainline is.

Plaids, and other vertically printed or textured fabrics make it easy to see the grainline. Polka dots, or directional prints will also show you the grain of the fabric.

In this photo I’m folding the pattern piece along the grainline, so it’s easy to line it up along a stripe:

Opposite to the lengthwise grain, is the crosswise grain. The crosswise grain runs across the width – that’s an easy way to remember the difference!

This plaid fabric has a bold cream stripe on the crossgrain, and a subtle stripe on the lengthwise grain. How do we know which is which? Because the lengthwise grain is parallel to the selvage. (Selvedge if you prefer.)

When you see diagonal stripes or plaids, that usually means the fabric is cut on the bias. True bias refers to a 45 degree angle from the grainline – so it’s exactly halfway between the lengthwise grain and the crosswise grain.

These collar pieces are cut on the bias, which forms diagonal plaid lines.

Here’s what it looked like when we cut it out. When it’s essential to cut pattern pieces on the bias, it will be marked on the pattern pieces and shown on the cutting layouts.

Ok! Now that we know what the grainline is, when do we have to follow it? Do you always have to follow the little arrows? When can you shift the grain of the pieces?

You can read what I wrote back to Misty here, but I want to hear your thoughts! Let’s give Misty a proper answer from the group, instead of just one person’s opinion.

Is the grainline non-negotiable, or can we bend the rules now and then? Am I crazy for even suggesting such a thing? Let’s discuss!

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34 Responses to Grainlines, and when can you ignore them?

  1. G February 17, 2011 at 6:31 am #

    I think you can totally bend the rules if dealing with a fabric without stretch whatsoever. Sometimes, you HAVE to disrespect the grain lines, when the fabric stretches more width- then lengthwise (these fabrics exist!). Otherwise, read this article: http://www.threadsmagazine.com/item/5024/go-against-the-grain or have a look at my encounters with grain and stretch here: http://lin3arossa.wordpress.com/2011/01/31/grain-grain-grain/ and here:http://lin3arossa.wordpress.com/2010/03/18/flower-pants-with-built-in-suspension/

  2. Clari Colon February 17, 2011 at 6:45 am #

    In my opinion grainlines should always be followed as it is the way the designer of the pattern meant it to be. Fabrics do not hang the same way if they are on the grainline or across the grainline or even on the bias. If you should decide to change the grainline then you should expect your finished garment to be different from the one on the pattern envelope. Also the fit of the garment will be affected by a change in grainline.

    The only exceptions for following the grainline will be if your fabric has a beautiful border or motif that you would like to place in a specific place of the garment. For example, an embroidered border on a fabric edge (grainline) that you would like to have as the hemline in a skirt (agaist the grainline). Other exception would be if you are very short on fabric for a certain project that you need to be accomplished and there is no other way of placing the pattern pieces over the fabric than against the grainline.

    This is only my opinion after many, many years of home sewing experience. Hope it helps!

    • Sharon March 20, 2013 at 1:50 pm #

      Putting the fabric crosswise (to use the border, along the selvage, as a hem) isn’t against the grain, it’s on the crosswise grain. .

  3. Marie-Christine February 17, 2011 at 6:49 am #

    Ignoring the grainline is the best way I know of to screw up a project, in a completely unfixable way. So my short answer would be ‘never’.
    That said, yes if you really know what your’e doing and you have the right kind of fabric it’s possible to play with plaids and stripes for visual effect, or cut something on the bias to add drape or conversely. But really, if you’re asking the question you probably need to stick to ‘never’.

  4. nikole February 17, 2011 at 6:51 am #

    Ignore them only if you know what you’re doing. The grain placement affects a lot of things and though on striped fabric can give and interesting design feature you really sacrifice the hang of the fabric. But as said with fitted silhouettes and thicker fabrics there should be more support structure underneath

  5. Valerie February 17, 2011 at 6:55 am #

    Just a caution – printed stripes aren’t always on grain. So if you use them to determine grain, you may be shocked when your garment doesn’t drape properly.

  6. daiyami February 17, 2011 at 7:06 am #

    I wanted to sew a silk dupioni dress crossgrain, to get the natural lines of the fabric going vertically. My sewing instructor said that since the fabric was almost equally stable when tugged on grain and tugged crossgrain, I could get away with it. An online forum said that underlining with silk organza (on the lengthwise grain) is a good idea if sewing the dupioni crossgrain. So I went for it. I haven’t finished the dress yet, so can’t report on results. I’m also planning on sewing some microsuede crossgrain into a skirt—I’ve been trying to let it hang crossgrain to see if it stretches beforehand.

    I would ask a more specific question: when can you ignore the call for bias? With binding, you use bias to get it to stretch around curves and not ravel, right? So if I’m using a stretchy knit fabric, do I need to cut the binding on the true bias? I ignored the grainline on the Pendrell pleated sleeves, because I understood that the bias was to maximize the drapiness and I had a really drapey rayon/spandex knit, so figured I didn’t wholly need the bias. I think it’s okay, though it may contribute to my sense that the sleeves look a wee bit big.

    Also, I think it would be worth quoting your reply to Misty in this post too.

  7. christine February 17, 2011 at 7:30 am #

    When I teach my new seamstresses to sew, I am very insistent on following the grain line, since they are all new at sewing. I sometimes deviate from the grain line on the selvage rule when I think I can get away with it. But there are still times that I fail and I always make sure that I have enough fabric to do it correctly if my experiment doesn’t work! For example, I used a dark gray striped linen to make the Colette Crepe dress pattern for myself. I thought it would be great to do the waist ties on the bias so the stripes went diagonal around my waist. But the linen would just not cooperate. After sewing the “tube” that would be my waistband, I had problems ironing it flat. It got all twisted and it just wouldn’t work. So I scrapped it and re-cut it correctly. I think if you’re going to not put your grain line along the selvage, you can often get away with running your grain line along the crosswise grain, but putting it on the bias or somewhere in between can be a failure.

    • Rose August 22, 2014 at 6:55 am #

      What if you used lightweight fusible interfacing to stabilize the waistband tube?

  8. Liz February 17, 2011 at 7:35 am #

    I love Nikole’s first sentence “Ignore them only if you know what you‚Äôre doing.” And I can’t agree more.

    Being a beginner myself, I’ve lived by the grainline rule very strictly. :) But after working on my Burda #127 High-waisted trousers, I found that the pockets didn’t match up to the pant legs even when I was 100% on grain. As a result I had to cut it slightly off grain to get my pinstripes to match up.

    So I think this rule should be taken project by project, and not attempted until you know what you’re doing. :)

  9. Becky February 17, 2011 at 7:36 am #

    Generally, I try to stick to grainlines. Except for when it comes to stripes and plaids, and particularly if I want to do something more interesting with them. Like I have this go-to blouse pattern that I reworked for a stripe, and cut some pieces on the diagonal to add some interest. I think that, especially considering the fabric had a bit of stretch to it, it turned out really nice (and way more fun than if I’d just done everything on grain!)

    I will admit that, since I also like to refashion things, I fudge grainline things more when it comes to that. Sometimes, you just don’t have enough fabric to do things otherwise.

  10. Greta February 17, 2011 at 8:18 am #

    Imagine a layered flounce skirt with half- or quarter-circle (as opposed to straight-cut and gathered) pieces for layers, and either a solid or a fairly busy print. I figure that at some point on the flounce, the direction will be straight up and down, and at some point it will be bias. It doesn’t really matter which is where. So I cut to save fabric and ignore the grain lines.

  11. Nancy February 17, 2011 at 8:25 am #

    I sometimes trace my pattern pieces onto wax paper so I can see through to the pattern. It’s good for plaids, stripes, or anywhere you have to match seams. I also find that marking the pattern of the fabric onto the pattern piece is a major help for making sure your stripes/patterns line up. Other than that and with fabrics that like to unravel I pretty much ignore grain. I’m of the school of thought that says if it’s going in the game general direction you don’t need to be super specific about getting your grain.

    PS. WOW! That cap fabric is heavenly. I think it gave me goosebumps :)

  12. Samina February 17, 2011 at 8:53 am #

    “Grainline parallel to selvedge.” Thanks for making that so clear & concise. Now I won’t get confused on my next project.

  13. Hat February 17, 2011 at 9:27 am #

    Grainline is a product of the weave of the fabric. It is not the direction of the design (plaid, stripe etc) that counts, it’s the direction of the threads that make up the fabric. That’s why your clothes will hang funny or stretch unevenly if you don’t cut as close as possible to on grain (or on bias if that is what is wanted). Some printed fabrics especially are printed “off-grain”. Many t-shirts are cut off grain. They are easy to recognize. They are the ones with the side seams that twist and droop in annoying and unpredictable ways. When you cut on bias, it is precisely because you want the fabric to stretch slightly.

  14. Doreen February 17, 2011 at 9:56 am #

    The first thing I thought about when I saw the title was how I do zippers down the back of a garment. Many years ago I was told to place the grain slightly off when inserting a zipper. This was to get rid of the horizontal buckles that seemed to show up on home sewn garments. I found that it did work well. However, it should be a very slight off-grain, and not obvious.
    I do think that a new sewer should obey grainlines (and other “rules” of basic construction) to obtain a good basic understanding. But, after learning the basics, I don’t want my design aesthetics to be hampered by rules. If I do place a piece off grain i know that I must back it with an on-grain interlining AND cut the the bias outer fabric slightly smaller to account for the stretch of the bias.
    It seems to me that all rules can be broken (or at least challenged) but backed up by general knowledge to successful construction, fit and drape.

  15. Casey February 17, 2011 at 10:24 am #

    I think adhering to the grainline is important, especially with certain designs or pattern pieces–like those cut on the bias. That being said, I think once you have a certain amount of knowledge to how fabric reacts based on the grain, you can play with it a bit more. Playing with the horizontal (more “give”) and vertical (less) is perfectly acceptable. Even smaller pieces of a pattern cut on the bias for an interesting effect in a directional fabric is acceptable! Although I am a huge advocate of just jumping into sewing with both feet and harnessing that beginner eagerness, there are certain “rules” within sewing that are there for a reason. Don’t know how many times I tried as a newbie to forget about grain and just fit my pieces willy-nilly. No wonder I had a lot of “bombs” in the early days! lol. I guess I would sum this up by saying that to beginner sewists: proceed with caution until you’ve learned more. For more experienced ones, once you have a handle on grainline and know when to respect the designer’s original placement, there are instances that you can creatively stray from the grainline printed on the pattern piece. With knowledge comes power! ;)

    ‚ô• Casey

  16. Jessica February 17, 2011 at 10:34 am #

    I think you can get away with a little bit of cheating on a knit fabric, but I wouldn’t go crazy. I’ve done collars/cuffs on the bias before, if they were interfaced, and that worked pretty well. I would always tell new sewers to follow the grain line. You can take bias sections and make them on grain, or vice versa, but it will change the results.

  17. Darci February 17, 2011 at 11:16 am #

    @daiyami:

    Knit fabric binding doesn’t need to be cut on the bias. You can just cut strips straight (perpendicular to the selvedge). The nature of the fabric allows it to stretch. Only woven fabric binding needs to be cut on the true bias.

  18. Dei February 17, 2011 at 11:26 am #

    Depends on your intent and understanding of grainlines. I say go for it! On wovens, especially if you have a print fabric, why not cut select pattern pieces cross-grain. If you want more drape to a piece, cut it on the bias. You just have to be aware the fabric will behave differently over time when you don’t cut along the grainline. As for knits, you can cut cross-grain, but it’s generally recommended to keep cross-grains going “around” the body as opposed to length-wise.

  19. Tasia February 17, 2011 at 12:51 pm #

    Oooh, great comments and feedback so far!
    I liked what Liz said: this rule should be taken project by project, and not attempted until you know what you’re doing. :)
    And what Casey said – ‘With knowledge comes power!’

    Oh, and I know that the stripe and plaid are not the indicators of grainlines, but i wanted to show an example of what grainlines *would* look like, if you could see them. I thought the photo of the plaid fabric would demonstrate what a grainline looks like! Grainline does in fact refer to the weave of the fabric, like @Hat: said earlier.

    Printed stripes and printed plaids – ones that aren’t woven into the fabric, but printed with ink on top of the fabric – can be printed off-grain, so that the print does not follow the selvages. Thanks to those who clarified that point, too!

  20. Rachel February 17, 2011 at 3:30 pm #

    I agree with what everyone else has said. I tend to follow grain lines except if the print on the fabric will look better following the crosswise grain. I’ve swapped the lengthwise and crosswise grains on two dresses recently (one each way) and they’ve turned out fine.

  21. CGCouture February 17, 2011 at 4:00 pm #

    While I wouldn’t go so far as to say that grainlines are completely optional, I wouldn’t say that they are the end-all-be-all of the project either. Some people agonize over getting the grainlines just perfect, and power to them, but the reality is, you don’t need to. Eyeballing it is good enough unless you are trying to match stripes/plaids/certain prints. But, like someone else mentioned, the stripes aren’t always 100% on grain either, so if you want to match them sometimes you have to fudge it a bit.

    I would say do whatever you feel works for you. If you think it’s worth it to agonize an extra 20 minutes getting the grains lined up just right on every single pattern piece, go for it. If you think that “close enough” works, have at it. I doubt you’ll notice much (if any) difference either way.

  22. indigorchid February 17, 2011 at 8:31 pm #

    I made a pair of pants once, where I didn’t pay attention to the grain, and ended up with pants that had give lengthwise, and *no* give around my body! That was the last time I made that mistake. However, I’ve totally squished patternpieces onto the fabric when I’ve not had enough, and sometimes it matters, other times it doesn’t. If both cross-wise and lengthwise grain behave the same, you should be good.

    I find using grainlines to your advantage very interesting. Like Doreen mentioned about the zipper – that is manipulating the grain to work for you (and I would love to hear more about this!). I now cut facings (and underlinings, and sometimes the self too) for waistbands on the lengthwise grain, because they are generally more stable, and will help reduce stretching of the waistband. Likewise, being off grain (somewhere between straight and bias) can sometimes made for pulled and rippeling seams, which is something I’ve yet to fully understand.

    Coming from a fashion school perspective, where you’re taught to transfer your grainlines as you make your patterns, I’ve come to rebel a little against that view. Not to get too technical, but if you make a garment with a princess side panel, and transfer your center front grainline perfectly, your grainline will go through the piece at a very odd angle. So now I sometimes don’t even mark the grainline on those side pieces, and just eyeball what looks best – like CGCouture mentioned.

    Thanks for hosting this discussion Tasia!

  23. Misty February 18, 2011 at 6:17 am #

    Wow, thanks for the extremely detailed replies to my question! I had no idea that my little wondering would take up the entire topic of a blog post, but I certainly have a thorough answer now. :) Thanks to Tasia for reposting my question and to everyone who weighed in on the matter!

  24. Cathi February 18, 2011 at 9:42 am #

    IF you know what the grainline on the pattern is going to do and
    IF you know what your changing the grainline is going to do (change the stretch or give of the piece usually) then go ahead.

    BUT you really need to know what’s going to happen first so you can compensate.
    Sometimes it won’t make a difference; most of the time it will. That difference can often be worked around but you need to know what’s going on first.
    Sometimes it can lead to some wonderful results (and sometimes to utter failure) so experiment!

  25. Hat February 18, 2011 at 10:23 am #

    Very productive discussion. And thank you, Doreen. I’ve never heard that before but I shall give it a try!

  26. Rhia February 19, 2011 at 1:52 pm #

    I agree with most, after you’ve got enough knowledge about how fabrics behave, then you can start bending the rules. So if you’re beginner you should definetly follow grainlines. Otherwise your garment might and probably will end looking like badly fitting and oddly hanging piece. However the quality of the fabric should always be checked and considered case by case if the grainline should be changed on bias or cross-wise cut. Still I don’t think you should ever cut just slightly off the grainline. If your going to ignore grainline do it either bias or cross-wise, nothing in between. And when you do, always leave extra length so that you can trim the hem after you allowed the “almost ready” garment to hang and settle for length. Differently cut pieces stretch differently.

    And what comes to Doreen’s instructions on cutting the back piece slightly off grainline. If you do that, be carefull not to stretch the fabric, otherwise there might occure some puckering or stretching while sewing the zipper. And rather than turning the piece off-grainline, it’s better to draw the back piece zipper like a bit curved or angled, just like the form of your spine, when you look at it from sideview.

  27. sandie October 11, 2013 at 4:02 pm #

    i just come across this while looking for info on a confusing pattern. i dont know how old this thread is so im hoping someone still reading it. This is the first dress i have ever made. its a 50′s style swing dress. i have followed the pattern to the letter, and looked up anything i didnt understand. I have now pinned all my pattern pieces ready for cutting, but iv hit a problem (which is how i ended up here) so i hope someone can help? i have followed the grain line for all the pieces, however the front piece of the skirt doesnt have a grain line illustrated, and the two back pieces of the skirt show the grainline running across when all the other pieces have the grainline running down the fabric.
    i dont think im explaining this well because im an absolute novice at sewing. ok, except for the skirt all the grainlines are running vertical, which is the what i call ‘rip line’ of the fabric, i.e it would rip easy if torn deliberately. Now the back skirt pieces have the grainline running horizontal and opposite to the other pieces, and the front skirt piece has no grainline at all. Its a good quality pattern by butterick so i cant see this being a mistake on the pattern. the problem is my fabric is floral, and there is a very obvious grainline in fabric, like slightly raised lines along the grainline. the fact the skirt is going sideways on the grain is going to be noticeable on the finished dress. I want it to hang nice but im stuck now and dont know how to proceed with this. im sorry this is long. Im struggling to explain things, but if anyone can help me id be so pleased. im not in a sewing class or dont know anyone who i can ask for advice. kind regards, sandie

    • sandie October 12, 2013 at 4:10 am #

      sorry for mentioning another pattern complany. i didnt realise you were selling patterns here. i wrote the request above before i joined the site. i hope someone replies soon as im stuck. ;-(

    • daiyami October 12, 2013 at 10:08 pm #

      Sandie, you’ll probably be better off posting in the message boards on PatternReview.com, or at ArtisansSquare.com. Those are both places where I see a lot of people asking and answering questions about all sorts of patterns and problems.

    • Evelyn November 2, 2013 at 7:51 am #

      Hi, Sandie I think if you look at your pattern your skirt front has a center fold line. Now, look at your pattern lay out. The fold of fabric already follows the grainline. So, it doesn’t need the grainline printed on the pattern piece because it already is on the grainline. I hope this helps you out. Keep on sewing.

  28. Virginia Stout November 15, 2013 at 5:46 am #

    I am making a dress for my granddaughter and the bottom has a contrast color. My material is not quite 45″ so the border does not quite fit. Can I cut it not on the grain and still come out alright. All the other pieces fit fine on the grain. Virginia

  29. Barbara May 10, 2014 at 12:18 pm #

    I am looking at a fabric that has a cross grain stripe that will go across my body (not something I want). I want to turn so stripes run top to bottom. The fabric is a cotton blend with spandex for what they call a two way stretch. Does this mean that I can turn it without any consequences? It is a simple, loose fit sleeveless to for yoga. I have been sewing for a while and always “stayed with the grain”, but I really like this fabric and it just will not work for me and flow like I want with a cross stripe. Please help!!

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