Last week, I spent a couple days making six silk dresses for a freelance client. I did the work at home, in my fifth floor walkup apartment in New York City. I only mention this because the dresses were made from silk charmeuse and I don’t, interestingly enough, have a proper cutting table at home. This really isn’t so much interesting as it is unfortunate and slightly annoying. Because, as anyone who has ever cut silk charmeuse knows, it’s a slippery sliding thing.
I cut the first dress out on the floor. Not ideal but it does work, as long as you use enough weights to keep it from shifting around. I usually cut things on the double with the fabric folded, selvedge edge to selvedge edge, which is how most consumer patterns instruct you to cut. Silk charmeuse can be a bit woodgy (yes, that’s a technical term) but the weave tends to be tight enough that you can confidently cut on the fold.
Some fabrics with an especially loose weave where it’s hard to keep the lengthwise grain line (and cross grain) straight are best cut in a single layer.
To begin cutting, I tear a straight cross grain so I have a right angle to work from. Almost all fabric can be torn in this way. The cross grain of a fabric is made from the yarns woven over and under the lengthwise fabric grain at a 90 degree angle. The over under weaving provides less tension so crosswise grains have a tiny bit more stretch than the lengthwise grain. They normally run around a person’s body.
The lengthwise grain is the one that runs parallel to the selvedge edge and is the grain marked by the arrow on every pattern piece.
After tearing the the cross grain so I have a straight line, I fold my fabric in half right sides together, selvedge to selvedge. Once I have the fabric relatively flat and smooth on my cutting surface, I place a long metal ruler about an inch or two from my torn crosswise edge. I use a metal ruler because they’re heavy enough to act like a weight.
I line up the edge of the ruler perpendicular to the selvedge edge and across the full width of both layers of fabric. Then I make sure that the edge of the fabric that extends past the ruler is even. I do this to ensure that my cross grain is lined up correctly and not sloping down or up in relation to the selvedge.
I cut the next five dresses out on my old wood dining room table. It has leaves that fold up to make it almost six feet wide. At about 39” high, my cutting tables at work are higher than a standard dining room table. This height means I don’t have to bend so far over a table when cutting and, ultimately saves my back from hurting. If you don’t spend entire days cutting out garments, a dining room table usually works just as well.
You can also buy one of the cool folding style cutting tables available.
So, what about grain line? Do you need to always pay attention to it?
That depends. At Boardwalk Empire, we would sometimes jest (when we didn’t have enough fabric and had to get creative with our cutting layouts), “Grain lines are for suckers.”
What we really meant, though, was “As long as you know what you’re doing, you can manipulate and vary the placement of your pattern pieces.”
If you happen to have a striped fabric, playing with the grain line can be fun. Thomas Pink, who makes high end men’s dress shirts will sometimes cut one side of the front on the lengthwise grain and the other on the cross for a quirky asymmetrical look.
Striped fabrics will also naturally chevron at the side seams if you match them up correctly when cutting and sewing.
You can also turn collars, cuff pieces, and/or pockets of striped fabrics on a different grain to add an interesting design effect.
All of these things are most easily done with a fabric that doesn’t have a lot of give, like a tightly woven cotton.
If you’re interested in getting a little creative with your next project, you may want to invest in a quilter’s ruler. These rulers have 45 and 30-degree angles marked which is helpful when adjusting grain lines.
If you’re matching stripes or other patterns, you’ll find it much easier to cut in a single layer so you see everything clearly.
This may seem obvious, but if you’re experimenting, it’s always good practice to test things out first. If you have plenty of fabric, you can use some of it to do a little practice run. If not, you can use muslin or something similar to try out your idea. If you’re using a striped fabric, you can mark lines on your muslin before cutting to show you how everything will line up.
Bias is the diagonal angle across your fabric. The bias grain has quite a bit of stretch. A dress that clings to the body closely without having multiple seams is very likely cut on the bias. When you’re making a bias garment, especially a dress or slip, you’ll want to let the bias hang out for a while if possible as it will stretch out. You’ll notice that the bottom edge of your pieces will end up uneven if you do this, which is exactly what you want. You’ll need to remark your hemline after you’ve put together the garment.
I usually stay stitch my arm and neck holes, then pin my cut pieces on a form and, if time permits, let them hang over night. It’s also beneficial to then pin the seams together while they are hanging on a form to help alleviate any puckering.
Once you have a good understanding of grain lines, there’s no reason why you can’t try different things. Get creative (just remember that bias does stretch a lot more than something on the straight so you may need to stabilize with a lightweight fusible interfacing).