Grain Line? What Grain Line?

Grain Line? What Grain Line?

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.

Shall we

Grain Line? What Grain Line?

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.

Grain line

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.

Measure up

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).

Everyone needs an Arm Sometimes

Everyone needs an Arm Sometimes

I rarely use a free arm on a sewing machine, mainly because I sew most often on my industrial Juki straight stitch machine and it doesn’t have one. I sew sleeve and pant cuffs by either leaving the garment right side out and sewing with the wrong side to the top or vice versa (garment wrong side out and sewing with the right side to the top).

I sew most often on my industrial Juki straight stitch machine and it doesn’t have a free arm.

I sew most often on my industrial Juki straight stitch machine and it doesn’t have a free arm.

Most things are easily sewn this way. You basically put the needle and presser foot inside the pant leg or sleeve.

Something up my sleeve

This past week though, I needed to attach a nine and half inch sleeve extension to the top of a cuff – making a sweater look as if there was another layer underneath when in actuality there was only an extra sleeve poking out from the bottom.

I marked and pinned, tried going in from one way, then another but couldn’t get the needle to the right sewing position. The sleeve extension was too long and the existing cuff on the sweater I was attaching it too, far too bulky and heavy.

My little light weight Brother SC9500 was no help either as it doesn’t have a really skinny free arm.

My little light weight Brother SC9500 was no help either as it doesn’t have a really skinny free arm.

My little light weight Brother SC9500 was no help either as it doesn’t have a really skinny free arm.

A sewing machine free arm is the narrow platform you’re usually left with if you remove the flat bed attachment on a domestic machine.

It’s a Bernina Record 830 which is, along with the Bernina 930, one of the best domestic ‘portable’ machines ever made.

It’s a Bernina Record 830 which is, along with the Bernina 930, one of the best domestic ‘portable’ machines ever made.

After some struggling (and cursing), I remembered that my good old trusty heavy metal Bernina was under the cutting table. It’s a Bernina Record 830 which is, along with the Bernina 930, one of the best domestic ‘portable’ machines ever made.

Standing the test of time

The 830 was made in the 1970s and the 930 in the 1980s. Both machines are mechanical (no electronic ‘smart’ stitch settings) and will sew through pretty much anything. They’re also faster than most modern domestic machines. And the 830 has a nice skinny free arm.

The one thing it doesn’t have is extra ‘give’ in the presser foot – which allows you to get really big bulky things under it. In order to get my sweater cuff and extra sleeve under the foot I needed to exert a good amount of what my father always referred to as ‘elbow grease’.

But once under there, the old 830 happily sewed over all the lumpy bulk. Crisis averted.

Bernina reliability

Bernina is still making some great machines, many of them are electronic now.

But, if you ever see an 830 or a 930 at a garage sale, snatch it up. They make excellent all around machines and seem to be virtually indestructible. Mine has taken a dive off the tailgate of a wardrobe truck and it still works great (though I don’t necessarily recommend testing that theory).

My experience with the troublesome sweater reminded me that there is always a solution to a seemingly impossible task. Sometimes that solution only becomes clear after you’ve pretty much given up. I did indeed say out loud (to no one in particular as I’m pretty much always sewing alone in my little sunny corner) “I can’t get in there. I just can’t get in there.” Then, low and behold, I spotted the red plastic case that houses my Bernina and I knew everything was going to be ok.

This also reminds me of something I was told when I first started cycling up steep, long mountains. “Every climb has a gear. You just need to find it.” I wasn’t thoroughly convinced at first but, if history is to be believed, that is absolutely the case. I have yet to find a mountain I couldn’t climb.

There’s always a way. You just have to find it.

Sewing Room Organizing: The Rules

Sewing Room Organizing: The Rules

Sewing Room Organizing: The Rules

Sewing room organizing can be a constant battle. That’s because creative folks make lots of things, including what my dear calls “creative explosions.” I just call these big messes. You know what I mean: quilt trimmings & other scraps on the floor, piles of fabric or other supplies on the table, idea books scattered about, bins & boxes pulled out with their contents askew and similar messes.

I battled this kind of mess for years. But I seem to have finally developed the skill of keeping order in my creative room. For example, the days between Christmas and New Year have historically been sewing room organizing time for me. But last year after Christmas, I was surprised when I realized I didn’t have any sewing room organizing to do. In years past, I have worked busily making gifts, moving from one project to the next, and letting messes pile up around me until the holiday passed.

I can’t stand to do that anymore. Instead, I clean up thoroughly after every project, before moving to the next. Since learning to do this, and by vigilantly following a few other rules that I have discovered which help to ensure order, I have enjoyed my creative pursuits more than ever before. I think these sewing room organizing rules will help you, too, if you haven’t discovered them for yourself yet.

Whether you need to clean up after your own creative explosions or you want to prevent their occurrence in the first place, keep these rules in mind.

Sewing room organizing rule one: machines first

It might not sound like sewing room organizing, but the very first thing to do is to give all of your machines a thorough cleaning. This is the most important task in cleaning up messes in the sewing room.

If your floor is littered with threads and clippings, I guarantee your machines have similar build-up inside. And continuing to sew with a dirty machine will cause it to break! So get your chosen brush and sweep and clean every machine in your room really well.

It's easy to miss a spot.

It’s easy to miss a spot.

Keeping machines clean

For sewing machines, remove the bobbin casings and take particular care in cleaning out inside and behind these. For sergers, sweep out every nook and cranny. When you think you’ve gotten it clean, sweep it out again. It’s easy to miss multiple spots. You can spend a lot of time sweeping out a serger repeatedly, and still not get it completely clean. Unless you have a magic tool, that is. The best thing you can buy to ensure a longer life for your machines is a tiny vacuum attachment to help get them really clean.

Always cover your machines to prevent unnecessary build up of dirt or dust when these are not in use. If your machine did not come with a hardcover, you can sew a pretty one yourself.

After cleaning, oil your mechanical-only machines according to their user manuals.  Don’t oil your computerized or electronic machines at home; take them to Sewing Machines Plus or your local repair shop for yearly maintenance.  Go ahead and take them in now so this will be done. If you cannot be without them right now, schedule this on your calendar to be handled as soon as possible. If you neglect your machine maintenance you will regret it. For future reference, a good plan to avoid being without your machines when you need them is to send them out for maintenance while you are on vacation.

Sewing room organizing rules 2 & 3:

Have ample workspaces

Keep them clear

After your machines, the most important things to consider in sewing room organizing are your workspaces. It is not possible to work efficiently without ample space.  If you are using more than one machine, such as a sewing machine, a serger and a coverstitch or embroidery machine, you need enough space to have them all set up. You also need table space for cutting and layout.

It is best to have the largest table that will comfortably fit in your room in order to provide ample space for working. I have a kitchen table in my room that I keep clear for cutting, and separate desks for my machines. I reconfigure machine placement depending on the project, however. When I am working on a bed sized quilt, I place my machine on the big table, so it can support the quilt. Having multiple workstations enables flexibility.

If your sewing room lacks enough space to house such a large table, Sewing Machines Plus has an excellent option for you to consider. The Arrow Pixie cutting table doesn’t take up much space when folded compactly, but opens to provide table space for both cutting and sewing. It even has measurement guides and comes with a cutting board. It’s super cute, too.

Keep tables clear!

Ample work space will do you no good if they are covered with unfinished projects, supplies, or irrelevant items. My favorite rule for making sure that my creative space stays organized and is always ready for working is to keep all work spaces clear. I do not allow myself to store any items on top of my table top or desks, other than machines, of course. But because I reconfigure my machine placement according to what I am working on, I prefer to store most of them, covered, on shelves.

This way, you can keep your table and desks clean and shining, waiting for you to make something new whenever it suits you.

Other rules to remember

There are several other rules that have helped me to keep my sewing room neat and organized. Following these rules will help to keep your room working well for you, too.

  • You can’t organize clutter; keep unnecessary items out of your room.
  • Be creative with storage. For example, to maximize working space in my sewing room, I use an antique wardrobe and chest of drawers in the next room. The beauty of these storage pieces blends nicely with my family room décor. These happily hold my fabric, trims and notions, and other less often used items, such as my looms. Here are some DIY projects for creative storage solutions which will work inside the sewing room.
  • Keep like things together. Rather than storing tools all over the place, use a bin or other storage solution to keep these neatly together. The same goes for thread, notions, and etc.
  • Let the fabric live at the store. I am no longer tempted by fabric clearance sales and refuse to buy fabric to stash. I have learned that stashed fabric steals time, space, and money, so I do not buy any without a particular project in mind. Pretty quilter cottons are the only exception I make to this rule, as I know for sure that I will put these to use. Be a savvy shopper and take advantage of sales for stocking items you must have and will use. For example, I only buy white and neutral thread, and also cotton batting, when it is on sale.
  • Finish what you start. It is easy to get excited about new projects, but for keeping order, it is much more sensible to complete each project before starting another.

Do you have any other useful rules for keeping order in your sewing room? If you do, please add a comment and share it with us.