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The Value of Straight Grain Piecing

by Charlotte Wolfe -- Charlotte's Sew Natural


Paying attention to the lengthwise & crosswise grain of solid and printed cottons is more important than most people think. Years ago, I heard Marti Michell, nationally known quilt designer and teacher, speaking to a group of quilters. She said "never buy less than 5/8 of a yard of fabric if you like it. I know you like to buy 1/4 yds, but they really aren't that useful because of 'straight grain'." This is a valuable piece of advice.

Maybe it is because I come to quilting from a garment background, or because I have sewn since I was pre-school age and have "played" with lots of fabrics. But all woven fabric, even tightly woven cotton, has some "give" or a slight stretch to it on the weft or cross grain. The basics of weaving involve thread or yarn being held taught or tight in one direction and additional thread or yarn is woven under & over, with a slightly loose tension, so as not to distort or "pull in" the edges. This results in a fabric that is stable or non-stretching in the length & has a slight give or stretch in the cross-wise direction. Feel this yourself by pinching a piece of fabric with your hands about 4" apart and pulling gently in each direction.

Garments are generally made so that the lengthwise grain of the fabric runs up & down the body. Made this way garments don't "stretch" or grow in length as we wear them, hems stay even and side seams lay smooth and flat. This same principle can be applied to quilt piecing, particularly when cutting & sewing strips together. Lots of patterns use the speed techniques of cutting long strips first, sewing 2 or more together, then cutting those apart in the other direction and sewing those back together. If you cut your strip across the 45" width, the entire strip will be quite stretchy. When you sew 2 or more of these together you must be very careful not to pull or stretch either or both. When 3 or more are sewn together "curving" is a common problem, which makes it difficult to cut accurately across that panel of strips. More than one novice quilt piecer has given up at this stage. It can become a tragic mess so quickly!

The solution is easy. If your pattern tells you to cut long, narrow 45" strips, just cut twice as many short 22 1/2" strips (from 5/8 yard!). The benefits of this change are numerous! Your strips won't stretch and will stitch together without ripples and distortion. You know that you have the true straight grain because your cut was parallel to the selvage. A cut across the width of the fabric is not assured of being on grain because fabric can often become distorted (maybe just slightly or a lot) in the printing and finishing process and the woven threads are no longer at a 90 degree angle to each other. The lengthwise grain will press and hold a sharper crease than the crosswise. Better pressing makes for more accurate piecing and better matched pieces. Plus, when sewing together the crosswise cuts from the lengthwise pieced strips, you have a little stretch in the fabric that allows a gentle tension to ease those seams to a perfect match!

A simple change in direction guarantees less frustrations PLUS a better look to your finished pieced project!

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