What is the one item that you absolutely must have for every sewing project you will ever do? It’s fabric, of course! Since the fabric you choose will have a significant impact on how your finished project turns out, it can help to have an understanding of how fabric is woven so that you can meet the expectations of your finished project. While weaving is a skill all on its own, understanding weaving principles can open our eyes to a greater depth of our understanding of fabric. Let’s start by watching this 7-minute video as we see cotton and hemp woven into fabric.
Now that we have a visual of the process, let’s look at fabric terms:
Selvage: The video provides a great visual representation of selvage and why it exists. The process of shuttling the weft threads back and forth is what creates the finished edge. Now, as you think about how that thread if shuttled from one direction then the other, wrapping the edge as you turn to the other direction, selvage makes a lot more sense. No wonder it doesn’t ravel! And since it is created by wrapping those vertical warp threads, it now makes sense why the selvage is so vital to determining the grainline, as well as the most stable part of the fabric. The selvage can be included when cutting a waistband to help reduce the stretch factor that is sometimes experienced while wearing a garment. Using the finished edge of the selvage in a waistband can add strength and may eliminate the need to turn another layer of fabric inside, thus reducing a layer of bulk.
Warp: As shown in the video, warp threads are the first to be set up and run the length of the fabric. Warp threads provide the structure for the weft threads to weave through and give the fabric stability. Warp thread and grainline go together — the grainline equals the direction of the warp thread. Doesn’t it make more sense now that the grainline is the most stable direction of the fabric?
Weft: Remember the threads being shuttled from the left to the right in the video? Those vertical threads are the weft, which also defines the cross grain of the fabric. The cross grain is the second most stable direction of your fabric but since they are not held tightly in place like the warp thread, they have a bit more “give” to them. However, since they are in a straight line, they have more stability than the bias, which we will talk about next.
Bias: Think of bias as a tic-tac-toe grid and draw a line from one corner to the opposite diagonal corner. That 45-degree angle is the bias. This has the most give and the least stability of any direction in your fabric. With an understanding now of how threads are woven, you can probably visualize the tiny gap between the threads. When you pull those threads at a diagonal, there is no straight thread to pull against, thus you are pulling across that tiny open gap between the threads. Sometimes we use the property of bias to the advantage of a project. For example, a garment made with bias-cut pieces will have a greater amount of drape and will skim the body much more than the same garment made of the same fabric that was cut on the grain.
Grain: By now, just by talking about warp and weft, we have already addressed grainline. But to see a little bit more focus on the grainline, watch this 6-minute video we published in January of 2020. It addresses some of the things already discussed here with a little more information about how to identify and use the grainline when cutting out your projects.
Hand: The final term in this discussion is hand. The “hand” of a fabric refers to the “feel” of the fabric against your skin. There are many adjectives that can be used to describe the hand, or feel, of a fabric. Words like cool, slick, smooth, loose, stiff, heavy and stretchy can all be used to tell someone about the hand of a fabric.
- Hand and drape are terms that are very closely related. The drape of a fabric is the way it flows over things. Stiff fabrics have less drape while fluid fabrics have more. You can feel the weight of a fabric easily by the thickness when you feel the fabric in your hand — it will feel either light or heavy.
- Think back to what you saw in the weaving video about the threads used in weaving the fabric. The characteristics of those threads play a vital role in the hand and drape of the fabric. The thicker and more stable the threads, the stiffer, and more stable the fabric. Delicate silk threads will weave together to create a much different hand and drape than heftier linen or cotton threads.
- Special treatments of the fabric after it is woven can also impact the hand or drape of the fabric. For example, the dying process can create a stiffer, less drapey hand based of the amount of mordant. A mordant or dye fixative is a substance used to set (i.e. bind) dyes on fabrics. Some mordants can create a stiffer hand and less drape in the final product.
We hope that diving into the art of weaving has given you a new perspective on fabric and has helped to explain the importance of understand the relationship between the fabric you’ve chosen for your project and your desired outcome.