Did you know that there are actually a lot of identifiable parts and characteristics to any piece of fabric? Knowing the anatomy of fabric will help you become a better fabric shopper and sewist. Read on for 21 top anatomy of fabric terms you should know.
- What is the Anatomy of Fabric?
- Anatomy of Fabric: Physical Components
- Anatomy of Fabric: Size and Directional Terms
- Anatomy of Fabric: Characteristics
- Anatomy of Fabric: 21 Top Terms
What is the Anatomy of Fabric?
The anatomy of fabric refers to all the various components, directional terms, and characteristics of any piece of fabric. They include such things as selvage, bias, and drape. Knowing the anatomy of fabric gives you information about how to best purchase or use a length of fabric, and will make you a better sewist.
I’ve separated the terms into three categories: physical components, size and directional terms, and characteristics, and I’ve added photos and diagrams to help explain the terms. Let’s dive in!
21 Top Anatomy of Fabric Terms You Need To Know:
Anatomy of Fabric: Physical Components
Each length of fabric cut off a bolt will have 2 selvages (or selvedge, which is the British version). The selvages are across from each other on either end of the width of the fabric. Selvages run parallel to each other for the whole length of the bolt. They are also a thicker and tighter weave that prevents the two selvage edges from fraying or unravelling.
Selvages can look different based on the type of fabric, but you can identify them in a few ways:
- On printed fabric, the selvage often contains writing that lists the manufacturer, designer or design name. Sometimes they also list the date, country of origin, or the fabric collection. Helpfully, some selvages contain little circles showing the various colours used in the design, which can help a sewist to choose coordinating or contrasting fabrics.
- The selvage might also be thicker and a different colour than the rest of the fabric
- On a solid colour fabric, you might see the slightly tighter weave of the selvedge with little holes above it.
2. Warp and Weft
If you’ve ever made a lattice topped pie, you’ll understand warp and weft. Woven fabrics are, well, woven from fibres going lengthwise and going crosswise – under and over each other. Warp fibres run the length of the fabric (the entire bolt), and parallel to the selvages. Weft fibres are much shorter, going perpendicular to the selvage, or across the width of the fabric. Here’s a trick to remember which is which: If you travel at warp speed, you’re going to travel much farther in the same amount of time. Therefore warp fibres go the whole length of the bolt.
On most fabrics the weave is so small and tight that it’s hard to see the separate threads. On a looser weave though, it is possible to see the difference.
3. Raw edge
The raw edge can refer to a few similar things. First, it means the initial cut edges to cut a length of fabric from the bolt, perpendicular to the selvages. If it is a woven fabric, these edges can fray, or unravel.
The raw edge can also mean the edge of any piece or shape of fabric where you cut it into a shape, and where the edges can continue to fray. Sewing patterns often tell you to finish the raw edges so that the threads do not continue to unravel as you wear and wash your garment.
4. Right Side
On many fabrics, a right side is very apparent. Generally, the right side means the printed side, or the side that looks better. The right side will be the side that you will want to show at the front or outside of your projects.
Other fabrics such as solid coloured quilting cottons and linens for example, do not look noticeably different on either side. In that case, it doesn’t matter which side of the fabric becomes the right side.
A photo example is below #5, Wrong Side.
5. Wrong Side
If the right side is the pretty side, then the wrong side is the side of a fabric that looks worse than the other, or the side that is unprinted. As mentioned with the right side, some fabrics look the same on both sides. But if there is a visible wrong side to your fabric, you will often aim to have it hidden on the back or the inside of your projects.
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Unless specified, the grainline usually refers to the same direction as warp threads, running lengthwise down the fabric. Sometimes it might be specified as a crosswise grainline, in which case it refers to the weft threads running across the width of the fabric.
When sewing clothing, you must lay out particular pattern pieces carefully, often with an arrow running in the direction of the grainline, or down the length of the fabric. This is important for the fit and drape of a finished garment. Occasionally patterns will instruct you to place pieces on the crosswise grainline.
Tip: Should you feel that a piece of fabric is twisting when you fold it to line up the selvage edges, and you think the grainline might be crooked, it’s best to fix that before cutting out your pattern pieces. Follow these steps from Colette to find the grainline and straighten out your fabric.
Many fabrics including garment and quilting fabrics come on the bolt, folded in half across the width. This means that the selvage edges are lined up, one on top of the other, creating a fold running parallel to them. Often it is helpful to refold your fabric in half across the width after ironing. This double layer of fabric makes the fabric narrower on your cutting mat, and assists you to cut out two pieces at a time for many pattern pieces. As well, you must often place some pattern pieces on the fold to allow for a piece without seams, such as for a skirt, or a bodice front.
Anatomy of Fabric: Size and Directional Terms
8. Width of Fabric
The width of fabric, sometimes abbreviated as WOF, simply means the measurement of the fabric from one selvage edge to the other, or across the width of any fabric. Standard quilting fabrics are usually 40-44 inches in width, while other common widths of fabric are 54-60 inches. Some fabrics are even as wide as 120 inches which is helpful for larger projects where you want less visible seams, like quilt backings, or drapery.
In quilting, sometimes patterns say to cut strips WOF. This means you will cut a long strip running from selvage to selvage, with the width of the strip specified in the pattern. Binding or sashing strips are a perfect example of this. This often involves folding the fabric so the selvages meet, then bringing the resulting fold down to meet the selvages again to fit on your cutting mat better. If you cut perpendicular to the selvages, you will be cutting across the whole width of the fabric.
Yardage refers to the length of material cut from the bolt, or that is required for a particular project. Here in Canada and in the UK, stores most often cut and sell fabric in metres, or parts of metres. 1 metre = 100 centimetres. In the United States, fabric is most often cut and sold in yards, or parts of yards. 1 yard = 36 inches. One metre is longer than a yard and approximately 39 inches long.
Fabric stores, especially online shops, typically cut and sell fabric in units of quarter, half, and full yards (or metres). Sometimes when shopping online there is a minimum amount to order, such as one yard.
Tip: Remember to look at what unit the material requirement for a pattern is written in – yards or metres. Then take that into account when shopping for fabric. If it asks for yards and you shop in metres (which are larger), you’d have more than enough. But if it calls for metres, and you shop in yards (which are smaller), you’ll need to buy more yards to have enough fabric.
10. Fat Quarter
A fat quarter is most commonly a quilting term, meaning a quarter of a yard (or sometimes a quarter of a metre), but cut in a particular way. A regular quarter of a yard is 9 inches in length and runs the width of the fabric (for quilting cotton, often 44 inches). That 9 inch strip is not very useful for a variety of cuts. Therefore many quilt shops cut a yard in half lengthwise and crosswise, resulting in 4, more rectangular pieces, (each a quarter of the area of a yard), and quite a bit more useful. A typical fat quarter is approximately 18 x 22 inches.
Fat quarters are often very useful sizes of fabric for small sewing and craft projects though, not just for quilting. It’s easy on the budget to collect a larger variety of small pieces of fabric for small projects rather than buying one full yard of each. I love digging through bins of fat quarters.
Lengthwise simply refers to cutting or laying something in the direction of the warp fibres, running parallel to the selvage, and lengthwise down the bolt of fabric.
See a photo below #12, crosswise.
Crosswise refers to laying or cutting something in the direction of the weft fibres, running perpendicular with the selvage, and across the width of the fabric.
Cutting on the bias means laying and cutting pattern pieces on the diagonal, or at a 45 degree angle to both the warp and weft fibres. Doing so allows cut pieces to have more stretch. Cutting on the bias also changes how the fabric falls and drapes across your body, and many skirts are cut on the bias specifically for that reason.
Choosing to cut bias binding or piping strips on the bias means they are better able to bend around curves and corners than those cut across the width of the fabric. Good cutting mats should have a 45 degree angle line to assist with cutting on the bias.
Shrinkage refers to the loss in length and/or width after laundering through the exposure to water and/or heat. Some fabrics shrink in both dimensions, and others shrink primarily in one dimension. Natural fibres such as cotton, also shrink more than synthetic fibres, such as polyester. Be sure to follow the laundering instructions on the bolt or for the fabric type. Shrinkage can continue to occur over a few launderings, or after incorrect handling (like putting wool in the dryer). It is often better to buy a little extra fabric to be on the safe side than to not have enough after it shrinks.
Tip: It is also important when sewing garments, to wash and dry your fabric properly before cutting and sewing your garment. If you don’t launder the fabric until after your garment is completed, you risk ending up with a piece of clothing that no longer fits after shrinking.
Anatomy of Fabric: Characteristics
Woven fabrics are those that are made with woven warp and weft fibres. They have limited stretch because they are tightly woven, and mainly stretch on the diagonal or bias. Many quilting fabrics, home decor fabrics (such as upholstery and drapery fabrics), and garment fabrics (including denim) are woven fabrics.
Knit fabrics are not created by weaving warp and weft fibres. Just like knitters create fabric from a single yarn, looped continuously back and forth in rows, knitted fabric is made on a smaller scale with thinner threads. Knitted fabric has more stretch than woven fabrics, making it good for athletic and leisure wear such as sweatshirt/pants, yoga pants and swimsuits. The most common example of knit fabric is any t-shirt fabric.
Knit fabric does not fray or unravel in the same way that woven fabric does when it’s cut, and sometimes edges are left unfinished. Knit fabrics can also have a tendency to roll up at the ends. There are special considerations that need to be taken into account when sewing knit fabric, such as using zig-zag stitches that can stretch as the fabric stretches, and not over-stretching the fabric.
17. Directional Print
A directional print is a fabric where the printed pattern has an obvious top and bottom. This means it might look funny if certain parts of the garment have the print upside down (or sideways if the fabric were used crosswise). Some patterns make note of this in the yardage requirements, but you will need to take the directional print into account when buying material, often buying a little extra for pattern placement. And then you will need to lay all pattern pieces in the same direction for consistency in the finished garment.
18. Non-directional Print
A non-directional print is a printed fabric that has no obvious top and bottom to the pattern. It looks the same no matter which way you turn it. This allows for greater flexibility when laying pattern pieces and pattern matching.
Each printed fabric has a core pattern that repeats over and over across the width and length of the fabric. The repeat is the vertical and/or horizontal size of that core pattern, measured in inches until it begins again.
Repeats can be important when doing pattern matching, such as piecing drapery panels. As well, if you were using a medallion-like design, with the medallion cut out for a pair of pillows, you would need to buy enough fabric for 2 full repeats. Otherwise you might end up with a partial medallion on your pillow.
The drape of a fabric means how it falls when it’s hanging from its own weight. A stiffer fabric might not drape nicely, forming pointy corners, while a less stiff fabric falls in a beautiful, flowing drape.
Obviously, drape has an impact on the shape of garments and how flattering they are on your body. Therefore, you will need to consider the drape of the fabric required for a sewing pattern when making your fabric selection. Patterns will often include recommendations that take into account the weight, and stiffness required for the pattern, as well as drape.
Nap refers to the visual texture of fabric fibres. Certain fabrics have raised fibres (or pile) that align in particular ways. It also means that they can look different depending on the angle that you view them from. For example, flannel and flannelette have nap, which gives them their soft and fuzzy texture. Corduroy and velvet are some other common fabrics with nap, and if you brush your hand across them you can see how the light hits differently across sections where the nap goes different ways.
With corduroy, velvet and other napped fabrics, you will need to determine the direction of the nap and make sure to place all your pattern pieces with their tops in the same direction (so the nap is all in the same direction). Otherwise you might end up with a pair of corduroy pants with one leg looking entirely different than the other just because the nap goes in the opposite direction and the light hits it differently.
To read about how I adore backing my felts with flannel, check out the post: Backing Quilts with Flannel – the Cozier, Better Choice.
Anatomy of Fabric: 21 Tops Terms
Having a good understanding of these 21 Anatomy of Fabric terms will help you to make smarter decisions when shopping for fabric and sewing up your projects.
I want to hear from you. Did you know all of these anatomy of fabric terms? Are there any that are still confusing or you have questions about? Are there any that you feel I’ve missed? Let me know in the comments below.
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All the best,