Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Grainline and Fitting

How many times have I read about the importance of the grainline for the final look of a garment and for the fit. I take extra care when marking and cutting my garments, making sure that pattern pieces are aligned with the grain of the fabric.

But once the toile, or fashion fabric (when I skipped making toile), was cut, I ignored the grain line thinking enough had been done. I usually end up making several alterations, especially, when using commercial patterns. With all the individual figure issues (uneven shoulders, etc. etc.) my fitting was based on trial-and-error approach before: pulling fabric on one side, letting out on the other…

The result? DISTORTED BALANCE!!!! The garment pulled and twisted, especially after washing.

Why marking grain lines?

Hours wasted, garments abandoned, a stash of UFOs grew because of the poor fit. Are you familiar with this scenario, dear readers? I am, unfortunately!

What helps (and it is so obvious to me now) is the careful marking of the grainlines on the toile (and on fashion fabric).

A wonderful book, Fitting & Pattern Alteration (a little bit pricey but totally worth it!) explains in detail how to use grainline to evaluate fit. The authors caution that the grainline can be difficult to recognize, especially for less experienced dressmakers. “To simplify recognizing grainline during the fitting process and in the completed garment, it is advisable to transfer pattern grainlines onto fabric pieces with a marking tool such as pencil, transfer paper, or thread, depending on the type of fabric and the use of the garment… with practice, your eye will quickly identify grain position on the body and recognize even subtle needs for adjustments.”

an example of poor fit (Ben Chmura, a Project Runway designer, was eliminated for this design)

I realized all the advantages of marking grainlines when I started with draping. It took me less time to see where I had excess fabric, or where I needed to let out more. I believe this is possible because, once you have correct placement for lengthwise grain and crossgrain markings, you work on the fitting issues on smaller portions of garments enclosed by those marking lines.

“Recognizing accuracy or error in the position of the fabric grain or marked grainlines while on the body provides clues as to the success or failure of the fit. For example, if a crosswise grain curves up or down where it should be parallel, it is due to a body bulge or hollow directly above the curve of the grain,” explains the Fitting & Pattern Alteration book.

Draping guides are very explicit about the grainline marking and its use in fitting.  And in Haute Couture this is an extensively used technique according to Claire Shaeffer who writes in her Threads article “Sew your Hautes” that “garment centers and crossgrains are thread traced to be used as guidelines during the fitting.” (Issue 141, Feb/Mar 2009)

Why haven’t I seen this advice in many sewing books. Well, it seams it is not in the same league as home sewing… Ok, I agree, thread tracing, tailor tucks, and similar, do require additional time; but, at the same time, grainline marking IS a great fitting shortcut.

So now, I diligently trace my grainlines. And, Oh, dear readers, it is such a relief! 

Where to mark?

On muslin, I mark the lines with a fineliner and, if I need them to be visible on both sides, I tread trace them, (it really depends on the complexity of design).

If the muslin fits perfectly, great, just transfer the pattern to the fashion fabric. However, the reality is that the toile fabric and the fashion fabric drape differently, and, in this case, I often thread-trace grain lines and crossgrains on fashion fabric as well. One thing to be cautious about is the needle and the thread you are using for thread tracing – they should not leave marks on your fashion fabric. If you are not sure, use a scrap fabric to try a few stitches.

So where do you want to thread-trace?


Generally, lengthwise grain markings on a pattern are a good guide, so transfer those to your fabric making sure the line is marked all the way from the top to the bottom of the garment piece.


On skirts, mark the hip line (easy one!).

On blouses, jackets and dresses, in addition to the hipline, mark the bust line, cross-chest and cross-back lines. Claire Shaeffer explains in her book Couture Sewing Techniques: “The cross-chest and cross-back lines fall at the narrowest part of the chest and at the midpoint of the armscye. The bustline falls at the base of the underarm and may not actually be at the bust point.”

For marking crossgrain on sleeves, Shaeffer recommends marking the cap line and the biceps line. “The biceps line connects the top of the underarm seam and marks the crossgrain... The capline is located on the crossgrain midway between biceps line and shoulder point.”

For pants, it is recommended to thread trace the cross grains at the crotchline and the knee. I was a little disappointed, however, to find out that there are hardly any directions on thread –tracing of cross grains in Shaeffer’s Custom Couture patterns. Only the crotchline was marked on the pattern. I guess you would have to measure the distance from the crotchline/ or waistline to your knee and mark a perpendicular to the grainline at that point.


Lengthwise grain should always remain straight and perpendicular to the floor, the cross grain should run parallel to the floor on all basic straight designs.

Claire Shaeffer explains how to fit the skirt toile (p. 107). I am quoting only the crossgrain related comments: “The crossgrain at the hipline should be parallel to the floor for several inches at the center front and back. As it approaches the side seams, this crossgrain will begin to drop on all skirts with any flare, but not any basic straight designs. On a correctly balanced skirt , the crossgrain will drop an equal amount on both sides.

For sleeves, she says (p. 137) that “when the sleeve is correctly balanced, the lengthwise grain will hang straight from the shoulder point and be perpendicular to the floor, and the crossgrain will be parallel to the floor.”

On pants, the lengthwise grain will bend softly over the curve, but going downwards, from the widest point of your hips, it should run perfectly straight. 


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