Sewing Tips: What is Selvage, Bias and Grain?

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Sometimes fancy words are used in an online sewing tutorial or in store bought patterns.
And unless you’ve heard them used before……they probably sound like a big ‘ol mess.  And may really frustrate you.  Uggh.
So, just to get a few very common sewing terms out of the way,
here’s another little ‘sewing tips’ post to add to the collection.
(Remember, you can click here to view the other ‘sewing tips’ tutorials I have done in the past.)
**And I have also jotted down notes of many of your questions that you asked in the last ‘sewing tips’ post.  I will try to answer as many as I can, in upcoming ‘sewing tips’ posts.
First off, what is selvage?
According to Wikipedia, “The selvage (US English) or selvedge (British English) is the term for the self-finished edges of fabric.  The selvages keep the fabric from unraveling or fraying.”
Often times, the fabric designer and company are printed right along the selvage…..making it easier to remember what type of fabric you bought.  So if someone falls in love with something you’ve made and wants to know where you got that darling fabric, just take a peek at your selvage.
In most fabric stores, you will find fabric folded in half lengthwise and then wound around a bolt.  And then you’ll see rows and rows of bolts of fabric.  When the fabric store cuts fabric for you, they will cut you off a piece that is perpendicular to the selvage.  So you will will always have a selvage along both sides of your piece of fabric.
Now, what is the fabric grain?
Grain is the way the fabric is woven or knit together.  If you look really closely at the polka dot fabric below, there are little threads that run parallel and perpendicular to the selvage.  This is the grain of the fabric.
If you cut right along the threads of fabric that are running perpendicular to the selvage, you will get a straight line……and will make a nice 90 degree angled corner.  In fact, sometimes the print of the fabric (like stripes) are printed onto the fabric a little crooked and will not run exactly perpendicular or parallel to the selvage.  But if you look closely, the grain still will……….and you can use that as a guide.
And even though knits are woven, they still have a grain to them.
And finally, what is the bias?
According to about.com, the “bias grain is the thread line that is at a forty five degree angle to the lengthwise and crosswise grain of the fabric as it is on the bolt”.
So if you have a piece of fabric laying down flat, and your selvage is along the bottom……..
Then you can fold edge of the fabric on the left, down to the selvage edge, creating a diagonal fold.
If you cut right along that diagonal fold, you are cutting on the bias……or a 45 degree angle to the selvage.

Then if you cut a parallel cut next to the original cut, you can create a strip of fabric cut on the bias.  (Just keep cutting it to make it as long as you need.)

So if you look closely, you can see that the grain of fabric is cut off at a 45 degree angle all along the diagonal edge.
And why do we care if the fabric is cut on the bias or not? Well, fabric cut on the bias actually has more give/stretch to it.  If you hold a square piece of cotton fabric in your hands and pull along both selvage sides away from each other in your hands, your fabric won’t stretch at all.  But if you pull along two opposite corners, or along the bias, the fabric will stretch just a bit.
When do we use fabric that’s cut on the bias? Well, sometimes you’ll need little strips of bias cut fabric to finish off a quilt (like I did here), an apron (like I did here), or you can even use them to make strips of un-hemmed ruffles…..because bias cut fabric doesn’t fray much and then you don’t have to hem the edge of the fabric.  (But that depends on if you like the look of a raw edge or not.)
Have you heard of Bias Tape?  Or seen it at the fabric store? It’s just strips of fabric cut on the bias like shown above, but then the edges are folded in once or twice towards the center.
They’re usually found in little packages of varying widths and colors at the fabric store.
Image source.
Bias tape gives and curves nicely as you use it along curved unfinished edges……whereas strips cut along the grain will pucker and bulge.  You can use bias tape as apron or dress straps too…..or even as a fun decorative edges on something.
And that’s about it for today.  These are all questions that I receive here and there.  Mostly from people who are wondering what in the world I’m talking about when I use the terms Selvage, Grain or Bias.
So I hope this helps.
And if you have any other tips or additional thoughts regarding this post, please feel free to leave a comment.
Now, get that sewing machine out and feel confident with those sewing instructions.

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Filed under Sewing, Sewing Tips

Comments

128 Responses to “Sewing Tips: What is Selvage, Bias and Grain?”
  1. 1
    Anita says:

    Thank you!

  2. 2
    jehan says:

    Thank You!! Much needed information for someone who is really interested in sewing, but gets confused!! This would be me, lol!

  3. 3
    JulieBGreen says:

    Reading a pattern can be like reading a foreign language! Which then in turn makes you feel like some kind of moron who can't sew! Thanks for the easy to understand tips!

    • 3.1
      Linda says:

      Julie, I’ve been sewing for almost 60 years (I was only 3 months old at the time, of course…lol), and I still find myself looking at the pattern as a whole and thinking “I can never do this.” The important thing is to only look at one step at a time. FORCE yourself to do this if you must, because it will save your sanity! If you feel like a moron, ignore that feeling…..you’re really just confused…..8-)

      xo Linda

  4. 4
    OrloSubito says:

    than you so much!!!!

  5. 5
    GloriousMyth says:

    Thanks!

  6. 6
    Paula says:

    Thank you very much; this helps a lot!

  7. 7
    ——>Katie Bolinger says:

    I remember these terms from when I was a kid and my aunt tried to teach me to sew. It didn't take and now I want to learn again this was a great primer thanks.

  8. 8
    Beth Eaton says:

    I am a sewer but not an avid sewer and I never knew what the bias was! Thanks! It all makes sense now!!

  9. 9
    I♥naptime w/ Chocolate Sundaes says:

    awesome post! thanks for this… I was still always a little confused about the bias.

  10. 10
    Sara Lou says:

    Thank you, I claim to be able to sew but I never understood those "technical" terms nor was I able to fully use my sewing abilities until now. People tried to teach me, even way back in sewing class during high school, but this was the best explanation to make it simple and straightforward without going over my head. Yay, thanks again!

  11. 11
    Stephanie C. says:

    Thanks so much for the tips!

    Stephanie@ Redberrycrafts.blogspot.com

  12. 12
    Gale W says:

    Thank you very much, it makes more sense now. I'll go look at the other tips.

  13. 13
    melissa says:

    Love the sewing tips! What does nap mean? Like if a pattern calls for any fabric with nap? I've asked a couple other people and just got confused!

    • 13.1
      Gloria Stuart says:

      I think nap is a pattern. Say if you are sewing with fabric that has flowers on it, then that is sewing with a nap. I think. Nap is some kind of design in your fabric.

      • 13.1.1
        Natalie says:

        From About.com:
        “Definition: A fabric with nap is one what usually has a pile and will look different shades from different angles. Velvet and velour fabric are prime examples of fabric with nap. When cutting out fabric the with nap and the without nap directions are usually different to allow all of the with nap pattern pieces to lie in the same direction. Fabric with a one way design will also use the with nap cutting layout.”

        From Wikipedia:
        “Primarily, nap is the raised (fuzzy) surface on certain kinds of cloth, such as velvet. Nap can refer additionally to other surfaces that look like the surface of a napped cloth, such as the surface of a felt or beaver hat.”

        And from Wiki Answers:
        “a fabric with a textured surface that looks different depending on how it is viewed or positioned. Faux furs, velour, velvet, suedes (real and synthetics), and some fleeces have a nap.

        Read more: http://wiki.answers.com/Q/What_is_a_napped_fabric#ixzz26CtF3CFL

        Hope that helps!

    • 13.2
      Alana says:

      Nap is a fabric either like velour where when tou touch it one way its rough and the other smooth. Or it can refer to a fabric that has a pattern where say horses on it only go one way. It means to have to have more fabric because if not, some of your finished product will have horses upside down if not cut the right direction. I hope that makes sense.

  14. 14
    ppags says:

    I am still wondering if bias tape is always necessary. I have seen tutorials use bias tape for straps of aprons or garments. Can a strip cut along the grain and folded in do the job as well? The reason I ask is because fabric cut on bias always ends up with lot more scraps than cut along the grain. Thanks in advance.

    • 14.1
      VJBunny says:

      Hi ppags
      I too think so but as Ashley pointed out if we cut along grain it will bulge and one thing you can do is cut several bais strips using small cloth and join them together you will get good length of bias strip.. Thats what I have observed tailors do…

      @Ashley lovely tutorial… Hope to learn sewing from your blog… Thank You very much

  15. 15
    Jaderbomb says:

    Once I found bias tape, I fell in LOVE!!! Thanks for all of the great tips!!

  16. 16
    Bailey says:

    Thank you so much for this information. I'm sharing with my quilting group because some of us are very new to sewing and could use these definitions/examples. Thanks for sharing!

  17. 17
    Scrappy Gifts says:

    so helpful! Maybe I can try a pattern out someday now.

  18. 18
    Marlie @ Crafting, Cooking, and Cats says:

    Thanks! I'm getting ready to do my first project. I need to just bite the bullet and do it but I'm kind of scared. lol

    • 18.1
      Charlotte says:

      I feel exactly the same way!!! Once both kids are in school in the fall full time I am going to just have to bite the bullet too!!
      Tutorials like this one are wonderful and so easy to understand!!

  19. 19
    kk says:

    any chance you could post about how to alter women's pants, particularly from the inside seam?

    your tutorials are super helpful.:) i can't find anything anywhere that doesn't just say, 'take your pants, pinch an inch and sew…' which i tried, about 5 times, and ruined a pair of pants as this never worked.

  20. 20
    Cindy says:

    Wow, things make so much more sense now!

  21. 21
    Mrs. Patrick says:

    just went back and read ALL of them and loved every one! These are great tips and the photos really helped me out lol I am such a visual learner! Just wanted to say thanks

  22. 22
    Justin and Allison says:

    How helpful! Thank you so much! I've never really understood those terms, but now I think I do. :)

  23. 23
    Deanna says:

    FABULOUS!!! Where were you when I had to teach a bunch of ladies in my ward about this! LOL! WAY TO GO!

  24. 24
    Anne Magee says:

    Now if I could just get over my fear of using my sewing machine… ;) Great tutorial! Thank you!

  25. 25
    Ruthie says:

    thank goodness for blogs with pictures which usually helps when they throw these terms out to you…and thanks for Make it & Love it:)
    Ruthie:)
    SA TX

  26. 26
    Zerique says:

    this does help. thanks!

  27. 27
    Rockin Rosenau's says:

    I have to thank you for posting this,it was very helpful to me.I can sew some pretty nice things.but when it comes to the lingo of sewing i don't always know what things mean.thanks a bunch.

  28. 28
    Liberty says:

    Great!! THanks! I'm so glad I found you blog and am following you now. :)

  29. 29
    Heidi Ferguson says:

    The first couple of times I tried to make a bias binding it was a horrible time. Finally I found a way to do it that is a little confusing but once you get it is a great way to make a TON of binding that is cut on the bias. Here is the tutorial I made for it:

    http://www.honeybearlane.com/2010/08/making-binding-tutorial.html

    I love your sewing tutorials!

  30. 30
    jacs says:

    Thanks for explaining those. I just purchased my very first sewing machine (well, second…but I broke the first one before I really could ever use it) and have had a problem with 'bird-nesting' in the bobbin that goes underneath. I just don't get what I'm doing wrong. I have gone through several times to make sure I've got everything up top where it is supposed to be…that it's tightened and whatnot…but it still does it. Any tips? I'm kind of at a standstill here.

  31. 31
    Jamie says:

    An important thing about grain is to follow the grainlines on your pattern (the line with the arrows at the top and bottom) because fabric does have some give in one direction and if you do not follow the grain/grainline, your garment or project may stretch and be wonky and not look right.
    Reading a pattern IS a foreign language!

  32. 32
    Lori says:

    I've been sewing a few years and you made some things clear, thank you!

  33. 33
    elesa says:

    I just want to know where you got that fabric. My tiny little Joann's does not have fabric that cute. Where can I find some?

  34. 34
    caleefille says:

    Thanks, this DOES help so much! Really easy to understand for a novice. Thanks for compiling the great descriptions and visuals :-)

  35. 35
    ShannonSews says:

    Thank you for that great info! As I've discovered, sewing is a new language. Your tips really help!

  36. 36
    Tera Larsen says:

    Thank you so much for this post! I'm actually getting ready to attempt my first ever quilt for my son's birthday and this has already helped a ton!

  37. 37
    Amber says:

    That is just wonderful! I have been trying to figure that out for a while now, and you made it so I actually understand it.Thank you so much!

  38. 38
    Ashley says:

    Elesa –

    I have purchased that fabric from all different places…..but here is a rundown of what types they are:

    The orange damask is: Joel Dewberry, rose damask in orange

    The blue polka dot is: Michael Miller, Ta Dot

    The red polka dot is: Amy Butler, Lotus Full Moon Polka Dot Cherry

    The Black fabric I got at Hobby Lobby

    The Green was a clearance fabric at WalMart

    Hope that helps!
    Ashley

  39. 39
    Misty says:

    I just found your blog today and I'm in love :). Plus, I used that black/grey with hint of red fabric in the top pic of the post for my girly's christmas dress. <3

  40. 40
    Anonymous says:

    Thank you!! You make everything so simple to understand! Now I feel more confident to enter the world of sewing!

  41. 41
    Ihilani says:

    It's like the clouds have parted! Thank you for that simple, easy to understand explanation!

  42. 42
    Sugar Mama says:

    A few weeks ago I won a nice sewing machine, hoping to learn how to sew fun stuff for our home I jumped right in. But it isn’t coming to me as quickly as it has for other women… so these tutorials are awesome! I really appreciate your taking the time to post them. For newbies like me that are hands on learners this is perfect!

  43. 43
    April says:

    That is the first time I have understood what the terms bias and grain ACTUALLY mean. I had an idea, but just couldn’t wrap my head all the way around it until now. THANK YOU so much for a detailed, yet simple, explanation. I will be much happier in my sewing now.

  44. 44
    Sharon says:

    Thank God for the internet. I finally understand how to locate the grain!!!! I will read the rest of the articles.

  45. 45
    Christina says:

    You are wonderful!!

  46. 46
    Julie says:

    LOVE it! I am going to attempt making a carseat cover for my daughter following your directions. With little experience with a sewing machine, this should be fun..lol! Thanks so much for sharing this info! It was extremely helpful!

  47. 47
    Sydney says:

    Thank you so much for such an informative article! I have always wanted to try using Bias Tape, and now, I feel I can! :) It’s always scared me away.

  48. 48
    Cathie Sotelo says:

    Thank you . You did a great job explaining the selvage. What a wonderful website you have made. Keep up the good work.
    Cathie

  49. 49
    Brenda Kirk says:

    I was having trouble deciding whether to cut my border on the bias or not, and this has answered my question for me. Thank you for the help. This is my first quilt, and I have been working on it for months and picking up tips along the way, but it has not been the easiest because I started out winging it, without much thought about how to do it. I have finally finished up the blocks today, and am ready to start the borders to join them, but not knowing how to bind it, I came to my favorite source of tips..and thank you; I found the info I needed…Thanks again
    brenda

  50. 50
    Liz GRYLLS says:

    Is my computer playing up or is there no text on this blog entry?

  51. 51
    tskovronek says:

    NO one ever so clearly explained these three terms. Well done!

  52. 52
    Tammy Amuan says:

    I really like your plain & simple approach to defining terms in the “layman” terminology LOL I also appreciate you bunching the words up together to give definitions where they are interrelated to one another when actually sewing :) BIG HELP FOR ME!

  53. 53
    SG says:

    I began sewing not too long ago and was glad to read these instructions. Good info and very clear to me.
    Thanks,

  54. 54
    Mimi says:

    Thank you!!!

  55. 55
    Charlotte says:

    Thanks so much for this information and the wonderful pictures that accompany it!! I am really apprehensive about sewing even though I really want to learn and having this blog makes it seem a little more attainable!! :)

  56. 56
    Kristina Noall says:

    I know this is an old post, but I was just skipping around–I do have one suggestion for this post, about bias tape. I learned the hard way that when you make your own, it’s a good idea to spray it with starch before ironing it (to create the folds that will go around the edges of your project). Before I did that, it didn’t stay creased, flopped all over, and was utterly frustrating. Use spray starch, and lots of it!

    • 56.1
      Shai'ma says:

      Wow! I was just looking at this today too. I’ve been sewing for years, have a project that needs red piping and all the red i’ve found is “to red” So I am going to make it myself. Thanks for the spraystarch tip.

  57. 57
    Teresa says:

    That is simply the BEST explanation I have ever had on selvage, grain, and bias. My sister, an accomplished quilter, has explained it to me at least 20 times and I still didn’t get it. And now, as I’m trying to make a costume for my daughter … voila! You provide me with a straightforward visual example and explanation of what they all mean. Thank you SO much! (I really didn’t want to try to ask her again! LOL)

  58. 58
    Laura says:

    That’s very well explained. English is not my mother tongue and when I read word like “bias” ,”selvage”… I wasn’t very sure I had really understood. Thank you!

  59. 59
    Carol-O says:

    Awesome!! I have a brain injury and haven’t done any sewing in a while. Looking for a creative project I bought fabric & pattern, organized them and panic! The brain injury will cause me to look into my knowledge for things I know and find uncertainty where confidence should be. Thank God I found you to clarify my thoughts and confirm that I do in fact know what I thought I knew. hehehe You rock.

  60. 60
    Alison says:

    What an excellent post! This helps me tons!!

  61. 61
    brenda says:

    Thanks

  62. 62
    Meaghan says:

    Thank you!!!!!!!!

  63. 63
    Jennifer says:

    Thanks for this info.. I’m a “learn as I do” with sewing and this info was much needed.. :)

  64. 64
    Callie says:

    Thanks so much this helped so much I am. Making my first dress!

  65. 65
    Callie says:

    Thanks I’m making my first dress ever.

  66. 66
    Janice says:

    Hi Ashley,

    What a great teacher! Supportive, informative and most importantly — explain everything so clearly and simply that a novice, like me, can understand every word AND get so much confidence.

    Thank you Miss Ashley.

    I plan to read these notes over and over until I don’t need to keep referring to them each time I am working on a project.

    Thank you — so sweet of you to share your expertise.

  67. 67
    Cristina says:

    Well, just so you know that your information is still extremely useful, here I am to tell you. I was getting completely confused! You have certainly cleared things up. I am making a bimini (a sunshade) for my dinghy (one of those little 10′ inflatable boats with a seat and a motor) and I wanted to put a bindery along the edges. I am using the old bimini as the pattern but it was made with a vinyl and I can’t tell how the bindery was cut. I see now that it should be cut on the grain as it will act as a stabilizer at the edge so it doesn’t stretch out of shape. Gosh, I hope I got that right!! I am VERY grateful!!! Keep your site up. I’m sure there will be more like me coming along! :)

  68. 68
    Marlene M says:

    I am a novice at sewing, only really doing it for a few months. I am making a project for a contest and wanted to make raw edge ruffles. I was pretty sure that cutting on the bias would work, but I had a hard time finding anything that would say that. Now I know it is safe to proceed! Thank you.

  69. 69
    Erica says:

    Thank you so much for this information. I am super new to sewing and trying to learn as much as I can and it is not easy—it is all so overwhelming but fun too. I really appreciate this because I have heard of bias not never understood what it means.

  70. 70

    Thank you for these tips! I am starting a project and using pattern. I had no idea what a selvage or grain was and was feeling a little in over my head! I was happy to find this post:)

    Nicole @ HoldtheOffice.com

  71. 71
    Anonymous says:

    Thanks working on a pattern and helped a bunch

  72. 72
    renjini says:

    Thank you for the tips…I am new to stitching.. and I want to know, how can we adjust the seam length in the sewing machine?? please tell me…

    • 72.1
      Sarah says:

      It depends on the machine you have, so check the manual to be sure, but on my machine, stitch length is adjusted by a knob on the front of a machine. The length of a seam, though, is up to the sewer, not the machine. Seaming is sewing two pieces of fabric together, so it really depends on the length of the sides of fabric to be joined. You just pin two edges together and use the machine to stitch a seam as long or short as you like, using the pedal to power the machine. Your hands feed the material in to the needle area while your foot presses the pedal.

  73. 73
    Sarah says:

    Thank you, very helpful ;)

  74. 74
    fireboy says:

    I’m making a black fleece skull cap, using 200 wt fleece. It stretches fairly
    good. I want to use a stretch material and make my own bias tape for this cap.

    Can someone tell me what stretch fabric to get to make the bias tape out of?

  75. 75
    Alana says:

    Nap is a fabric either like velour where when tou touch it one way its rough and the other smooth. Or it can refer to a fabric that has a pattern where say horses on it only go one way. It means to have to have more fabric because if not, some of your finished product will have horses upside down if not cut the right direction. I hope that makes sense.

  76. 76
    Judy says:

    Can I use the selvege for sewing when I need it for my seam allowance?

  77. 77
    beverly says:

    hello ! i know this is an older blog post, but i found it via a google search when inquiring what “cut on the bias” means. thanks so much for explaining it so clearly. :) nice blog – i do not sew, but was curious about the “bias phrase,” as i once had a dress altered, and the seamstress mentioned it was “cut on the bias.” i’ve always wondered what the relevance was, and finally found out, thanks to you. have a great week !

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