When you’re setting up a hand embroidery project, the way you cut your fabric makes a big difference in the outcome!
The concept I’m discussing here – fabric grain – applies to any woven fabric, but when it comes to cutting on the grain, I’m demonstrating working specifically with linen that has a visible weave.
First, it’s important to understand the terminology and the basics on the structure of fabric. In the diagram above, the brown woven area represents a piece of fabric. When the fabric comes off the bolt, there are two sides of the fabric called the “selvage” running perpendicular to the bolt, establishing the width of the fabric. The threads in the fabric that run parallel to the selvage are the warp threads. These are the threads that are set up on the loom before weaving begins, running the length of the piece of fabric, into which the weft threads (perpendicular to the warp threads) are woven. The warp and weft threads are perpendicular to each other, and they establish the “grain” of the fabric. The warp threads are the lengthwise grain and the weft threads are the crosswise grain. When cutting diagonally across the warp and weft threads, you are cutting “on the bias.”
When fabric is cut along the warp and weft threads, it is said to be cut “on the grain,” and when you set up a surface embroidery project, it is very helpful (and ensures a better outcome) if your fabric is cut “on the grain.” When fabric is cut across the grain or on the bias, it is stretchier, and your embroidery project may end up warped and wrinkled if the fabric is cut on the bias. Yes, you can stitch on the bias – but if you cut on the bias and try to set up a project cut on the bias, you will not have “squared up” fabric – you’ll have something sort of stretchy and and your framed project can end up out of whack.
So, how to cut linen on the grain…
Measure the length of your fabric and take a little snip on the edge of the fabric to mark the size. Next to the snip, pick out the first thread of the linen. If you’re right handed, you’ll want to cut to the right of this one thread, and if you’re left handed, you’ll want to cut to the left of this one thread.
Hold onto the thread, and cut along the edge of that thread, holding onto that thread as you go. The thread will release from the fabric as you cut along the side of it. If you have a very long bit of fabric to cut, cut along this thread for about four inches, until you have a good length of that thread loose. Make sure you’re cutting right next to that thread and following the grain of the fabric. You’ll be cutting between two threads of fabric – the one you’re pulling on as you cut, and the one on the other side of the scissors.
Once you’ve cut about four inches into the fabric, you’ll have a good four inch loose thread along your cut.
Now, you could use your finger to do this part, but I like to use a block of beeswax, because after a while, this can really hurt! If you’re cutting a lot of fabric, and you use a finger for this part, you can develop the equivalent of mini rope burns, and repeating the process frequently, the thread can eventually cut right into your skin.
Trust me. I know from experience! Please let me save you some pain!
But if you’re just cutting out one small piece of linen, your finger will work fine. But if you’re pulling out very long threads along the grain, or cutting out many pieces of linen, find something that you can wrap the thread around other than your finger! A stick of beeswax like the one above works great – though the thread cuts a little ways into it, the wax really holds onto the thread.
Wrap the loose fabric thread around the block of beeswax, and, pulling the thread straight out in the direction the thread runs (and keeping the beeswax as close to the surface of the fabric as possible so you’re not pulling up at an angle), gently pull (don’t tug!) on the thread until you feel it start to give.
If you’re working with a good linen, the threads will be strong, and they will stand up to the pulling without snapping.
Pulling on the thread will make it very visible across the surface of the linen. You can clearly see the pulled thread in the photo above. Now, you can do one of two things. You can either cut along that visible thread (the thread has made a clear line for you and acts as a good guide for cutting), or you can keep gently pulling. If the fabric begins to gather up a bit, stop pulling and gently work the gathers out until the fabric isn’t puckered. This will move the thread further out. Once you feel the thread really start to give, you can pull a little more, until the whole thread starts moving smoothly out of the fabric. Pull the whole thread out, and you have an even more visible line along which to cut easily and quickly.
Once you’ve cut your fabric in one direction, do your perpendicular cuts the same way, right along one thread of the fabric.
In this way, you can ensure that your fabric is cut straight on the grain, that it’s exactly the size you want, and that it will square up well when the embroidery is finished!
This is how I cut 5 yards of linen into project-sized pieces. One mangled block of beeswax later, I had 145 pieces of linen, cut perfectly on the grain. It’s the best method I know of for achieving a clean cut on the grain with linen, without any waste.
If you know of another way to cut linen on the grain, feel free to share your tips below!