Selvage and Needlework Fabric

Those of us who have sewn garments know about the importance of cutting the fabric on the straight of the grain. The straight of the grain can be either parallel to the selvages - - non-raveling woven edges - - or perpendicular to it.

Does the straight of the grain and/or the placement of the selvage matter in decorative needlework?

Yes and no.

Weaving Basics

A discussion of the straight of grain must start with weaving, for that is how the straight of grain is created.

In making fabric, a set of parallel threads is placed on the loom. Think of a person sitting at a handloom, although most fabric today is machine woven. The threads placed on the loom first are called the "warp" threads and run from the weaver's body away from it.

To make the fabric, another set of parallel threads, the "weft threads," is interwoven with the warp threads. These threads run side-to-side on the loom and are carried by the shuttle. Each weft thread goes over a warp thread and under its neighbor, and so on across. On the return journey, the weft thread goes under the warp threads over which it passed on the first trip and vice versa.

In changing directions, the shuttle must go "up and over" the last thread on each side. This causes a finished, non-raveling edge to be created; this is called the selvage.

When you buy fabric off a bolt, the cut is made from selvage to selvage (parallel to the weft threads). Therefore the cut ends of your piece are the beginning and ending of the warp threads.

To recap, the weft threads run side to side (selvage-to-selvage or "weft to right"). The warp threads run up and down (cut-end-to-cut-end).

Since the warp threads are put on the loom first, they have less "give" to them. Almost no give at all, in fact.

The weft threads, by contrast, are "stretchier" because they had to go over and under the warp threads, across the width of the fabric. All that traveling up and down makes the weft threads just a tiny bit longer.

Selvage Placement for Needlework
Does it matter whether the warp threads run top-to-bottom on the piece, just the way they did on the loom?

Short answer: it depends.

For normal cross stitch or Hardanger, no. Don't worry about whether the selvage edge is at the top/bottom or sides of the work. (Make sure, though, that the fabric is square when you mount the fabric on your scroll frame or other device.)

When doing drawn-thread work, yes. Placement of the selvage -is- important.

*The weft threads -must- run top-to-bottom on the finished piece.*

Put another way: the selvages of the fabric - - or the sides of the fabric which would have had the selvages on them - - should be *at the top and bottom of the work*.


Look at a drawn-thread area on a piece of needlework. There's a little "window" created in the fabric. Inside the window are vertical fabric threads; the horizontal ones have been removed. All around the window is "normal fabric."

When you do drawn-thread work, you do the gathering/interlacing/knotting patterns on the vertical threads inside the window (that is, on the threads running top-to-bottom of the piece).

You've probably seen poorly-done drawn-thread work. On the sides of the window, the fabric has been pulled in, creating a "waist." Unattractive. Not good technique. In excellent drawn-thread work, the fabric outside the window looks entirely undisturbed. As if that window magically appeared, and its edges magically do not ravel away.

Remember that -weft- threads have more "give" to them because they are slightly longer.

If the weft threads are the ones running top-to-bottom, their ever-so-slightly longer length will allow you to do the bundling without disturbing the "normal" threads on each side of the window. Of course, you must be very careful with your tension, and excellent drawn-thread work is very difficult to do!

Now imagine that you have warp threads running top-to-bottom. These threads are rigid by nature. If they have been drawn toward the window in the course of doing the bundling, you will have a permanent "waist" on either side of your window.

Therefore, in drawn-thread work, the weft threads -must- run vertically in the piece.

This means the selvage - - or where the selvage would have been if you had had a piece with selvage on it - - must lie at the top and bottom of the work.

And what happens if your cut piece has no selvage on it? How can you tell which is the warp and which is the weft? If you pull a thread from two adjacent edges, you'll see that one is "wavier" than the other. The wavy one is the weft thread - - the one which runs from selvage to selvage. The wavy thread must run top-to-bottom on your piece if you are doing drawn-thread work.

If your design has a vertical window rather than the more usual horizontal window, place your selvages on the sides. If your piece has both vertical and horizontal pieces (as in a piece of table linen or a dresser scarf), it's a toss up. If one window is longer than the other, place your selvage so that the longer one is at advantage.

For cross stitch, it doesn't matter where the selvage is. It only matters that you not pull your fabric out of square as you stitch it. You can ameliorate problems during the washing and blocking process, but you'll be happier with the results if your piece is kept in square during the stitching.

copyright 1998, Martha Beth Lewis
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