I get this question a lot, and I have somewhat of a controversial view on this topic. Many people are confused by the seemingly contradictory messages of being told to cut using lengthwise (LW) grain, and then watching the experts demonstrate time after time using crosswise (WOF) grain.
I don’t want to say this is the definitive post on the topic, but I’ve been asked many times to elaborate on my stance when it comes to the usage of grain when die cutting.
The most recent question on this came from someone in the AccuQuilt and Beyond Facebook Group, when she asked:
Just got the 2.5″ strip die. The directions seem contradictory. On one part of the package it says to always try to make lengthwise cuts for best accuracy (less stretching). But the instructions for using the die say to cut 8″ sections across the width (which gives you somewhat stretchy strips). Which is it? I’ve sewn for years but just started quilting. I’m assuming that jelly rolls are cut across the width, right? So do they stretch when you sew them together? Forgive the newbie question. I’ll come up to speed quickly!
There were a couple of responses already written, but then someone asked me to chime in. I started to write a response, and then it got too long, so I decided to write a blog post about it to make it a bit of an easier read. (And for the record, don’t apologize for asking questions. It’s a smart thing to do.)
First up: any die can be cut any way you want. Your accuracy is going to depend on a number of factors. Fabric, because it is woven, will stretch to different degrees and in different ways depending on how you cut it.
This isn’t an issue unique to die cutting: this is an issue about fabric in general, and you would encounter these issues regardless of whether you rotary cut, die cut, or hand-cut. To answer the specific questions, yes jelly rolls are cut WOF, and yes they will stretch if you stitch them together, especially if you just line them up, let them drag on the floor, leave the selvages on, and take a speed-demon approach to stitching them together. Oh and of course stepping on them on your way to the pressing station. 🙂 (All things I have done!)
The thing is, this isn’t a “which way” kind of question with a definitive yes or no “do it this way” answer. It depends.
The goal when cutting is to use the properties of the fabric to your advantage based on the end result you are trying to achieve. For example, bias binding is the “best” because it results in the strongest & longer-lasting binding, but few people go to the trouble to only ever use bias binding. Most people (including me) find WOF binding perfectly adequate, and are likely to use it 95% of the time.
The only times I use bias binding are for quilts that I know in advance will be washed a TON (like baby quilts) or for fabrics that I want to get a certain look (like stripes – I love making bias binding from striped fabric.)
Hard and fast rules are great but knowing when and where to break them is better. I try not to use the words “always” and “never” and “only” and “must” in my quilting. 🙂
Where die-cut shapes are concerned, if you don’t want to deal with thinking ahead to how a shape will appear in a block, or how a strip is going to be used, then having a rule like “always have the selvage to your belly” – or as I like to call it “fuzzy navel” – works most of the time.
We typically cut strips along WOF because: it’s easy to plan yardage that way, most quilting cottons with directional prints run them WOF, most patterns are written using WOF, and pre-cuts are generally cut WOF. Our entire industry is geared toward WOF, and yet the lengthwise grain provides the best stability, especially for borders and sashings.
So why do we cut WOF when we know it’s going to stretch?
It’s always going to be a trade off: do you deal with a little stretch, or do you re-figure the fabric requirements? Do you need a little stretch, because you might need to do some easing? Are you cutting rectangles, and need the stability of lengthwise grain? Are you using a pattern and trying to follow the directions exactly? Do you have a directional print, and want that print running a certain direction in your quilt?
As a pattern writer, I also have an additional challenge. There are so many variations in die layouts that I’d go bonkers trying to account for LW yardage based on all the different dies. Some dies have more repeats on them than others, or have the shapes nested differently, making LW cuts difficult to account for. (I don’t write patterns for only one die cutting system – I write patterns that are inclusive of all systems, so this is a bigger issue for me than say Alex Anderson writing a pattern using only her GO! dies.)
Some dies are small enough that they can be turned and run through the cutter at 90-degrees to account for LW cuts, if you happened to cut your fabric WOF.
Closed shapes like squares will have more issues with distortion than open shapes, like strip dies. That’s because with a strip, you’re stretching in the same direction of your cut, which doesn’t impact the dimension you care about – how wide the strip is. But a closed square that stretches during the cut is more of an issue because with blades on all four sides, the fabric gets cut during the stretch and relaxes afterward – making the cut inaccurate.
I think the dies with stiffer foam also contribute to this WOF stretch, so we compensate by cutting with LW grain or by reducing the number of layers to eliminate some of the distortion of shapes when cutting. There are just too many variables.
A general rule of thumb is: try to use LW grain when it is practical to do so. When cutting strips, think about how those strips are going to be used, and decide accordingly:
- If you’re cutting them into squares, cut them WOF first, then turn them 90-degrees and cut them again. This second cut will be along the LW grain and so it keeps the square stable for that final cut.
- If you’re cutting rectangles, cut the largest measurement first WOF. Then, turn them 90-degrees and cut them again. This keeps the long dimension on the LW grain. It sounds goofy, but it’s true.
- If you’re cutting for borders and sashing, and you have enough fabric to do so, cut them on the LW grain. That can mean re-folding your fabric so the grain is running LW. If you don’t have enough fabric to get full borders LW, you may need to piece them.
- If you don’t have enough fabric for LW borders, or doing so would introduce too many seams, go ahead and cut WOF and just make sure you measure, measure, measure, and pin, pin, pin, and be mindful not to stretch or distort your units as your attach these WOF strips to your quilt.
- If you have a directional print, and you care about the direction, cut in whatever way you need to to get the result you want. You may need to use more pins and be more mindful of how you handle the pieces, but you can even assemble bias-cut squares if you’re careful enough. Starch is your friend.
- If you need to use WOF but the stretching of your fabric is too much, reduce your layers. The less pressure on the fabric during the cut, the less it will tend to stretch.
- If there is room on your cutter’s bed, angle your die so that there are no blades parallel to the roller.
I’ll be honest: LW grain for me is usually more trouble than I’m willing to spend recalculating yardage for my cuts, or changing the way I cut & write patterns to always use LW grain. If I happen to be cutting a ton of kits, like I did a couple of weeks ago cutting out 25 king sized quilts, it was worth it to me to do some calculating to use LW grain.
It wasn’t too much of an issue because I have both WOF and LW grain measurements written on my dies, and I was also cutting off of bolts of fabric, and not individual yardage so my fabric usage could be really efficient. But if I had a pattern I was trying to follow, I’d likely just cut it the way the pattern states, because the fabric requirements were based on WOF.
If you’re not following a pattern and you are doing your own thing, and the amount of fabric you have is not an issue, and you’re not dealing with directional prints, then do your best to use LW grain for your die cuts.
If you’re concerned about stretch when using WOF cuts, starch can be really handy. (It’s important to starch your yardage before you cut – especially if you don’t pre-wash your fabric – and to starch and press the whole piece of fabric before you cut so you can pre-shrink it as much as possible before cutting.)
I may add photos to this post at some point, but I wanted to get my philosophy about grain out there while it was still fresh. 🙂