Fabric Anatomy

Let’s begin by identifying the anatomy of a piece of woven fabric.  Fabric generally has two vertical edges and two horizontal edges as it is woven on the loom.

The vertical edges are tight and have an overcast type construction.   These edges are referred to as the selvage.  The selvage will not unravel and usually draws up when laundered.  Most clothing construction and home dec projects require removing the selvage edges before completing the finished item.

The horizontal edges will unravel.  When yardage is cut from a bolt of fabric, the fabric is cut across the horizontal edges.

When fabric is woven, the loom is threaded with long, staple threads that are strong.  These threads are referred to as the warp threads.  A shuttle moves back and forth to weave the threads to create the fabric.  The shuttle thread is referred to as the weft thread.  The weft thread moves from side to side and is woven through the warp threads in various patterns.  When the shuttle comes to the sides of the loom, it is woven over the end warp threads on both sides of the cloth, creating the selvage. 

The width of the fabric is determined by the number of warp threads that are initially threaded on the loom.   The width of fabric varies from cloth to cloth, but the average width is generally between 32 and 45 inches.   

The length of the fabric is determined by the length of the warp threads and the number of weaving weft threads, which may be hundreds of yards of fabric.   The length of the fabric will not exceed the length of the warp threads.  The weft threads may be tied multiple times in order to have sufficient threads to complete the weaving process.  These tiny joins are not visible in good quality fabric.

As a rule, the manufacturer cuts the cloth into manageable pieces, folds the fabric in half lengthwise, and then wraps the yardage onto cardboard holders.  This is referred to as a bolt of fabric.  These bolts are then shipped to fabric stores, where customers may purchase any length desired.  The average bolts contain between 10 and 30 yards of fabric.  Of course, there are exceptions to all these measurements, depending on the manufacturer and the type of fabric.

The ends of the cardboard bolt, on which the fabric is wrapped, carries vital information.  Not all bolts carry the same data.  Below is a list of the most common items found on the bolt ends.  In the parenthesis next to each item is an example of the type of information that might be listed.

  • Name of the Manufacturer (Robert Kaufman Fabrics)
  • Manufacturer Location (Made in USA)
  • Name of the Fabric (Vintage America)
  • Color of Fabric (Sea Breeze and Ivory)
  • Fabric Content  (50% Cotton/50% Polyester)
  • Fabric Width (43-44 inches)
  • Care Instructions (machine wash warm, tumble dry low, cool iron)
  • Number of Yards on the Bolt (YDS – 14.5)
  • Local Fabric Store Label (name of store and price per yard)
  • Shrinkage (10%)

It is important to learn to read the bolt ends before purchasing any fabric.  If a fabric is marked “dry clean only”, it may not be suitable for a play dress or everyday wear.  Many fabrics that are listed as 100% cotton also have a shrinkage warning on the bolt end.   If a fabric is marked with 10% shrinkage, that means it could lose up to 3.6 inches on each yard length and up to 4.5 inches in width.  As a rule, most quality fabrics today do not have a high shrinkage percentage, but it is something to watch and be aware.  If a shrinkage amount is listed, be sure to buy extra yardage for the project.

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