A Yard of Fabric is how BIG?

August 19, 2021

Different types of fabric have different widths, usually based on what they will be used for. When purchasing fabric at the store, the length is measured in yards. What does this really mean? A yard of fabric is only referring to the length of fabric cut off of the bolt or roll. When determining how much fabric is needed for a project, read the directions well or if there are no fabric suggestions, do the math before you go to the store. I hate math, so I like to find patterns that have everything calculated for me!

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Typical fabric widths:

Quilting Cotton/Broadcloth/Flannel/etc.: 41” – 45”
Home Décor: 54”or 60”
Apparel: 60”

What is a yard, really?

A yard is 36 inches. Most of us know this from school (in the US where we are so behind in the measurement department, we need to say hello to metric!) but in fabric terms, it is the measurement used to cut a length of fabric off the bolt/roll.

REMEMBER: One yard of 60″ wide fabric will be actually be bigger than one yard of a 45″ fabric even though they are both ONE YARD. Make sure you can wrap your head around that BEFORE you go to the fabric store!

What if I want less than a yard?

When cutting fabric at the store/warehouse, it can be cut into smaller sizes than just full yards. (Some websites only allow for ½ and full yard cuts, be prepared.) Here is a handy chart showing what the fractions of a yard equals in inches (imperial) and centimeters (metric). It is sometimes hard to visualize without a ruler/tape measure in front of you.

To calculate: Get decimal by dividing fraction’s numerator (top number) by denominator (bottom number). Multiply that number by 36 to determine inches. Multiply the number of inches by 2.54 to calculate centimeters.
Click here for your thread bunching solution guide

How is the fabric cut at the store?

Some stores use a ruler to measure out the fabric and then cut a line across with scissors. Some even have a fancy table with a little ‘valley’ for the scissors to travel in. This looks neat and tidy, but beware of some crooked lines, especially on fabrics that stretch even the slightest bit.

Some better retailers/employees will include an extra inch or two to compensate for this, but not always. Other stores, very few that I’ve witnessed, will rip quilting cotton at the spot where it should be cut.

Why? Believe it or not, a ripped cut is straighter than a scissor cut on woven fabric. When ripping woven cotton (more accurately, a fabric weak enough to be ripped) it rips in a straight line. It looks much messier then a scissor cut, but in reality it is more accurate because the fabric rips between the individual threads of the fabric.

It’s messier because the threads on the end that was ripped tend to start fraying more easily than a scissor cut. Ironing it will help to stabilize the edge. But if you are going to prewash (you know you should, here is the info) know that those frayed ends will be one big knot when it comes out of the washing machine. Same with the scissor cut fabric, too.

You can either do a large zig-zag stitch down the cut side before washing or just deal with it. I usually just deal with it. Understanding of course that I’m losing a few thread widths of fabric length. Those knots are the threads that should be making up the edge of the cut fabric, instead they have to be cut off just to make the good fabric measurable for the project.

This is a personal decision and I will let you come to your own conclusion. I don’t like either way, but I see no other way around it! 

What is the usable size of cut fabric?

After dealing with the cut edges and straightening them, what is left over is what you have to work with. If you needed exactly one yard, you will be a little short due to that edge issue after pre-washing. What to do?

Round up or down?

Always round up if you need an exact amount, you will lose some to a crooked cut from the store or pre-washing tangling of the threads or just a bad measure. If you are between fractions of a yard, just round up to the next fraction or one after that.

You can always use the extra fabric for another project, to fill your scrap bin or donate to someone who wants to learn how to sew.

On the other hand if you don’t have enough, you can’t just make the fabric appear out of thin air. Chasing down the exact color dye lot at the store is also a pain in the butt, if even possible.

Buy more than you think you’ll need, you’ll never regret it. Unless of course you buy yards and yards more than you need, then you might regret it!

Do I have enough fabric?

To find out how much fabric you physically have: Remember to cut your fabric edge straight BEFORE measuring! Measure the usable length and compare it to your pattern instructions. If you have more, great! If you have less, UH OH.

Patterns will tell you what width and type fabric to purchase. They are written specifically for that type of fabric and width, using anything else will likely have undesirable results. Get a few projects under your belt before trying to switch out fabric sizes and types.

We’ll get deep into using patterns/pieces another time, but basically you need to lay out all the pieces and make sure you have enough room to cut around them. If your fabric pattern is directional, meaning it only looks good in one direction or has a nap like velvet, you’ll need more because the pieces need to be placed more carefully and spaced out to account for the pattern/nap. (Nap describes a fabric that has a third dimensional feeling to it like terry cloth or velvet. They should only go one direction. )

Click here for your thread bunching solution guide

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