From finding the grain to pressing the swatch, here's what to do before you make a single stitch.

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sewing blue and white plaid fabric with sewing machine
Credit: Viktar Savanevich / EyeEm / Getty Images

All set to sew? Not so fast. Before you flip the power switch on your sewing machine, the following tips and guidelines for preparing your fabric will ensure great results.

Identify the Right and Wrong Sides of the Fabric

The side of the fabric that will face out is referred to as the right side; the other side is called the wrong side. Identifying the right and wrong side of the fabric will help you successfully cut out and sew pieces together. Many fabrics have sides that do not match. Patterned cotton, for example, may be darker on one side than on the other. Pick the side of the fabric that you want to face out, and be consistent in cutting all pattern or template pieces so that, once sewn, they face out. If you are working with fabric that looks identical on each side, such as linen or felt, it doesn't matter which side faces out.

Wash and Dry

Prewashing and drying the fabric will prevent your finished project from shrinking in the wash after it is sewn and prevent puckering along seam lines. Some fabrics have care symbols on the selvage, which is the smooth, uncut border on the left- and right-hand edges of the fabric. Other yardage will come with care instructions; if not, ask a salesperson for suggestions. Certain fabrics, such as silk, wool, and wool felt, should not be pre-washed; after sewing, dry-clean anything made from these fabrics. You don't need to prewash fabrics that will not be washed after sewing or assembling—for example, if using linen to cover a bulletin board.

Press the Fabric

Even if the wrinkles look insignificant, they will distort the fabric enough to throw off sizes and shapes when it comes time to sew. Smoothing wrinkles and creases makes it easier to cut the fabric properly.

Find the Grain

The grain of woven fabrics influences both the drape and durability of a finished project, so it's very important to identify it before you cut out pieces. Woven fabric is made up of threads that run lengthwise (warp) and crosswise (weft). To find the grain, look at the direction the fabric fibers run: The warp always runs parallel and the weft perpendicular to the selvage. Even if you can't immediately see these threads, tugging on the fabric will give you a hint. If you are tugging with the crosswise or lengthwise grain, there will be no stretch. If you tug at a 45-degree angle ("on the bias," typically from corner to corner) you'll feel the fabric stretch. Some types of patterns, particularly for clothing, are cut on the bias, which will give a garment or other project a graceful drape. Other patterns or templates are better cut with the grain. An arrow on the pattern piece will direct the pattern placement.

Pin Fabric and Patterns

Lay out your pressed fabric on a hard, flat surface. With your hands, smooth out any ripples (double-check that there are no folds or wrinkles). When pinning two pieces of fabric together, insert pins perpendicular to the stitch line, inside the seam allowance. This will prevent puckering and protect your fabric from undue tension or accidental snags. When pinning patterns to your fabric, insert pins on the diagonal in relation to the stitching lines. Cut out pattern or template pieces (with paper or all-purpose scissors, not fabric shears) before pinning. If you are using a store-bought pattern, consult the accompanying placement diagram; it will show you where on your fabric to pin the pattern pieces. (The diagram will also tell you whether your pattern pieces should be placed on the fold, or placed upside down or right-side up on the fabric.)

Cut the Fabric

Use sharp sewing shears, and make long, smooth cuts. The same goes for pinking shears—make long cuts. If you are cutting notches or clipping curves, small sewing shears cut more precisely, making them more accurate. Plus, here's a tip: The easiest way to cut a straight line in loose-weave fabric, such as linen, is to pull a few threads from the warp or weft. The resulting small gaps will provide a perfect line to use as a guide.

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