The Quilt Scout
by Mary Fons
The Fascinating Scoop On … Selvage (No, Really!)
Here’s a bonus tip! When I did my fabric line, I was rather fond of the selvage, so I made some into a bracelet. A sassy look for any quilter!I’ll never forget her.
There in a workshop in Wisconsin two weeks ago, a lady brought out her scraps to get my advice on fabric selection. And what to my wondering eyes did appear, but a display of scraps in which every single piece that was over about five or six inches square had been sewn around the edge. I had never seen this done.
“Hmm, now…what’s this?” I asked, examining a pretty blue calico with a not-that-loose running stitch across all sides.
“Oh, I do that to all my scraps,” the very nice and otherwise perfectly sane lady said. “It keeps the pieces from fraying.”
Ah. Though I do not believe scraps of the cotton broadcloth most of us use in our quilts require such a staggering amount of work, I certainly didn’t admonish or (heaven forbid!) laugh at the lady. She wasn’t wrong about ensuring her scraps didn’t fray, but I wondered how many more quilts she might be able to finish if she didn’t spend her time sewing single pieces of fabric. Two is way more fun.
What the quilter was doing, essentially, was creating a selvage for her scraps. And this got me thinking about selvage, that totally ubiquitous stuff that we never really consider, eh? Why, exactly, is it thicker than the fabric in between? How come some is white and some is the same color as the fabric? Certainly, the word nerd in me wanted to know the etymology of the word.
Let’s start there. The word comes from 16th-century England and morphed from “self-edge.” See? This is already interesting, right?
The reason the selvage is thicker than the fabric-fabric is because when cloth is woven on big machines, once the warp threads reach the end of the line on the weft, they have to double back on themselves to head back the other way. This means they get looped over, then under the warp. Think of it this way: The part of the fabric you use in your patchwork gets the over-under once; the selvage gets it twice. Make sense? The reason this is a good thing, this "self-finishing,” is because this sturdy edge does not require additional finishing. The fabric won’t fray.
See the edge that runs around the sheet of stamps? That’s a selvage, too! Image: Wikipedia
Here’s a fun fact for you which sort of doubles as a tip: If you’re a pre-washer, you might have noticed that the selvage gets really ruffle-y or puckered when you wash and dry it and sometimes this can slightly pucker your fabric until you iron it. This happens because the different thickness of the selvage means it shrinks differently! Eureka! I’m a devoted pre-washer and never realized this. It’s not a big deal, but if you’re a staunch non-washer, this information surely makes you even more happy with your position on the matter.
Now, I could tell you much more about how the selvages on the quilt fabric we love so much are beaten and flattened and laser cut or whatnot, but I think some fun facts are going to be, you know, more fun.
And if all of this seems somewhat frivolous to you, consider that my last few columns have been about extremely heavy, even, controversial topics and I think we could all use a break. Besides, the more you know about the tools you’re using, the better you understand what you’re making — and how to make it even better.
That’s what my friend in Wisconsin, wanted, after all: to make herself happy making quilts. I wish her the best. And I wish her a long life!
Selvages can be different widths, depending on the manufacturer
and the substrate. Image: Wikipedia.
Fun Facts About Selvage
● You can spell it like I have here, “selvage,” or you can go with the UK way, “selvedge.” Both are correct.
● Fabric isn’t the only thing that has a selvage! Stamps have a “self-edge,” too! Knitters and handweavers may use the term, as well.
● Garment makers might specifically use the selvage in clothing construction if they need special weight or stiffness somewhere. (Don’t ask me: The only garment I ever made was a pair of “MC Hammer” pants that did not see the light of day. Nor did they make it through the second wash. I’m sticking with quilts.)
● I consulted several sources to learn about selvage, including Wikipedia, and I would like to state for the record that Wikipedia is terrible. Across the board, it is sorely lacking in strong — or accurate — information about quilters and quilting. Look what they say about us in the entry on selvage: “Quilters...tend to cut off the selvage right after washing the fabric and right before cutting it out and sewing it together.” I don’t really know where to start with that one.
● Tip No. 1—Save your selvages when they have the manufacturer, designer, etc. printed on. You can staple it to a little card and keep it with the project if it becomes a UFO or you need to find more of it to finish it now.
● Tip No. 2—Take that strip of selvage to the quilt shop, as the little colored dots that are frequently there can help you match colors. Have fun!