“Only takes a yard of fabric.” I see that occasionally on sewing blogs and it does my head in almost as much as the slogan of “Til your hearts content” that I see at a nearby eatery every working day. It is, as Boy might say, almost as much of a mind-bender as practising sculling with one blade feathered and the other squared when you’re a beginning rower. (Truth to tell, I think he’d still have to concentrate severely in order to do that well because it’s an interruption to the smooth rhythm of sculling.)
A yard of fabric. What does that mean? How wide is the fabric? Fabric has two dimensions, hasn’t it: width as well as length? I understand it also has the third dimension of thickness, but for the purposes of determining how much fabric any given pattern requires, that’s not usually a factor. But a yard of fabric? I know how much is in a yard. 36 inches. Three feet. I grew up in the imperial system. I know that in round figures and for small amounts you can call it a metre and come out close (incremental error will see you in trouble if you extrapolate it to much more than that, because a metre is, after all, about three inches longer than a yard). Length is a choice you make, whether you call it a metre or a yard or some fraction of either. But surely a yard or metre of fabric that’s 112 cm wide is noticeably less in area than a yard or metre of fabric that’s 150 cm wide?
But nobody ever means a square yard. Or if they do, they don’t say so and I’m left puzzled as to precisely what it is that they do mean because there are many fabric widths readily available.
I’ve been somewhat stung by this of late. I check labels, to see what width the fabric is, before I buy whatever length I think I need. I was struggling to fit a pattern in the suggested layout and couldn’t quite get my head around why it wasn’t working. Then I measured the width of the fabric. It was some centimetres short of its stated 149. A few centimetres might not matter greatly for most things but when your layout calls for practically every last millimetre of width, then the centimetres certainly do matter. I’ve had to revise my ideas about what I can do with that piece of fabric. A metre of 150 mm fabric would have done the job. A metre of 142 mm fabric doesn’t quite. And I don’t know why it’s such an odd sort of width. For dress fabrics these days, mostly you’d be looking at 112, 120 and 149/150 (there’s some fluctuation at the top end of that), then you’d go to 240 for sheeting and the like. I know there are other widths and specialist fabrics but everyday stuff is mostly those sorts of widths. You pick your own length to add the second dimension to the equation.
I mentioned sheeting because I’ve bought some in order to make a Nazgul cloak for Boy’s projected Halloween partying. He asked for it last year because, no doubt, he reckoned getting in early would mean fewer last-minute panics. We’d have time – plenty of time! – to sit and ponder how best to approach the job. I intend to use this Jedi robe pattern (which discusses width of fabric as well as length). It’s not precisely the same as a Nazgul cloak, but it will do and, when made in a black fabric, will certainly be convincing enough for fancy-dress purposes. The Nazgul cloaks, I heard in an interview, have 50 metres of fabric in them. BUT WHAT WIDTH? I wanted to ask. (Anyone who has seen them in action would imagine it might well be 50 metres of at least 240 mm fabric, so wonderfully do they flow.) Our Nazgul cloak won’t be as large and heavy and it certainly won’t have 50 metres of fabric in it. It might have about 10 metres of fabric all up. That’s 10 square metres, in case you were wondering.