Yet another pet peeve: Waistbands

I was reading a posting to the Yahoo pattern design group this morning regarding the cutting of waistbands and it reminded me of yet another pet peeve of mine. In my opinion, nobody is cutting waistbands correctly. Nobody. Okay not nobody but hardly anybody. I did a quick survey of some of my drafting books and checked the layouts from some of the home patterns and they all have the waistbands laying the wrong way.

If you’ve noticed, the waistbands of jeans and pants (and probably skirts) are cut with the grain line going around the body, encircling the waist. Below is a picture of a front and back pant with waistband cut in the traditional way. Make note of the placement of the waistband (belt) in relation to the straight of grain. This is the bad example:

The reason it is done in this manner is that the manufacturer can cut very long strips of fabric that can be fed into a folder (a sewing attachment). Actually, waistbands in large concerns are cut “on the roll”; the fabric is not unrolled at all for cutting but rather, the fabric is sliced jelly-roll fashion. Now, when waistbands are cut like a jelly-roll (which provides greater cost savings) they actually end up conversely to the rest of the garment upon construction. Whilst the legs are cut on the lengthwise grain, the waistband length is turned and stitched in an opposing fashion. So why is this a problem? It’s a problem because the waistband is not shrinking in direct proportion to the rest of the garment; while the garment shrinks more in length rather than girth, the waistband shrinks more in girth rather than length (waistband width)…see my point? The problem is that when the waistband shrinks in girth and this may not be obvious via visual inspection, it is obvious fitting-wise. A pair of jeans you try on in the store may fit there and you can calculate approximate shrinkage you’d expect, you cannot expect the waistband to shrink in direct proportion to the girth of the hip for example. The waistband will not shrink proportionately to any other girth measure of the garment’ it will shrink more. Since the lengthwise grain shrinks at least 3 times as much as the cross grain does, you’ve basically guaranteed that the waistband is going to be shrinking 3 times as much, proportionate to the full hip measure. And in this era of expanding waistlines, this bodes poorly.

The solution is to cut waistbands so the grain ends up on the length of goods after it has been constructed. This means that the waistband strips should be cut from side to side or weft to weft (weft to wight). Below is a picture of a pattern laid out with the waistband laying correctly. This is the good example to use:

I think the mis cutting of waistbands is a significant problem and it seems to become worse and more widespread every year. I had a pair of Levi 501’s with a 27″ waist which were impossible to wear when I had a 27″ waist. I couldn’t wear them until I had a 25″ waist. This was not an issue of mis-sizing, grading, misinterpretation of technical specifications or drafting error; it was strictly waistband shrinkage. The end result was that when the jeans finally fit me in the waist, the girth did not shrink commensurate to the waist so I looked like I had a wong in my crotch.

Now, I know that many people believe that the straight of grain is the most stable grain to use in the cutting of goods but this is simply untrue in that it is the lengthwise grain line that is subject to the greatest degree of shrinkage and if that’s the case, how could shrinkage make for greater stability? In this case, once the garment is constructed, the waistband is not cut -according to position- on the straight of grain with the rest of the garment. The straight of grain (the length of goods) is the grain under greatest pressure; these threads are wound more tautly than the opposing cross-grain. For this reason, the cross grain is actually more stable with regards to shrinkage. Between the straight of grain and the cross grain, it is the straight of grain that demonstrates the greatest degree of shrinkage. To the tune of at least 3 times as much!

This is something that bugs me a lot. Probably what bugs me most is that this is something people are doing all over the world, every day and nobody has noticed that they’re doing it wrong. I know I’m not crazy, how come nobody else notices these things? Who cares if we’ve “always done it” this way, why do we have to keep doing it? If cars and computers can improve everyday, why can’t our clothes? Now, don’t feel bad if you’ve been doing it the “wrong” way too; changing your practice is an opportunity to make your products outstanding when compared to the competition! So you charge a little more for a pair of premium denim with the waistbands cut correctly. I think it’s a difference consumers will pay for provided you tell them about it. Tell them what’s special about your pants as compared to everyone else’s.

Lastly, the reason I wrote about this pet peeve is in defense of consumers as manufacturers routinely blame consumers for getting fatter before they can change their sizing to reflect changes. The practice of improperly cut waistbands is making clothing fit artificially smaller. I’ll bet the closets of America are filled with pants that are too small in the waist, all because the waistbands shrank disproportionate to the girth because they were laid out the wrong way. This is not a fitting problem but a cutting problem and it is entirely within the power of manufacturers to correct quickly.

Related: Jeans and pants fitting tutorials
Jeans fit so lousy these days
Jeans fit so lousy these days pt. 2
Yet another pet peeve: Waistbands
Anatomy of a Camel Toe pt.1
Anatomy of a Camel Toe pt.2
How to fix a camel toe
Adding a gusset to pants pt.1
Adding a gusset to pants pt.2

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33 Comments on "Yet another pet peeve: Waistbands"

Jose Tay
15 days 10 hours ago

What Kathleen is not taking into account is that cutting wb accross will yield more fabric consumtion and secondly, that most manufactures use a one piece wb and not split at center back. Larger sizes won’t fit accross the fabric.

2 years 2 months ago

Maybe sometime you can address another issue that I find when trying commercially made pants. I wear a size 6-8, depending on brand. I have meaty thighs, a round butt, flat tummy, my waist and hip measurements are 29″ and 40″. ALL the pants I try on have this gap with the waistband in the back! Drives me nuts. I have tried to alter pants by adding darts, but sometimes that ends up looking a little funky over my butt (depends on how much time I want spend on that fix). I found a pretty easy fix that works well–I cut 2 openings on the inside of the waistband, each about 3 inches from the center back. I insert a piece of 1 inch wide elastic, and give it just a slight stretch. Then I sew the elastic in place, and hand stitch my openings closed. I do have the line of stitching on the outside of the waistband, but it’s hardly visible if I use a closely matched thread. This helps close up that gap, but I wish it wasn’t there in the first place!
Your explanation about the cross-grain waistband may explain why it seems that it’s easier to find better fitting clothing in thrift stores and consignment shops than I do in department stores. (And also maybe why all that almost new clothing is hanging on resale racks!)
Thanks for your blog! I find it most interesting.

4 years 6 months ago

When I make a skirt I prefer the contour waistband that is drafted with the skirt; an extension of the skirt. I have always found that it gives a much better fit and is the same size after washing. Now I know why. I never realized that the garment shrunk so much in the direction of the grain. I think I can use this knowledge to make a better fitting corset too.

4 years 8 months ago

thank you and thank you again for your site , and providing excellent standards for us to learn from . I have been using your tutorials that thoroughly cover every stage in sewing, helping avoid any glitch in the process.

keep up the good work!

Seth Meyeirnk-Griffin
4 years 8 months ago

FWIW: My instructors used “sloper” and “block” interchangably; You were correct, it is a basic shell. And yeah, I need to buy the book. I also need to find a Real Job so I can start paying back student loans. :/