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 bird’s nest 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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  1. Carol Kimball says:

    There are two major problems with cutting WBs on grain, the first, the
    shrinkage Kathleen explains, and the second, that most human bodies
    curve in at least a little above the top of the pelvis and towards the
    waist. Women particularly.

    Cutting waistbands as Kathleen recommends was one of the first “couture secrets” I learned – and a case where everyone who’s actually worked through different options agrees. You can (laboriously) steam and shape a “straight” crossgrain WB into a curve, or cut it the same correct way and let it shape itself as the pants are worn – obviously the choice for industry.

    For curvy figures with pants that stop well south of the natural waist, an interfaced, curved WB is the answer – a bias strip is NOT, as in addition to being terribly wasteful of fabric, you’ll never keep its width even. Years ago, I made a set of soft but stable curved templates which are useful for the dropped WBs, collar stand/bands, and the occasional long cuff for period costumes.

  2. Alison Cummins says:

    Another way of looking at it is that as people become fatter, their waists become shorter. So the transition from waist to hip might be fairly smooth on a thinner figure but relatively abrupt on a fuller figure. This shape is better served by some kind of easing into the waistband, which I have seen various instructions for achieving through pinning, steaming and elastic. (Eew, that sentence sounds bad.) In an abstract way, the on-grain waistband could be a way of painlessly achieving that kind of good fit for the fluffy and short-waisted.

    The big problem here of course is that the only way this could work in the real world is if the garment is prewashed. Home-sewers like me preshrink our fabric before cutting, so this differential shrink is lost to us. In RTW the problem is (as Kathleen correctly points out) that washed and unwashed garments will fit differently, so trying on an unwashed garment in the store doesn’t tell you whether the washed garment will fit.

  3. SB says:

    So that’s it! My jeans generally fit better after I bring them home and wash them. It *almost* closes that 2-3″ gap around my waistband. Don’t tell anyone about this, Kathleen! :lol:

  4. s'mee says:

    O.MY.HECK. All kinds of bells going off in my head! This explaination explains SO much! Thank you! Is there some kind of petition we can sign to change this?

  5. Lorraine Williams says:

    Had I not set Couture Sewing down to find a dress form (and then started reading more here at f-i), I too would not know that you are absolutely right. I have sewn many a wrong waistband in my day (hangs head in shame.)

    And like you s’mee, I am having light bulb lights up, slaps head and goes duh! moment.

  6. Debbie Soles says:

    Alot of Kwik Sew’s patterns (womens and mens/dress and casual drafts) indicate optional layouts for their waistbands, length or cross grain. Some of my favorite fitting pants (especially stretch wovens) are a cross layout. I’m tall, much rather have stretch for movement running up and down the body, chosen ease handles the “girth”:)) movement. So Kathleen some of us have been doing it right, for a very long time!:)) I draft my own patterns, and I play with layouts all the time..whether it be for design interest or for a better fit. Cutting waistbands on the cross grain…what’s so couture about that?

    Truly, there needs to be a patterndrafting/sewing revolution!


  7. Carol Kimball says:

    Cutting waistbands crossgrain doesn’t make a garment couture, but all couture pants will have them cut that way.

  8. Sarah F. says:

    My favorite waistband is the contour. Even for jeans, it makes all the difference. Because it curves, just like the body, it gives a more natural fit. Is it more expensive to produce? Yes, but it looks like people are willing to pay a lot for jeans.

    To improve that waistband even more, I give it a center back seam so that alterations are easy when one gains weight.

    One great technique that I have seen used (in expensive made to measure dress pant waistbands, mind you) is a very stiff elastic in addition to a piece of heavy woven interfacing cut on the bias as the supportive layer between the self fabric and facing in the waist band. This keeps the waistband looking crisp while giving it a bit of hidden stretch. The outer layer of the band is cut slightly off of the straight grain (not the bias, (just enough to get a bit of give), and the inside contrast lining is cut on the bias. That way you get the best of both worlds. There are a lot of great secrets in menswear suiting that we can borrow!

    Not sure how we can take this technique out of custom pants that go for upward of $1000….but it could be a starting point for thinking about improvement….

  9. Andy Chang says:

    This is true in most cut off waistband. However, if the waistband is not a cut off waist band than much of this issue will not exist. It all depends on what the customer want. If price is an issue, having a cut off waistvand will save on fabric consumption, thus reducing price to manufacture the pants. However, if comfort is the main concern, then the waistband can be made in one piece with the body…. Obviously there are many other reason why a waistbad would be a cut off waist band, however that seems more fitting to be another topic…..

  10. GENET says:

    So for a better fit the grainline on the waistband should be cut in the opposite of the grainline on the body ?
    I’ve seen pants in the better market with the grainline cut opposite of the body. Although I would have to agree it causes for a tighter fit when worn.

    Does this cutting rule apply to stretch denim only?
    What if you have a stripe printed fabric ?

    Many thanks for your helpful advice.

  11. Kathleen says:

    So for a better fit the grainline on the waistband should be cut in the opposite of the grainline on the body ?

    I’m saying the opposite. The waistband should be cut on the same grain as the legs. Usually it is not. Usually waistbands are cut with the length of grain running horizontally. The grain should be vertical.

  12. Becca says:

    Thanks a lot for this helpful bit of information. There’s just one little thing I’d like to add which is although the crossgrain may be more stable shrinkage-wise it tends to be less stable stretch-wise. Of course each fabric is different. The last thing a company wants is to find out that after handling, and sewing on the waistband and any other attachments such as a fly, and buttons is to find out that the waistband has stretched out of proportion. No one’s going to want to buy that. Of course certain adjustments could be made but that requires more time and money on the companies side, both of which they are trying to save. So that’s why the lengthwise grain is said to be more stable as it has less stretch if not less shrinkage.

    But I do agree if someone were to sew a pair of pants for themselves that it would probably be best to cut the waistband along the crossgrain, but to allow for factures such as stretch.

  13. Kathleen says:

    The last thing a company wants is to find out that after handling, and sewing on the waistband and any other attachments such as a fly, and buttons is to find out that the waistband has stretched out of proportion.

    If the pants and waistband are cut on grain (as I argue the waistband should be done), how can the waistband stretch/grow and the pants not? It doesn’t make sense. It’s the same grain. Likewise, who sews a waistband such as you describe without fusing it first?

    My point was, pre-washing, everything is hunky dory, most *bottom* weight goods are pretty stable and during sewing, you won’t get a lot of give either way. The problem is AFTER. AFTER washing, that crossgrain cut waistband shrinks MORE than the pieces it’s sewn to, making it shrink disproportionately to the pants.

  14. Stephanie says:

    Wow Kathleen,
    This makes so much sense! How many times have I thought I’d put on weight within a couple of days of buying new trousers, so much so that they are unwearable or uncomfortable!
    Total revelation for explaining poor fit in RTW garments. As a homesewer I’ve seen waistbands on patterns laid out both ways from different brands and had not known until now why that is- I assumed it was for economy or convenience of the printing process.
    I will probably never shop for trousers in stores again without much trepidation and think this is the best incentive I’ve had for some time to learn to fit trouser patterns really well and sew more of my own. Thankyou so much!!

  15. Nancy says:

    Excellent Post! I have always cut my waistbands on the cross, and thats just because that is how my grandmother (the seamstress extraordinaire!) taught me. I too have a pair of Levi 501’s that are doing the same thing that yours are. Interestingly enough, the Levi’s that i have from the 80’s (that I fit into again…yay) fit me better than the newer ones… I grabbed one pair of the old and one pair of the new and investigated and damned if this isn’t the problem.

    Thanx for the awesome post!

  16. Lisa B. in Portland says:

    No, the muffin top thing is because the waistband and rise are TOO LOW!!! I had a low-rise pair of cords and they made everything that’s remotely squishy squeeze up above the pants. Plus they make butts look bad. I don’t want my pockets on my thighs, thank you very much.

  17. nutty one says:

    Thank you Kathleen. This is another one of your very smart ideas I am definitely going to try. I think this makes perfect sense and I am surprised that it is not talked about in other forums. One thing I like about this site is the real deal stuff that actually makes your clothes look and feel great.

  18. Romy says:

    The first time I cut a waistband grain-short like this was maybe 30 years ago because the pants were plaid and I didn’t like the way the two directions would have looked, when attached (not a bi-directional symmetry like tartans…) It was sort of a “with nap” idea that I had.

    Never occurred to me at that time or since that fit might be different, since I always pre-wash fabrics. Yes, most wool yardage can be pre-washed if you are very careful and professional about it!

    Contrary-wise, some commercially made pants (from the thrift store, used) fit me better than new ones — must be because after repeated washings the waists shrunk, having been too big for me to begin with, compared to hips. What a moment of clarity!

  19. Eranda says:

    I learned this wonderful fact from a teacher named Laurel. It has absolutely changed the way I sew pants. Currently I am in love with a contoured waistband cut on the cross-grain. It creates a little stability AND some ease at the same time, even when fused. A great combination in a waistband.

  20. Seth Meyeirnk-Griffin says:

    This is going to sound dumb, I’m quite sure, but here goes…

    When I draft a sloper for a pair of jeans, I usually have two darts in in both the front and the back. Now, the directions that I use (because I am not nearly good enough to draft without following some basic directions) end up creating a sloper that places the waist at the natural waist; my aesthetic tastes find this reprehensible. I end up chopping off the top few inches of the sloper, making a muslin (usually in a cheap twill rather than muslin), adjusting my darts, crotch curve/extension, side seam, blah blah blah, and then altering my sloper accordingly. My finalized sloper usually ends up with two very small, short darts in the front (around .5″ total intake, between 1.25″ and 1.75″ long), and two larger/longer darts in the back. According to the way I learned, the sloper includes the waistband.

    Now, manipulating the darts to create a yoke is a breeze. If I want a 1.5″ or 1.75″ waistband, I simply remove the upper 1.5-1.75″ of the sloper before I start working on the yoke. If I lay the pieces out that have been removed (the uppermost 1.5-1.75″), the ‘waistband’ is quite curved, a slightly flattened ‘C’ shape. According to pretty much every commercially available pair of slacks or jeans I can find, this is wrong; waistbands are straight. But my instinct says that a waistband should be distinctly curved in order to accurately fit the person wearing them.

    So the question is: why isn’t a curved waistband used? Obviously it’s going to be more wasteful (waist-ful? :P) in cutting. It’s also going to be less stable as if goes into the bias, but I would think that interfacing cut on the bias (so that the interfacing was on grain as the waistband was on bias) would stabilize it, as would the stitching along the top edge (…since the waistband is going to require two pieces instead of a folding a single piece).

    FWIW, I’ve tried shaped waistbands for jeans, and they seem to work pretty well. I usually have them on-grain at the center-back.

  21. Kathleen says:

    So the question is: why isn’t a curved waistband used?

    You’ve answered your own question, it’s allocation. If cutting even straight bands (as I’ve shown they should be) throws yield out of whack, curved bands will be even worse. Fwiw, I think that a true premium denim brand would use curved waistbands. I love them. Nothing fits better.

  22. Seth Meyeirnk-Griffin says:

    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. :/

  23. eve says:

    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!

  24. Paul says:

    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.

  25. Janet.peach says:

    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.

  26. Jose Tay says:

    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.

    • Avatar photo

      How is Kathleen not taking this into account? Third paragraph from the top:
      “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)”

      And sure, most manufacturers are using a one piece wb -which is not the same thing as saying that it can’t be a 2 piece split at CB. To each, their market; if great fit is the driver and customers are willing to pay for it, why would you stop someone else from doing it?

      And as for large sizes… with average denim widths ranging from 58″-62″, for this width to be insufficient for the rare 58″ waist pants that may be needed. And if they are, again, what precludes them being split at CB?

      Btw, none of this is academic. I have a customer doing exactly this and for his larger sizes. His customers have become rabid fans. I’ll point him over here and he can “out” himself if he chooses to do so.

  27. Isabelle says:

    You could almost say that the wb issue is a giant conspiracy to make us all buy more clothing more often, only to have to replace it even more regularly =/.

    • Sam B says:

      “You could almost say that the wb issue is a giant conspiracy to make us all buy more clothing more often, only to have to replace it even more regularly”

      Not to mention the fiber content–load up the spandex and rayon so the fabric wears out in months instead of years! The “fast fashion” cycle isn’t only about trends–even those of us who just want a few pairs of pants that fit, can’t hold onto them for years like we used to.

      And these problems have gotten into the men’s department, too: no one is safe.

  28. Kim says:

    I want to sew a shaped waistband for a corduroy skirt. Im very confused about which way to lay a light woven interfacing. The corduroy waistband centre front will lie along the grainling/selvedges, and the side seam and centre back sections will be progressively more on the bias, do I therefore interface the waistband the opposite way ie. centre back with the grain and ss and cf becoming more on the bias? Also, many posts recommend sewing a waistband on the cross grain, so would this be better for the corduroy, or/and should I then do this for the interfacing too? Many thanks!

    • Avatar photo

      Maybe you’re over thinking this? If you’re using woven interfacing, cut the latter to match the grain of the corduroy. When I’ve been faced with similar challenges, I’ve just cut the problematic piece on the bias -45 or 135 degree angle- and everything was fine.

      Your project will not fail if you get this wrong.

  29. De volk Gosche says:

    This also makes complete sense if you are using a fabric with stripes. Why would you have the stripes running the length of the garment, but have the waistband cut so the stripes go across the midsection?? (Unless as a design detail.) Working with tweeds and pinstripes, I have always cut my waistbands in the same direction at the pattern for the rest of the garment. It helps elongate the silhouette.

  30. Katy says:

    And now I know why my closet is full of jeans that fit in the store, but the waistbands are now uncomfortably tight. Ugh. I guess I’ll be ripping off all those waistbands and replacing them with properly cut bands.
    It’s no wonder the jeans I sewed myself are my favorites.

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