What Is a Yard of Fabric?
Walk into any fabric store, and you're sure to see bolt after bolt of colorful fabrics lining the walls, dotting the aisles or draping fabric cutting tables. The array of colors and prints, as well as the varieties of fabric types, can be mind-boggling, especially to someone who may not be able to distinguish a yard of dotted Swiss from a yard of seersucker. Determining what a yard of fabric is, however, can be easier than distinguishing between the different types of fabrics.
When a bolt of fabric is brought to the cutting table, the next step is measuring the fabric to the specified yardage. Fabric is sold by the "running" yard. It is measure lengthwise, not width-wise. While a yard of fabric is 36 inches long, the fabric on a bolt of cloth can vary from 32 to 60 inches in width. The most common widths are 45 and 60 inches. Therefore, a measured yard of fabric is not a 36-by-36 inch square (unless you purchase a yard of 36-inch wide fabric).
Cutting the Yard
Once the 36 inches of fabric has been measured lengthwise, the fabric is then cut from the bolt using a pair of shears. If a piece of remnant fabric is brought to be measured, it is always folded in half, and then the yard is measured and cut.
There's an old rule of thumb handed down by seamstresses over the years for measuring a yard of fabric without a measuring tape. Hold the fabric and stretch out your arm straight from the shoulder, as if you were a policeman directing traffic. Face forward. Hold one edge of the yard of fabric to the tip of your nose. From nose to outstretched fingertips is roughly 36 inches or a yard long.
Sometimes, pre-measured, pre-cut pieces of fabric called remnants are available in fabric stores at a discounted price. These pieces of fabric are labeled with the amount of fabric (1 1/4 yards, for instance) as well as the width of the fabric (45 inches, for example).
The term "yard goods" refers to fabric or other material cut and sold by the yard. In a dry goods store, the store owner often had one counter that was marked by tacks every 1/4-yard, or nine inches. The tacks were brass, and the term "getting down to brass tacks" meant it was time to get down to the business at hand, measure out the material and make a sale.