Don’t let fabric pattern railroad drapery project

DEAR GAIL: Help! I just received some fabric that I ordered and cannot return. It is a stripe that I want to use on my family room drapery panels. I thought the stripe was running the long way off the bolt, but it is running horizontal. I don’t want horizontal stripes on my drapes and I paid way too much for the fabric not to use it. — Mary Jane K.

DEAR MARY JANE: Don’t fret, I have a solution for you. What happened is that they didn’t tell you that the pattern was railroaded on the bolt. So even though you had a sample of a vertical stripe, you assumed it ran vertical off the bolt.

Normally on the back of fabric samples they will say if the fabric is being shown railroaded. If the original sample didn’t have this on the labeling, you can bring that up with them and see if they will take it back. Many times even if they will take it back, they’ll charge a restocking fee, normally 25 percent plus you have to pay the freight. So, sometimes it makes more sense to keep the fabric.

Before I give you a great solution for your problem, let me explain a little about railroaded fabrics. Railroaded fabrics were developed for furniture manufacturers to allow them to upholster furniture without seams. If you picture a railroad track and how it runs, that is how the pattern would run and how it got its name.

Most drapery and upholstery fabrics are about 54 inches wide. So, if the pattern has palm trees, the tops of the palms would start at the top of the selvage edge and the pattern would continue down 54 inches to the bottom of the edge. The selvage edges are the top and bottom raw edges on fabric. It is also where you’ll see the manufacturer’s name and sample dots of the colors used in the fabric. The width of a fabric is the measurement from the top to the bottom of the selvage edges.

To know if a fabric is railroaded, just unroll the bolt. A good test to really understand if it is railroaded is to unroll enough and have it drop to the ground. Now, when looking at the fabric with the bolt at the top and the end where you would cut from on the floor, ask yourself, “Can I make a drapery panel with the fabric hanging like this? Is the pattern running the right way?” Is the pattern running from the bolt to the floor? Or is it running the width of the fabric, from side to side?

If the pattern is running from the bolt to the floor, it is not railroaded. If the pattern is sideways, running the width of the fabric, it is railroaded. Looking again at the palm tree example, when you have the fabric rolled out with the bolt at the top, if the palm trees are standing straight up, the fabric is not railroaded. If the palm trees are lying on their sides, the fabric is railroaded.

So, Mary Jane, to make your stripes vertical again, you’re going to have to the change the orientation of your fabric from horizontal to vertical. When you do this, you will have to seam the fabric every 54 inches since that is the width of your fabric.

Since we don’t want to see a seam in the fabric, you’re going to make it look as if this is what you always planned to do. One option is to place a brush or bullion fringe between the seams. You also can add a cord or coordinating fabric welt. Another idea is to place two sets of 3-inch pleats at the seams. I actually did this on a set of panels for a client and it turned out great. We had mock Roman shades in the nook so the pleats continued the look of the Romans onto the panels in the living room.

To help better understand railroading, because I know it is a confusing idea, especially for nonsewers, here are a couple of pictures that should help.

Gail Mayhugh, owner of GMJ Interiors, is a professional interior designer and author of a book on the subject. Questions may be sent by email to: Or, mail to: 7380 S. Eastern Ave., No. 124-272, Las Vegas, NV 89123. Her Web address is:

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