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A beginners guide to accurately cutting fabrics

Precision is key to making a beautiful finished item – inaccurate cutting means an inaccurate finish, it just won’t look sharp and pristine. So here are a few of my top tips for accurately cutting woven fabrics.

Before you start cutting:

Press your fabric well with plenty of steam before you make a single cut. It’s so much easier to cut accurately without any creases in your fabric. Many fabrics shrink a little in  steam (or the wash), so make sure it has shrunk (if it’s going to) before you cut, or your finished piece is going to end up too small. (No time in my life to wash fabrics first, steam all the way for me!).

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If your iron does not produce much steam, keep a water mist bottle next to the iron, they are great for lots of things. I have my own very special version!

spray

Only water I promise !

Fuse your fabrics before cutting (if they are going to be interfaced), this not only avoids cutting twice, but also stabilises a fabric that might otherwise distort a little in cutting.

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Find a large flat uncluttered surface to work on. I often just head straight for the floor if I’m cutting out something large. The weight of 5 yards of fabric hanging off the edge of the table will pull your fabric out of shape.

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Square your fabric on a cutting mat before you cut. Line up your selvedge on a cutting mat. If you are cutting double, fold the fabric down in half, selvedge on top of selvedge to give an accurate 90 degree angle at the fold.

Match selvedges not cut ends of the fabric, they might not be straight, remember somebody just cut it quickly in the store.

NB: Spelling selvage or selvedge – the same word can be spelled either way – I prefer selvedge because it’s an edge!

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Double check your print placement on the fabric – ensure the print is running exactly straight with the selvedge before you cut. Occasionally the print can be slightly off. In this case, always cut singly following the line of the print.

Make sure any printed pattern is running in the right direction – if you fold your fabric across the width matching up the selvedges, the fabric on the back will be upside down, which means if you cut now, on the underneath piece the print will be upside down. It can be worth cutting pieces singly to ensure you don’t make this mistake, or fold across the width and match selvedges.

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Pattern matching. A whole different topic I won’t go into here, but if you are going to be pattern matching, remember to buy more fabric than the pattern calls for, as you will need to allow for wastage. The extra amount you need will be in relation to the size of the print itself.

Cutting

Cut out your paper pattern pieces accurately before pinning them to your fabric.

Ensure you have the grain running in the right direction according to your pattern pieces. The straight grain of a fabric runs parallel to the selvage.

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The further you move ‘off grain’ the more the fabric can stretch and distort. Even a rigid woven fabric will have stretch in the bias or cross grain, that’s why we cut it on the diagonal for binding and piping.

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Make sure your pins are sharp, blunt pins can push the fabric out of place or create snags – if you are struggling to push a pin through, throw it away!

Use good sharp, long scissors and take long cuts. Stay exactly on the printed line.

If you are using a rotary cutter, make sure it’s sharp, and use a good self-healing cutting mat. Use a really long quilters rule or yard stick, you want to make a whole cut in one slice. Hold the quilt ruler down really firmly so it doesn’t shift while you are cutting. Good tip – keep your fingers well away, (hmmm… I’m covered in little scars). To let you into a secret, I don’t get on too well with a rotary cutter – I only tend to use it for straps and strips and when I’m cutting vinyl. I prefer to use the pattern piece for everything else.

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Pretend you can see my hand on there holding it down firmly !

Roughly cut around the pattern pieces first if you are using large pieces of fabric, and then cut accurately to the pattern itself. It’s much easier to manipulate a small piece of fabric and turn it as you cut rather than whilst manhandling a 5 meter bolt over one shoulder!

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Cut in single pieces rather than stacking – if you are making something small like a wallet, every 1/8” accuracy counts in terms of both the measurement and the print placement.

If you are cutting faux leather or cork, do not use pins, they can leave holes – use a rotary cutter. If you have to use pins for any reason, keep them within the seam allowance so the holes are not visible after the item is made up.

Slippery fabrics – always cut in one layer if you can. A spray of water also helps.

If you are making a pattern a second time, print it out again, you may have snipped off little bits of the paper pattern first time around!

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And finally, if you find your finished item isn’t sitting absolutely accurately, yet you have cut out perfectly, it could be unequal seam allowances that have made the difference  – use a seam guide to sew – a ¼ “ foot or a 1cm (3/8”) foot are available to help maintain an accurate seam allowance.

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I’m sure there are lots of things I’ve forgotten – just add any more tips in the comments below!

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Comments

  • Lynne Seta
    May 4, 2020

    I’m not terribly tall and cut my fabrics on an old drafting table I inherited from my dad, which i is set at a great height but the height creates a long reach for me. When cutting a long piece, I use my long ruler and set a weight at the top to help hold the ruler in place. I use a five pound iron weight from an old pendulum clock. It is small enough to fit in my hand but that weight really give me a third-hand when cutting.

    reply
    • Barbara Chicella
      May 5, 2020

      Good idea Lynne. I’m short too. I will try this next time I have a long piece to cut.

      reply
    • Bev M.
      May 5, 2020

      I often have the problem of the shifting ruler. I usually hold just the part I’m cutting down, stop when I get a little past the hand, then move the hand repeatedly. I’ve got several weight here from a failed attempt at weightlifting on my part. I’ll have a use for them again! Thanks!

      reply
      • Claire
        May 5, 2020

        I have the amtech item in dianes picture, it is for glaziers moving glass. It really makes a difference in stopping the ruler moving. Best thing I ever bought. Really recommend them, easily purchased from amazon

        reply
        • Bev M.
          May 5, 2020

          So now I have to have one! I actually searched “plastic ruler suction cup” on Amazon, and there it was, all affordable. Thanks!

          reply
  • Gwen Dowell
    May 4, 2020

    This is a wonderful tutorial, Diane! Thanks. While reading your post, I couldn’t help but hear my dear Mother’s voice teaching me to cut and sew when I was a little girl. She had a degree in Pattern Drafting and always made the point that the key to making a professional garment started with accurate cutting of the fabric. When sewing she always stressed the importance of pressing the pieces while putting it together. These lessons I learned from her have carried over to my bag and wallet making.

    reply
  • Lori
    May 4, 2020

    When I buy remnants, or am repurposing other material there is often no selvedge. So what can I do then?

    reply
  • Bev M.
    May 5, 2020

    It sounds like I’m doing things right, which utterly amazes me, because I’m completely self-taught. One trick I’ve developed for cutting curvy pattern pieces is to laminate the piece, cut it out, and then trace it to the back of the fabric. That way I don’t have to wrestle with the pattern piece at all and I don’t have to worry about cutting bits of it off and then not being able to reuse it.

    One trick I’ve learned for directional fabric or fabric you just want centered in the right place is to cut the pattern piece out, then cut a hole in the center of it, so that you get the design in the exact spot you want it. Then, I just laminate the holey pattern piece and do as above.

    reply
    • Lynne Seta
      May 6, 2020

      I love this idea!

      reply
  • Jan Hopman
    May 5, 2020

    I was taught to rip the end of the fabric then pull it on the bias to get the true grain. I’ve always done it this way. My fabric is always on grain.
    When I’m fussy cutting a pattern, I trace it on a clear piece of plastic Mylar. I mark the center lines. I can place my design perfectly on my project.

    reply
  • Jennie
    May 6, 2020

    Great tips Diane, love your work!

    reply
  • Karen
    May 24, 2020

    Thanks for theses tips Diane.

    When I was a teenager I used to use sellotape to fix pattern pieces for small items. It gives perfect edges when you cut, unlike pins, with the bonus that it strengthens the pattern piece edge. (I made felt appliqué patches for my hats)

    reply

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