I have no idea why it’s called “sewing” if they wanted to be accurate they would call it “cutting…. but mostly pressing…. then pinning….. with occasional sewing.” I suppose they named it sewing when people still did everything by hand in flickering candlelight while dying of consumption. Thank God for sewing machines…. and electric light bulbs… and modern medicine.
As a relentlessly impatient person, there is an internal battle every time I start a project between being excited about getting to the SEWING part of it, and forcing myself to slow down and do my fabric cutting mindfully and as precisely as possible. As I’ve gotten into more advanced, and therefore more complex and less forgiving, patterns I’ve come to realize just how important cutting accuracy is to neat and tidy construction. Your seam allowance is based off the edge you cut, therefore a mistake in the cut edge will translate into a mistake in the seam, which will translate into a mistake in the final garment. Interestingly enough, making my first quilt and learning about the importance of a “scant ¼” is what finally drove home the concept of perfect seam allowances… as well as the value of sewing outside your usual style to learn new perspectives.
You’ll notice that in the spirit of my “85% of sewing is actually pressing” attitude that most of my tips about fabric cutting are actually tips for properly laying out the fabric and pattern pieces. Just channel your inner George Orwell and embrace the doublethink that is “sewing.”
Without further ado, here are 5 tips for better fabric cutting (and I’m not going to bait and switch with a bunch of fluff points about properly ironing fabric or using sharp scissors… do yourself a big favor; put good shears on your Xmas list, buy a package of cheap rotary blades so you can switch them out frequently, and pick up a bottle of Flatter smoothing spray in Yuzu scent because it smells AMAZING)
- Align your selvedges PERFECTLY. If you need a straight edge across the grainline, snip though the edge of the selvedge and rip the fabric across the width. You may need to press out a little stretching from the ripped edge, but this will show you what is perpendicular to the selvedge. Ignore the print of the fabric… sometimes you’ll find that the print is askew from the grainline of the fabric, and occasionally this will make your fabric unsuitable for the project you hoped to make with it… a real BUMMER!
- Lay out ALL your pattern pieces before you begin cutting. This will make sure that you actually have enough fabric to complete your project, and it allows you to nest pattern pieces for a more efficient cutting layout. Often times the cutting layout is designed for a narrower fabric width, or larger sizes than what you’re using, so there’s usually a bit of wiggle room to take advantage of. Be a rebel! Break the rules! (but lay it all out first or you might have a really frustrating discovery to cap off your rebelliousness)
- Use an actual ruler to align your grainlines with the selvedge edge. You might think (like I used to) that eyeballing it is perfectly acceptable. If you’ve ever been frustrated by folding a t-shirt with a twist in it you’ll know what a big difference getting the grainline perfect can make. A standard quilting or rotary cutter ruler can be a very useful tool to do this.
- Pin the pattern pieces to the fabric, or use pattern weights to keep things from shifting after you spend lots of time and effort laying them out perfectly. “Where do I get pattern weights?” you can pick up fancy little Dritz beanbag pattern weights for about $4 a piece, or you can go to the hardware store and get a box of large washers. I prefer large washers because they take up less space, and I’m a cheapskate.
- Cut with the pattern pieces to the back of your hand. You end up lifting the fabric up less, as you can see in these photos, which makes tricky curves like armscyes a bit easier. Don’t kill yourself climbing up on your worktable to keep the pattern to the right of your hand, though. Just do it when the situation suits it.