How to cut Fabric ?
You have your pattern. You have your beautiful fabric and you want to get on with sewing it. I know that cutting is something you want to get over fast. But there is more to cutting than using the scissors to cut the fabric. That is, if you are really serious about sewing.
Sloppy cutting will result in a sloppy garment. That is guaranteed. Get some basic knowledge of cutting and you are set to go. A professionally finished garment requires that you cut accurately and precisely.
Table of Contents
ESSENTIAL tools you need for cutting the fabric
1. A long pair of fabric scissors which is at least 8 inch long
There are basically two kinds of scissors -Bent handled scissors which have an angled handle that lets you cut comfortably. Then you have those scissors with a blunt point on the upper blade which prevents them from tearing the fabric. You also have plain and serrated blades. Serrated blades are best to cut knit fabrics as well as slippery fabrics- they grip.
These scissors give a nice zig-zag edge to the fabric edges and this will stop all raveling of the fabric threads.
There are some materials that you can cut with these scissors and use as it is like fleece and faux leather.
If you are not familiar with this blade, just imagine a very sharp pizza cutter. The blades are available in different sizes. Unlike a pizza cutter which can frustrate you sometimes, this one is a super power-packed cutting tool. It gives you accurate cuts. You have to use it with a self healing mat.
Be extra careful with these blades. They could run away with your fingers if you are not careful. Also, using this one with out a mat beneath the material you are cutting could ruin your cutting surface.
A clean smooth edge is an advantage of using this cutter. Cutting through many layers of fabric with precision is a breeze with a rotary blade. This kind of cutting is impossible with scissors.
If you cut multiple layers of cloth regularly, a rotary cutter and a self healing mat are a good investment. Check out this post on the rotary cutting and the self healing mat to know them in more detail.
4. All purpose Scissors
This is needed to cut your sewing patterns, trims, cords, cello tapes and whatever you use in your sewing.
5. A sturdy cutting surface.
You need a surface which is strong flat and which would not break your back. Check out this post on some sewing ergonomic tactics you can use to prevent sewing related injury when cutting and sewing.
You can use a special cutting mat – this will protect your cutting surface and gives you a place to pin the fabric so that it wouldnot move.
I have a detailed post on 13 cutting tools you (may) want for sewing.
Keep your cutting tools well maintained and sharp at all times for frustration-free cutting. Checkout this post on sharpening your scissors.
Ways of your fabric – Grainlines
Let us learn about how a fabric is constituted before learning how to cut it.
A fabric is made of warp threads and weft threads woven in a pattern. Warp threads are found along the length and the weft threads along the width.
All fabrics have grain lines that denote the length and width of the fabric. What we call the width of fabric has the unfinished edge of a fabric. This edge frays and this is the edge which we cut.
The length of the fabric is the finished edge of the fabric. This edge on either side of the fabric is also called the selvedges or selvages.Selvages usually have small perforated holes along the length. For printed fabric selvages are mostly plain.
When sewing we usually cut fabric lengthwise, i.e along the warp threads. These threads are stronger. It is not stretchable in woven fabric. We keep/draw the dress pattern lengthwise so that the length of the dress falls that way.
But sometimes we cut fabric by the weft threads ie width wise also. This is usually done to save fabric or sometimes because the pattern calls for it. Fabric has ‘some’ stretch along these threads so the weft thread is preferred across the body ie Body round measures are taken along this grain.
When a pattern calls for lengthwise cut it shows Straight grain; Width wise is denoted as Off grain and Bias grain as Diagonal grain.
The diagonal grain of the fabric produces the maximum stretch of the fabric. This is used to cut for fitted garments. The 45 angle cut is called the true bias. Checkout the best way to cut and sew fabric on the bias
The best use of diagonal cut of fabric is to make bias tapes which are used for biding, facing and piping. It is especially useful in curved areas like necklines, armholes and circular hems
The amount of stretch of the diagonal cut varies with the type of fabric. You will not get the same stretch for a knit and a heavy cotton cloth.
Points to consider before cutting the fabric
- Most of the time there will be creases in the paper pattern; use a dry iron to take them out.
- Skip prewashing of new fabric at your own peril. A way out is to leave some seam allowance to let out when the fabric will shrink after you have washed it after sewing. Know more about prewashing fabric here.
- Ensure that you have lightly pressed the fabric with a medium hot iron. For accuracy in cutting you need to get the wrinkles out. Check out this article to know how to press fabric before sewing.
- Use the sharpest scissors you can get your hands on for cutting.
On a personal note I am irritated with my scissors (?) now. I have cut with it for a long time beautifully but nowadays it is giving ragged cuts. I suspect that my daughters have taken it to cut paper.
Never ever cut paper or any non fabric with your fabric scissors. Always maintain your scissor blades. Dull scissors can snag your lovely fabric. Take it to your local blacksmith to sharpen it if you suspect that it is not as sharp as you want it. Having sharp scissors makes all the difference in your cutting
Checkout this post on different ways to sharpen your scissors
You also do not want hand fatigue or soreness as a result of using the wrong scissors. The most basic scissors you need are fabric scissors, paper scissors, seam ripper and thread snips. A rotary cutter is optional but a nice addition. If you are a heavy user of cutting tools, ensure that you take enough breaks. Carpel tunnel syndrom is not unheard of among regular sewists and it is painful.
Do you know that apart from the metal scissors blades we are familiar with, they come in nonstick nowadays, for effectively cutting duct tapes etc. Fiskars even have scissors geared for lefthanders. Isn’t that nice of them?
Find the rightside of the fabric
For many knit fabrics this may not be important – most look the same on the back and front. But if you want to you can stretch it by the cross wise grain cut edges and it will curl to the right side of the fabric automatically.
For a woven fabric the best way is to look at both the sides – the right sides usually have brighter colors, a special sheen etc. The wrong side may have thread knots/ties from the weaving – this will not be there on the right side. On the selvedge you will find holes which are open on the wrong side.
Prepare for cutting the fabric.
- Layout your fabric on a large hard surface (I use my big dining table for cutting) – gives you a perspective. Also ensures smooth cutting. It will be best if you can find a big surface where you can rest the full or the folded cloth without any edges hanging out. Keep the surface uncluttered as well ( if it is possible)
- If you are using paper patterns use your pins liberally to pin them to the fabric before cutting. This ensures that there will be no shifting of the paper pattern. Pin near the outer edge as well as inside. Pattern weight can also be used. I prefer pins but there are people who say pins distort the fabric.
- Cut off the marking lines – When you mark outside the paper pattern with chalk or a pencil, this results in marking lines that are not really needed in the pattern. These cutting lines can add up and create unwanted width to the pattern. Ensure that you have cut out these marking lines. For side seams, this addition may not be a big deal but when you are joining more than two pieces of fabric for a bodice like a princess seam or paneled skirt all those marking lines will considerably increase the width of the pieces.
- In store-bought patterns, there will be an arrow across the pattern indicating the grain line. This arrow tells you how to position the pattern in relation to the lengthwise straight grain of the fabric. You have to ensure that this line is parallel to the selvage of the fabric.
- You need to know that all your pattern pieces will fit into the fabric you have at hand. So ensure that all the pattern pieces will fit within the fabric. This has to be done before cutting. If they do not fit you may have to adjust the placement of the pieces. Likewise, if you are marking directly onto the fabric mark the big pieces first, then the smaller pieces. This way if the cloth is not enough you can adjust and cut smaller pieces better than big pieces.
- Cut with your one hand holding the fabric and pattern paper and the other hand holding the scissors and cutting.
Folding the fabric for cutting
Generally, the fabric is folded lengthwise matching the selvages.
Sometimes you find that the pattern pieces are too wide to fit on the fabric which is folded lengthwise. That is when you fold the fabric Crosswise when the fabric is folded so that the cut ends the match.
Here the selvages are brought to the middle. (see the picture below) This is used when you have to cut many layers of pattern pieces. Also used when you want to avoid the fold line which is present in the middle of fabric bolts which are mostly permanent. This fold line is especially evident in knit fabrics so a double fold is preferable when cutting knit fabric.
How to make your fabric cut edge straight
Sometimes after repeated cuts from the fabric store, your fabric may come out with the edges not at all straight. Do not pull out your hair yet. You can make it straight with some simple steps.
- We have to get the crosswise grain of the fabric at 90 degrees to the lengthwise grain.
- Most typical way to get the straight edge is to tear it from one side. First make a small snip with the scissors and then tear straight. but this method works only with naturally woven fabric like cotton and I do not like the ragged edges that result when you tear the cloth.
- The greatest ever is if you have a cutting mat with grid lines. You just have to align the selvages with it and cut off the extra.
- Not every one has a cutting mat. Then you can still do this trick with a ruler. Fold the fabric lengthwise selvage to selvage. Then Keep a wide ruler along the cut edge, with a side flush with the selvage. Cut off the fabric above the ruler.
- Another easy way is to fold up the selvages diagonally so that the straight edge of the selvage will form the top straight edge. Now you have a straight edge guide to mark your cut edge. Isn’t this easy?. I use this method all the time.
I generally do not cut off the selvages. They anyway will be cut off when you cut out the pattern pieces. Why go for an additional step.
You can check out this post on finding the grainline of a fabric for even more details on doing this. This is very important to know before cutting the fabric, if you want your clothing to look good.
How to fold the fabric for cutting on the straight grain
Identify the center line of the fabric lengthwise.
Fold the fabric along the center line, aligning the selvages together.
Fold again widthwise by half. Now you have four layers of selvages together on one edge .
This folding helps in cutting two of the same pieces at once. This fold can be used to cut front and back bodices if they are similar, pant legs and sleeves. The center fold line of the fabric will correspond to the center fold line of the pattern.
In case the patterns need just 2 layers like for collars, different front, and bodice patterns, etc. skip the second step and cut.
Look out for pattern pieces that MUST be Cut on the Fold. If it says to cut on the fold, do not cut along the folded edge. Keep the bodice pattern along the center fold line as in the picture below for cutting the fabric.
You can mark the centerfold of the fabric by making a small snip with your scissors..
Basic steps to cutting fabric
- Prepare the paper pattern by cutting it out.
- Prepare the fabric by prewashing and pressing. Learn more about prewashing fabric before sewing here.
- Lay out the fabric on your cutting surface as per the grain.
- You can first layout all the pattern pieces on the fabric and see which pattern arrangement works. Try out different arrangements to get the prints/nap etc correct, save on fabric.
- Pin paper pattern to fabric. You can also use pattern weights. (Sometimes I use old clothes as pattern. Sometimes make sewing patterns using the tutorials here).
- Trace around the pattern. I have a detailed post about the different marking tools available to mark here along with how to make paper patterns for sewing by yourself. Mark the darts etc by tracing with a carbon paper or by tailor’s tacks.
- Remove paper pattern.
- Or alternatively, you can keep the paper pattern and cut it. In this case, keep one hand on the pattern to keep it from moving. If you lift the pattern even once the whole thing may get distorted.
- Make long strokes of cutting with your scissors – this is advised for cutting long straight edges. But for cutting curves take short strokes.
- Cut off the excess fabric outside the marked lines using a scissors or a rotary cutter.
Cutting tips for different fabric types
Cutting plain fabric
This fabric can confuse you – both the face and the back of the fabric can look almost the same. You will have to mark the face of the fabric with a chalk before cutting this. You can choose the side which is smoother without any lines of the weave as the face (front).
How to cut Leather or faux leather
If you are cutting leather or faux leather you can save a lot of frustrations by using a rotary cutter and mat. That is not to say you cannot use scissors. But rotary cutter cuts best.
Never ever pin the pattern to the faux leather. Pin holes look horrible and it is better to use pattern weights. You can use paper clips or binder clips also clipping the pattern to the edges. I have even used tic tac hair clips
Checkout out further tips on sewing with leather.
How to cut Printed fabric
One of the joys of sewing your own clothes for me is matching prints on the seam lines. You rarely see this in store brought clothes. Just imagine a printed pencil skirt with unmatched prints along the center seam line on the back. It will look so odd
If you are cutting stripe, plaid and other fabric with prints and designs do not follow the lengthwise grain. Instead, you can follow the print. Cut the pattern pieces out of a single layer of fabric. Then match the design of the second piece with the first.
Striped fabric – cutting tips
Check out the post on the 16 different types of stripes in fabric.
One important thing to note when cutting stripes is to ensure that the two sides left and right gets the same amount of stripes. Otherwise, it could look unbalanced.
Lengthwise stripes elongate a body, so if you want a slim look choose this direction for cutting the fabric – you would also consider lengthwise stripes when cutting sleeves. You can check out this post on tips for making you look slim with the right clothes and prints.
If you cut striped fabric on the diagonal and join it, you get interesting results.
Do not cut like this.
Yes, it is unpardonable when you have both sides looking unbalanced checks. I plead guilty of sloppiness in cutting.
Plaids, in my opinion, is very difficult to match. They should be attempted to cut and match after you have some sewing experience under your belt. Choose simple projects with not too much to match.
The main things are to get the checks in balance on both sides, where are the dominant checks placed, whether you want crosswise matching.
You need the same number of checks on both sides of pattern pieces.- this should be ensured especially for sleeves, legs, etc. This is called crosswise matching. For eg you may want to match the chequered pattern on the sleeve with the bodice so that they look continuous. It can look very nice but may be challenging. You can achieve this with careful planning. Match at the seam lines and not at the cutting lines.
Decide on which part will come as the center of your pattern. Make sure that the center is kept along the same stripe of the check throughout as you cut.
Check out the post on the different types of fabric patterns in dress materials. With printed clothes you have a challenge in getting prints similar for two sides – like getting the same prints on both sleeves may prove to be difficult if you have only so much fabric. In such cases, it becomes imperative that you buy more fabric than is required if you require this kind of pattern matching.
Challenging types of fabrics for cutting
How to cut slippery fabrics like chiffon
This is a tricky and frustrating space – cutting slippery fabrics. You can use thin paper, tissue paper underneath to cut these fabrics without disaster. Also use serrated scissors.
Wetting the fabric lightly with a spray bottle will give some weight to the fabric. But you have to be careful with the cutting surface. If it is a wooden table like mine you cannot risk damage.
If you have an absolutely unmanageable fabric in your hands you can skip cutting before sewing altogether. I know this is hearsay but you need your shortcuts. Mark the pattern on the fabric. Sew the seams. Cut it out after sewing with enough seam allowances.
How to cut delicate fabrics
For tissue like fabrics you can keep a thin paper/ tissue paper along with the fabric and cut together. I use this method for silk also .
A very important thing to consider when cutting printed fabrics is the direction of the prints. You do not want an upside down design on your sewn garment (imagine an upside down house print). Keep all the pattern pieces in the same direction before cutting.
If you have a one way print fabric, care needs to be taken that all pattern pieces are cut in the same direction. The fabric has to be kept in one directions to get the print in the way you want.
Sometimes you may also want a particular print on a special place of the garment. This is should also be taken into consideration when buying the fabric (may need more yardage) and placement of patterns
You should be aware that if you want to match prints along the seam line you will need more cloth than the pattern calls for. This is because once we have cut one side of the pattern, you will have to search for the matching portion in the rest of the cloth for the same print. When looking out for the matching print, take into consideration seam allowance along the seam also.
Keep the part you have already cut on the matching printed portion. Mark around and cut it out. If you use invisible zippers along the seam you will not even notice that the fabric panel belongs to two pieces.
Napped fabrics/Pile fabrics
It is also important that you know if the fabric you have is with a nap. This is a very crucial consideration because it can affect the way the finished garment looks. You can run a hand over the fabric to know – smoothen the nap down.
If you get the nap wrong when cutting the fabric it can go very wrong – the color of the fabric itself can look different. Imagine one sleeve looking very different from the other sleeve.
If you have a fabric with a pile like velour, plush, fake fur, comb it down and use the same direction when cutting for all pattern pieces.
Checkout the posts on the different napped fabrics and definition of nap and identifying the nap for more details.
See the clever use of prints on the dress worn by Carrington Durham.
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