Cutting out sewing pattern pieces

There are several methods for cutting out fabric when using a sewing pattern.

I’ve been sewing since I was 4 years old (and that’s seems like forever) and I only discovered one of them more recently. There are possibly even some that I’ve still not discovered but I can only share with you what I know, so the mysteries of these other methods will have to remain a mystery!

However, before you grab your scissors, rotary cutter or other cutting implement, it is important to identify the grain lines of the fabric. First  find the selvage of the fabric – this is the tightly woven edge (although, it can also have a ‘fluffy’ edge too like in the photo of this needlecord fabric). It also sometimes has fabric information printed on it and/or tiny holes. The straight grain runs parallel to the selvage, the cross grain perpendicular to the selvage and the bias grain diagonal – sorry for the big maths words, I know I have a maths degree but these are also the quickest way to describe them. It is important to cut the fabric with the grain running in the correct directions as this affects the drape and durability of the garment/item. If you want to know more about how the warp and weft threads work together to create the grain, you’ll need to google it.

identiying selvage edge

 

For some fabric, like corduroy, it’s also important to work out the direction of the nap. I love fabrics with a nap, like velvet, as it’s so tactile – it’s also the kind of fabric that young children love to stroke when I am teaching them,  stroking the pile one way then the other! Some patterns give cutting diagrams for both ‘with nap’ and ‘without nap’ fabrics as it’s important for the nap to run in the same direction or the fabric can look different.

To work out the direction of the nap, you need to give it a stroke! One way will feel soft and smooth. The other will feel rougher as you push against the pile.

stroking fabric to find nap direction

Now that you know the direction of the straight grain and any nap, you can place the pattern pieces onto the fabric. When cutting several pieces from the same fabric, place them all on the fabric before beginning to cut. If there’s no cutting diagram it can feel like passing an IQ test getting all the pieces to fit but that’s better than starting to cut and then discovering you don’t have enough fabric anymore – I speak as one with experience here!

The double ended arrow on the pattern shows the direction of the straight grain so should be lined up parallel to the selvage, and if the fabric has a nap, make sure all the patterns pieces are the correct way round. This pattern piece isn’t on quite straight at the moment – I will fix it before cutting!

putting pattern piece on

The next step, once you are happy that the pattern piece in the correct position, is to secure the pattern to the fabric. There are a couple of different ways to do this.

 

Method 1: – using pattern weights

This is the most recent method that I have learnt and it involves holding the pattern down with something heavy. I’ve seen a huge variety of things being used, from mobile phones, cups of coffee (I don’t drink coffee but I’m sure I’d send it flying if I did), cans of food, books – basically anything you can lay your hands on! I like to use the bean bags I made for my daughter. You can also custom make pattern weights from large metal washers wrapped in ribbon, fabric strips or washi tape, or purchase them hand-made from places like Etsy.

pattern weight on fabric

At this point you can either draw around the pattern and then cut it out, or just cut it out. I never draw around pattern pieces – I want to get it done as quickly as possible and this takes too long! However, I know some people do draw first.

There are two methods for cutting around the pattern – using scissors or a rotary cutter.

I love using a rotary cutter. My first experience with a rotary cutter and cutting mat (you definitely need one of these underneath) was when I started quilting in 1999. I had no idea I could also use it to cut out patterns until much more recently. I love how quick it is.

For straight edges you can also use a quilting ruler, although free-hand cutting straight lines also works.

rotary cutting fabric

fabric cut with rotary cutter

I do tend to just free-hand everything. Make sure you keep your hands out the way (I once sliced a piece off my index finger when I was quilting, tired and not using the correct ruler – I still have no fingerprint there!). You should also be able to cut through more than one layer. If you’re having problems, make sure the blade is nice and sharp, replacing it if necessary.

free hand rotary cutting

On another note, it’s best not to cut fabric outside in the summer and leave your cutting mat in the sun – it will get warm and when you cut, the blade will go right through it (another thing I learnt from first hand experience!).

finished fabric cutting

It is also possible to use pattern weights and still cut out the fabric using scissors. Carefully slide the scissors under the fabric. You also need to work on a smooth surface so that the scissors can slide (carpet doesn’t work too well!).

cutting pattern using scissors

 

Method 2: – using pins

This is the method I was taught when I was younger and I still use for smaller items which would be too fiddly to cut using a rotary cutter – and probably too dangerous!

Place the pattern on the fabric and pin through both the pattern and the fabric, taking care that none of the layers shift.

pinning fabric

For very small pieces, I also just hold the fabric and pattern piece in my hand, without pinning, and cut it. Sometimes, it also helps not to cut the pattern piece out first but to cut through the pattern piece and fabric together. This is often more accurate.

 

Like most things, there is not only one right way to cut out fabric using pattern pieces. There are other methods not mentioned here that I don’t use, like cutting the pattern pieces out of freezer paper and ironing them on (freezer paper in the UK is very expensive as it’s imported from the US and sold in quilting shops). Try out the different methods and find what works for you, although like everything there may be a learning curve to mastering it ,so don’t give up straight away if it seems difficult.

What is your favourite method? Let me know in the comments.

cutting out pattern pieces