Learning to cut out your pattern is where it all begins. Good fabric is expensive, and it’s important to know how to cut it to minimize how much you use. But it’s also important to cut it so the very best features of the fabric are shown off in your finished garment. Before you start, there are some vocabulary words that let us talk about fabric.
All woven fabrics have two finished edges called the selvages. (Sometimes selvedges) The selvages are indicated in a pattern cutting layout and help you orient your pattern pieces. You shouldn’t include the selvages in your garment. They are more tightly woven and sometimes have little holes in them where they were hooked onto a frame.
Woven fabric has threads going in two directions. The warp threads are the ones that are lengthwise. They are strung onto the loom for weaving. The threads that are woven back and forth through them are called the weft or woof. The threads that run along the warp are the straight grain of the fabric. The threads that make up the weft are the horizontal grain. If you draw a line at a 45 degree angle across the fabric, you have located the true bias. The true bias represents the stretchiest direction of the fabric. Fabric cut on the true bias also will not fray.
Some fabrics have a nap or a pile like corduroy, velvet, and minky. If you run your hand lengthwise down the straight grain of the fabric, it will feel smoother in one direction than it does in the other. If you cut the bodice of your dress with the nap running in one direction and the skirt in the other, the top and the bottom of the dress will look different. It’s important to cut all of the pattern pieces going in the same direction. This is called a “with nap” layout. You would also use this layout for a one-directional print. If the yardages given for your pattern only say “without nap”, then you may need extra fabric to cut your pattern out properly. Sometimes when pattern pieces are really large, the cutting instructions will tell you to fold the fabric on the crosswise grain and then pin your pattern pieces on the folded fabric. If your fabric has a nap or a one-way design, you need to cut the fabric along the fold line and rotate one of the pieces 180 degrees to keep your nap or design all going the same way.
If you knit, you know there are two ways of doing it. You can knit back and forth in rows, or you can knit around in a circle. Knit fabrics can also be made both ways. Knits that are made by a machine that goes back and forth will have a selvage like woven fabrics. Knits made in a circle will be a tube. Regular knits only stretch in one direction. When you cut out a pattern, you want to orient your pattern so the stretch goes across the body. Some knits are four-way stretch, but they usually stretch more in one direction than the other so you want to orient your pattern so the greatest stretch is in the direction you need it most.
If you think about the human body a bit and imagine a line drawn from the top of the head, between the eyes and down to the floor, everything that’s on one side of the line is matched on the other. A sewing pattern is the same way. There’s two of everything. (The exception might be a ruffle that can be divided in 3.) Sometimes we eliminate a seam by cutting the two pieces on the fold to make the garment look better. The easiest way to cut two of everything is to fold our fabric and cut them both at once. There are times when a pattern piece is wider than 1/2 the width of the fabric, and then we have to open the fabric up and cut them one at a time.
Fabric comes in standard widths.
Almost all of it will be 44-45″, 54″, or 58-60″. If you have some vintage fabric in your stash or some exotic imported fabric, it might be 36″ wide. Some sheers and fabrics manufactured for quilt backing may be 108″ wide. Most 54″ wide fabric is home decorator. While you can use it for clothing, it often has a finish that will come off in the wash even if the base fabric is washable, so test it. Patterns usually give required yardages for the width fabrics used most for a garment of that style. If a good pattern has yardages given for both 45″ and 60″ wide fabric, it will have cutting layouts for both.
I’m going to be using this pattern from Simplicity to demonstrate how to cut out a pattern.
To keep things simple I’m only going to cut out the sleeveless top.
The first thing you do is find the view you want to cut. Most pdf patterns only have one, but paper patterns often have lots of options.
I’m only going to be using a few of the pieces so I need to check which ones they are.
At this point if your pattern does not have a cutting layout diagram or photo, you’re on your own to figure the best way to lay your pattern out on the fabric. Cutting layouts help us use our fabric to the best advantage and can eliminate some of the questions a seamstress might have about how the garment will eventually come together. Learning to use them and encouraging designers to provide them is a good thing. If it’s there, you can still do your own thing if that works better for you, but at least looking at them is a good idea.
Pattern layout diagrams can be confusing if the pattern has lots of different sizes, and different sizes are cut differently. If layouts are given for different width fabrics, it can get even more so. Some patterns have multiple pages of cutting layouts. If the designer uses industry standards, all of the cutting layouts for one width fabric will be grouped together. So first find the cutting layouts that match your width. Then find your size. Use a marker to draw a circle around the right layout.
Now carefully look through the pattern for the pieces you need. If you have a tissue paper pattern, you don’t have to cut them out on the lines. It’s actually better if you don’t. You’ll get a more accurate cut if you cut the pattern and the fabric at the same time. Then use a dry iron to press some of the wrinkles out of the pattern.
With a woven fabric the next step is to make sure your fabric is on grain. That means you have it laid out so the fold in your fabric is along a warp thread. If the fabric hasn’t been cut straight, or the print is off grain, it might be hard to see. So the first step is to make sure the ends of the fabric are cut on the cross-wise grain.
The simplest way, if your fabric will do it easily, is to tear the fabric. This will stretch the ends out of shape a bit, and you’ll want start cutting a little ways in from the edge.
Alternately, and much more safely, you can pull a cross-wise thread out of the fabric. It will leave a line in the fabric you can cut across. You can also carefully line up the selvages and cut across the fabric using a T square or a wide plastic ruler and a rotary cutter. It’s important not to skip this step because cutting fabric correctly on the grain affects how the fabric will drape and how it will wear. Fabric cut off grain will eventually sag. You also will find it impossible to match stripes, plaids, and chevrons. (You have no idea how badly I want the chevron craze to go away.)
Now look at the pattern pieces. Every piece should either have an arrow indicating the straight grain of the fabric or words telling you where to place the pattern piece on the fold of the fabric. You want to place the largest pattern pieces on the fabric first. If you have a cutting layout diagram, it will show you where to place the pieces and in what direction they should face. Sometimes you need to flip the pattern piece over. On a cutting diagram that’s indicated by shading the pattern piece. On this pattern we’re going to be cutting the front face up and the back face down. Both pieces are cut on the fold. It may not be immediately obvious, but the fabric I’m using is a directional print so I need to be sure I cut all of the pieces going in the same direction.
The front and back of this blouse are cut on the fold, but it’s not the fold that was originally pressed into the fabric. If I use that fold, the neck and armhole facings are going to require my having significantly more fabric so I’m going to move the fold so it’s just enough fabric for the widest part of the front pattern piece. I going to measure the width of the folded fabric in a couple of places to make sure it’s on grain.
To make sure you have your grain line perfectly for pieces not on the fold, pin the pattern piece to the fabric along the grainline arrows or use a pattern weight. Measure the distance from the arrow to the selvage edge in two places. If your fabric is on the straight grain of the fabric, the measurements should be exactly the same. Keep adjusting your pattern piece until they are.
I’m going to start by cutting the back pattern piece. It’s a good idea to pin as much as you can before you start cutting, but the table I’m working on is shorter than the length of the fabric. I measured the length of the two large pieces, and I’m sure I have enough fabric so I’m comfortable cutting as I pin. If you’re not sure, keep pinning until you are.
I like to use pattern weights when I cut. It saves a lot of time and minimizes pinholes if I’m using a delicate fabric. You can use just about anything that will hold your fabric in place. I really like the little interfacing covered ones. They’re drapery weights, and they’re really heavy. They cost about 25 cents each. But I still put a pin everywhere I’m going to pivot my scissors or my rotary cutter.
The cutting layout said to flip the pattern piece over so I did.
If you have to open the fabric up to cut a pattern piece that’s wider than 1/2 the width, be sure to flip the piece over to cut the second piece so you don’t end up with two right backs or two lefts. Cutting layout diagrams will indicate when the fabric is single layer. If there are a lot of pieces that need to be cut on the fold, sometimes the diagram will show you to fold the fabric so the selvages meet somewhere in the middle, and both edges are fold lines.
Now that your pattern is secured to your fabric, it’s time to cut. Whether you use shears or a rotary cutter is personal preference. As you cut, you’ll come to places where there are black notches. If you have a 1/2″ or wider seam allowance, you can cut the notches in or make little snips in the seam allowance. For smaller seam allowances you want to cut the notches out. Don’t ignore them. These are the markings that show you where your seams should line up.
When you have the back cut out, remove the pattern weights, leave the pins there, set it aside, and move the fabric up to cut out the front. Measure your fold again to make sure it’s grain perfect.
Now layout the front pattern piece right side up. Use pins or pattern weights. Pin at the pivots and at the front dart.
Cut around the notches. Remove the weights, leave the pins.
The cutting layout shows the neckline and the armhole facings are cut on the bias. The armhole facings are cut separately on a single layer of fabric so we have to remember to flip the pattern piece when we cut the second one. The remaining fabric is widest where the armholes of the back and front were cut so we’ll use those spots to cut the facings.
The lines on the ruler are on the straight grain of the fabric putting the pattern piece on the true bias.
Put pattern weights in place and cut one armhole facing with the pattern piece right side up.
Cut it out, then flip the pattern piece, line up the grain line, and cut another.
Move the fabric to find another wide spot and repeat the process with the neckline facing. Don’t forget to cut out the notches.
This leaves us only one pattern piece to cut – the front facing.
If you read last Saturday’s blog entry on interfacing, you know I like to fuse before I cut the pattern piece out. Cut a piece of fabric a little bigger than the facing piece. Try to get some selvage so you can line up your grain line.
Cut a similar size piece of interfacing and fuse the two pieces.
Then cut out the facing. Use a couple of pins as well as a pattern weight. Don’t forget to check the grain line.
Last piece of the pattern cut out.
The pattern all cut out
The pattern isn’t ready to sew yet, though. All of the markings on the pattern need to be transferred to the fabric first. The darts, the front opening, and all of the dots. They are important to the construction of the garment, and you shouldn’t skip them. 😉 The little pile of fabric is all I have left over. The pattern called for 2 yards, and it was right on target. This is a muslin for the same top in a black silk floral so I don’t want to have to buy more of that than I need.
Cutting out a knit is very much the same, but instead of identifying the warp threads of the fabric, you have to identify the ribs in the knit. Most knit fabrics are done in a stockinette stitch. From one side you see the knit stitches.
From the other side you see the purls.
We usually choose the knit stitch side to be the right side, but you don’t have to as long as you choose the same side of the fabric consistently in your garment. Lay out your fabric matching the selvages and making sure the fold goes down in between two of the ribs. Then follow the same plan as the one for woven fabrics.
Border prints – Because of the nature of the fabric design, you might want to cut your pattern pieces on the cross-wise grain of the fabric instead. Over the life of the garment you might find the fabric sags a bit, but the beauty of a skirt or a bodice made from a border print outweighs that. If you’re using a pattern designed for a border print, but choose not to use one, cut the pattern on the straight grain instead. If your pattern only has the straight grain marked, use a T-square or a wide plastic ruler to draw the cross-grain lines in. Then follow the same plan using the cross-grain markings to line up your pattern on your fabric.
Pockets – You can cut patch pockets out in any direction you want. If you’re working with stripes or plaids, especially, it can be fun to cut them out on the cross-grain or the bias.
Collars and cuffs – Like pockets you can cut collars and cuffs on the cross-grain if you want to use stripes or plaids as design interests. When you’re working with more advanced sewing patterns, you’ll often see the undercollar is cut on the bias. Doing that makes your collar have a nicer roll and looks more professional. You can cut your undercollar pieces on the bias on any pattern and take your sewing up a notch even if the pattern doesn’t suggest it.
Beginning seamstresses who learn to sew using patterns without cutting layout diagrams often open their first paper pattern from one of the major pattern companies and are instantly overwhelmed by all of the cutting diagrams that are standard. They throw up their hands and return to patterns that have none. There is no reason why you can’t devise your own cutting layout even if a pattern comes with one. But all of the “rules’ for cutting fabric properly still apply. You need to make sure your fabric is on grain, your pattern pieces need to line up with the warp threads in the fabric, and you need to learn to use the pattern markings to accurately match design points when you sew to have your work look professionally made. A pattern designer who neglects to add these things to her pattern is asking you to guess. Rather than being confusing, all of the markings on a pattern are there to make your job easier. Like road signs on the way to a perfect garment.
This is a great lesson! I just discovered your site from a fb group. I started sewing using commercial patterns, but they were sometimes hard to follow without all the pictures. This is the reason I like PDF patterns, but some are missing a lot of the detailed construction steps. Would it be possible to add a picture / diagram to your post labeling the grainline, etc.? Also, are you cutting right on the line or just outside the line when you cut?
The very next time I cut something out (won’t be too long) I’ll put a photo that more clearly shows the grainline on both the pattern and the fabric. When the pattern piece is cut on the fold, if you’ve folded the fabric correctly, the fold is the grainline. Other pattern pieces have a big black arrow on them. You pin the pattern piece on the fabric so that both ends of the arrow are the same distance from the selvage edge of the fabric. When I cut, I cut right on the line. With a tissue paper pattern, I cut right through the paper, but if I’m using a pdf printed on copy paper, I don’t want to cut that paper with my fabric shears so I cut the pattern out first. And welcome! Now that you’ve made your first comment, others won’t need to be moderated.
Tissue doesn’t appreciably dull fabric shears! Who knew (well, you).
Ok to roll over tissue with my beloved rotaries?
I’ve been using the same pair of Gingher shears for many years. I cut through tissue all of the time, and I have only had my shears sharpened once, and that was because it was free. When I use my rotary cutter, I’m not usually cutting through tissue so I can’t guarantee it’s the same.