My top tips for accurate cutting out when dressmaking

Follow these tips for dressmaking success!

Love it or hate it, cutting out your fabric before you start sewing up your garment is an essential step and getting it right can make a huge difference to your finished garment and help to make the construction process easier too.

Hear me chat about my tips and tricks in my latest Youtube video, or read on for summary notes you can easily refer back to in the future.

Prepare - Prewash and Iron

Before you cut out your fabric, it’s best practice to prewash it in the way that you will care for your garment once it has been made. Your fabric may come with washing instructions or if it doesn’t you can visit this blog post, which gives more general advice on how to care for different types of fabric.

Once your fabric has been washed and dried in the most suitable way for that fabric, it’s likely that you will need to iron it, especially if it is made from natural fibres. If your fabric is synthetic or a mix of synthetic and natural fibres it’s likely to not need as much pressing.

If your fabric does need pressing, don’t underestimate this step. Properly steaming and ironing a fabric can really change the way a fabric feels, behaves and even its size!

Tips for successful pressing and ironing of fabric

  • Make sure there is water in your iron and that the steam function is turned on.
  • Set it at the highest suitable temperature for your fabric. Test on a small section first.
  • Iron the fabric in a single layer, do not fold it in half to iron it.
  • Take it slow and steady, doing a section by section depending on how big your ironing board is.
  • Press the steam button as you iron. Depending on how good your iron is, you may have to go over the same area a few times.

Prepare - The cutting out surface

In an ideal world, I’m sure you can imagine your ideal cutting out space - a dedicated, high table with a large surface area for getting long lengths of fabric. In reality, it's likely that you have to use a shared space in your house. This might be the floor, a dining table or maybe a kitchen island.

I find that if the finish on the surface you are working on is smooth, it will give you greater control over the fabric and ultimately lead to more accurate cutting out. So if you have to cut out on the floor, it’s better, if possible, that it’s a non-carpeted finish as the friction between a carpet and the fabric can sometimes distort the fabric or make it stretch out of shape.

Whatever surface you are working with, try to clear as much space as possible so your fabric can fit on. If the whole fabric length can’t fit on the surface, which is pretty likely, fold up with fabric neatly at one end so that it isn’t hanging off the edge of the surface. Fabric that hangs off the edge can lead to pulling and stretching of the fabric on the surface, which ultimately leads to cutting out the pattern pieces inaccurately, which can then affect how the finished garment hangs.

Cutting layouts or lay plans

Sewing patterns will typically come with a suggested cutting layout in the instructions. These can be a really good starting point but you don’t have to follow them exactly and there are several reasons why you might not want or need to follow them as well!

Reasons you may work out your own lay plan rather than follow the pattern

  • Your fabric is a different width to the fabric mapped out in the instructions. This might mean that certain pattern pieces can’t fit side by side and you have to spread out more.
  • The cutting layout is a general guide for all sizes that are in the pattern, so depending on the size you are making then you might be able to squeeze the pieces closer together and use the fabric more economically
  • Your fabric has a pattern or design on it that you want to make a feature of. This could be a border print or a focal point of the pattern that you want to be centred on the garment front.

Key principles to follow when designing your own cutting layplan

  • Keep the grainline marking on the pattern piece parallel to the selvedge and check by measuring it!
  • If you are utilising a border print on your fabric and cutting it out with the grainline at 90 degrees to the grainline - draw in your own new grainline at 90 degrees to the original one and use this to measure against the selvedge.
  • If your fabric is non-directional and has no top/bottom to the design, try turning the pattern pieces so they aren’t all oriented in the same direction. This may allow you to squeeze them closer together and use less fabric.
  • Instead of folding the fabric symmetrically in half with the selvedges together, create a fold that is just big enough for the pattern piece you are cutting out. Ensure you measure from the selvedge to the fold so that you know it’s a straight, even fold.

Folding fabric straight on the grain - woven fabrics

Making sure the fabric is ‘straight on the grain’ means that when you lay it out, the threads that have woven or knitted the fabric are orientated as close to 90 degrees to each other as possible. This will ensure that when your garment is finished and sewn up, it doesn’t twist or distort or become out of shape or have an uneven hem.

There are things you can do to ensure your fabric is laying straight on the grain as it’s very unlikely that the fabric will do this automatically, you will need to move and manipulate it in some way yourself.

This can be more straightforward in woven fabric as there will be a selvedge to use as a reference point.

Pinning selvedge

This can be useful for slippery fabrics like viscose, rayon, tencel or silk. Pinning the selvedges together can help the fabric stay lined up as you move it around and work with it.

Dealing with the cut or ripped edge

Your piece of fabric will have either been cut or ripped from the bolt or roll it comes from. It’s best to avoid using this edge for lining the fabric or pattern pieces up as you don't know how accurately its been cut and when it’s torn, sometimes tearing can stretch the fabric a little bit as well. Instead, focus on the selvedge or print on the pattern to create the fold in the fabric and don’t worry if that edge doesn’t look lined up or if it looks squinty.

Taking account of a design or pattern

If you have a design, stripe or check on your fabric that you want to feature in a certain way, for example down the middle of the front or back, or over the centre of a sleeve head, you will predominantly use the design to help you place your pattern pieces rather than using the selvedge in the more traditional way that you would if the fabric was completely plain. Be aware that sometimes designs aren’t printed 100% accurately on the grain of a fabric, but if the design is very dominant or has a certain repeat, it will look better on the finished garment to go with the design/print, rather than favour getting the grainline totally accurate.

Folding fabric straight on the grain - Knit fabrics

This can be tricker as stretch fabrics are typically made on machines that are circular so the fabric is actually knitted as a tube. It then gets cut to make it a flat section of fabric that is then put on a roll or bolt.

Sometimes a fabric hardener is put on the cut edges of the fabric to stabilise it and stop it from rolling. This can give the appearance of a selvedge, but it is different from the selvedge on woven fabric and can’t always be relied on as a reference point in the same way.

Instead you can use the lines of the stitches that have knitted the fabric as a reference point. When you make a fold in the fabric and you look closely at the fold, you will see lots of lines that are created by the stitches that have made the fabric. Aim to get these lines as parallel to the fold as possible. They are too small to be super accurate but you can easily see the difference between when they are really squinty and when they are more or less lined up with the fold in the fabric.

If your fabric has a design or pattern on it you can use this as a guide for making a fold. Simply look down the fold of the fabric and ensure that the same part of the print is lining up against the fold.

Cutting out options

So now you are ready to actually cut the fabric! Don’t be scared, if you’ve made it this far and done all you can to prepare your fabric, you will have a successful cutting out session!

These are different ways to cut around your pattern pieces, all of which ultimately end up with the same outcome, so it will be personal preference on this one!

Pins and scissors

What some might say is the more traditional way of cutting out, in this method you pin the pattern pieces to your fabric and then cut around the with scissors. The is my personal preference when it comes to cutting out - old habits die hard! I’ve always done it this way and therefore find it the quickest and easiest method for me.

Tips when cutting around pattern pieces with scissors

  • Sharp dressmaking scissors are key here. Only ever use your fabric scissors for cutting fabric to preserve their sharpness for as long as possible. I like to use the Prym shears with micro serration blades. They have tiny little teeth on the blades that grip the fabric as you cut and I find it gives more more control over the fabric as I cut.
  • Don’t be afraid to use the whole length of blade, really open and close the scissors as you cut to make nice long smoother cuts.
  • Don’t fully close the scissors. As you close them, once you get to about 1cm away from the tip of the blade, stop and open the scissors back up again to make another cut. This will mean a little section of the fabric is sort of held up by the scissors and gives you more control over the next cut.
  • As far as possible, if you are right handed (vice versa if you are left handed), keep the pattern on your right hand side and the fabric you are cutting away on your left. Hold that section of fabric with your left hand as you cut. This will create a little tension in the fabric and give you much more control, especially when the section you are cutting off is narrow.

Rotary cutter and self healing mat

If you are a Sewing Bee fan, you will have probably noticed the contestants use the method a lot. For this method you need a bit more space and equipment.

  • A self healing mat to protect the surface you are working on. The larger this is the easier it will be for dressmaking. Large cutting mats can be difficult to store if you don’t have a dedicated sewing space as they need to be kept flat, so consider storage if you are thinking about the option.
  • The surface you are working on need to be hard/firm so that when you apply pressure with the rotary cutting you get force back again - so not a carpeted floor!
  • A rotary cutter - these come in two different diameters. The standard 45mm one and then a smaller 28mm one
  • Pattern weights. You will need to weigh down your pattern pieces so that they don’t move as you are cutting. You can get dedicated pattern weights, or you can use heavier items around the house - cans of food for example!

The same rules of measuring from the grainline to the selvedge to make sure your pattern pieces are on the straight grain all still apply. I personally find with dressmaking, it is hard to get a bit enough surface and mat for the pattern pieces I am cutting out to make it time efficient. You might have to regularly move the mat underneath your fabric, which can then distort and move the fabric and you then need to spend more time flattening it out.

You could combine the pins and scissors method with rotary cutting if you just roughly cut around your pattern pieces once they are pinned on, then tidy up the edges with the rotary cutting and mat. That way it is easier to move the fabric around and ensure it is always over the mat as you cut.

Tracing wheel and carbon paper

This method is similar to the rotary cutter and cutting mat option, but instead of going around your pattern pieces with the rotary cutting, you use a tracing wheel, which leaves a marking on the fabric that you then cut around.

You ideally still need a cutting mat for this option so that there is sufficient force or pressure against the tracing wheel.

To set it up, you lay your fabric out, then place a layer of dressmakers carbon paper on top.

Then place your pattern piece on top, again ensure that the grainline is parallel to the selvedge and weigh it down as you would do for the rotary cutter method.

You then trace around your pattern piece with the tracing wheel and the carbon paper will transfer the lines you trace onto your fabric. You then remove the pattern piece and carbon paper and cut around the marked area with scissors.

I personally find this method a bit of a faff and I feel like with all the layers you can start to loose control of the fabric and it might move off grain.

Typically the size of the carbon sheets are quite small, so there will be a lot of shuffling around and moving the mat and the carbon paper for each pattern piece.

This method can be useful for transferring pattern markings onto the your fabric. So for example, you have already cut out your fabric and now need to transfer the darts onto the fabric. You could easily now work with this smaller section of fabric and just put the carbon paper under the area of the pattern you needed and trace over the darks or other markings.

It might also be useful for marking in the seam allowance when making a toile/muslin in calico fabric.

PDF projector files

I have seen this method for cutting out become more popular over recent years, but I have to admit I haven’t tried it myself.

It involves having a projector set up directly overhead of your fabric. Using the relevant file from your PDF pattern, you then project the pattern pieces onto the fabric and then you can cut around them.

For more information on this method I would suggest checking out this blog posts from Seamwork - 'Stop printing. Do you know about projector sewing?'

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