Top 5 Mistakes to Avoid When Cutting Fabric

Mistakes to avoid when cutting fabricI must admit, I am new to blogging, but I wanted to start with a topic that is near and dear to my heart.

So many people spend hundreds of dollars on a good sewing machine, use it for a few months and then they give up, and put it back in the box in the basement where it remains for years –untouched.  Somewhere in their sewing journey, many aspiring sewers become afraid or demotivated because the project did not turn out the way they wanted.  A big pile of unfinished garments is a dead give away!  Our brain is trained to look for inconsistencies and it is how we judge beauty.  Unconsciously, we know something is off and we give up before we finish.The reason for this doomed journey starts at the fabric store but is often made worse by how we end up cutting the fabric.  Here are my top 5 mistakes to avoid when cutting fabric.

The reason for this doomed journey starts at the fabric store but is often made worse by how we end up cutting the fabric.  Here are my top 5 mistakes to avoid when cutting fabric.

#1.  Not washing the fabric before cutting.

Natural fibers come from vegetable material (cotton, hemp, flax etc) or animals (wool, cashmere, silk, alpaca etc).  Below I have tested a 100% cotton swatch measuring 10 x 10cm, I soaked and washed the swatch and ironed it with a very hot iron. As you can see in the second photograph the swatch shrunk considerably, this is because when fabrics are being woven the fibers are being tensed.

When these fibers come in contact with water they relax, but by applying heat once again, the fibers go back to their original state.  This process is similar to how a spring works.  Normally it will take several washes for some fabrics to relax as it would in a spring.  A good example of this is cotton and linen.  Both fabrics become smooth after a few washes, but when too much heat is applied –for example when we forget the cloth in the dryer for too long– the size of the garment will shrink considerably.

PicMonkey Collage 4

#2.  Not squaring and truing the fabric.  

To understand squaring and truing we need to learn a couple of terms that relate to fabrics.  On the picture below, the yarn being pulled is called the weft.  The yarn that runs perpendicular to it is the warp. In order to true the fabric we need to make a cut on the weft,  pull the thread and cut in the space that is left by the thread, as is seen on the picture.

weft, warp and selvage

The weft, wrap and selvage of fabric

To be able to square the fabric one most cut away the selvage which is the fuzzy edge that runs along the length of the fabric or, as is known, the warp of the fabric.  Cut away the edge by making a cut and pulling the thread and cutting the same way you did with the weft or the horizontal thread.

Sometimes when you go the fabric store, the chatty woman at the counter makes a cut in the fabric and rips your piece out, this action actually distorts the shape of your fabric. In the following picture, you can see the effect of this action.  I lost almost a bit more than a 1/4 of a yard getting the fabric to have a uniformed edge!

true edge of the fabric

Find the true edge of the fabric to cut on grain.

To square the fabric, after you have taken the selvage out, get someone to help you pull one corner of the fabric while you pull the diagonal corner, change and do the other corners. You are trying to restore the shape of the fabric. This step is particularly important if you are using cotton/elastane combination.

stretching the fabric before cutting

stretching fabric on a the bias to regain the original shape of the fabric

#3.  Not following pattern instructions for placement of the fabric grain.

Ending up with something so tight that it looks like Shapewear or a too-short mini skirt because you didn’t shrink your fabric before sewing is still not as bad as not using the grain of the fabric to place your pattern.  To find the grain of your fabric, all you have to do is square and true the fabric, join the side where the selvage was and fold the fabric.

The fabric grain is indicated on the pattern as the long arrow that runs the length of the pattern piece it will cause the fabric to hang correctly because it will be cut at a right angle.  Not only does it look bad, it’s annoying to wear because your skirt or pants will keep twisting around or clinging to you, but more importantly, the pieces of your pattern will not match. This is simply because the fabric will stretch at an angle.  A perfect example of this is a skirt cut on a bias.  We’ve all had t-shirts where they cut slightly off grain to save time and it twists around the torso.

Avoid this by making sure to place your pattern pieces accurately on grain when you cut out your patterns.  You can achieve this by measuring the distance from the selvage to the grain arrow and making sure it is equidistance, as show on the picture below.

using the grainline symbol in the pattern properly

Placing the pattern on the grain of the fabric

#4  Not having enough fabric to match plaids or stripes.

This is the classic mistake easily avoided by buying more fabric and placing the pattern so it matches the prints or plaid.  On your pattern, mark where the most prominent color.  In my example below,  I have marked the brown color  in all the pattern pieces, because is the most dominant, notice how you actually will use more fabric because not only you have  to use the direction of the color, but also you have to maintain the grain of the fabric.  As a rule, how much fabric you will need, will always depend on your size  and the width of the fabric you intend to use.

finalplaid Collage

how to match plaids when cutting fabric

#5 Using the wrong fabric.

A thin silky fabric will not make an appealing jacket due to its lack of structure.  It would however, make a very good lining.  A knit fabric will perform differently from a woven fabric because of the stretchability of the knit, therefore, the pattern pieces on a knitted garment are going to be less wide than normal patterns.  All Patterns will give you suggestions for what fabrics to use. It is possible to substitute the fabric according to its drapability.

Follow the instructions on the back of the envelope to the letter. It will be clearly  marked what kind of fabric will be best suited for the pattern, study the drawing, see how the garment falls away or clings  to the body.  Look at the illustration and try to match what the designer have used.  For a sample of swatches and their common uses please watch this video:

Its is easy to get excited when inspiration strikes us, and we want to get things done quickly, but by not avoiding this 5 common mistakes before cutting the fabric, you will only be sabotaging your own efforts and creativity. Taking the time to prepare your fabric may sound boring but it is essential for a good sewing outcome.

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15 Responses to Top 5 Mistakes to Avoid When Cutting Fabric

  1. TERRY Collins says:

    A VERY easy way to square fabric: Fold the fabric in half, selvage to selvage. Place one of your hands on the left of the fabric, and one on the right. Move your hands & arms left and right a few times, then give the fabric two or three shakes, Repeat this a few times. Then, lie your fabric on your table/work surface and cut off the uneven edge. I read this or watched a video of it on another web site and tried it, and it works!! She wasn’t sure why it works, but it does.

  2. Maureen T says:

    Article was very good. However, when I am working with a cotton, poly or mix of both, I always tear a strip to get the correct grain. Some fabrics leave an edge that is kind of ruffled, but a quick ironing will straighten the edge. I do this before I wash my fabric. Then I serge the edges so I don’t loose any more fabric to squaring it. Recently I tore on piece of fabric to straighten the cut.. It was a plisse, known as the Tutti Fruitti group of fabrics. It is a cotton poly mix and actually looks like seersucker. It started to tear sideways when I was 2/3 down into the tear. But it is the first fabric that has done this to me in over 50 years. I have torn other pieces of this same line as well as other brands of seersucker to find the grain. So occasionally it may not work, but for me, I find it a faster than trying to pull a strand or 2 of very very fine thread to get the grain. I learned it from stores that did that back in the ‘day’ such as the fabric department at J. C. Penney’s and elsewhere. They only started a cut with scissors, then tore the piece. Each and every time.

    • Mayra at So Sew Easy says:

      Hi Maureen, thanks for sharing that. Yes, you’re right that tearing will work well for certain kinds of fabrics. It probably helps to have seen it done back in the ‘day’ as you say as I think some of the new sewers would be surprised, maybe even shocked, by how that works. Great comment and thanks again.

  3. Nina says:

    Brilliant refresher . Its sometimes to easy to get caught up in the excitement of a new project to forget the basics. am returning to sewing after a long break, so this article is really useful to help bring it all back

  4. beginning quilter says:

    why are quilters not washing fabrics and not using grain, but cutting by fabric pattern? Also fabrics are no longer printed on grain anymore it is almost impossible to match a pattern and keep fabrics on grain. Very few fabrics are woven anymore.

  5. Yvonne Finne says:

    I must admit to being a bit envious of all the folks who learned to do these things at an early point in their sewing experience. I am entirely self-taught and I do not always see the problems I have caused until much later. I truly appreciate the effort it must take for you to run the blog and websites and want you to know how helpful this is to me. Thank you!!

    • Mayra at So Sew Easy says:

      Hi Yvonne, I’m glad you found the article helpful and thank you for your kind comments. We plan to have much, much more similar content in the future so please stay tuned!

  6. I made every one of these mistakes when I started sewing. The tips I would add are don’t rush, don’t sew/cut when you are super tired, and don’t start a clothing item 2 hours before you need it.

  7. Debbie Ward says:

    I get so nervous when it comes time to actually cut the fabric!!! and you are so correct most sites/stores today forget to tell sewers you should always wash & iron all washable fabrics prior to cutting out patterns. My mother and my grand mom always told me to do this. I’ve taken some sewing classes where fabric was provided as part of the class and I had no choice but to cut out the pattern then and there and fabrics hadn’t been washed, very disappointed in teachers today around my area.

  8. Pamela says:

    I wish I learned this stuff years ago when I started sewing!

  9. Jane says:

    Absolutely the best, most clear explanation for new or returning sewists. Many thanks!

  10. Pamela Joy says:

    This is a great article, thank you for explaining how to square fabric! I’ve always had trouble in this area and look forward to trying your method!

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