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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94 Responses to Top 5 Mistakes to Avoid When Cutting Fabric

  1. Irene Morrison says:

    I did not see the yardage requirements for the different fabric widths and the different dress sizes. should I first cut out and join the fronts and backs to estimate the yardage needed?

    • Mayra Cecilia says:

      Yes, I never put that info simply because it would take me another couple of hours that I frankly do not have. What you can do is print the pattern and work out the yardage you require for the size and width you are going to be using. Not sure what pattern are you looking for but normally I mention what I am using and how much. If you still need further help let me know via email.

  2. Suzanne says:

    I began learning to sew over 60 years ago and I enjoy reading your posts very much.
    You’re a wonderful teacher, just like the one I had back then – my mother. She helped me develop a love of sewing that’s still with me today. I find it fun and relaxing, and it’s been very helpful in these days of the Covid-19 quarantine situation; I’m never bored and I always have something to do.

    For all these years, I have kept the machine she used to teach me. It’s a 1948 or ’49 White Rotary 77 mounted in a cabinet. It has “pride of place” in my family room where I can look at it and visualize her sitting there, sewing something for one of us kids. She’s been gone for many years and I miss her still, but the memories are wonderful.

    You and she have something in common. Her name was Ellen Cecilia. I wonder – could he name Cecilia mean Teacher? 😉

    • Mayra Cecilia says:

      You made me cry, the picture of your mother at the sewing machine what a great memory, greatest till having the machine still working. To me is an honour to carry this name that has been in my family for generations. So thank you…sending you a virtual hug.

  3. Fran Truswell says:

    I have a piece of material with a pattern of lace and the selvage edge has a lacy finish my problem is if I want the edge of the sleeve to have the lacy edge I will be cutting against the grain Help

    • Mayra Cecilia says:

      Hi Fran, that is not the end of the world, it is true that you need to cut on the grain, but this rule relaxes when you have to put the design first. Go ahead and cut the sleeve with the edge of the lace used as the hem of the sleeve. This question is a great idea for me to explain in detail the grainline and its effect on the design. Thank you for the inspiration.

  4. Gail Soucoup says:

    All great but people do not realize ironing seams 3-ways.

    • Mayra Cecilia says:

      Indeed it is important, but this article is about what to have in mind before cutting fabric. Thank you have given me an idea for a follow up article.

  5. Linda says:

    This is exactly what I learned in my home economic class. And that was in 1969, That you so much for the review!!

  6. Jacqui says:

    You make such valid points and this is not rocket science. I have learned that just taking that few minutes to check all these points saves a lot of head ache and regret. thank you so much for making things easier for all of us xx

  7. Angelina says:

    I love this post! My mom taught me how to sew at a very young age, but I have been away for a few decades. So, for now I will say I’m a temporary newbie, who wants to make her grandchildren clothes as well as my own. I found it interesting that we’re supposed to prewash our fabrics, but I never recall my mom prewashing before cutting the pattern, but I will definitely try it.

    I’m grateful/thankful that I found this website in such of understanding what 40″, 60″ meant as it relates to the fabric and what should we do when we can only find 51″?

    • Mayra Cecilia says:

      Hi Angelina, not sure what you mean so I am assuming you mean how to place the pattern on the fabric? Is this is so I just wrote this article that I think you will find useful Let me know if you have any other question, a comment is the best way to get help. If I don’t know the answer someone among the readers will answer it for you.

    • Royce says:

      I think you mean the WOF (width of fabric) measurements? If so, usually the back of the pattern envelope will give you different yardage requirements based on the WOF. The requirements for nap, directional, plaids & stripes, etc. are also listed. Just take your time & read all of this before having them cut fabric for you at the store. Also, as Mayra Cecilia says, use appropriate fabrics, as suggested on the envelope. However, I always leave the selvage on the fabric because it gives a point of reference, so I know which way is the Grain line. DO NOT ever include the actual selvage within the cutting area. Additionally, when using sleek, silky fabrics, the selvage helps to stabilize the fabric while handling it during cutting preparations.

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