Sunday, 20 January 2013

Marking & Cutting Fabric



This post is part of Learn to Sew, aimed at beginners.

The other day a good friend who is learning to sew asked me how to go about transferring pattern markings onto fabric. There are loads of different ways of doing it, and everyone has their favourite method. Let's talk through some of the options...

Marking tools



Test out a few different marking tools to see which ones you prefer. Test them out on your fabric too - different fabrics will respond differently to different markers, so try them out on a small scrap of whichever fabric you're using to check that 1) it shows up enough for you to see it, but 2) it won’t stain the fabric permanently!

Washable pens → These pens are cheap and widely available in multi-coloured packs (check the children’s department in stationery shops). They show up well on lots of fabrics and will come out in the first wash (though do check first!).

Tracing wheel → Place dressmaker's carbon faced down on your fabric, lay the pattern on top, then use a tracing wheel to trace the lines onto the fabric. Nifty!

Hera marker → This little gadget, used a lot in quilting, scratches a little groove into fabric fibres, which will come out in the wash.

Chalk pencil → Usually available in white, blue and pink, chalk pencils are easy to use, and they rub off fairly easily - which is both a pro and a con, depending on which way you look at it.

Tailor’s chalk → These chalk triangles have slim edges and are useful for making quick, smooth lines onto fabric and pretending you work on Saville Row.

Other options for marking include tailor’s tacks and disappearing ink.

Cutting tools



I’m a big advocate of making do, but if you want to get yourself a proper cutting arsenal, this is what you’ll need:

Dressmaking scissors → Invest in a nice, sharp pair of dressmaking scissors which will glide through fabric easily. Keep them away from paper to keep them sharper for longer.

Rotary cutter → Optional and a matter of personal preference. A rotary cutter is useful for speedy cutting and for fabric that slips and slides around easily. Watch out for that blade though – ouch! Keep fingers and toes away and keep it closed when not in use.

Embroidery scissors or thread snippers → Keep these handy for snipping your threads.

Paper scissors → To keep your dressmaking scissors sharp, have some dedicated paper scissors for cutting out your patterns.

Pinking shears → Not shown here as I don’t have any, but some people like using pinking shears to cut a zigzag edge on seams for a speedy finish.

Cutting mat → A seriously good idea if you don’t want to scratch your kitchen table!

Cutting methods


Righto, so now let's talk about how to use these tools to cut out your fabric.

The key to accurate cutting is to keep your fabric as flat as possible against the table. Take your time when cutting and use the hand you’re not cutting with to gently hold your fabric in place.


Option 1) Pins + Dressmaking Scissors
Cut the pattern pieces out with paper scissors – either exactly on (or just within) the lines, or leaving some extra paper around the lines. Pin the pattern pieces to the fabric – use enough pins to hold the pattern in place, but not so many that the pinning distorts the pattern or fabric. Now cut the fabric with dressmaking scissors. If you’ve cut the pattern pieces out roughly, cut directly on the lines through both pattern and fabric. This can dull your fabric scissors though; but on the other hand, it can be more accurate than cutting around a pre-cut pattern.


Option 2) Pattern Weights + Chalk/Pen + Dressmaking Scissors/Rotary Cutter
Cut the pattern pieces out with paper scissors precisely on (or just within) the lines. Instead of pinning the pattern pieces in place, this time use weights to hold them in place. The idea is that weights keep the pattern and fabric flatter than the pinning method. You don't have to buy specialist pattern weights - you can use whatever you have around the house, such as food tins. Draw around the pieces with a sharp chalk pencil or washable pen. Remove the pattern and use dressmaking scissors or a rotary cutter to cut the fabric just within the pattern lines you've just drawn.


Option 3) Pattern Weights + Dressmaker's Carbon + Tracing Wheel + Dressmaking Scissors
This is my favourite way of marking and cutting fabric, particularly when I don't want to cut into my pattern. Hold the pattern pieces down on the fabric with weights. Slip a piece of dressmaker's carbon between the pattern and fabric, face down against the fabric. Trace over the pattern lines using a tracing wheel  moving the dressmaker's carbon as you need to. Remove the pattern. Cut out the fabric directly on the traced lines using dressmaking scissors.

As well as marking the cutting lines of the pattern, don't forget to mark in the other bits and bobs such as darts, buttonholes and gather points. I'll explain all these markings in another post...

What's your favourite method of marking and cutting fabric?
Like this? Read more Learn to Sew.

62 comments:

  1. I enjoyed reading this tutorial. My favourite method of marking is your third option, using a tracing wheel, although I tend to use the second option when I am rushing (being lazy!!). I always find I get in a mess if I use the pin and cut method. You've made me realise I must stop being lazy and use the method where I personally get the best results.
    Clare

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    1. I love the tracing wheel not only because it can be more accurate but mainly because it's so much fun!

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  2. The fitting and the marking and the cutting... the most important bit! Very nicely explained here!

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  3. You might be covering this in the next post, but what's the "correct" way to cut notches? I often see them cut outwards, which looks nice, but seems like a huge pain to do as you're cutting (in terms of maneuvering the scissors). I usually default to cutting them inwards, but I'm not sure if that's a bad habit.

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    1. Aha good question! Yes, I'm going to demonstrate this in a separate post. But the short answer is that I make a single snip rather than cutting the triangles that are often on sewing patterns, because triangles can distort the fabric shape and could result in ripping. Plus it's faster to just cut a single snip!

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  4. I always trace patterns, add SA to the pattern and cut out the traced pattern. I then pin the pattern pieces to the fabric and cut it out . much faster than the usual way we are taught in "continental Europe" (I live in Denmark) - trace without SA, pin to fabric, add SA and cut out.

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    1. I usually only use patterns that already have seam allowances included, even if I draft them myself. In fact, always I think!

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    2. I guess my point was that I hardly every mark fabric. I pin the pattern and cut out.

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  5. Embroidery transfer pens and embroidery transfer sheets work, too. The sheets are my preferred method of transferring necessary markings. All you have to do is slide it between the pattern and the fabric and trace the marking with a chopstick. I find it's highly accurate and less fiddly than other methods.

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  6. You always explain things so clearly:) i love sewing and making clothes- i would love to try a tuitorial post but i'm relativley new to the sewing world and would be afraid to say something wrong. your post was lovely though x

    http://alexdickson.blogspot.com/

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  7. I could hav e done with this article yesterday as I was making pj bottoms for my daughter -first proper project since I got my sewing machine for Christmas. I need to find better carbon paper as it did not transfer properly. My wheel is smooth, not notched like yours. I ended up transferring the pattern onto brown paper as I did not want to cut up my original pattern. No preferences as to method yet as I'll need to try out a few. I do like my rotary cutter and cutting mat for cutting out regular shaped pieces for drawstring bags, for example. This was much quicker and neater than scissors. PS my daughter loves her new pj bottoms:-)

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    1. Haha! Glad your daughter loves her PJs.

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    2. If you're going to use a rotary cutter regularly, it might be a good idea to invest in a safety glove to protect your fingers! I learnt the hard way after slicing a sliver off the corner of my finger - ouch! I bought mine online, & it wasn't that expensive.

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  8. Somewhat related to this…
    I'm having trouble figuring out the exact grain lines of my fabrics and placing the pattern pieces accordingly before cutting them out. I would appreciate some help with how to go about that!
    Thank you for doing this series!

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    1. Did you see this post on preparing your fabric before cutting?

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    2. Hi Tilly,

      Thanks for the reply!
      Yes, I had actually read that post before, and now I've just re-read it all. It's helpful, but I still have the issue that once I've religiously pre-washed my fabric and ironed it, things aren't perfectly straight and parallel any more. Something is always off and aligning the selvedges doesn't work.
      Another issue occurs when I have to cut things on the fold. The first pattern I tried to work with was a simple tank top made up of two pieces, one for the front and one for the back. They both had to be cut on the fold. I'm somewhat small and slim, so they both fit into the width of the fabric. Meaning, I needed two folds, and both could obviously not be in the middle of the fabric. I had a hell of a time with trying to get things to look straight, and I'm afraid when everything is slightly off, I can't really tell.

      Oh dear, sorry this is such a novel. I guess I'm just somewhat confused. I need more practice!

      Jana

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    3. Oh I see what you mean - sounds like your fabric is off grain, meaning that the fibres have gone a bit wonky. Sometimes you can pull the fibres back into shape. Or here's a tutorial on another method.

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    4. Aha, sounds as if I have to work on my ironing, then!
      Thanks for that tutorial!

      Jana

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  9. Have you tried Frixion erasable rollerball pens by Pilot? They are definitely my preferred method for marking. Basically the ink is erased by the heat produced by rubbing the cap of the pen against paper. Hint: use the heat of your iron when you mark fabric! I have used in on a variety of fabrics and it seems to work perfectly fine every time. Con: take care when you press seams open, as you could accidentally erase some markings.

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    1. And by the way, thank you for the link to that incredibly cheap A1 self healing mat! I think I'm going to treat myself this evening!

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    2. I haven't tried them but I'd like to!

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  10. Thank you for your informative post. I just bought a disappearing ink marker, have you tried them? It seems to good to be true! Also, if I need to make a pattern (trace one or draw one), what paper is best?

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    1. I still use regular washable pens but will definitely give a disappearing ink pen one of these days. You can use all sorts of paper for patterns. I like using semi-translucent paper - I just bought a massive roll of it but before that I used kitchen baking paper! You could also use parcel paper or something like that if you don't need to trace.

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  11. Excellent post!

    I've been sharing these to Facebook to help my younger sister, now pregnant with her second child, since she's expressed an interest in trying to sew clothes for her children and a bewilderment of where on earth to start.

    Since I really only learned from my mom how to push the pedal to make a sewing machine go, I knew there would be a post somewhere along the way to enhance my self-taught knowledge. Now I know what that weird little wheel-thingie is in every sewing kit you get! A tracing wheel! NOw I want to get some dressmaker's carbon and play with it. Weights won't work for me yet until I can get a proper flat surface to use.

    I found out the hard way that regular pencils are a bad idea for fabric marking >.<

    I'm also excited to say that I have all those cutting tools except the rotary! My grey-handled Wescott fabric scissors (clearly marked with sharpie "Fabric ONLY!"), red-handled scissors for paper (previously fabric scissors that dulled very quickly), little white thread scissors which came with my new Brother sewing machine, and even pinking shears somewhere from some hand-me-down family craft stuff.

    Also, squeeeee! Thanks Vaire, I actually have one of those erasable pens in red, I MUST try it!

    I'm so excited, I'm going to go play with my sewing stuff!

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    1. Haha I LOVE your enthusiasm! Yay for playing with sewing stuff!

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  12. You left out my two favourite marking tools: Chaco Liner chalk wheels and a sliver of soap. Also I never use scissors to cut out anymore. I have a rotary cutter with a dull blade for paper and a sharp one for cloth. So fast and much more accurate! I also use lovely smooth beach stones for pattern weights. Free for the collecting.

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    1. I'd read about the soap option but have never tried it myself. I'll have to save a sliver before chucking out my next bar...

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  13. Hi Tilly, thanks for this great series! I don't like to cut my original patterns as I sometimes re-use them over and over, and in different sizes. I trace off onto greaseproof paper or dressmaking paper. It's a bit of a faff though and I'm on the look out for time-saving ways! I have some carbon paper and have been meaning to get a tracing wheel for ages, but some of them look really pointy! Do they tear the original pattern at all? I have seen some blunt ones advertised...yours looks fairly pointy though. Do you have a problem with it? If not, which do you use? Thank you! Catherine

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    1. My tracing wheel isn't as sharp as some that you can get, so it doesn't rip the pattern - although it does leave a little mark. I'm pretty sure this is the one I've got.

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    2. Thanks so much, maybe time to treat myself.

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  14. Thanks Tilly, I should have read this before I tried to cut out jersey for the first time last night :|
    Cotton was so easy.. I have a feeling the stretchy fabric will be the death of me when I get around to sewing it also haha

    www.becstitches.blogspot.com.au

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  15. I haven't used carbon before. I really should read up more about different techniques. You can actually learn something new about sewing every day!

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    1. Very true! There's so much to learn with sewing.

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  16. My favourite marking tool is a chalk pen. They come in all the colours tailor's chalk comes in, but I can't break them like I always do solid chalk, haha. I just got a rotary cutter and mat for Christmas, and now it is my go-to form of cutting, although things too big for the mat are still happy with good old scissors. Dedicated paper scissors are the best thing to have for sewing, but don't forget to still have your fabric scissors sharpened regularly. Nothing beats cutting with freshly sharpened shears :)

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  17. I've also discovered that crayons also work well for marking. They also wash off and come in a multitude of colors.

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  18. Maybe this will be covered in a future post, but what about situations where the fabric is doubled to cut 2 of something and you need to have markings on both sides? Cause, and I may be incorrect here, I'm pinning the pattern to the wrong side of the fabric and the markings also go on the wrong side? So the tracing wheel works fine for the top, but doesn't seem to want to push all the way through for the other side.

    I tried post-cutting flipping the fabric, realigning the pattern on the unmarked side, and then marking that side, but that seems a bit error-prone.

    And I'm only overcoming my fear of internet commenting because your tutorials are great! Thank you for putting them out there!

    Rachel

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    1. Hi Rachel
      Thanks for overcoming your fear of commenting. Particularly as you ask such a good question! What I do is put dressmakers carbon on both sides - either using two pieces or folding one. As long as the fabric isn't too thick, the tracing wheel should mark both sides.
      Hope this helps!

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    2. Thanks, Tilly :)

      Do you use a pointy tracing wheel, or a smooth one? Right now I use a smooth one, but I have a sneaking suspicion that a pointy one would work better...

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    3. I use a smooth one too - I'm a bit anxious that the pointy ones would rip my fabric.

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  19. Great idea to use children's washable markers! I never thought of it before. I like to use chalk or disappearing ink pens when marking. For cutting I either use scissors or a rotary cutter. Thanks for the tips!

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  20. Great article - super useful for newbies. I use a bar soap leftover as a replacement for tailor's chalk.

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  21. The way I trace patterns is, if they have seam allowances, come in by the SA and mark the stitching line. I then place the pattern piece on to the material or muslin if making one, and cut this out leaving a fair bit of material around the piece.

    I then trace the stitching line onto the material marking all the notches etc by using wax paper and a tracing wheel. Once I have done one side, I remove the pattern piece, flip it over (keeping it pinned) and use the first tracing to do the other side (if double material).

    This way I get a large seam allowance and if needed I have room to go out! It gets trimmed back later...

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    1. Interesting method! Thanks for sharing it.

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  22. Brilliant post :d as a relatively newcomer to sewing myself (about 2.5 years now) I think that this sort of inforation is invaluable for a lovely visual reference.

    I'm now an avid blog follower :D

    Gemma http://everydayimstitchin.blogspot.co.uk/
    x

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  23. Ok, so I'm wondering if anyone has any experience with a tracing wheel that also has powdered chalk attached? I was given one but I have no idea how I should be using it - if it should be used in conjunction with the carbon paper or if it should be used by itself? The powdered chalk seems to fall off before I get to cutting out the fabric... Hoping this isn't a silly question :|

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    1. Ooh I've never seen one of those. I guess the idea is that it doesn't need carbon paper? But if the chalk is falling off that doesn't sound good...

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    2. I use these just for small markings, because as you say the chalk comes off quite easily. It is just another form of tailor's chalk.

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    3. I use these just for small markings, because as you say the chalk comes off quite easily. It is just another form of tailor's chalk.

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  24. Great tips. For some reason marking methods that are supposed to wash out never quite seem to for me. Disappearing ink has reappeared and some tailor's chalk I still can't seem to quite get off. I suspect it's me getting too antsy and accidentally pressing over it without properly removing the marks first but argh!

    Here was a new one to me... for Christmas my (also sewist) mom gave me a set of Pilot erasable highlighters. They're not intended for marking on fabric but she said some people rave about them for that purpose. I was skeptical but tried it on wool, poly lining and some cotton. I didn't expect my BRIGHT PINK highlighter markings to disappear when I pressed with an iron but lo and behold they did on all three! I have to give them more testing for sure but I was impressed!

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  25. This is genius. now off to find a tracing wheel. thank you

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  26. Another method I've seen for marking things like darts and notches on patterns works when your pattern is still pinned to the fabric: Lay the carbon underneath the fabric, carbon side up, with the pattern on top (so the fabric is in the middle of a carbon-pattern sandwich). Then trace directly on the pattern.

    Then you remove the pattern, re-pinning your fabric, and flip the fabric, so your marks are on top and the carbon is still on the bottom. Then you can trace over the marks you already made to mark the other side of the pattern.

    Someone else mentioned fabric that seems to get off-grain after washing. There are some great tutorials online for getting fabric back on grain if it gets distorted. My personal favorite is to tear it perpendicular to the selvedge. (I tried to reply directly to that comment, but the reply link didn't want to work...)

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  27. I'm quite sloppy when cutting - I just pin the exactly cut pattern to the fabric and cut, adding seam allowances by eye. The only lines I mark are the ones drawn inside the pattern like darts, marks for zippers etc. using the same method as described by laura k. Another old-fashioned way I know to mark drafts etc. is to loosely hand sew along the lines through both layers of fabric, than cut the thread in between the layers. For waist marks etc. I cut a little triangle into the seam allowance.

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  28. I've actually had really good luck with washable sidewalk chalk, it leaves much clearer marks and comes off fairly easily. It also happens to be way cheaper than most chalk for sewing purposes. The only downside is that it's hard to get a precise line, but you can just sand it down to sharpen it to a point.

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  29. The best blog!! I'm new on this of sewing and i'm glad that i found this blog :3 also, i'm in a sewing class but an extra information is so helpful when i'm at home thaaaanks!! Grettings from Mexico

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  30. I have a pattern that has both the sew lines and the seam allowance marked on it. I'm working in PVC. How would you transfer the pattern onto the PVC, or would you cut out the pattern on the sew lines and just add the seam allowance?
    (If that makes any sense!)

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    1. If the seam allowance is consistent - which it should be - just cut out on the outer (cutting) line, then use the markings on your machine to make sure you're sewing at the right width away from the raw edge. Does that make sense?

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  31. So glad to find your blog Tilly. I've been making tailor tacks for decades and it's my least favourite part of making something but I can't figure a quicker way to get a marking through the paper pattern and onto the folded-over half of a piece cut on the fold. Does anyone know of a quicker way?
    About rotary cutters. We use them in rag rug making to cut fabric quickly into strips. They are very fast, and LETHAL. You should NEVER NEVER put the cutter down with the blade exposed. I heard of a woman who was invited to a quilting club once where they had a firm rule about this. She was seen putting her cutter down without guarding the blade and was asked not to come back!
    http://sarahsragrugs.blogspot.co.uk/

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  32. Hello!

    The guy that (professionally) sharpens my scissors told me that you can cut paper with your fabric scissors any time, just keep them away from plastic, that's what takes the sharpness away. Actually as lately most fabrics have a lot polyester in them, my sewing scissors tend to loose their sharpness quicker than earlier.

    Maybe you should double check with your scissor sharpener, but before I was also under the illusion you shouldn't use fabric scissors on paper and actually it doesn't make much difference (I've always been using them to cut paper anyway).

    Great tutorials :)

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