Pattern cutting tips

I’ll be helping someone sew a dress soon, and thought some information about cutting out patterns that I’ve gathered for that person would be of general usefulness. There are hows and whys and Opinions.


The back of the pattern envelope will help you choose your fabric, as well as telling you what you need for fasteners, elastic, etc. Pay special attention to pattern envelopes that say “sized for stretch knits only.” That means the way the pattern is designed and sized, using non-stretchy fabric may produce a body cast. Note also that pattern sizes don’t match off the rack sizes. This may be less true for children and juniors, but for adults… I’m two sizes bigger in sewing patterns than in off the rack clothing. Measurements are provided to make sure you’re cutting the right size.

Cut apart the pattern pieces needed for the garment you’re making. This will in most cases be far from all of the pieces in the envelope. If there is a length variation given by pieces with two possible bottom lines, and you’re making the shorter version, if you think there is any chance you’ll ever want to make the longer version, then cut neatly along the dividing line, fold up the bottom portion of the longer version, and save it in the envelope. Otherwise, just cut somewhere near to and outside the cutting line; no need to be precise when you’ll be cutting again anyway.

If unfolding and running your hands over the pattern pieces doesn’t smooth them very well, you can iron them. My grandmother always did, with a dry iron at the wool setting.

Fabric Preparation

I always wash fabric for clothing prior to cutting it out (clearly I avoid dry clean only fabrics). That way if the fabric makes any changes in the wash, it’s happened ahead of time. I run a zigzag stitch along each cut edge first, to prevent fraying. The zigzag doesn’t have to be tight – I use the widest zigzag and often the longest stitch, though for something particularly fray-prone like satin I’d probably shorten the stitch. Depending on the fabric, you may need to iron it afterward, though with some fabrics if you remove them from the dryer promptly they are ready to go. Something I have learned recently is that pushing a steamy iron along fabric will stretch it, and so now I only use steam for persistent wrinkles, and when I do use steam I try to pick up and set the iron, maybe wiggling it a bit in place, rather than pushing it along.

Pattern cutting tips at ReveDreams: selvedges A little vocabulary, in case it’s needed: perpendicular to the cut edges are finished edges. “Finished” doesn’t necessarily mean smooth – they may be a bit fuzzy – but does mean that the edge won’t ravel. The finished edge is called the selvedge, and its direction is called the straight grain (or sometimes just the grain) of the fabric. The direction from selvedge to selvedge (parallel, or parallel-ish, to the cut edges) is called the cross grain. Halfway between straight grain and cross grain, which is to say diagonally on the fabric, is called the bias. Some selvedges are shown in the picture to left.

Pattern cutting tips at ReveDreams: rippled fold The pattern instructions will show you layouts suitable for different width fabrics. Most of those will have the fabric folded in half, selvedge meeting selvedge, so you can cut two mirrored pieces at once. It is important that the fold line be smooth, and this will sometimes require the cut edges not be aligned. The picture to left shows the diagonal ripples that indicate the selvedges need to be slid a bit along each other; the ripples are caused by the cross grain being a bit twisted.

Laying Out

Pattern cutting tips at ReveDreams: grainline mark. Again, the pattern instructions will show you options for laying out the pattern pieces. Some pieces may be laid out with one edge at the fold line (often the piece that crosses the center front of the garment). Others will be out in the middle of the fabric, but have a long line on them showing the direction of the straight grain of the fabric (pictured; depending on the brand it may or may not have arrowheads or a “grainline” label). The easiest way to get that line the right direction is with a ruler: make each end of it the same distance from the selvedges.

Why? Aside from making sure that, say, the sheen of the fabric is the same on each piece, the grainline marking has structural purpose. The straight grain of the fabric is the least stretchy direction. Most patterns have the grainline positioned so that the straight grain will be vertical in the finished clothing. This makes the vertical line of the clothing the most sag-resistant direction of the fabric. For patterns that use stretchy fabric, the grainline makes sure the stretch goes the correct direction. Some patterns, for swirly skirts for instance, will have the grainline pointing diagonally, so that the vertical (and horizontal, too) line of the clothing is on the bias. The bias is the most stretchy direction, and provides for a lot of mobility even in non-stretchy fabric.

Knowing this, you can figure out when it’s okay to violate the rules. If I’m cutting a boxer shorts pattern out of cotton flannel (read: not a lot of weight hanging, reasonably sturdy fabric, no stretch to worry about orienting), I let the grainline marking be with the straight or cross grain as necessary to fit the pattern on the fabric.

Pin your pattern pieces through both layers of fabric, with the pins parallel to and within the cutting line, making sure to get pins in each corner. How frequent your pins are depends on the fabric and the need for precision; for stable fabric every 5-6 inches might suffice, whereas for shifty light fabric, you might need them every 1-2 inches.


Pattern cutting tips at ReveDreams: triangular marks There are numerous markings on patterns, and to me the ones essential in the cutting process are the triangles. These will later help you correctly line up pieces of varying shapes in order to sew them together. I was taught to cut the triangles outward, so as to avoid weakening the seam allowance, and that the most important thing to be accurate with is where the main cutting line meets the outside edges of the triangle(s). The height or shape of the triangles isn’t so important as long as you can match those corners (not every pattern mirrors the triangles on the outside of the cutting line like the one pictured does).

There are numerous other possible markings, including dots, and dashed-line triangles or diamonds indicating darts, but I haven’t found a good system for transferring them to the fabric and tend to just go back to the pattern while sewing and mark these (with sewing pins, typically) when I’m ready to use them. Generally, instructions say to transfer those with chalk or a fabric pen – the kind that fades or washes out.

There you have it: my approach to cutting out patterns. Keep the pattern envelope with its instructions and pattern pieces close at hand.

First time wet-felting

Just over a year ago, I bought a skein of Noro Kureyon, a scratchy wool yarn the yarn shop proprietor said was good for felting. I couldn’t decide what to make with it, so it sat for ages. Well, with my new drawing habit, I wanted something to keep my pencil and eraser in – mostly so they would be easier to hold on to when I wanted to move between the dining table and sewing room table.

The shape I decided on was a barrel with a flap in the long direction, buttoned down near each end. The pattern is at the bottom of this post (behind the cut, if you’re on my main blog page); before that are my experiences with the felting process.

pencil pouch, preassembly assembled pouch pre-felting

My pre-felting measurements:
Gauge: a bit over 11 stitches and a bit under 13 rows in 4″.
The rectangle is 10.75″ tall and just over 9″ wide.

assembled pouch pre-felting, showing end pouch brushed, pre-felting

I read this was a good but slow felting yarn, and decided to help it along by brushing it with a cat brush before starting the felting process. I don’t know whether it helped, but then I don’t have any comparison.

slightly felted pencil pouch slightly felted pencil pouch

slightly felted pencil pouch partially felted pencil pouch

I started with two rounds of wash-wash-rinse in my giant washing machine, with two spiky plastic dryer balls for company and a little bit of soap. The machine was set on heavy soil, hot water, and the heavy duty cycle, and the pouch was in a mesh bag to keep in lint. Even after a run in the dryer, very little happened (the results are the first 3 pictures above). Afterward I did a round of hand-felting by shaking the pouch (without a mesh bag) with the dryer balls in a plastic canister, in two changes of water, each with a bit of dish soap and one also with baking soda. I read that hard water inhibits felting, and while I wouldn’t call ours hard, it’s far from soft. Another trip through the dryer, and still just about nothing (last picture above).

After a bit more research, I learned this “good for felting” yarn has a reputation online for being persnickety about felting. I went back to the washing machine, but more seriously. Same settings, with a round of wash-wash-rinse, but this time with two pairs of pants in addition to the dryer balls, a kettleful of nearly boiling water added to each wash, and a pretreatment of soaking the pouch in ice water before the first wash – the temperature change is supposed to help shock the fibers open. No mesh bag, either, because it didn’t seem to be shedding badly.

fully felted pencil pouch - front fully felted pencil pouch - back

That is when the magic happened. So much smaller, so little stitch definition. I don’t know how much was the particular method I used last and how much was the fibers finally being ready to give up their original shape, but I can say I’ll start with this method next time. A shave (see notes on razors in an earlier post) and some buttons and it was ready for use!

shaved pencil pouch pencil pouch on sketchbook

Final measurements: 7″ seam to seam and 8.5″ end to end, since the ends are poofed out. Not quite 9″ around from opening to end of flap (what would be the height of the original rectangle); 2.5″ diameter. The rectangle lost almost 2″ in each direction.

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Early comments on drawing books

It’s early in my drawing adventures, but I have two initial book reviews.

Book 1: For Rank Beginners

My loving sister, after conversing one night with a very frustrated me, ordered me a copy of You Can Draw In 30 Days, whose author, Mark Kistler, had (has?) a long-running PBS drawing show. After two lessons I was confident enough to draw my father’s birthday card, the first drawn greeting card of my adult life. Shading is where this book has been outstanding so far. Though I need a lot of practice with them, I already knew the principles that higher, smaller shapes overlapped by others look further away. His simple approach to “nook and cranny” shadows and the shadow that seats the image on the “ground,” on the other hand, was a revelation. I’m going slowly through the book; I’ve done four sessions with it, but finishing Lesson 3 and its bonus challenge may take up to 3 more.

My New Year’s resolution was to draw three times a week. After a disappointing start with an online course that was bald-facedly lying when it said it was for all levels, I dropped off for two weeks or so. I’m getting back on track by doing four drawings a week (which should have me caught up with where I would have been had I kept up 3/week around the end of March), but I wouldn’t be surprised if this book takes me over three months to finish. Especially if I take more breaks to draw non-lessons.

Anyway, there’s not guarantee you’ll like this book as much as I do, but if you find yourself feeling like drawing lessons are telling you what to do without telling you how to do it, try it out.

Book 2: Drawing Animals

I ordered a drawing book published by Dover because it was incredibly inexpensive and gets great reviews on Amazon. It’s called The Art of Animal Drawing, and it’s a 1950 book by Disney animator Ken Hultgren. The subtitle is “Construction, Action Analysis, Caricature,” which also caught my eye.

I’m nowhere near ready to use it, but he goes through some general principles and then talks more specifically about different kinds of animals. Nothing too exotic, and come to think of it no birds or sea creatures (maybe that’s not what he means by “animal”), but he covers all the standard non-bird farm animals, dogs, cats, rabbits, and significant wild animals: big cats, bears, camels, hippos, foxes, kangaroos, elephants, a few others.

There are two particularly neat things about the book. One is the caricature aspect: for each kind of animal, he discusses what traits to exaggerate for caricature and gives some examples. The other is that he shows his preliminary sketches, which are often just as beautiful as – though much more abstract than – the finished drawings. They remind me of Franz Marc, in fact, and since I aspire to be able to draw some Franz-Marc-esque pieces, that’s exciting. They’re almost architectural. You can see how he draws long smooth arcs connecting body parts that aren’t connected in the finished drawing, but the line gives cohesion to the motion of the body or the composition of the drawing. There was one drawing of two cats, the front one with its head toward the ground, the back one with one leg forward, and the arc of the back one’s back to leg was nearly parallel to the arc of the front one’s back to head, though both arcs were interrupted in the final drawing (by head and shoulder blades, respectively). I expect that once I can somewhat draw animals, this book will really help me improve.

A little bit of obsessive reorganization

I’ve reworked the menus at the top of the page, prompted by Crazy Quilting fitting under more than one of the previous headers. Not that I couldn’t fit several of my pages under more than one of these new headers, but I think it’s useful anyway. Pages under Learning are intended to be usable by beginners. Pages under Reference are organized like an index, glossary, or encyclopedia. Pages under Projects and Pushing Yourself are related either to patterns and tutorials or to ideas for expanding your crafting skills (that aren’t in the pages aimed at beginners, though the most relevant of those are linked within the pages in this last category).

If you have an opinion I’d love to hear it!

Crazy quilt resources

Antique sewing machine While scheduling the Sew-op late last year, we decided to make February Quilting Month, and I signed up to teach two classes: Patchwork Techniques for Crazy Quilting and Embroidery Techniques for Crazy Quilting. As for granny squares, in addition to samples and handouts I’ve made a page of instructional and inspirational links.

The page has five sections: history and examples, design (colors, flower meanings, theme ideas), piecing, embroidery, and projects (a few small, but culminating in a long discussion of the steps to constructing a full quilt).

Let me know whether it’s useful and if you have any suggestions for additional resources!

Circumscribing the mystery

The afghan is bordered! Amazing. It takes rather a while to get all the way around a queen-sized afghan.

Anyway. After adding the Greek key panels, I went back to clue 8 for the border. I read a project note that opined the border was too curvy for such a geometric afghan, but it reminds me of wrought iron, which goes perfectly with the stained glass idea.

long shot of mysteryghan border - colors are odd because I tweaked it for visibility of detail

[The photo looks a little unreal because I brightened the shadows so you could see the texture of the border, and then tweaked the tint and saturation because it looked unappealingly washed out.]

The pattern described the border as cable stitch, but it’s not like what I think of as crochet cable stitch. Instead it’s a series of arcs that slightly overlap each other. I changed it a little bit, but just the very beginning (and consequently the end) and how it acts at corners.

For the single crochet base (round 2), of course I didn’t have the right stitch count. Just make sure that each side stitch count is a multiple of 3, not counting the stitches in the very corners (the middle of the 3 sc made into the previous corner stitch). [In particular, on side 1 don’t count your first sc, because it will become the middle of 3 at the end.]

Mark the joining slip stitch of round 2 with a stitch marker. In round 3, when you make your first arc, skip 3 stitches, not two. Mark the first of those skipped stitches with a stitch marker – that is where your last arc will connect – and make sure when you “sc in 2 skipped sts” they are the unmarked two.

diagram for the first 3 corners of the afghan border Proceed down the side, skipping the next 2 unworked stitches each time you attach a new arc, until you get to the corner. You’ll attach an arc to the very corner stitch, and the next arc will be joined to the next stitch after: make the “sc in 2 skipped sts” 2 sc in the very corner stitch, to make 3 sts in the corner counting the previous arc’s end. In the diagram, the heaviest lines are round 2. The dashed lines are the “sc in 2 skipped sts.”

When you get to the last corner, the arc that is attached to the very corner stitch will be attached to the slip stitch you marked. You can try to attach it to the same sc as the sl st is made into, which is really where it belongs, but that might be difficult. diagram for the last corner of the afghan border The next arc, which is the one that cups the corner, is attached to the other marker stitch, the first of the 3 you skipped in making the first arc (dotted line in diagram). When you go to “sc in 2 skipped sts” you’ll only sc once (dashed line in diagram), again into the slip stitch that ended round 2. The second sc is the one you made at the very beginning of the first arc. Now you can sl st to that sc, and proceed as instructed with round 4.

I was pleased to realize that although my last arc ended in front of the first arc, because of the backtracking I didn’t have to cut my yarn between rounds 3 and 4 – I was already in the back where I needed to be.

closeup of mysteryghan border closeup of mysteryghan border

I took a break between skeins to secure the yarn tails, so I have to figure out how to photograph the whole thing, wash it, do the final trimming, and get the on-bed glamour shots. Until next time!