Monday, December 10, 2012

The basics of cutting out a pattern

Cutting out your pattern is the first step towards having a nice finished piece, and like any first step, it's important that you get it right, otherwise you've wasted your money on that fabric! In your pattern's envelope will be the pattern pieces (generally these are printed on very lightweight paper, like an onionskin), and there will also be a couple of instruction pages (usually printed on newsprint).

Cutting out a pattern requires patience and a large, flat workspace. You will be working with huge pieces, and there will be lots of "adjusting" that will have to happen before you cut. Here's how you do it!

Pattern Pieces

Take the instructions out and find page 1. This will have pictures of the various finished pieces that can be made from the the pattern, a listing of all of the pattern pieces that are in the envelope, general directions (for things like seam allowances), and the Cutting Layouts.

Unpacking your pattern pieces
Now is not the time for exact cutting.
Most pattern packets contain multiple patterns, and so you will not use every piece when assembling your final product. For example, in the above pattern, creating Tunic D will only require pieces 6-9, and you will not need to cut out the other items.

Find the pieces that are required in your pattern instruction (on the onionskin) and loosely cut them out. You might be tempted to cut them out on their exact cutting lines, but that's unnecessary at this point and just increases the likelihood of a mistake. Just cut them away from the rest, taking care not to accidentally cut into another piece but otherwise giving yourself plenty of room around each piece.

Sometimes a piece # can be in there twice, check the sizing!
Once the pieces are out, take them over to your ironing station, and using low heat and no steam, give the pieces a little bit of a press to get rid of the creases they'll have from being folded into the envelope. They don't need to be perfectly flat, you just need to get the big creases to relax a bit, and un-bunch any folds. Fold the unused pieces back up and return them to the envelope for a later effort (if you're having trouble getting them re-folded, the iron will help you out here, as well).

Sometimes a pattern might have two pieces with the same number. This is because the piece's sizing is too intricate to be on a single piece--find the one with the size you're making, and use that.

Cutting Layouts and Folding Your Fabric
Now that you have your pieces cut out, it's time to figure out how we're going to use them to cut out the fabric. (Remember: The Selvage is the bound edges of the fabric that the machine used make the knit or weave. It's often a different color, won't fray or unravel if you pull at it, and runs the length of the fabric that you cut off the bolt. The raw edge is the ends of the fabric that were cut with scissors).

It's not a bad idea to circle the layout you'll be using
Locate the cutting layout section for the piece you wish to make (let's say we're going to make shirt view D). There will likely be multiple layout options depending on the size of the pattern you want to make, and also the size of the fabric you purchased (45" wide or 60" wide).

For example, on the right, if you've got 45" fabric, and you're going to make the tunic in size L, you'll be using layout 5B, which starts with the standard fold for pieces 8 and 9, but then uses a gatefold format for the yokes (pieces 6 and 7).

There are generally five different configurations with fabric. Usually, if there are special cutting instructions, the cutting layout will be marked with a star or asterisk, and the special cutting instructions will be listed elsewhere.

For all of these, you want to make sure your fabric is as smooth and straight as possible on your cutting table before you mark or cut (I'm a sloppy about this in my video because I was trying to save time -- be patient, don't have the wrinkles I had).

Your cutting layouts will always indicate where the fold(s) is/are, and where the selvages are.  The important thing is to make sure you keep the fabric smooth and straight with the grainline, and to always iron your folds into place before cutting.

Cutting Layout 1 - Folded in half, selvage to selvage
This is the most common layout form. If you followed the Ironing step in the "fabric and you" post, you should be all set. Just confirm that the fabric's right or wrong side is face out (if it's not specified, have the fabric wrong-side out), and you're all set.

Simply fold the fabric in half so that the selvages on either side are flush, and then carefully iron so that the crease is in the exact middle (make sure that your selvages don't slip off of one another as you iron the wrinkles out).

Cutting Layout 2 - Gatefold
Another common fold is the "gatefold" technique, where you fold the selvages towards a point in the center of the fabric, creating two fold lines along either edge. To do this, you want to take the widest piece that you will be assembling on your fold, and then find the widest part, and measure that. Then, multiply that by 2 and measure that number off the selvage. So if the widest part of your widest piece is 12" wide, you want to measure 24" off the selvage, and fold the selvage up to that point. You might need to adjust by anywhere from a half-to a full inch extra, as you want the piece you're attempting to position to not overlap on your selvage (we generally don't use the selvage in our finished piece). Once you have confirmed that the piece will fit (you want it to "just fit," don't give it too much extra room or you might find yourself with not enough room for the other side!), mark the spot where the selvage ends at on your fabric, re-measure from the unfolded-selvage, and then mark that amount down the length of your fabric. Fold both selvages in to this line in the middle (make sure the widest part of your widest piece on the other side fits as well), and then iron those folds into place.

Cutting Layout 3 -- Partial fold
Piece #14 is on single-thickness, pieces 12 and 5 are in the fold
This is similar to the previous Gatefold layout, but rather than meeting the selvages in the middle, you only fold up one of the selvages to your line, but leave the other selvage flat.

Sometimes a partial fold is literally going to just leave a sliver of the fabric single-thickness. Check where the cutting layout is indicating the selvages-- a partial fold will usually have two selvage labels.

Cutting Layout 4 -- Double Thickness No Fold
Note the asterisk next to Double Thickness
This one is a little tricky to pull off, particularly with larger widths of fabric. Start by drawing two arrows, pointing in the same direction, on either side of your fabric on the cut end. Then, rather than fold so that your selvages from either side meet, you fold your two raw edges together, so that the selvages overlap themselves on the same side, then you cut up the fold to cut your fabric in half. Finally, you turn the top layer around, laying each end on top of one another so that both selvage sides are flush, and both arrows are pointing in the same direction. Be super-careful getting this one laid out right before you cut, with both sides of the selvage being perfectly flush!

Always check to see if your cutting layout has special cutting notes.
Cutting Layout 5 -- Single Thickness Open
This one is fairly easy, just open up your fabric and smooth it out. No folding, no lining anything up, just make sure the fabric is laying straight and go!

In the case of a cutting layout like our 5B above, where you are folding the fabric in half for one step, and then doing a gatefold for the rest, cutting out will happen in two stages. You'll cut out the the "larger part" first and then take the remainder in to re-iron along new folds, and then cut out the smaller part. As you get comfortable working with fabric, you can cut off the second bit of fabric when you're done measuring the first, but always make sure you are as conservative with your layouts as possible with the first, so you don't run out of room with the second!

Look for this, and double-check your layout against it before you cut!
Right Side/Wrong Side
Note the cutting layout isn't just telling you how the piece is supposed to lay relative to the fold and grainline and selvage of the fabric, it will also tell you whether the pattern piece should be face-up or face-down, and which side of the fabric should be facing out while you pin.

For a truly symmetrical pattern (like most tunics, pants, and simple dresses), the cutting layout will not specify if the fabric should be "wrong side out" or not. Generally, in this case, the fabric should be wrong-side out, but it will not make a material difference if it is not. However, on patterns like wrap skirts and some dresses and jackets, the pattern is not symmetrical and you really have to mind your p's and q's to make sure that you cut everything out with the right orientation, otherwise, things won't fit together right! So for example, this piece requires the fabric be folded with the wrong side in for cutting out piece 1 (twice), and the pattern needs to be wrong-side-up. Then, to cut out piece 2, I lay that pattern piece right-side-up on the right side of the fabric (no fold).

If you're doing an asymmetrical pattern on fabric that is double-sided (does not have an appreciable right side or wrong side), it's not a bad idea to take your tailor's wax or marking pencil and put a big "X" on the wrong side of the fabric as you cut out the pieces so you can keep track of it as your work.

Keep your yardstick handy, make sure that the fabric is smooth and flat on your cutting surface, and that there aren't any weird "waves" in the grain of the fabric. You can gently smooth the fabric back into shape if it's out of alignment.

You want to start on one side of the raw edge and work your way across. Position your pieces so that they are as close to the "raw edge" (which you had bound off before pre-washing) as possible, keeping in mind that the raw edge might be shorter on the underside of the fold than on the topside, so double-check your pattern won't have a nick taken out of it. If you have to cut out the same piece twice, doing a chalk outline of the piece in its first position with your tailor's wax and then moving it to its second position will make sure that you have enough room as you lay out everything. Otherwise, get all of the pieces down and pinned before you cut out to prevent measurement accidents.

When you are laying out the pieces, the fabric is either going to be lined to the fold, or lined to the grainline.  There is usually instructions on the pattern pieces that indicate how the pattern piece should be lined up.

Fold-Line: If you have a bracket-line that points to one of the edges of the pattern piece, that generally means that you want that edge of the piece to be flush with the fold line of your fabric. It will also usually say "Center Fold" which is helpful. When you have properly ironed and folded your fabric, the fold will be along a grainline, so you should be fine. Do not cut the fold, you want this to be a single, perfectly symmetrical piece of fabric once you cut it out and unfold it.

Grainline: If you have a single, straight line, with two arrows on either end, this indicates the "Grainline." This is a little more complicated than the Fold-line, but it's the same principle. What you want is to make sure that each end of the line is the exact same distance from the selvage. You will need to use your yardstick for this. Carefully adjust the fabric so that the line is precisely parallel to the selvage of the fabric, and then put a pin along this arrow to hold it in place.

Sometimes, cut lines will cross each other.
Now that you have the pattern pieces positioned right on the fabric, pin all the way around the edges that will need to be cut. Novice sewers will be tempted to lift the fabric and the pattern in order to put the pin in--this is a bad habit to get into as it will pull your fabric out of alignment. Instead, with the fabric and pattern laying flat, slide the pin into place, holding the pattern in place with your other hand. This might take some practice.

Like pin-basting, you don't want to put the pins right up at the edge of the pattern, as they will likely just pull out, ripping your pattern in the process. Nor do you want it too far in, which might cause the fabric to bubble and shift while you're cutting out. Identify the cut-line for the size you will be creating (a pattern will have multiple paths for sizes S, M, L, etc), and then aim for between ½-1" (1.25-2.5cm) in from there (you want the pins on the interior of the cut). Unlike pin-basting, it's not important to orient your pins a particular way since you won't be feeding the pattern into the sewing machine.

Once you have the pattern laid out and pinned, take a couple of minutes to double-check everything:
  • Your pattern pieces have not slipped, and that the fold-line and grainlines are still in their proper place
  • Your pattern pieces are not accidentally overlapping inside your cut-line. (if you're cutting at the M line and another pattern piece overlaps into the L or XL line, that's ok, but you don't want it overlapping past your M line).
  • The pattern pieces are face-up and face-down as indicated on the cutting layout, and that the fabric is folder either right- or wrong- side out as indicated on the cutting layout (if neither is indicated, wrong side out)
  • If your fabric has a directional design on it (there's a clear "up and down" to the print), that your pieces are oriented correctly to that design, and you won't have upside-down sleeves, etc.
Remember: You can always rip out a seam, you can't un-cut fabric!

When you cut out the pattern, again, you're going to be tempted to lift the fabric to your scissors, try to avoid this urge, slide the bottom of the shears under the fabric, making sure you get both pieces, and then cut out the pattern leaving the fabric as flat as possible. Take it slow, and double-check at every corner that you are on the correct cut-line. A lot of collars and shoulders will have the cutlines cross one another. The size of the cutline is generally repeated after every curve and corner, so just take a moment to trace your cutline to each end before you go.

The red dotted line indicates
how a notch should be cut.
Buenos Notches
Once you've cut out the piece, you'll need to do notches and dots. Notches are the little triangles jutting in from your cut line (sometimes they jut out, but it's the same principle and I don't see that much anymore on current patterns). You don't need to cut out the triangle (unless it's facing out), you just need to "snip" in from the cut line to the point of the triangle. The idea with a notch is that you will use it to line up your pieces, so make sure you always cut out your notches before you unpin your fabric from the pattern, and again, make sure you get both pieces of fabric when cutting out the notch.

Notches are strategically positioned on the pattern pieces to help you match the pattern pieces on assembly. See Seam Basics for more on this...

Seeing Spots
Sometimes a pattern will have a little circle just off the cut edge. This indicates a "dot" needs to be made here. Like notches, dots are intended to line up pattern pieces correctly (sleeves or buttons) or have some other instruction associated with them (e.g. "stop sewing at the dot"). Unpin the area around the dot, and then use your tailor's wax to mark where the dot is on both sides of your fabric. You can use a pin to "line it up" on the other side of the pattern, or you can very carefully fold back the pattern at the dot and mark at the crease. Often, a dot will have a size next to it, make sure you mark for the correct size! (Don't put a dot in the M dot if you're making size L!)

Once you finish cutting out your fabric, look for an interfacing cutting layout for your pattern. It's always a good idea to cut out interfacing while you're cutting out the rest of the fabric. You will usually have to reuse a pattern piece, so un-pin the pattern piece from the fabric you've cut out and assemble it on the interfacing. You generally don't have to worry about the grainline on interfacing. The cutting layout may indicate whether the interfacing is right side or wrong side up, if you're using fusible interfacing, the "wrong side" is the slightly tacky, bumpy side of the interfacing (that's the glue). Make sure you cut out the notches on your interfacing just like you would with the pattern, but you don't need to worry about marking dots so much.
Interfacing cutting layouts are usually at the bottom of
the cutting layout for the view you're working with.

When you've finished cutting out the interfacing, it's a good idea to pin the interfacing piece to the fabric piece from the same pattern piece, since they will be put together soon, and you also have to keep your pieces straight for assembly.

Finishing Up
Now that you're done, you might be tempted to reclaim your pins and unpin everything and put away the pattern pieces--don't do that! You need to know which piece is which while you assemble, even if the pattern  doesn't ask for the pieces by number they can be hard to distinguish sometimes. I fold my pattern pieces neatly so that they take up less room, but also so that the number of the pattern piece is facing up, so I can easily find the piece that the instructions ask for.

Related Posts


  1. Thank you so much for doing this! It's exactly what I needed!

  2. Thank you but I think I made a big mistake
    I bought a pattern for the first time, and being so excited I picked up sizes 4-12, I don't know how to make it wider using the layouts the provided..and yes I already cut out the pattern pieces...donk...I really want to get this right....for Saturday. ..ahhhh what shall I do

    1. Unfortunately there's no way to un-cut fabric. Sewing is definitely a "measure twice, cut once" artform. Unfortunately, learning how to "let out" a pattern is (and still have it look good) is an advanced technique that I'm only now just learning how to do, so I can't really give you advice (especially not knowing the pattern). Your best bet really is to start over with the right pattern and be extra-careful with your cutting. I would even suggest getting a muslin or a broadcloth or other super-cheap fabric for the first time just so that if you make a mistake, it's not a costly one like it would be with a more expensive fabric.

      It's probably not much comfort but you've made a rookie mistake that just about everyone makes. So don't beat yourself up too much.

  3. I was so confused about my pattern and the directions that I didn't even want to try. You made it so easy to understand. Thank you so much for showing us how to do this.