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Chapter Four


Tools, Lay-Out, Cutting & Marking

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Sewing Tools Fabric Preparation Fabric Lay-out Fabric Marking Fabric Cutting


Having the correct tools will make the difference between a nice sewing experience and a frustrating one. I have what I call my "must have" tools. They are tools that are necessary for all basic sewing projects. Beyond that, there are numerous specialized tools that provide specific functions. You can certainly sew without them, but they will make the task they were designed for much easier.
sewing  tools

Must Have Sewing Tools

pins: I like quilting pins because they are large and easy to see. A finer straight pin might be more appropriate for certain fabrics.

needles: Various sizes of both machine and hand sewing needles should be part of your basic supplies. Refer to your machine's manual for a list of needles that work best for your machine or refer to Needle & Thread Chart

thread: refer to Chapter 2: Choosing Thread

bent (or slant) handled shears: Purchase good quality sewing shears. Bent handle shears are a type of dressmaker shears that allow the fabric to lie flat on the surface while it is being cut. This provides a more accurate cut. The handles are up off the surface, out of the way, which allows the fabric to lie closer to the surface.

slant handle dressmaker shears

sewing shears: Keep comfort in mind. General sewing shears are used for basic cutting. I have my favorite pair always handy. It has a spring action handle, which saves my hands. I use these for most of my cutting.

snippers or precision cutter: For those tiny, precision cuts, a large pair of shears will not do. My little snippers have small, very sharp blades. These will make very small, precise cuts. I use them almost as much as my regular sewing shears. They are also wonderful for cutting thread. I can cut very close to the fabric. See photo in first paragraph.

tracing paper & wheel: If you sew clothing, you will most likely need these items. They easily transfer lines and marks used for precision stitching (such as when making darts) from the pattern to the fabric.

seam ripper: OK, we all make mistakes. A seam ripper cuts through the smallest of stitches, making "mistakes" much more easy to remove. A seam ripper is also used to cut open a buttonhole after the outline has been sewn. A good ripper has a ball on the smaller point, which protects the fabric. The longer point is sharp. The entire inner curve is sharp, allowing the ripper to slice through the stitches. See photo in first paragraph.

steam iron and ironing board: Pressing often with a good steam iron is necessary if you want a nicely finished item. I press after almost every seam (this is especially important with quilting). For example, if you take the time to press under a hem before stitching, chances are you will be much happier with the outcome than if you just folded it and stitched. Get in the habit of pressing often.

disappearing markers: No matter what project you are making, chances are you will need to mark the fabric. Choose fabric markers that are water soluble (will wash out) or evaporating (disappear with time).

pressing cloth: Pressing cloths are placed over fabric that should not come in direct contact with a hot iron. A pillowcase or spare piece of fabric will work for this purpose.

measuring tape / large sewing ruler: I use my measuring tape when designing a project. For example, careful measurements of my lounge chair were necessary in order to make a nicely fitting cover. I use my large sewing ruler for just about every project. My cutting mat has measurements and lines that I can line up my ruler with. If I need a straight cut, I place my rotary cutter along the large ruler and zip it across (see "nice to have" below). I also use my large, clear, sewing ruler to mark fabric; therefore I list it under "must have tools".

good lighting: Reduce strain on your eyes by using appropriate lighting. My machine has a light, I have a desk lamp next to my machine that can be pointed to the precise spot that needs a boost of light, and I have overhead lights that shine down from the ceiling as spotlights. I use a magnifying light for close hand work. Trying to locate dark thread on dark fabric can create eye strain (using a seam ripper to remove black thread from black fabric can trigger a visual migraine for me), and increase the risk of error. Therefore, I make good lighting a priority.

basic sewing machine: Extremely tailored clothing used to be made with a foot run (tredle) straight stitch machine, so don't think you must have an elaborate set up to sew nice things. A beginner's machine should have straight stitching, zig-zag, buttonhole and zipper capability. A free arm is necessary for sleeve installation. Most basic machines also come with stretch stitches (used for stretch fabric) and at least a few decorative stitches. Refer to Choose Sewing Machine for information on sewing machine features and tips on choosing the right machine for you.

Nice To Have Sewing Tools

applique sheet / fusible web: An applique sheet is used for intricate appliques. The design is seen beneath the sheet. When pressed, the fabric pieces stick to one another, but not to the sheet. An entire applique can be made and transferred to your project. Fusible web attaches the applique piece to the project piece.

Fusible Web Lesson: learn how to make applique with fusible web

Pressing Sheet: learn how to make intricate applique with use of a pressing sheet

cutting mat & rotary cutter: A cutting mat is a self healing when cut. This means that you can lay a piece of fabric on it, run a rotary cutter over it (basically a round razor blade) and the fabric will be cut without harming the mat. When I need to make long, straight cuts there is nothiing like a mat and rotary cutter. I can cut much more quickly and easily than with scissors. This is a personal choice; I have friends who prefer scissors.

quilter's square: If you plan to quilt, this is a "must have". If not, it is just a nice tool for cutting square corners. It is used for "squaring down" a quilt block. I also use it to square other items.

dressmaker French curve: Usually used for drawing curves in clothing patterns (drawing a lower neckline, for example), it can be used to draw any curved line.

Fabric Grippers: I use these on my large sewing ruler. One side has adhesive, allowing the small gripper dots to stick to the ruler; the other side has a finish like fine sand paper and is the side placed on the fabric. The grippers keep the ruler from slipping on the fabric. This is a huge help when using a rotary cutter.

Luxury Sewing Tools

large sewing table: A large table better than the floor or kitchen table because it is at a height that is friendly to backs (sewing tables are higher than regular tables). They usually have wings that can be folded back. This means they provide a large surface when needed, but can be folded down for storage.

fray stop: a liquid that is applied to the edges of cut fabric to stop fraying

water soluble basting thread: This type of thread is washable; it holds fabric together until stitched, but does not have to be removed because it will wash out.

large machine surface: my added surface for my machine - whatever that is called

NOTE: Keep your tools and sewing items in a safe place, where they will not be damaged (such as a tupperware box with lid).


Preparation of fabric is important for several reasons. Fabric can change when washed or dry cleaned, and it might have become stretched out of square during processing.To obtain the best results for your finished product, always pre-treat the fabric (and trim). This means wash and dry (or dry clean if that is required for the fabric to be used) and square it into shape.

1.   Pre-treat Fabric Fabric (especially inexpensive fabrics) might have been treated with sizing. Sizing can hinder the performance of a sewing machine. It also might interfere with adhesives used for attaching appliques and other items. Fabric might shrink or fade with machine washing or dry cleaning. I once made a baby quilt that used with pale yellow and dark navy flannels. I didn't care if it shrunk because fit was not important. I didn't think about fading. The first time it was washed the navy faded all over the yellow. It was a difficult learning experience.

2.   Stretching Fabric Back Into Shape

Fold the fabric as shown in your pattern instructions and lay out flat on a cutting surface. If the fabric does not lie in line nicely, it might be a bit stretched out of shape. If this is the case, you will need to stretch the fabric on the diagonal. Get someone to help you stretch the fabric from one corner to the opposite corner, in the direction that needs the adjustment. This should take care of the problem (pre-washing the fabric tends to take care of this problem also). stretch fabric


Grain vs. Stretch of Fabric
The grain generally runs the length of the fabric (parallel to the selvages), with the greater stretch running in the opposite direction (perpendicular to the selvages). The selvages are the side edges of the fabric. The distance between the selvages is the width of the fabric, such as 42", 45", 54" or 60". Quilt fabrics come in narrow widths (42"-45"); home decor fabrics come in wider widths (54-60").

Please note that the greatest stretch may be opposite of what is shown belowon the right. If you are not sure, grab the fabric in two places, 1" apart. Pull the points apart and measure the length of stretch. Repeat in the opposite direction to see which direction has the greatest stretch. Be sure to place the pattern pieces according to greatest stretch.
fabric grain

It is very important to follow layout instructions regarding correct fabric direction (the direction the pattern piece is placed on the fabric). This is because there is usually more stretch in on direction than in another, even with non-stretch fabrics. This can make a difference in how the finished garment behaves. At least a bit of stretch is desired across the back width of a skirt, for example, but not along the length of the skirt. The pattern pieces will be clearly marked as to what direction they should be laid on the fabric.

Place the pieces on the fold, and make sure you have enough fabric go cut the necessary number of pieces.

Refer to Chapter Three Pattern Symbols for more information on pattern layout symbols.

fabric layout


Position Pattern Pieces

Always position all pieces before cutting any out. This will ensure that you understand lay-out and have enough fabric for all pieces. Review the lay-out instructions in the pattern and carefully follow these directions. When you are more experienced, you might have your own preferences for lay-out.

Securing Pattern Pieces

Secure the pattern pieces in place before cutting. Pins or weights work well. Pins are more precise and secure, reducing risk of knocking a piece out of place. Therefore, I recommend pins for beginners or precise cutting. Always place pins in the seam allowance. For patterns that do not require a lot of precision cutting, I like to lay my fabric on a large sewing mat. I secure it with weights and use a rotary cutter to cut out the pieces. It is a quick and easy method of cutting.

Cutting Out Fabric Pieces

For cutting out the pieces, a rotary cutter or wide variety of scissors can be used. As with pins, scissors are more precise. Bent handle scissors are best if cutting fabric on a flat surface. A rotary cutter is fast and easy to use for long, straight edges, but difficult to use around corners. It's easy to overshoot your mark with a rotary cutter, and they are very sharp (not at all appropriate for children). I definitely recommend scissors until you are experienced. Small snippers are wonderful for cutting small areas. Refer to Sewing Tools in this chapter for more information on pins and cutting tools.

1.   Cutting Around Notches
To save space when printing patterns, companies often print the notch (triangles) TOWARD the main part of the pattern piece. DO NOT CUT toward the pattern piece. Instead, cut away from the pattern piece. Notches are used to line up pieces when sewing them together (see below under "Marking Pieces".
sewing pattern notches and marks

There are many different places where you will need to mark your fabric pieces. In marking fabric, you are transferring important information from the pattern piece to the cut fabric, such as where to sew in darts, where to place buttonholes, where to place a zipper, etc.

There are various ways to mark fabric. You need to consider your own preferences, as well as the type of fabric, when you choose your method.

1.   Pins

Pins can be used to mark places such as start and stop places for sewing and measurements. You must be careful with pins, however, because they can leave tiny holes in our garment. Consider the placement of the pins as well as the type of fabric before choosing this method. Pins are best used only where you will sew a seam line.

2.   Tailor Tacks

Tailor tacking uses thread to mark the fabric pieces. The following is an example. The thread can be sewn through the fabric only, or the pattern piece and the fabric. Then cut the thread and pull away the pattern piece. You now have your mark in exactly the right place.
tailor tacks
3.   Washable or "Disappearing Ink" Markers

Washable markers and markers with disappearing ink come in many colors, and are very easy to use. NOTE: ALWAYS before using a marker or pencil, try it on a piece of scrap fabric to be sure it performs well. It should stay on long enough to be useful (not smear or rub off), but should be easily erased with a fabric eraser.
fabric markers

4.   Tracing Paper and Tracing Wheel

The tracing paper is placed between the fabric and pattern piece with the transfer color toward the fabric. Use the wheel to press down on the pattern marking to be transferred. The color on the paper will rub off onto your fabric.

5.   Notches

Notches (shown above under "Cutting") mark the fabric by creating areas that extend beyond the regular seam allowance. These notches are used for lining up two pieces of fabric (such as lining up the front and back pieces of a skirt to sew the side seam).

HINT: Whenever possible, I trace my patterns onto freezer paper (bought on a roll at Costco). The reason is that most patterns come with multiple sizes. I can trace and cut only my size, without cutting the original pattern.

curtain patterns
Curtains & Drapes
pillow cases

Index & Table of Contents  Chapter One  Two   Three  Four  Five   Six   Seven  Eight  Nine   Ten
Needle & Thread Chart