THE SEWING DIVAS sewing, design, fashion

June 18, 2008

Cutting techniques and tricks

Filed under: Couture Techniques,Fabric,Georgene,Industry — georgene @ 2:26 am

I had a run in with a piece of rayon spandex jersey this past week. I ended up cutting it with an underlay to keep it from moving around. It reminded me that an underlay is useful for other things besides chiffon, georgette, and charmeuse.


An underlay is a piece of paper placed under the fabric that you are going to cut. It keeps the fabric from shifting in the cutting process and going off grain. A roll of plain brown kraft paper works fine. Try to find paper that is as wide as your fabric or your table. If you can’t get the width you need, just add on as required. The paper must be as wide as the fabric you are cutting.

An underlay is absolutely required for the best results in cutting very slippery fabrics like silk charmeuse and silk chiffon. I also use it with rayon jerseys where grain and cutting accuracy is important. Place your fabric on the paper after making very sure that you are starting with a straight grain. Its OK to cut multiple layers with a single underlay, just make sure that all are correctly started on the straight grain.

If you are cutting pairs, like 2 sleeves or 2 fronts, make sure you lay your fabrics face to face so that you don’t end up with 2 left sleeves. (Ask me how I know!)

If it’s a fabric you can tear, like chiffon, that’s the easiest way to establish the straight grain. Use a t-square to draw a perpendicular line across your paper and align the torn edge along the pencil marking. If you can’t tear it, like charmeuse, you will have to pull a thread all the way across (nerve-wracking I know) to get the grain to reveal itself. For jerseys, I follow the lengthwise grain of the rib and use a C-thru ruler to chalk in a perpendicular line.

Use weights to hold the start of the fabric at the line you have drawn at a right angle from the edge, across your paper underlay.

Once your fabric is laid out on the starting grain, smooth it out absolutely flat ( a c-thru ruler brushed lightly across the surface to eliminate bumps can help); make sure to place weights on the fabric to keep it that way. Keep the straight grain set on the line drawn, and make sure the selvedge lines up against the straight edge of the paper. Now you have your grain lines established.

Place your pattern on the top and use the weights to hold the pattern down. (Nicely smooth, no wrinkles)

    Do not use pins!

Pinning will distort the fabric. You can use just about anything for weights, small food cans are fine. I use heavy tape dispensers, staplers, anything that comes to hand.

You don’t want to move anything once it’s laid out, so try to get everything laid out in the block of fabric on the table that will fit. If you can’t get all the pattern pieces on it, you will have to lay out another block to cut the rest.

Please note, it doesn’t really work well to cut on the fold when using an underlay (although some have been known to cheat). You risk going off grain and may have to live with the consequences…..So no half patterns! If your pattern piece is meant to be laid on the fold, then take the time to mirror the other half of the pattern by tracing it off on a folded piece of paper.

Cut out the paper along with the fabric. (It’s OK, I know they told you never use your fabric shears on paper, but when you cut fabric along with the paper it works fine. I have a pair of huge 12″ Wiss shears for almost 25 years now, and I rarely sharpen them.) Since the paper is lifting off the table and supporting the fabric, the fabric does not shift.

Make sure your weights are not too close to the edge of the pattern, that makes it more difficult to get a clean edge. For those tight corners and curves you can actually flip over the paper that’s already been cut and get in closer. That’s after you’ve been practicing awhile!

A bonus of using an underlay is that it can become a record of what you’ve cut. If you are adjusting a pattern on the table, or maybe putting together bits of various patterns for an entirely new garment, an underlay can become your pattern. Just be sure to mark the grainline, and pencil in what the name of the pattern piece is and how many to cut.

I don’t use electric scissors or rotary cutters, so I don’t know how that works with an underlay. I have used small industrial cutting machines with an underlay, so I suspect that it may work fine.

And of course, your scissors need to be sharp and without nicks that could catch on your slippery fabric for the best results.


  1. Extremely practical – thank you!

    Comment by Summerset — June 18, 2008 @ 5:19 am

  2. Wow, thanks. I recently chased a piece of rayon around the cutting table until I was ready to scream. I was ready to give up sewing anything but cotton. I’ll definitely use this technique from now on. Who thinks up these things! They’re geniuses.

    Comment by Deborah — June 18, 2008 @ 6:56 am

  3. Wow – is this timely or what? I have a piece of mango colored silk charmeuse that I just got from Kashi and a pattern for my MOB dress — I’d have gone crazy chasing this around on my cutting table and possibly ruining the whole thing. Thank you so much.

    Comment by Toby Wollin — June 18, 2008 @ 8:14 am

  4. I avoid slippery fabrics like the plague because they are such a PITA to cut. I haven’t had the patience to use a underlay, but now it seems so easy! The next slippery, slinky fabric I see – I’m buying! Thanks.

    Comment by Elaray — June 18, 2008 @ 8:29 am

  5. Thank you for detailing this procedure. I know about using paper to pin slippery fabrics onto before cutting out. Now I know not to pin and how to line all the pieces up correctly.

    Comment by Claire — June 18, 2008 @ 8:34 am

  6. I hadn’t thought of using an underlay with knits, but great idea. I’ve used a rotary cutter with an underlay and it works just fine. Just as with scissors, you want to make sure your blade is sharp and without nicks. Thanks for the informative post.

    Comment by Nancy — June 18, 2008 @ 8:35 am

  7. Wonderful information here. I always regret it when I speed-sew and do not take the time to cut with an underlay. You’d think I’d learn….

    Comment by Lindsay T — June 18, 2008 @ 9:52 am

  8. Fabulous technique. I will bookmark this!

    Comment by erica b. — June 18, 2008 @ 11:26 am

  9. Great information and wonderfully explained! I have used this technique with a rotary cutter with excellent results too.

    Comment by Gorgeous Things — June 18, 2008 @ 1:17 pm

  10. Great tutorial, Georgene. It’s always good to be reminded of the fine points of fabric taming and submission!

    Comment by Mary Beth — June 18, 2008 @ 3:05 pm

  11. Thank you! When I cut the lining for a coat from silk charmeuse, I thought I would go crazy. I finally used an old flannel sheet to cover my cutting table which grabbed the charmeuse enough to allow me to cut it without it taking flight. Your tutorial is so much better- I wish I had had it as a resource back then!

    Comment by kathi sorensen — June 18, 2008 @ 10:26 pm

  12. great tutorial. Could you explain tracing a pattern piece on the fold. I saw that term in Burda WOF mag but could not get a clear understanding.

    Comment by Kelroc — June 19, 2008 @ 10:48 am

  13. Kelroc: Many commercial pattern pieces are made to be cut on the fold of the fabric – with usually either the center front or center back on the fold. The printed pattern is only a half pattern, with the patternpiece lined up on the fold for cutting. In order to have the whole pattern with both right and left halves, you have to create the other half of the pattern.

    The simplest way to do that is to lay the edge to be cut on the fold on to the edge of a folded piece of paper and trace around it. Cut out the folded paper on the lines and voila, you have a full pattern.

    Note: I used newsprint for pattern paper one year when I lived on a remote Greek island and there wasnt any paper big enough to make patterns. Anything will do.

    Comment by georgene — June 19, 2008 @ 11:58 am

  14. Thanks for the tutorial! I just discovered this technique in an old issue of Threads and used it for the first time on a slippery mystery fabric. I used tissue paper from Target (the kind used for stuffing gift bags), which I taped together to form larger sheets. I pinned everything because a Threads article suggested pinning the fabric to the paper for stability. And still I got awesome results. This opens a whole new world of fabrics I can work with.

    Next time I’ll try your method with the weights and no pins.

    I noticed Paco Peralta uses newspaper as an underlayer, which I thought was very “green” of him.

    Comment by CLF — June 20, 2008 @ 10:37 am

  15. Printing this blog out and putting it in a binder is looking like a good idea. THANK you for all the info/tutorials. Your explanations really clear things up for me!

    Comment by odumnobles — June 21, 2008 @ 7:52 am

  16. Good information. This system is foolproof, really. Greetings, Paco

    Comment by paco peralta — June 21, 2008 @ 2:36 pm

  17. Ohhhh Thank you Georgene ! You tutorial comes as a complement to an introduction to this technique I read recently. I have always been reluctant in using slippery fabric. I remember watching my mother taping her fabric on the kitchen table … which I am not sure was the best thing to do.

    There is a paisley printed silk charmeuse that has been winking at me for a while, I think, I will give it a try. Great tutorial.

    Comment by Anne Mahler — June 24, 2008 @ 9:53 pm

  18. I have just bought some beautiful aqua silk chiffon to make a caftan and this will be really helpful.

    Comment by Sharon (Handmaiden) — June 25, 2008 @ 4:53 am

  19. I always use an underlay with slippery silks – it just makes life so much easier! Glad you posted it as a reminder to take that extra step that saves time in the long run.

    Comment by Gigi — June 28, 2008 @ 1:06 pm

  20. But what about your scissors? From what I understand the Dressmaker Scissors are Never To Cut Paper, Ever. So is that just a myth, then? Or do you divas have special scissor sharpening tools?

    Comment by Vibeke in Oslo — July 2, 2008 @ 4:17 pm

  21. Vibeke: There does not seem to be much of a dulling effect when cutting paper and fabric together. I would never cut paper by itself with my fabric shears. I have had my shears for over 25 years now, and they are doing fine. I do have to sharpen them, but not excessively considering how often I do cut with an underlay.

    Comment by georgene — July 3, 2008 @ 4:21 am

  22. Hi just read your very helpful tip on Underlay. However, I have need of some serious assistance.
    I am drawing my own 12 panel skirt with Godet from Hip to Calf. My problem is that my hip size is 110cm and my waist is 89cm. As I do not want to sew in the DARTS, how do I use some kind of formulae to assist me in working out the size each dart must be in order to allow of the waist shaping and of course give me some ease (in case my hubby takes me out for a good meal). I am currently on a Pattern Making course taught by a lady in Durban South Africa. She has designed a very clever flat piece of perspex which enables you to design any garment. The problem occurs when you have to know the pattern making formulaes in order to assist you in constructing and moving the darts, which of course you know (I didnt until I went on this course). She has patented this amazing tool and is now running courses teaching us how to use it. However, my dressmaking skills are not that great and as such the basic know how of pattern making leaves me behind in classes. There has to be some way to mathmatically work out the size of each dart that is needed in order to reduce the width from 110cm to 89cm equally at the waist. I dare not cut any pattern I have made out for fear that it will not fit me, or worse still go through the dreaded unpicking bit AGAIN!!! Please can you advise me how to do this.
    Pattern Sewing Glum!!

    Comment by Michele — July 18, 2008 @ 11:33 am

  23. Michele, there is a reason that designers test their patterns out in muslin first before cutting the garment in the fashion fabric.

    Make a test garment in any similar cheap handy fabric, leaving some extra seam allowance so you can adjust. Make your pattern corrections accordingly.

    Losing that fear of cutting is a major hurdle for all of us. Cutting seems so final! Make a test, make your adjustments, and it should go a long way towards helping to remove this block. Fear not. We have all been there to varying degrees. The more you do it, the easier it gets….so keep cutting, and best of luck.

    Comment by georgene — July 20, 2008 @ 5:39 am

  24. i am looking to do a good part time course that will teach me all the necessary skills to be able to learn how to sew and cut my own patterns. i live in Durban. please help

    Comment by daiana — January 7, 2009 @ 4:44 pm

    • Hi Daiana,
      If you’re still interested in pattern-making please contact me in PMB, just up the road from you, Lindy

      Comment by Lindy French — May 7, 2010 @ 1:21 pm

      • Hi Lindy

        I picked up your post on the sewing divas re. pattern-making in PMB in May this year (2010). I would appreciate any information you may have for next year. What a small world! I am just up the road from you, in Hilton.


        Comment by mandyhc — October 28, 2010 @ 3:27 pm

  25. Thanks so much, I too chased a piece of rayon around today. I was so frustrated!! Tomorrow is a new day, I will definitaly try an underlay. Thanks a bunch

    Comment by Jan Brooks — December 9, 2009 @ 10:24 pm

  26. Being the fabricolic I am, I have several silk pieces which have been waiting far too long to be cut. I know I require much more expertise than I have. I hope this underlay method can be used to cut silk on the bias (for a camisole.) If I can use this technique I would appreciate any helpful tips re how to determine the exact bias. Here’s hoping. gloria
    I will definetly use it with rayon. Many thanks.

    Comment by gloria — April 26, 2010 @ 3:08 pm

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