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Tips to Lay Out a Pattern and Cut Fabric Accurately

Pay special attention to the first step of garment construction, and save time and trouble later
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You’ve bought beautiful fabric, chosen a pattern, altered it to fit your body, and now you’re anxious to dive into construction. Wait! Don’t rush the next step of laying out your pattern and cutting your fabric. Here’s why: All the slight errors and inaccuracies you might make if you hurry at this stage would readily add up, and the sum total of slightly off-grain, jagged cut edges, shifted fabric, and other gremlins may equal disappointing results, such as distortion of the style lines or even an unintentional change in dress size. I’ll take you through the fundamental steps for correct layout and cutting so you can get a good start on your garment.

Layout varies with fabric type

The first step in constructing a fine garment is to arrange your pattern pieces on the fabric, creating a layout that works with the type of fabric you’re using. You can, of course, use the pattern instruction’s suggested layouts, but remember that these cannot take into account your fabric type, nor do they necessarily lay out the pattern pieces in the most economical way. For example, if your fabric is a solid color or a multidirectional print (meaning the print’s pattern is symmetrical or otherwise looks right both when positioned up or down on your garment), you’ll be able to use what’s called a two-way layout, that is, one in which the pattern piece can be placed heading in either direction on the fabric’s lengthwise grain.

Nap and one-way layouts

Any fabric with a nap (surface texture that looks different when the fabric is turned crosswise or upside down) or pile and any asymmetrical print needs a one-way layout, that is, with all the pattern pieces placed to head in the same direction (see the drawings below). If your pattern recommends avoiding napped fabric, do just that.

Observe the grainline

Another important aspect of fabric that affects laying out your pattern is its grain. (to learn about finding the fabric’s grain, see Basics in Threads #96, p.20). Start the layout process by establishing a stable crossgrain edge. To do this, tear the fabric across the grain or trim the edge along a pulled thread. Then, match the grainline printed on each pattern piece (the straight line with arrows on each end) to the fabric’s grain. If a pattern section is cut the slightest bit askew to the fabric’s grain, the garment won’t drape properly, and the directional change in napped fabric will be distinctly noticeable. And when laying out interfacing or lining material, use the same grain direction that you used to cut the garment fabric.

Many fabrics are cut with a double-layer layout, in which the fabric is folded in half, usually lengthwise along its grain, for cutting two layers of fabric from one pattern piece. Fabrics with asymmetrical prints or weaves need to be cut out single-layer. This, of course, means that you’ll need to make a full pattern piece for pieces marked for cutting out on the fold, and you need to flip over pattern pieces for their second cutting in order to cut their mirror images.

Tip: Line up the fabric selvage or folded edge with the machine-cut edge of the paper.

cutting fabric on paper

Industry’s big secret: paper

The Fabric Directs The Layout


Paper is extremely
useful for supporting lightweight fabric, such as lining material, rayon, chiffon, silk, knits, and pile fabric. But fabrics of all weights are easier to handle using the paper technique. Another advantage of using paper is that, after pinning through all layers, including the paper, a garment section is so well stabilized that you can move it easily when cutting awkward angles. Slipping, sliding, and shifting fabric is never a problem. You can use shelf paper, butcher paper, unprinted newsprint (sometimes available very inexpensively at your local newspaper) or brown kraft paper (available at art-supply stores).Having decided on a layout, you’re now ready to pin your pressed pattern pieces to the fabric, carefully matching grainlines. But first, here’s an industry tip that makes cutting out a pattern easy and efficient: The garment industry’s cutters, both in their sample and production rooms, always place brown paper underneath the fabric before layout and cutting, no matter how many layers are to be cut. The reason? The paper ensures that the fabric will not move or slither during cutting (the paper is cut along with the pinned pattern). This benefit is a terrific boon to cutting accuracy.

How to lay out on paper

To lay out your fabric double-layered on paper, fold it in half (usually lengthwise) with right sides together on top of the brown paper. Folding the fabric right sides together and aligning either selvage or foldline to the paper’s edge keeps the fabric on grain while cutting, makes pattern marking easier to transfer, and protects the fabric’s right side from soil. If you like the fabric’s wrong side and want it to face outward, there’s no law against this; fold back one corner and compare the two sides for these aesthetic decisions. To lay out the fabric single-layered, place it face down on the paper, aligning one selvage with the paper’s cut edge.

Tip: The entire length of fabric can be pinned to paper. When you run out of table space, gently fold (don’t crease) the paper, along with the pinned fabric, letting it stack up loosely at one end of your table.

Matching plaids and stripes is good craftsmanship

Match Stripes

Whether stripes run lengthwise or crosswise on the fabric, when laying out folded, symmetrically striped fabric, make sure the top layer’s stripes match those underneath for the fabric’s entire length (see the drawing below). If matching the stripes causes diagonal ripples across the fabric, you’ll need to straighten the fabric’s grain (see Basics in No. 96, p. 20, for more on straightening grain).Plaid and striped fabrics are a little fussier to lay out than most fabrics, but if you follow these guidelines, the resulting garment will have stripes that cross seamlines and plaids that appear uninterrupted by seams.

The lengthwise and crosswise stripes of symmetrical plaid fabric should also match on both fabric layers. To prepare plaid fabric for layout, simply follow the same procedure that I’ve described for striped fabric.

Layouts for plaids and stripes

The layout for symmetrically striped or plaid fabrics starts by placing pattern pieces to be laid out on the fold. By laying these pieces first, you can pencil-mark the location of the stripes (lengthwise and crosswise) directly on the pattern piece at the shoulder, side-seam, and armhole notches. Next, to ensure that the stripes match across seamlines, pair up the adjoining pattern pieces with those pinned on the fold by aligning their common notches, and transfer the stripe marks to the adjoining pieces. Then you can accurately position these pattern pieces on the appropriate stripe(s) in the fabric.

Tip: When laying out pile fabric, gently fold the right sides together, but don’t smooth out the fabric with the palm of your hand. If you do, the fabric will stretch and the pile’s threads will lock together, creating a distorted pattern shape. Instead, holding the selvages together, “fluff” the fabric in the air and let it settle naturally. Any remaining wrinkles can be removed by gently tapping the wrinkled area with a  ruler, or a piece of stiff cardboard.

Pin the pattern every few inches

Matching Grainlines

Pinning the pattern to the fabric may seem like an easy task. If you’re shooting for accuracy, follow these steps. Start by placing the appropriate pattern pieces on the fabric’s foldline. Diagonally pin the edge marked with two connected arrows (the universal foldline marking) exactly on the fabric fold, which corresponds to the fabric’s grain.

Next, pin the other pattern pieces correctly, first pin one end of the pattern’s printed grainline to the fabric, then position the grainline’s other end so that it’s equidistant from either the selvage or the fold at the first pin (see the drawing on the facing page). Before adding any more pins to this pattern piece, pin the grainlines of all other pattern pieces to the fabric the same way.

After you have pinned all the pattern pieces to the grainline, pin through all layers around each pattern piece’s edges every few inches and at each corner. Make sure to keep the pins well inside the cutting lines. Keep the fabric flat with pattern weights as you pin, and avoid overpinning, which can cause the fabric to distort.

Tip: When matching lengthwise stripes, the selvages should be parallel, but the fold doesn’t have to be centered on the fabric’s full width (this can help conserve fabric).

Use a rotary cutter or shears for cutting

Whether you cut out pattern pieces with a rotary cutter or shears, cut with the bulk of the pattern to the left of the scissors or rotary blade (reverse if you’re left-handed). When using shears, place one hand on the pattern, close to the cutting line where your other hand is manipulating the shears. Cut in full strokes—choppy cuts result in jagged edges. Move the non-cutting hand along with the shears as they cut, to keep the fabric as close as possible to the table. And, yes, cut the paper layer along with the other layers (have your shears sharpened professionally at regular intervals—you’ll be able feel when the scissors are beginning to get dull, and your cutting won’t be crisp and clean). As you cut, reposition a section as needed to accurately cut an area that would otherwise be awkward to reach.

Be fanatic when it comes to good layout and cutting practices, and soon all these procedures will be automatic. And you’ll end up with a garment you’ll be proud to wear.

Tip: The straight line with arrows on each end that’s printed on the pattern piece is its grainline and should always be aligned parallel to the fabric’s selvage on the fabric’s lengthwise grain—even when the line is printed diagonally on the pattern.

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