Friday, August 13, 2010

Guest Post: Cutting Knits and Other Tricky Fabrics with Alyson Clair

Welcome back to our guest series with Alyson Clair, who is our resident knits guru. Take it away, Alyson! And super big thanks!  --Gertie

Hello readers! Sorry for the gap in my postings. My contract work, and Fall/Winter production of my line (and also planning my wedding!) have taken up a bit more time than I had planned.

Today I'd like to talk about cutting. For me, this is my least favorite thing to do. I think perhaps it is because I am usually so excited to sew what I am cutting out, my patience for the time it takes to neatly cut something is very small! I've been thinking about the best way to talk about cutting, and first I'd like to give you an overview of how it's done in mass production. I also hope this helps you understand the way things are bulk cut, and that if you're cursing your fabrics for shifting, running away, and rolling that is totally normal. When I'm sampling my clothing line - and only cutting out one item at a time - my sailor mouth comes out rather often.

In mass production, there are large cutting tables with spreaders that help hold and lay the fabric over the table. When you lay the fabric, you sandwich it between a butcher-like paper and the marker that you lay on top. A marker is basically a paper pattern layout that serves as a cutting guide, sort of like the pattern layouts you see in home sewing pattern instructions, but for more sizes at a time. A really good reference for photos on this stuff is the manufacturing portion of the American Apparel website. (If you're into nerdy things like that -  I am!) After you've laid all your fabric you will use weights and clamps to keep it into place. Also, in this kind of cutting, you cut knits and wovens the same way.

I just cut out a marker of 2 sizes of this top:

Even though this shirt is made of a woven, the thought (and memory) of cutting it out one at a time is enough to make me want to cry. For the 2 sizes, I had 24 units to cut out (and still have 3 more sizes to go!) This meant serious action: the marker and my new favorite toy: a red Eastman Chickadee (a type of electric cutter). First I put down the butcher paper, then with the assistance of a friend, laid the fabric. I'm producing the top in two different colors here, so one is laid on top of the other.

I then smoothed out any "unhappy" areas with my trusty yardstick.

Then we laid the marker on top of the fabric when we had enough layers. One thing I am lacking are proper weights. I end up using whatever is handy, which often times ends up to be odds and ends lurking about the cutting area. It also leads to questions like, "Why is there a pencil sharpener and spray paint in your cutting area?"

For this slippery fabric I wanted to be extra careful that nothing would move. I spied a box of clothes pins I had, and put them to good use. I was amazed at how well they worked.

Then it was time to play with my new toy! No more killing scissors or my hands on these things. I am now the proud owner of an Eastman Chickadee. This is one of the smallest electric cutting knives. It has a round blade and is great for small cuts. Think of it as an electric rotary cutter, that could perhaps take off a finger (wait, I almost did that with a regular rotary cutter!)

Ta-da! All cut, now it's just that sewing part left to do . . .

So hopefully that was a good explanation of how things are cut commercially. Now let's go back home to you all, and get right to any tips I can give on knits and other slippery fabrics.

Your Surface

It can be a wide part of your kitchen counter, your dining room table, or even a hardwood floor. Just make sure you have enough space to lay down the entire cut of your fabric flat. If you have any part bunched up, the slightest bump can skew it.

My own personal favorite is to get a large bulletin board from a garage sale or thrift store. Not only can you stash it behind a door if you live somewhere small, it's perfect for pinning your fabric and pattern down so it can't move. Or if you have particularity pesky knit that rolls a lot, you can pin the whole thing out and then place your pattern. I always get myself in trouble with these types of knits - they love to roll up on me. This one was EXTRA nasty($%#!*!).

But pinning them down on the bulletin board works like a charm.

Also there are those really nice large self healing mats. You can weight your fabric down and cut it out with a rotary cutter. I don't use this method much myself, since I took off most of one of my fingernails cutting out a camisole while in college, and I always end up bumping the table and shifting the weights around.

Laying Your Pattern Out

Question for you readers: How do you cut our your goodies? Do you lay down your pieces down and trace them with a tailors chalk? Or do you pin and cut around?

Either method will work when cutting knits, but both can have their drawbacks. If you are lifting the fabric to pin the pattern on, that can move it, and sometimes chalk can tug a little while tracing. If my fabric is more stable, I usually go for my favorite chalk - the lovely Chakoner! It's cute, looks like a radish and is refillable. The only drawback is that it is a bit more expensive than a wedge of chalk, but I have had mine for close to 8 years and only had to refill it twice. I always go for yellow since that is the color that will show up well on most fabrics. Once cut, you can dust the extra chalk off.

If I have a really pesky knit that moves a lot, I opt for Plan B.

Yes, that is a silver Sharpie. Traditional? Not so much, but it has saved my butt on a few occasions. Again, I go with silver since I find that it doesn't bleed too much, and shows up on darn near everything I have drawn on it with. If you end up using this method, sometimes the cutting is a little slower, as you want to make sure you cut off all of the marker markings on your fabric. I have used this on a lot of 4-way stretch power meshes, tricots, lightweight knit interfacings, and other super wiggly things.


The most important tip I can give is, make sure those scissors are nice and sharp. This will make your cutting go the smoothest. If you're using a rotary cutter, make sure you have a fresh, sharp, drawing-blood-worthy wheel in. I would rank jersey knits the easiest to cut, and meshes with Lycra the hardest. If you are cutting a fabric with Lycra, you may see the Lycra parts of the fabric catch on your scissors if they aren't super sharp. Depending on the percentage of Lycra, the more you can see. A huge peeve of mine is to be cutting and snag the fabric! I also find that I snag heavily on fabrics like shown on the blouse above: sheer silks. If your scissors need a little love, take them down to a knife sharpening shop, and you can usually have them restored to as good as new for around $10.

I hope that was helpful, and again, I'd love to hear and see what you are doing at home. I love learning new tips, especially the unorthodox ones! Back to fiddling with my newest toy, an industrial 5 thread serger.

I feel like I was just handed the keys to a 1957 Cadillac Eldorado Brougham. Now if I can just figure out this 5th chainstitch threading . . .


  1. I am so Jealous of your wook room and industrial tools. I wish I had the money to buy proper sewing equipment.

  2. As always, great tips. I use a very ordinary method- I have a large self-healing cuting mat (the kind you can get from Atlanta Thread). I use very large washers from the harware store as pattern weights to hold down the curly parts at the edges and the pattern pieces. A very sharp blade on the rotary cutter is a must. And, a teacher once told me "don't stress if you can't get the fabric exactly lined up with everything perfectly on grain. Unlike a woven, a knit is forgiving and as long as you are close, your final garment will be fine." I have found that to be true. Of course, that would not work in mass production. Thanks for your wonderful posts!

  3. I pin things. You have to understand that I'm sewing with a toddler in the house, so weights are out. If it's at all shiny, my little magpie runs off with it. I only tried weights once and then ran screaming back to pinning like I was taught!

  4. Alyson thank you! First I want to know why I can't buy clothes from your website,or am I just blind and missing something?

    Second, You should TOTALLY do your own pattern line!

  5. Great post with great tips. Thanks so much!


  6. Hmm, I think I can manage that first method on my giant cutting table at home without that cool cutter though I use a rotary cutter and washers from the hardware store for weights! I love the clothes pin tip.

  7. oh yes! this came at the perfect time as tomorrow i am going to the fabric store to pick out some fabric for my next project and any extra tips on cutting is very very much appreciated!


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  9. Glad you guys are liking the tips. Washers are so clever! I can't believe I don't have any. A trip the the hardware store is in order this weekend.

    Ladykatza - I don't sell online. A new online shop has picked me up and their site should be up in the next month.

  10. Thanx for all the info! i am a new-ish sewer, and am just starting to use knits (lots of learning curves!), so your posts are really timely for me, and i'm really interested in all you have to write. we have a small home, so my cutting happens on the lounge floor which is carpeted, (I dream of one day owning a large house where i can dedicate one room to sewing and having a big cutting/work table!), but i find the carpet quite good to poke the pins into to hold the fabric in place (like you talk about doing with a bulletin board), then i pin and cut the pattern pieces with scissors. overall it works pretty well for me. btw i love your new line, and ALL your previous ones... wish i lived closer or your sold online ... my wardrobe would be bursting with your clothes :)

  11. I have always struggled cutting knits. Great tips! Thank you!

  12. I can't wait to get into the sewing room again! Eric has to do some kid duty so I can sew a few skirts.

    The old bulletin board is genius. I use a homasote board for pinning. Not as handy as the bulletin board, but thick and cheap ( $35 for a 4 x 8 sheet? )and you can make the lumber yard cut it to you specs. Since it's pressed paper I have taken lots of notes on it over the years. And if you ignore it long enough it doubles as a scratching post, I just learned.

    After owning several pairs of pricy sewing shears, I prefer the feather weight versions. They are much cheaper and the matte blades grip slippery fabrics. The seem to cut tricky fabrics-like chiffons, more accurately for me and I buy a new pair when they dull up and turn the olds ones into paper scissors.

    Awesome article Alyson, I can't wait for more!

  13. I use a rotary cutter and mat for everything. I can't use scissors because they strain my hands. I also find that ITY type knits (poly/lycra blends) dull my scissors and cutter like nothing else... anyone else experience that?

    Great tip about the sharpie! I don't trace, I pin, but I can see that working. I don't get pattern weights - maybe I'm working with too much slippery fabric, but when I try that the fabric always shifts anyway. Maybe I'm not using enough?

  14. I love the tip with the Silver Sharpie! That's one I've never heard before and it's something that would come in very handy with certain items.

  15. My favorite way to pin fabrics out is to use one of the cheap cardboard cutting mats from the fabric store (or two, one on top of the other). They can be unfolded and used anywhere, store easily, and I can push the pins directly into the cutting mat like it is a tack board. This really helps with slippery, stretchy and curly fabrics.

    To help stabilize curly knits, I apply scotch tape to the edges after cutting to help keep them from curling. I avoid sewing through the tape as it gums the needle, usually peeling it off just ahead of my stitching. This is obviously not such an efficient idea for mass production, but for the occasional curly knit in home sewing, it's handy.

  16. Great post! I really enjoyed reading about industrial pattern cutting and all the behind the scenes.
    I normally put weights (they are large pebble stones) and then pin my pattern to the fabric.

  17. Thank you so much for a great tutorial, Alyson.

  18. Thanks very much for the cutting tips. My greatest challenge is sewing slinky knits with the serger. The cut edge always rolls by the time it reaches the needles. Tips on this subject would be greatly appreciated.

    P.S. Cat food tins make great sewing weights.

  19. Alyson, how does you're cutter work with cutting curves?

  20. That blouse is just gorgeous!!! Thanks for the clothespins tip..

  21. Very cool... I love the cutter!

  22. Wow! That's a serious serger. I love the Chakoner too!

  23. I use crayola washable markers rather than a sharpie for tracing round patterns. I've never had a time when it didn't wash out. I also use it to label all the pieces, and the front and back of all the pieces.

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  25. Sheila- Cat food cans, I LOVE IT! They are perfect, I am going to share that with my friends.

    sewiknittoo - The Chickadee cutter is good with larger curves, and can get a little harder to handle around the tighter angles. For tight curves and 90 degree right angles an upright blade works the best. I have one, but it isn't working and rather scary! (I had to take the cutter from my factory job to the ER twice from accidents, he was ok but one time needed stitches). It's really good for cutting out samples and you just have to practice "driving" it to get the hang of things. For neck and armholes it's totally fine.

  26. Great tips, thanks so much. I haven't thought about cutting much, but dread it too, and am hapy to be armed with better ideas for making it go smoothly. Wish I'd seen this a few days ago before sewing my minky and satin blankets--that satin was such a nightmare! I love especially the advice about laying out the whole cut of fabric. I rarely do that (space is so difficult, isn't it?) and can see it would make a difference. -Anneliese

  27. How I cut out fabrics. When I lived in a little apartment, I would go to my mom's to cut, because of room. I saw a fold up cutting board (you know the cardboard ones with a grid ) and voila, the queen size bed and a rolling computer chair made for the best cutting ever. Pins went directly into the board and bed. Nothing moved or wiggled. I moved the board on the bed and rolled the chair to reach what I needed to cut. So now I have mom's large cutting counter, and remember that my "make do" cutting board on the bed was easier and more accurate.
    As for cutting tools. I buy a new pair of scissors at the dollar store for every project. I then donate them to the elementary school art class. It's only 5 pair or so a year, but the teacher wishes a few more parents did this.

  28. I love the bulletin board-turned-cutting board idea! I had never thought of it. What I use now? A huge cutting mat and a rotary cutter. Couldn't live without it. But on those occasions when the fabric is slippery, pinning to a giant bulletin board- genius!

  29. I love the bulletin board tip. Too bad we got rid of the school sized one that was hanging in my son's room when he was a kid!
    I use a large cutting mat and a new blade. I pin some things if I can, at least to keep it from moving and use assorted weights including rocks from a trip to Maine.
    I have used the clip method with knits that roll, a royal pita. I have only used the paper layers with chiffon. I'll have to remember that for finicky knits.

  30. this is great!! thanks for sharing this info...I will keep this tips in mind when cutting those slippery fabric!

  31. Thanks so much for this thorough post. I love knits and most of the time, I love sewing with them. These tips will help me LOTS!

  32. Another Awesome Post... keep them coming. Like others I use large washer weights and pins to anchor my fabric.

    After reading this post, I immediately surfed the web for a electric rotary fabric cutter and came across an Allstar cutter and now anxiously awaiting its arrival. I also stopped at the .99 store and purchased a pack of clothes pins. I had an old rtw dress that I took apart to use as a template and made 3 dresses. Now I want to make more and your post on bulk cutting is timely... love it.

  33. Thanks for the clothes pin tip; I never thought of that.
    Like you, cutting out the fabric is my least favorite part of sewing. That electric rotary cutter looks interesting.

  34. I was given the best hint about marking on knits a while ago. I too have used the sharpie but instead of trying to draw the pattern pieces I only put dots around the template. That keeps the fabric from shifting and moving and if you put the dots close together, it is very easy to follow and cut out perfectly!

  35. Heavy coasters make great pattern weights when laying out your pattern.


Thanks for your comments; I read each and every one! xo Gertie

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