How to Prepare and Cut Fabrics for Quilting Projects
Precise piecing starts with fabrics properly prepared and having the right cutting tools for cutting. The following blog posts takes you through what you’ll need and how to: (1) prepare fabrics for precise piecing, (2) read cutting directions on a quilt pattern and; (3) safely use a ruler and rotary cutter to cut fabrics for your next quilting project. The content is geared more for quilters that are new to the craft, about to embark on their quilting journey or would just like more information on these topics.
What You'll Need
To get started, you’ll need a few tools:
- Fabrics (woven quilting cotton) as outlined in the quilt pattern
- Fabric scissors
- Large wool pressing mat or ironing board
- Large cutting mat, i.e., 18in x 24in, 24in x 36in – The standard width of quilting fabrics is 42in, and it generally comes folded in half. Therefore, you’ll need a cutting mat where at least one of the edges is 21in in length. In this example I’m using a 24in x 36in cutting mat.
- Rotary cutter(s) – Rotary cutters come in various sizes, but the gold standard size is 45mm. This is the perfect size to make all of your basic quilting cuts and trims.
In this blog post I have used Fiskars Easy Change DuoLoop Rotary Cutter. It’s a 2-in-1 rotary cutter that enables you to easily switch between a 45mm to 60mm blade size for larger cuts.
- Spare rotary cutter blades
- Quilting rulers – Quilting rulers have many purposes throughout the quilting process such as measuring, cutting, marking guidelines on fabrics and many more. For the purpose of cutting fabrics for a new quilt project, I’d suggest at least two different ruler sizes: 6in x 24in and 12½in x 12½in. Of course, use whatever you’re more comfortable with and a ruler that’s large enough to get the size of fabric you need cut.
1. Preparing Fabrics
Prewash or Not?
Now that you’ve carefully picked out all your fabrics for your new quilt project, there’s something that you may want to consider before you dive into cutting, and that’s prewashing.
Some manufacturers skip the prewashing (or preshrinking) process to speed up production time. Prewashing fabrics prior to cutting and piecing helps avoid the ‘antique’ or crinkled look after washing the finished quit, and to ensure any excess fabric dyes do not bleed and ruin the completed project.
The golden rule is, if you choose to prewash your fabrics, prewash everything, unless you are mixing higher-quality cotton with less-expensive or vintage cotton fabrics. This is because fabrics of varying quality shrink at different rates, causing the completed quilt to have wonky seams once it has been washed.
Personally, I prewash if I’m not sure or have not used the brand before. However, I often find myself in team non-prewash. I get too excited about starting a new project and I find that the fabric can get a little limp after washing, making it a little finicky to work with when cutting and piecing.
Regardless of prewashed or not prewashed, with an iron, press out all creases in the fabric. Sometimes, this may mean doing it on both sides of the fabric, depending on how it was stored. The slightest fold or crease in the fabric could affect the size or shape of the pieces of cut fabric. Thereby affecting the final size of the pieced block or project.
2. Reading Cutting Directions
Getting the Lay of the Land
Like you would for a cooking recipe, read all the instructions first. This is going to allow you to identify tools you’ll need along the way (i.e., speciality rulers or different ruler sizes to make the cuts you’ll need), and understand what to anticipate throughout the project.
Working in Inches
When looking at the cutting directions in a quilt pattern, you’ll notice that all the measurements provided are in inches. Same goes with all quilting rulers… they’re all in inches. This is because quilters work in inches. It may seem a little strange, especially if you’re more familiar with the metric system.
I highly recommend that you do not convert the cutting directions into centimetres or millimetres. Quilt designers and writers spend hours calculating the size and number of pieces required to make a project, so that you don’t need to do the hard work to figure that out. Converting the directions into centimetres or millimetres may result in inaccurate piecing because the individual pieces of fabric and seams will not align with each other when it comes to sewing them up. Also, all cutting directions take into account the standard ¼in seam allowance used in quilting.
WOF and Sub-cutting?
Whilst reading through the quilt pattern you’re working on, you may have come across these two different quilting terminologies, in particular in the cutting directions: WOF (also known as width of fabric) and sub-cutting.
Firstly, width of fabric (WOF) refers to the distance from selvedge to selvedge. When shopping for quilting fabrics, most often you’ll find the WOF is 42in to 44in. However, the most common WOF sold in stores and used in patterns is 42in. Either way, it’s important that you check what WOF the pattern refers to before purchasing or cutting.
Secondly, sub-cutting means to cut smaller squares or rectangles from a larger piece of fabric that is already cut.
Below is an example from my book, The Quilted Home Handbook. Keep in mind formatting of how cutting directions are written out may vary from pattern to pattern or designer to designer. But with the understanding of what WOF and sub-cut are, this can be applied to all cutting directions for quilt projects.
For Fabric B, the instructions say to cut:
3 strips, 9in x WOF, sub-cut:
- 6 rectangles, 9in x 19¼in
1 strip, 4¾in x WOF, sub-cut:
- 2 squares, 4¾in
- 8 squares, 2⅜in
3 strips, 2in x WOF
(For strip piecing)
This simply translates to cutting, for Fabric B:
Cut three strips that are 9in wide and 42in in length. Then cut six rectangles that are 9in x 19¼in from those three strips. Set aside.
In the second paragraph, it asks to cut one strip that is 4¾in wide and 42in in length. Then, within that one strip, cut two squares that are 4¾in x 4¾in and eight squares that are 2⅜in x 2⅜in. Set aside.
Finally, in the third paragraph, it asks the reader to cut three strips that are 2in wide in the length of the WOF. So essentially, you’re cutting 3 rectangles that are 2in x 42in. This cut of fabric will remain as a long strip for strip piecing (a piecing method in quilting) as outlined in brackets in the instructions.
3. Cutting Fabrics
I promise you; we’re going to start cutting soon! But first, check that the rotary blade is sharp. You don’t want a dull blade to slow you down or create inaccurate piecing down the road. I like to have a few spares in my quilters tool kit. You will know when your rotary cutter blade is due for a replacement when you run the rotary cutter at the same place, more than once to make a clean cut. A good rule of thumb is to replace the blade every two to three projects. With a sharp blade, you should be able to cut through six to eight layers of quilting cotton fabric at once.
In addition to the blade being sharp, you also want to use a ruler and rotary cutter to trim any jagged or uneven edges before the actual cutting commences. To do this, use the folded edge of the fabric as a guide to ensure it is straight and right-angled against the width of fabric (see third photo below for close up). Remember that no matter how straight fabric appears, the naked eye can play tricks on you.
Final cutting tips and housekeeping rules to keep in mind while cutting:
- Cut away from your body, not towards yourself.
- Stand up while you cut. In doing so, you can use your body weight to apply pressure on the ruler to prevent the ruler and fabric from shifting, which allows you to achieve accurate cuts.
- Do not cross your arms one over the other while cutting. Therefore, if you’re right-handed, secure and apply pressure to hold the ruler in place with your left hand and cut with the rotary cutter in your right hand. And it is the opposite for lefties – right hand on the ruler, rotary cutter in left hand.
- This is coming from experience… Cutting can turn gruesome if you’re not paying attention. Focus on what you’re doing and make sure your fingers and hand are not in the way of the cutting blade.
- Measure twice, cut once. Double-check that your ruler is aligned correctly and ensure you have read the cutting directions carefully before cutting. Cutting the wrong size or number of pieces can stop a project in its tracks.
With the proper fabric preparation and the right tools for cutting, it makes performing the following steps more seamless, and the outcomes look more precise and accurate. But with that said, don’t forget to enjoy the process and it is okay to make mistakes. That’s how we’re able to learn and improve.
This blog post is written by a Fiskars brand ambassador and sponsored by Fiskars. This post contains affiliate links, meaning, at no additional cost to you, if you use these links to buy something, I may receive a commission.