Friday, June 7, 2013

The right cut

I hand-draped and hand-sewed this dress for a client,  partially due to cutting fears!

I have long had a fear of large expanses of bias chiffon.  Generally, hearing the words, "...three layers of chiffon skirts" on a gown, would give me the chills. The cutting and stabilizing were nightmare processes I just didn't want to deal with.

I designed and made this organza bolero for a client a few years ago, and cut spiral bias pieces to make this happen. But again, my cutting fears made me cut this in a far less efficient, and trepidatious way...

My current freelance gig in a couture designer's workshop has taught me volumes about dealing with chiffon in particular, and I think this post will help those of you with slippery fabrics fears to conquer the beast!

What will affect your success:

The right cutting surface

Ergonomics is the study of people and their work. It combines engineering, physiology, and psychology to prevent injuries and make work more efficient. Ergonomics focuses on adapting the work, the tools, and the work station to fit the worker instead of requiring that the worker accommodate himself or herself to the equipment. This can take the form of adjusting work heights, modifying hand tools, adding material handling equipment, or a variety of other solutions.

-Sheree Gibson, Ergonomist and Engineer (research for the Wolff company, specifically)

Ideally, a surface that is flat, sturdy, about 6 to 8 feet long, and at least 58" wide would accommodate most garment projects.  The ideal height of the table depends on your height. Try making that happen in an NYC apartment... good luck! We're just talking about getting the ideal situation here. The designer has big industrial tables. In my own space, I use a banquet table from Staples.  Works just fine for me. You may be able to adjust the height of an existing table with bed risers from a home goods store, or you may choose to ignore me entirely, if space, budget or lifestyle don't permit.

Stabilizing your fabric for cutting success

No amount of skill will make up for not preparing to cut your fabric correctly.  Read this post from the Sewing Divas for tips on how to cut fabrics that won't hold still.

All I have to add to the procedure given at the link given above, is that the designer I'm currently working with uses a layer of brown paper to stabilize beneath the fabric, then fabric on top of that paper, carefully lined up against the edge, and then, a layer of sample paper on top (makes it easier to position pieces on correct grain, and you can kinda see through it), on top of which which the pattern would be placed, traced (if appropriate), pinned though all three layers at the edges only, and then cut.  Yes, cut... through chiffon and layers of paper. Using the good shears.

The right shears

If you sew, you probably have  a dedicated pair of shears you use for fabric. Shears (vs. scissors) have a larger handle on one side to accommodate a couple of fingers, so that you may place your thumb on top and several  fingers in the bottom.  The handles are often attached with an adjustable screw for precise cutting.

Many of us who sew in our own homes or small studios cringe at the thought of our precious fabric shears ever being used to cut anything but fabric.  "They'll be ruined!" A bit of a sewing myth, this is both kinda, sorta true, and uhhhh... not really true.  Cutting paper with your fabric shears will not ruin them; it will make you need sharpening sooner.  You'd like to keep your shears specific for their designated task, which is to cut fabric. I know many sewers don't get their shears sharpened often, if at all, really.  The choice to do so is based on the quality of your shears, how much you care, the types of fabric you cut, and the amount of cutting you do.  If yours need sharpening, it is entirely affordable.  Drop them off at Steinlauf and Stoller (that's where I go) or Wesphfal (who offer sharpening services for a variety of industries), and pick them up when they're ready (depends on workload at the shop - could be hours, next day, or could be a few days), and it will only cost you a few bucks, which is totally worth it.  Sometimes shears need more than just sharpening.  Cleaning and re-edging are services provided by some manufacturers, and rust or a loose screw could also be problems you need to solve. It is good to know what the problem is before deciding on what service(s) you will require.

I know some of you likely never or very rarely sharpen your shears.  In that case, for you... "Stay away from paper!".

There are plenty of nice dressmaking shears, and there are lots of great industrial shears.  You need the right tools for the task and for the environment in which you will use them.  They can be quite pricey, compared to the least expensive brands, but they also make great gifts.  ( Tip: Start hinting now for your next gift receiving occassion...) If you care enough, they are truly worth the investment.  Feel free to ignore me if you're laying out your fabric on your bed or carpeted floor, though.  See what I'm saying? The quality of the cutting is entirely dependent upon the hands operating them and the environment in which they are being used. A great deal of study has gone into the ergonomics of cutting tools. One of the biggest reasons for this, has been the rapid increase in repetitive stress injuries to workers, caused by the repetition of a motion or exertion over time. As an occasional or part-time sewing professional, artist, or hobbyist, you may not need/want to put excessive thought into your tools, but if you have seen the walls of Wolff, Kai, Wiss, Gingher and other branded industrial shears in some of the garment center stores and wonder what all the fuss is about, here's your answer:

Better tools give you better results when cutting.  The bent-handled shears allow you to cut more precisely and get the proper angle against the table, the longer blades require fewer repetitive movements, the thin, sharp tips allow you to get into tight corners and angles, and the ergonomically designed handles allow you to grip the scissors in the most ideal position for doing so.  There are also left-handed scissors for the southpaws among us.  Better quality shears have sharper blades, generally made of high grade stainless steel, and are specifically designed to stay sharper longer.

After you've bought them, you've also gotta pay attention to where and how you keep your shears.  Mine are suspended on pegs above my work table, but I do love a good holster attached to a wall or table somewhere, too. Something sorta cowgirl about it, I suppose? Above all, don't drop them, and don't let your kids or well-intentioned others use them.  For that matter, don't let evil-intentioned people use them either. Yes, I know you love them (the kids and others, not the shears), but really, some things are just off-limits.

Where can you buy great shears?  ArcherPacific Trimming, Steinlauf & Stoller, Panda, or online... I'm sure there are more places.

By the Way...

When you're done cutting, you're not done.  If you've cut bias pieces, baste them as they are meant to be assembled, and let them hang overnight.  You'll have to be the judge of what is appropriate for the garment you're making, but just "sewing it up" without doing this is likely to be a very bad idea.


  1. Serrated shears also work well. (They are not pinking shears.) The blade grips slippery fabric.

    I like to use freezer paper as a stabilizer, but I've never had to cut out large pieces of fabric; the paper isn't that wide and it would get expensive. The paper layering methods didn't work for me.

    Some people use a rotary cutter, arguably, it disturbs the fabric less than shears.

    I've used Steinlauf for sharpening, which was fine, but I've been advised that Gingher shears should be sent back to Gingher for sharpening. I wrote the company and they got back to me right away with the details.

    1. I get my Ginghers sharpened at Steinlauf & Stoller with no problems at all. I'm sure the company would prefer the business, but I'd rather not make postage part of the process for myself. Lemme know how that works for you, and if it is somehow better to have the company do it!

    2. A so-called "sewing celebrity" strongly recommended this. As this individual is otherwise flexible about many things relating to sewing and is always open to ways to economize, I thought I should consider it.

      If I ever do it, I'll let you know, but I wouldn't have any way of comparing the services except for price. I'm sure it costs somewhat more to send shears to Gingher, although I seem to remember that the postage back was a flat rate, no matter how many shears one sent. I think it took at least two weeks.

      I'm not sure my wrist could handle the 15" shears my tailoring teachers have used although I can see why they like them. The fewer the cuts, the straighter the line.

  2. The best cutting tip for shears I got was from a Claire Shaeffer DVD, Couture Sewing Basics Workshop. She said to cut, slide the shears into the cut, which I knew to do, and to make sure not to lift the shears off the table. Somehow I must have been lifting them off because the moment I focused on it I started cutting much straighter lines.

    When possible, I prefer to trace the cutting line directly onto the fabric with chalk as tailors do and to cut instead of working around a paper pattern. I took a sewing class taught by a tailor and his methods helped me get better results.

    I've improved at curves, but I still find a small rotary cutter to be very helpful. I get a much cleaner cut. Sometimes I'll slide a very small mat under a curve on a table so I can use the rotary cutter for that part.

    1. I like chalk lines, too. that's what they teach at FIT. But try that with silk chiffon!

    2. I'm not saying it would work in a professional setting, but the beauty of freezer paper is that you can trace the pattern onto the paper. Then lightly touch an iron to the fabric. I got that tip from a tutor in the FIT Sewing Lab who majored in evening wear.

  3. 3 layers of chiffon is nothing for a standard ballroom dress (not that I've made one). I used a single layer of polyester chiffon, just to add a contrast, to a smooth gown. Due to that experience, I'm still scared to work with my silk chiffon I've had for nearly 2 years despite having everything for the project. Although I can use the excuse I was waiting until my weight loss and measurements stabilized.

    1. I understand the fear. I've got a little stack of fear in my workspace right now!

  4. You're so right about having the correct tools when it comes to cutting! I like my Gingher shears that my mom bought me as a Christmas gift several years ago but they are heavy compared to my favorites - Wiss shears inherited from my grandmother - and I always feel as though the Gingher shears don't hold an edge nearly as long as the Wiss shears. Because of the different weights, I try to use the Wiss shears more on lightweight fabrics. I also have Wiss pinking shears from my grandmother and I love that they are so much larger than my other pinking shears.


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