Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Quilting How-To: Strip Cutting

So last time I wrote about how I choose colors for my quilts. Of course the next step is to cut the fabric into pieces that fit your pattern. It's one of the funny contradictions of quilting, as a friend's husband once noted: we buy a whole bunch of fabric and cut it up, just so we can sew it together again.

Actually, I should back up half a step; unless you're deliberately seeking that shrunked, puckered fabric look after you've completed your project, you'll want to pre-wash your fabric. I always make sure to safety-pin the ends of the pieces, to reduce the amount of fraying, before I wash and dry the fabric on normal settings. Of course, I make sure to wash light and dark colors separately, to avoid staining, and use Shout Color Catchers if I'm really afraid colors might bleed.

After the fabric is pre-shrunk, and I've ironed the fabric to get rid of wrinkles, I'm ready to start strip cutting. You need three essential tools for this step, which you can see in the photo to the right: a large cutting mat (the green dohickey), a long quilting ruler (the clear plastic thingamabob), and a rotary cutter (the gadget with the blue handle). The cutting mat and quilting ruler should be at least 24 inches long, to accommodate a folded piece of quilting fabric. (They usually come in widths of 42 to 45 inches.)

So my quilt pattern required two sizes of pieces: 2½ x 4½ and 2½ x 6½ inches. When calculating how much fabric I'd need for this quilt, I figured that I'd have less wasted fabric if I started with 2½-inch strips, rather than 4½- or 6½-inch ones. So after cutting a clean edge off once side, making sure that my fold was straight at the top, I was ready to cut a whole bunch of 2½-inch pieces.

You can see it's very simple: make sure the top fold is straight (or anything cut with the fold in the middle will be off center), then line up the 2½-inch marker on the ruler with the edge of the fabric, as I've done in the picture. Then you carefully roll the rotary cutter along the edge of the rule. There are two main things to watch: first, don't catch your finger in the cutter, because those things are sharp and you will bleed! (And yes, I speak from experience. Fingers can really bleed a lot.) Second, you have to make sure you don't move the ruler as you press the rotary cutter against it—the tendency is for the bottom or top of the ruler to get pushed away from the ruler as you roll it. When cutting long strips like these, I usually rest my entire arm on the ruler and run the cutter in two stages: from the middle up and then from the bottom to the middle, centering my arm and checking the placement in between cuts.

Once I have my 2½-inch strips, I'm ready to cut those down into 4½- or 6½-inch pieces. Again I use the quilting ruler—I have a smaller, less unwieldy* size for cutting and trimming small pieces—to cut my strips to the required size.

This strip-cutting method can work even if you're not cutting out square or rectangular pieces. If you have triangles or even trapezoids, you can still start with strips. Measure at the widest point, then add an extra ⅛-inch to the strip; this will give you the wiggle room you need when trimming pieced angles. If you have a template for your triangle or trapezoid, put the quilting ruler on top of it as a guide, then cut out your first angles. You should be able to flip the template over (or upside down) to cut the next piece, then flip and cut again. NOTE: if you're not using equilateral triangles, or your shapes are only angled on the one side (the left, for instance), this method may not work if you're not using batik fabrics, which have no "right" or "wrong" side. If your fabric has a wrong side, you may want to check after the first couple of pieces to make sure this method doesn't give you unwanted mirror-image pieces.

When deciding whether to cut everything ahead of time or as I go depends on the pattern. If all the squares in the pattern use the same fabric, I may cut as I go, just to break up the monotony. If, as in this case, I have squares of varying fabrics, and I have to work on arranging the squares in a pattern, I'll cut everything out ahead of time, so when I'm piecing things together I don't suddenly run out of one color and end up with an imbalance of patterns. The secrets of piecing will have to wait until another installment, however.

*Word nerd aside: unwieldy: another of those fun words that we don't use without the prefix, like (dis)gruntled or (non)plussed or (in)ane.

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