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Little Pieces: Accurate Cutting Tips

By Addy Harkavy, Pinetree Quiltworks.

Small quilt patches have a way of coming out inaccurately. This is due to the fact that even small inaccuracies in small pieces represent a hefty percentage of the final patch size.

What's small? If you think it's small, then it's small.

Preparing the fabric:

Although some quilters don't prewash their fabric, claiming that they like the original finish as an aid in accurate cutting, I always prewash in hot water and dry in a hot dryer. Whether or not you prewash your fabric, chances are you will iron it. Some quilters find that their cutting is much, much more accurate when they starch their fabric as they iron in preparation for cutting. Spray starch is expensive, and it is supplied in a concentration that you can't change. Liquid laundry starch, however, is cheap and can be mixed to any concentration you like and sprayed from a laundry spray as you iron. Start with 1 part liquid laundry starch to 3 parts water (you can change this as you decide how heavily or lightly you like your fabric starched). Iron your fabric flat without using any starch. Then spray on the starch and iron as you fold your fabric selvage to selvage (and a second time if you like to cut strips from 4 thicknesses). Your fabric will feel pretty stiff.

Cutting the patches:

Whether you use acrylic templates for rotary cutting or your ruler, it helps to cut a strip of fabric that accurately nails one dimension of the patch in question. For example, if your hexagon template measures 2" from flat side to flat side, cut a 2" strip. If your triangle measures 1 " from base to tip, cut a strip that's 1 " wide before you cut individual triangles.

Once your strips have been cut, you can pile strips (but be sure to align the edges very carefully) up to 8 layers thick. I have found that more layers than that can be difficult to cut with a rotary cutter (even a 60 mm, which I don't favor for small pieces, anyway).

Here are my two favorite cutting tricks:

1. Use a 28 mm or 45 mm rotary cutter.
2. Put the end of the strip from which you will be cutting on a small rotary mat (I use 6" x 8") mat. Then I turn the mat so that I can make my first cut in a direction that is convenient and in which I feel confident of my accuracy. Then I turn the mat again for each subsequent cut.

Quilters also use turntables with cutting mats on them - the Brooklyn Revolver and the Texas Turntable - but I have to admit that I prefer the security of cutting on my table's stable surface.

The starched fabric patches will feel very stiff, but they usually yield easily to both machine and hand sewing. By the time it's time to quilt, hand quilters usually find that the top has been manipulated enough that the starch isn't a factor in hand quilting.

Addy Harkavy 2003. Reprinted with permission by Addy Harkavy.

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