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Sarah Shirt Sewalong: Cutting, marking & stabilising your fabric

Hello, and happy Monday Sewalongers! Today things start to get really fun - we actually get to touch a sewing machine! First things first: clear some space on your cutting table (or kitchen floor!), arm yourself with a beverage and a schnickety-schnack and let's get stuck right in.

Today we will be:

  • Making sure we've pre-washed our fabric
  • Talking about grainlines and selvedges
  • Cutting out our fabric
  • Transferring all notches and markings
  • Stay-stitching and interfacing 

*To be taken to all the posts in the Sarah Shirt Sewalong, please click here*

Preparing to cut...

Before we begin, have you pre-washed your fabric?? Provided you're working with fabric that actually can go in the washing machine (and you intend to wash it that way after it's all sewn up), pre-washing ensures that any minor shrinkage in the fibres will be done and dusted before you cut and sew; resulting in a garment that will not shrink on it's first wash.

Second of all, if you haven't yet assembled your pattern and cut out your size, do that now! If you're having trouble printing your PDF pattern at home, or not sure what to ask of your local copyshop or printer's, please read this post first. 

How to lay out your fabric

If this is your first time working from a sewing pattern, you may be wondering how best to fold your fabric, what in the hell a "selvedge" really is, and exactly how to locate that elusive grainline... No fear, we've all been there!

Firstly, "selvedges" are the woven edges at either end of the fabric that come infinitely off the roll. We always find things much easier to explain with a little drawing...

When you fold your fabric ready to lay on your pattern pieces, you'll need to fold it in half lengthways, so that the fold is parallel to the selvedges, and from there the rest is easy: the "grainline" is also parallel to the selvedge, and the "bias" is basically just an imaginary line that runs diagonally across the fabric, at a 45° angle to the grainline. If a garment is "cut on the bias", it will have significantly more drape and body than something cut on the straight grain, but will also be slightly tricker to work with.

Once you've located the selvedges and folded your fabric (right sides of the fabric together - a good habit to get into as it protects the right side of your fabric and makes transferring pattern markings easier and clearer later on), you're ready to start pinning on your paper pattern pieces ready to be cut, using the layplans in your instruction booklet as a guide.

We've gone for a ditsy floral cotton lawn for the short sleeved blouse of Variation 2. Seeing as cotton lawn is pretty stable and not slippery or shifty like rayon, a lot of silks and other drapey polyesters, the cutting process is simple and straightforward - we've pinned the pattern pieces into place and cut them out carefully using a sharp pair of fabric scissors. If you're working with a drapey fabric however, like we are for our long sleeved Variation 1 Sarah, you'll need to take more care and precaution at this stage (and all stages, really!) in order to end up with pattern pieces that are accurately cut and your sanity still intact...! We've compiled a monster list of tips and tricks for working with drapey and slipper fabrics - well worth a read now before you get cutting!

When preparing to cut, pay extra attention to:

  • Pieces that need to be placed on the fold of the fabric
  • Placement of the pattern pieces according to the grainline & bias
  • Pinning the pattern pieces to the fabric - keep pins as flat as possible to avoid distorting the fabric as you pin
  • Saving space! Place the pattern pieces as close as possible to each other in order to waste as little fabric as possible
  • Cutting - always cut to the left of your pattern piece - this lifts and distorts the fabric less and enables a cleaner, more precise cut, especially around curves!

Transferring pattern markings

As you're pinning and cutting, you'll notice that the pattern pieces have a whole lot of information on them - the name of the pattern, what is is, ie. a sleeve or a collar, whether or not it needs to be interfaced, how many pieces to cut, and so on. You'll also notice a bunch of strategically placed little black triangles around the edges. These notches come into play when you're sewing up your garment, as they indicate key points where two pattern pieces should match up as you're pinning them together ready to sew.

To transfer these notches, simply snip through the middle of the triangle, through your pattern paper and both layers of fabric:

You don't want to snip any further than 3/8" or 10mm in from the raw edge, and if your fabric is especially prone to fraying, instead of snipping into the seam allowance, cut little triangles poking out as you're cutting around your pattern pieces.


A few of the pattern pieces of the Sarah Shirt require interfacing in order to give them more structure and stability, namely the top collar, the cuffs, and if your fabric is extra lightweight and floaty, you might want to interface the yoke and down the plackets as well. The easiest way to to this is to cut away enough of your fabric to fit said pattern pieces on and interface the fabric before cutting. Lay out your fusible interfacing, adhesive side up on your ironing board. Lay your fabric, wrong side down onto the interfacing. Press to fuse the two together. I like to press directly onto my main fabric as opposed to the back side of the interfacing so as to avoid getting my iron all clogged up with melted interfacing adhesive. Once your fabric has been interfaced, it'll be way easier to cut out those pattern pieces (which are often the smaller, more tricksy pieces like collars) accurately.


Below - Variation 1 cuff pieces interfaced and cut. Blue side is the right side of our main fabric, a gloriously soft and floaty viscose voile; black side is the interfacing, fused to the wrong side of our main fabric...

...And a perfectly symmetrical top collar also having been interfaced before being cut.

If your fabric is more stable, then you could also interface after you've cut your main fabric. Press the interfacing onto the wrong side of your cut pattern piece, and then trim the excess interfacing away. I would never recommend pre-cutting the interfacing and trying to fuse that to a pre-cut pattern piece - getting the two to match up perfectly is a nightmare!


The final thing we have to do today, still in the vein of stabilising, but this time on an actual real-life sewing machine (yay!), is stay-stitching. Stay-stitching is simply the stabilising of certain unstable curved or bias-cut raw edges of fabric that, if left to their own devices, would stretch and distort ever so slightly out of place (some fabrics more so than others, especially linen, silks and loosely woven cottons) and leave you with something that does not come together as crispily as it should.

For the Sarah, we'll need to stay-stitch along the curves of the neckline on the shirt front and yokes pieces 1/4" from the raw edge, and on the top collar piece, whose seam allowance is a scant 1/4", stay-stitch an even scanter 1/8" from the raw edge! If you've used a non-woven fusible interfacing, don't worry so much about stay-stitching the collar. However, if your interfacing is woven, you will still need to stay-stitch. Choose a wide straight machine stitch, and no need to back stitch at this point. By stay-stitching within the seam allowance, your stitches won't show when we later come to seaming with the usual 5/8" or 15mm seam allowance.

Up next: Things really start to take shape as we start assembling our shirts!

Comments on this post (1)

  • May 22, 2016

    i would like to know more about dressmaking sewing machines patterns etc

    — milki

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