Sewing Tips

This section is excerpted from our book Sew & Stitch Embroidery. Available for purchase here.

Anatomy of woven fabric:

It’s important to know the anatomy of your woven fabric. Not only is it good information to know, it will help prevent cutting and sewing mistakes.


A bolt of fabric refers to an amount of fabric stored on a roll or cardboard rectangle. On quilting weight cotton fabric it’s typical that fabric is 42’’ wide, folded in half, then rolled into a bolt. Other fabrics like linen and burlap may be wider then 42’’ and sometimes less, so it’s important to check how wide the fabric is before cutting it.



The selvage is the tightly woven edge on either side of a width of fabric. The selvage doesn’t move or stretch the same as the rest of the fabric so you’ll want to cut them off (or square up) before cutting the rest of the fabric.


Lengthwise grain:

The lengthwise grain refers to the direction of the woven fibers that run the length of the fabric or parallel to the selvage. It is the strongest grain in a woven fabric.


Crosswise grain:

The crosswise grain runs perpendicular to the selvages and is slightly stretchier then the lengthwise grain.



The bias refers to the diagonal grain of the fabric and is also the stretchiest part of woven fabric. Don’t cut straight edges on the bias because they won’t keep their shape well. You’ll also be dealing with the bias when you sew around curves, so be sure to use extra pins to keep the shapes from stretching.


Right side versus wrong side:

The right side of fabric is the side where the pattern is printed, and the wrong side is the duller side without printing. Many solid colored fabrics have no visible right or wrong side. When embroidered, the wrong side refers to the back of the embroidery side.

Using a rotary cutter, self healing cutting mat, and quilting ruler:

When a pattern calls for straight lines, strips, or a perfect rectangle or square, your best bet is to use a rotary cutter with a self healing cutting mat and quilting ruler both printed with a grid. It’s much quicker and more precise then cutting with a scissors.

Squaring up your fabric:

The first cut you’ll want to make with the rotary cutter is to square up your fabric or make sure you have a clean cut along the grain. With the bulk of fabric on your left and the uneven edge on the right, line up the fold of your fabric from when it was on the bolt along one of the horizontal grid lines on the lower part of your self healing cutting mat. It’s OK if the selvages don’t line up exactly. Lay your quilting ruler on top of the fabric so the right, long edge of the ruler is near the uneven edge of fabric. Use the grid on the ruler and mat to place the ruler exactly perpendicular to the folded edge of the fabric. Firmly position your left hand on the ruler. With your right hand, take the safety off of the rotary cutter and place the blade against the right edge of the ruler. With a little bit of pressure (you shouldn’t need much) trim off the uneven edge by moving the rotary cutter away from you while keeping the blade against the ruler. You may have to move your left hand up as you go to keep the ruler from moving. When you’re done with the cut, put the safety back on your rotary cutter and throw away your uneven edge. Now you should have a perfectly squared off edge, yay! If you’re left handed, just flip the directions. Have the bulk of the fabric on your right and cut on the left. Note: Make it a habit to put the safety on every time you’re done using the rotary cutter. That blade is sharp!

Cutting strips:

Now that you have a nice square edge you can cut strips. Move your fabric so that your squared up edge is laying along the vertical 0’’ measurement on the self healing cutting mat. Make sure your line is still on a horizontal line on the mat. Use the measurement guides on the mat to line up the ruler to the width of strip you’d like to cut. Cut the strip with your rotary cutter. Keep moving along the fabric to cut additional strips.

Cutting rectangles or squares:

To cut a square or rectangle, first cut a strip to the width you’d like your rectangles or squares to be. Next, rotate your strip so that the cut edge is laying along a horizontal line on the self healing cutting mat. With your rotary cutter and quilting ruler, trim off the selvage edge from the strip. Move the edge so it’s on the 0’’ mark. Use the measurement guides on the mat to line up the ruler to the length of the rectangle or square you’d like to cut. Cut the strip with your rotary cutter. Because the strip is still folded you’ll get two rectangles or squares. If you need more, continue cutting along the strip. If you only need one rectangle or square, open up the strip before cutting so you’re cutting through only one layer of fabric.


Pinning is one of those “do I really have to do this” steps, but taking this necessary step will make your sewing a lot easier and cleaner. Fabric likes to move and stretch as it’s sewn and pinning will make sure that everything stays in it’s place. This is especially important when you want 2 seams to line up. Line up your fabric edges and place a pin at the beginning and end of the seam you’d like to sew. Next place pins around any seams you want to line up. Add pins every 2’’ or so across the rest of the seam. For tricky corners or curves add more pins as needed.

Seam allowance:

The seam allowance is the measurement of the space between the stitch line and the raw edge of fabric that you’re sewing. A common seam allowance is ¼;’’ (6mm). To keep a consistent ¼;’’ seam allowance, use a ¼;’’ presser foot on your sewing machine, or measure ¼;’’ away from the needle and mark your sewing machine’s metal throat plate with a marker or piece of tape.

Clipping, trimming, and cutting notches in curves and corners:

When you’re sewing a curved seam or a corner, it’s important to reduce the bulk or excess stretching in the seam allowance so your piece lays flat. It seems like a tedious extra step, but it’s your best friend when you want to make something that’s perfectly round instead of all bunched up and messy.

Trimming corners:

To make neat and pointy corners you need to reduce the bulk at the corner by trimming the seam allowance. At the corner, cut off the seam allowance at a diagonal close to the seam (about 1/16’’).

Clipping inward curves or valleys:

To reduce the excessive stretching placed on a seam allowance on an inward curve or valley when it’s turned right side out, the seam allowance should be clipped around the curve. Using a scissors, make a snip into the seam allowance almost reaching the seam (keep about 1/16’’ away from the seam). Repeat every ½;’’ or so around the curve.

Cutting notches in outward curves or mountains:

To make perfectly round outward curves or mountains you need to reduce the bulk in the seam allowance so it doesn’t bunch up when the curve is turned right side out. Do this by cutting out a notch, or small triangle out of the seam allowance around the curve. The notch should be about 1/16’’ from the seam. Make notches about every ½;’’ around the curve.

TIP: Instead of cutting lots of individual notches, cut the seam allowance around an outward curve with a pinking shears. Instant notches!