The 7 minute cutting test pt.2

In which we learn what designers do or don’t know. Here were the entrants to our little test:

  1. Brian was first up to bat with his samples (one and two).
  2. David was next with a photo of his demonstration.
  3. Kate of stupid stripey fame was next. She had a problem with paper curling.
  4. Amy Charlton was next but not having a camera, could only use the one built into her Macbook. She tried. Yeah Amy!
  5. Then Lisa Blank who’s always a trooper weighed in.
  6. Donna did a sample but couldn’t provide a photo. She says it came out as she expected.
  7. Adrienne was next with hers. She says it didn’t work out like she expected. Frankly, hers didn’t work out like I expected either. If we were giving a prize for accuracy, she’d get it. There was a little growth but not much.
  8. Liz (who’s completed her trek through all the blog entries from the beginning) was second last. She didn’t provide a photo but did describe the expected results. [#8 is about 1/8″ longer and 1/16″ wider than #1, and developed a couple of subtle curves.]
  9. Last was Bente who sent me hers via email.

Now, let’s have a big round of applause for everyone who entered. Please, do click that. It was a hassle to find and load.

Here’s some photos of the samples.


What does every cutting sample have in common? Other than a few increasingly skewed lines, in all cases, the pattern grew larger. This is a tremendous problem and it is entirely preventable. I’ll bet you’re thinking it’s skill but it’s not. It’s method. As a point of comparison, here’s my cutting sample:

It doesn’t look bad at all; here it is blown up:

The Solution
Now I could run off and tell you how to prevent this but bear with me a moment; it’s important to learn how to analyze problems. They are usually sorted into rough categories according to Man, Method or Machine. Materials also plays a part but we’ll stick with these three for now. The problem here was not man (skill) or machine, it was method. Specifically, it was lack of a Best Practice. There is a best practice to prevent this. It’s called Always Cut the Line Away. Always. No Exceptions. You might think it doesn’t matter, that you’re the only one doing the work but as you grow, this problem will creep in if you don’t train everyone who touches your stuff.

In the course of manufacturing, your pattern will be re-cut any number of times. Perhaps not the pattern itself but there’s protos, samples, digitizing and cutting in production to say nothing of having to recopy the pattern innumerable times to correct it. By the way, do you know how cutting accuracy is checked? You grab the pieces left over from the marker and lay it on top of the original. That’s why I tell you in the book that you should save the cut paper pieces from the marker.

The goal of the cutting exercise is to compare the last piece made with the first piece to see how accurate it is to the original. The reason we do this is to mimic the number of times your pattern will be traced, cut and processed by various people in drafting, cutting, marking, digitizing and sewing. All told, your original pattern can be used more than 10 times. Which is why it is critical that it always be the same. If everyone is always working from #1, that’s nifty, variations will be slight -but they often are not working from #1. No no, various people in the process are working from rendition 4 or 7 -you just don’t know. Yes, there will be slight wonky variations owing to human error but why compound the problem with lack of a good method that will prevent the worst of it? Cut the line away.

Several people justified their process according to the way they work. Again, that’s nifty. One person is not the problem. The problem is that your preference (as opposed to a proven Best Practice) becomes the default. Everyone learns your way. If your way is better and takes less time, then marvelous. But the reality is, most people are not going to take the pains you do as much as you wish they would. It’s better to adopt this and then not have to worry about it. Best of all, anyone can train anyone else. With your painstaking complex method, you’ll have to do it every single time and then still not arrive at predictable results for all your efforts.

Consider this practical example: What if you’re cutting out two pattern pieces? One is a concave line (neckline) and one is a straight band collar. If you’re not cutting the line away, your concave line is getting smaller and your collar is getting bigger. Now, I couldn’t measure everyone’s samples but in the tests I’ve done here, the differences amounted to at least a 1/4″. Subtract that from the neckline and add it to the collar and you’ve got some p-o’d seamstresses who are working with an extra half inch they don’t know what to do with.


In sum, if you aren’t cutting the line away, you won’t be training your people to do it either. Best practices means developing good work habits. Cutting the line away was literally the first thing I learned in pattern making school. And while I’m thinking of it, this was the second thing I learned; it’s related and just as important.

At the beginning of each production pattern class I do, we do the cutting game. The variations always surprise me. Here’s an analysis from my last two sessions starting with the photo comparing the Wednesday and Friday classes to each other.

Wednesday’s class only had two people, Friday had three. Also, Friday’s class cut the pattern more times than Wednesday so considering variation, Wednesday should have had the more accurate result. But no, Wednesday’s result was less accurate than Friday’s. In sum, don’t assume that one person (you) will have a better result than a group. If someone in your group is wise to the cut the line away thing, they will act as a control and prevent degradation of the pattern.

If I haven’t bored you witless yet, let’s talk about materials. Some people had difficulty with accuracy because they weren’t using the prescribed material. Everyone wants to use what they’ve been using. That’s not dandy. Manila oak tag paper is used for a reason. It’s really thin but it’s also hard enough to trace and get a good line. Yes, I know you want to save money by using lighter weight for proto patterns but that is costing you more than you know. If you can’t trace it well, how could someone else? Every person introduces their infinitesimal error into the process, you can’t avoid that. That’s why you counteract its likely occurrence with good materials and method. Manila is strong enough to draft on and it’s easy to trace accurately. I’ve seen every kind of material possible to make patterns on but sooner or later, if someone lasts long enough in this business to not go broke, you know what? They all start using oak tag pattern paper. Now, if you’re a one person outfit and finances are limited, I get it. You make do. And you should. Just be very wary of justifying your short-term make-do choice as superior and a suitable long term choice.

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  1. LizPf says:

    I was trying hard to cut the lines away, but old habits die hard! Some of my pieces show the distinct trace of pen along the edges.

    I was using a file folder, I used my ever-present space pen to trace, but the only decent scissors I had at hand were my husband’s left-handed kitchen scissors (I’m right handed). I found I did significantly better when I cut counter-clockwise, and could see the line on the waste side. I assume I would have done better with better scissors. I was *not* about to use my beloved 30+ year old Fiskars fabric scissors!

    Thanks, Kathleen, I learned a lot from this.

  2. Kate says:

    This is going to sound really, really daft, but oak tag isn’t a familiar term in the UK – I know what manila folders are like, but they’re pretty thick card. Is oaktag like kraft (with a k) paper? IE, the brown paper that kind of has lines running through it? It sounds ridiculous, but at college we used thin white paper or heavy-ish card, or occasionally the dot-and-cross paper. I would like to know the exact weight and texture of oak tag if anyone can sum that up in words…?

  3. Jess says:

    Kate, oak tag is basically thick card stock – literally the same stuff used to make manila folders. Heavier than brown kraft paper. It comes in varying weights (I prefer lighter weight, like the folders – fairly standard), the texture is smooth on at least one side; the kind I use has a green backside.

  4. Kathleen says:

    Liz, good point about the cutting method. I think the only way to really show that is by video (soon to come, we filmed a clip). We also discussed this on the forum in the context of left vs right handed scissors. You can find that here which includes sources for true left handed scissors if anyone is looking for those.

    Cutting method: If you’re right handed, you cut a pattern piece counter clockwise. The pattern piece is on your left. You view the cutting line from the left to cut it away (on the right).

    If you’re left handed, you should be cutting clockwise, with the pattern to the right. You view the cutting line from the right in order to cut it away (on the left).

  5. David S says:

    The red on my pieces is from the tracing of the next piece, not the failure to cut inside the lines. The problem I had with this is that I didn’t have a weight small enough to fit entirely on he piece I was tracing, so I had to hold it. that meant I had to shift my hand to do one of the sides, and the piece moved.

  6. LisaB says:

    My tracing was definitely less accurate due to not using oaktag. I developed a slight wave on the long edge. As a hobbyist, I haven’t graduated to oaktag yet, and I have the luxury of always pulling out my master pattern to trace from it for the next variation.

    Kathleen, I look forward to the cutting clip. I remember the topic being discussed in the forum and even today cannot get my head around the description of cutting with proper technique. I’m right-handed. If I cut counter clockwise and cut the line off, then the line must be to the right of the blade, and I can’t see it, whereas if I cut clockwise, I _can_ see it. If I hold paper and scissors directly in front of me, the line is obscured by the scissors. I’m not trying to be argumentative. I’ve tried it that way, and I just haven’t figured out how to view the line unless I cut clockwise. Like I said, I look forward to a demo.

  7. Sandra B says:

    We refer to the paper and card by it’s gsm (grams per square metre) weight. I think the paper I use for personal patterns (because it’s lighter and I can fold it away into a folder to store at home, but heavy enough to trace around) is 120gsm, and the pattern card for real patterns that will be hung is 240 gsm. When it comes down to it, there’s only one supplier here, and they only have two types, heavy or light. We just ring and ask for a roll of heavy pattern paper or light pattern paper. Lack of choice really does simplify things.

  8. Kathleen says:

    The problem I had with this is that I didn’t have a weight small enough to fit entirely on he piece I was tracing, so I had to hold it. that meant I had to shift my hand to do one of the sides, and the piece moved.

    This is another good point (thanks!). In my classes, I’m very strict about this. One is not permitted to hold a piece down, one must use a pattern weight. I even use weights to hold down rulers when drawing grain or other long lines. The industry pattern weights are rectangular affairs with handles. They fit on the Fairgate rulers we use. Rulers are another subject, don’t get me started. Btw, pattern weights are here, uppermost right corner of the second photo. They come in various lengths. I have some that are over 60″ long. I really should re do those photos now that I have software that (easily) lets me label within the photo.

    About the red lines… you used a sharpie? I don’t even want to go there (again). I use sharpies for one thing and one thing only and that’s writing the style no. in the upper right corner of the pattern card. In my classes, I confiscate sharpies. Maybe I should write a post on proper writing and drafting utensils?

    Lisa: I don’t think you’re being argumentative at all. Your question shows we have to re-do the clip because I don’t put the paper and scissors directly in front of me but slightly off to the right. I think you might get used to this if you practice. You may be surprised at how fast you can relearn doing it. Just practice. Don’t look down (birds-eye) on the cutting, the work piece should be slightly forward. You keep arranging the work piece, pulling it toward you as you cut further along. Don’t follow the piece leaving it in a static position, bring it in to you.

    You also can’t look right where the two blades come together meeting them at the traced line. In some ways, it’s like steering a car. You align steer the scissors by lining up the tip of the blade to the line. Every time you reposition the blade and before you start cutting, you mentally align the blade tip to the traced line.

    Okay, here’s an analogy because you use the very same alignment skills when you drive a car. Steering down the road, you align the end of the center of the hood of the car to the edge of the street. That’s how you know you’re not too far and not too close to the curb. Most people have mastered this to the extent they never even think of it but when you first started driving, aligning that center ridge of the car hood to the curb was pretty scary. You just need to cut. A lot. It’s just practice to learn the skill.

  9. Eric H says:

    Is it possible that people don’t cut the line away because once you do, you lose your reference marks?

    People tend to align their car mirrors so that the rear corner of the car is still visible in them. You are using the car as a reference mark, but the physical relationship of the car with respect to the mirrors is already fixed. If you can see the mirror, there is no need to see if the back of your car is still there. So not only is this practice silly, but it has a fatal flaw: the blind spot. It is therefore the wrong way to do it this way, and I am going to appeal to the ultimate authority on this subject, Tom and Ray Magliozzi.

    Ditto cutting away the line: it is counterproductive to keep a tiny bit of line on the pattern piece for reference. You put the line where it belonged, so cut along it and everything will be alright.

  10. David S says:

    I don’t have any actual sold for the purpose weights. I use a collection of handy heavy things: several lead scraps, a couple cast iron bricks, etc. These work fine for what I normally using them for. (I’m a hobbyist, remember.) I use a grease pencil to trace with; the red one was handy.

  11. dosfashionistas says:

    I have to ‘fess up. The answer was not what I expected, although I would have predicted the outcome from tracing the patterns as directed. I would have said it was because a pattern piece will grow if traced repeatedly in sequence. I thought it was inevitable. If you will believe it, no one in all my years of pattern making told me to cut the line off. One of the older pattern makers that I learned from did tell me that if you cut properly, you will not be able to see the pencil mark on the pattern or on the waste. In other words, you split the line. I have always tried for that. But even that would leave a small, maybe 1/32, addition to the pattern with each tracing.

    Keeping the integrity of the original pattern is not easy either. Some of the places I worked have used light plastic rather than oak tag for the block patterns. They hold up much better to repeated tracings.

    All this talk about weighting pattern pieces to trace them….what? Does no one use push pins anymore? Pattern tables used to be topped with cork or some other self healing surface and you held the pattern piece down with enough push pins to hold it stable (2-3 usually). They sat in a shallow dish or pushed into the table by my right hand. You normally pinned the piece you were tracing through the grain line, thus taking care of that part of the tracing at the same time.

  12. Lisa Shoemaker says:

    I finally did this. I got to use my new pattern scissors, but it made me very aware of how poorly lit my house is. I also just got my fairgate rulers in the mail today, but I need to call up South Star Supply because I didn’t get my pattern paper. However, they did send me something nice because I asked if they gave any student discount and I was buying a lot of other things. I need weights.

    Mine didn’t really grow in length, but it grew 1/16th in width.
    1 vs 8
    All stacked up

  13. LisaB says:

    K: I don’t think I was taught to drive like that, aligning the hood and all. That’s a new one to me, but I understand your point. I’ve definitely been looking at where the blades meet at the traced line and will try aligning the tips instead. How does that work for curves?

    Lisa S: Your comment about lighting reminded me that I also wanted to mention this. I’ve got a lot of overhead light in my sewing room, yet I notice shadows quite often. I’ve been trying to find a way to hold paper and scissors so that a shadow isn’t cast at the wrong place. The shadows are also a pain when trying to align a ruler along a line. It can be really tricky to see if you’ve got the ruler at the right place.

    Eric: I’ve used the picture of you cutting (// as my reference for proper form. Maybe the link to an older entry will help others as well until that clip is available.

  14. I learned this trick as an apprentice patternmaker. The mentor took the number to 100 pieces. And if the 100th didn’t match the 1st, the student would start over. For some reason he didn’t put me through this (not sure why…. I spent time, much, with the sample makers learning to sew). But the lesson is valuable.
    I was taught to ‘steal’ a line with copying a pattern. Trace a side (using a sharp pencil), and slide the pattern just enough to cover the line.
    And I was also taught to use a razor knife (as found in a hardware store) to cut patterns. I would freehand the curves, and cut along a metal ruler for the straight aways. (this is for pattern paper… cutting patterns out of plastic involved different techniques such as scoring along a ruler on a straight away and using pattern shears for the curves, keeping steady pressure on the material when you take each bite. The pressure things comes in handy when cutting leather… or butyl piece… prevents those little jags)

  15. Seth Meyerink-Griffin says:


    Took the 7 minute cutting test. Used a .5mm pencil for tracing; I don’t have weights that small, so I was holding it by hand. I cut using a #11 X-Acto and a drafting ruler (one that has a cork back to prevent slipping). The piece on the top is #1, the one on the bottom is #7; the difference is approximately 3/32″.

    My assumption is that my error lies in cutting directly along the pencil line. .25mm (if I managed to cut exactly down the middle of the line) x 7 = 1.75mm or .069″ (3/32″ is .094, so I was probably just past the center of the line).

    Personally, I find that I do not have as much control when cutting if I use scissors; I work around my poor scissor ability by using X-Acto knives and rotary cutters (…which I can only get away with because I’m never cutting more than one ply at a time).

    I am probably completely wrong in my approach, however.

  16. Paul says:

    When I read part 1, I remembered doing a similar exercise at HCC a long time ago. We used squares. I think I might have had an advantage because I recognized that you have to cut away the line. After the first tracing, if you do not cut to the inside of the line, then you have added the thickness of the lead to the pattern. Then you use that piece to make the next pattern, and it begins to grow.
    Carpenters always cut the line away. That is how they end up with wall studs and joists that are within 1/16 to 1/32″ of each other – a bit harder than cutting oaktag accurately. The oaktag blocks I have kept through the years I also spray with clear acrylic, both sides, and the edges. Eliminates smugging of the written text and makes the edges harder.

  17. Lisa L. says:

    Dear Kathleen,

    I have a related comment & question, regarding trading and cutting.

    (And I do remember another informative post you wrote on this subject, which I can not seem to find again.)

    I am tracing the hobbyist pattern onto heavy weight construction paper using artist’s graphite paper. The roll of heavy paper was a gift that I literally found on the side of the road one day. The artist’s graphite paper is something I turned to after the “Wax Free Tracing Paper” and tracing sheel failed to produce a line visible to my naked eye.

    The artist’s graphic paper worked excellently to transfer hobbyist pattern onto construction paper.

    I then cut off all the lines using techniques learned from your web site. All seemed well. Then I went to trace the Construction Paper Pattern onto my working fabric to create a draft document (a toile, I believe, however not draped on a form).

    I used a red China market to create a mark on both the paper and the white cotton fabric. Then I cut away the lines and sewed up my draft.

    The red China marker was great for this. SCARY to think on using this on or near actual fabric. I also fear that the edges of the pattern — all marked with red China marker — will stain the “real” fabric I choose for this shirt.

    I acquired the red China marker after seeing a photo on your web site. Is this what you meant by a red wax pencil (the type of pencil that is sharpened by pulling the string to release another layer of paper, thus revealing a new point)? The china market was $0.99 at my local hardware store. The local Jo-Ann fabrics did not have anything like it.

    Question: What kind of marking pencil, wax, etc. to use to trace pattern onto fine fabrics? Something that will allow me to use the master pattern again without fear of staining?

    The washable light blue markers are another option I have not tried, but it seemed it would be hard to mark both the pattern and the fabric simultaneously with the washable light blue markers.

    Thank you.

  18. LizC says:

    Lisa, since reading about this method, I use it all the time.

    First, use a white china marker on as many fabrics as possible, even white if you can see it on the fabric. Otherwise, use yellow. These colors are harder to find, I got mine at the local independent art supply store.

    If you are ding your marking correctly, using pattern paper (like file folders, see if that art supply store sells oak tag) the edges stay crisp enough that you can mark both the pattern and fabric easily. Then, as you are cutting the line away, no trace of china marker is on the fabric piece. [And if it is, it’s just a faint trace in the seam allowance.] Don’t try this method with commercial pattern tissue — it’s far too soft. I use medical exam paper for one-off patterns, the method barely works with that.

    A couple weeks ago I made my daughter’s formal dance dress. She wanted something we called “Lady Macbeth meets 1980s punk”: Black Watch flannel, conventional strapless bodice, full plaid skirt, unhemmed, raised to show shredded black underskirt, with a small black lace overskirt. Sounds odd, but it looked quite nice. We draped the bodice and drafted the skirts, and used exam paper and china markers to transfer the pattern to fabric.

    (formerly LizPf, but am going through a messy divorce and dropping the Pf and returning to C)

  19. Kathleen says:

    Ibid Liz, use white china marker (wax pencil). I have never mentioned red and wouldn’t recommend it; using yellow was a big mistake -for me, maybe it’s okay for you and others. You can find white china marker it at an office supply. Other than white marker, I use ball point pen, works like a charm.

    I don’t go to art stores so I’m not familiar with the other materials you mention. As Liz said, we use oak tag (file folder) paper.

    Sorry to hear of your troubles Liz but thanks for the ID update.

  20. Lisa L. says:

    Thank you Kathleen and LizC. White China Marker (Check!) Ballpoint pen! (Check).

    And I will not use the red china marker ever. Kathleen, your excellent blog post photo showed a White China Marker, and I’ll stick with that.

    I was very happy using the graphite paper to trace patterns and markings from the Hobbyist patterns to my roll of construction paper. (My boyfriend had some in his art studio, he bought it locally at the Blicks store):

    Graphite Paper to Trace or Transfer Sewing Patterns to thicker paper

    If anyone has a better suggestion or other transfer/trade methods I’d love to hear them :) (Other than the thin strips if wax paper and that dreaded tracing wheel).

    Thank you again for your comments and your blog and web site. Sewing his a new hobby for me, and I’m having loads of fun.

  21. Paul says:

    The cork backing on drafting rules is to prevent ink from wicking under the rule when india ink was used for making a final version of a draft/drawing. Slipping of the rule was never a problem when working on linen or even the newer mylar materials.
    I have heard of ‘stealing a line’ before. If you do this, do you cut away the line or cut on the line? I think you would still need to cut away the line.

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