Cutting slippery fabric can be a beastly sewing task. It shifts. It slips away. It bunches up when you ever-so-gently brush against it when you’re trying really REALLY hard not to handle it any more than it needs to be handled.
Gah, you know your garment will be so SO good in this tricky fabric… if you can survive cutting out the pattern pieces!
This is the story of how I learned how to cut slippery fabric the hard way — and the technique I use today to ensure drama-free, slippery-fabric slicing. Please join me as I regale you with this tale, won’t you?
The Slippery Fabric Project: A Shift Dress
The year was 2010, and the project was a shift dress from the Built by Wendy Dresses book (if you’re not familiar with the Built by Wendy sewing books, I recommend them; they’re filled with highly hackable patterns). The dress features bust darts, a crew neckline, set-in short sleeves, and an A-line shape. I attached the lining to the neckline facing.
The simplicity of the dress appealed to me. One set of darts meant there was minimal fitting work, and the darts would provide juuuust enough shaping to keep the dress from looking like a sack.
I wanted the dress to flow (vs. stand away) from my figure. I identified rayon as the top fabric option.
Shopping for Flowy Fabric
Upon perusing my rayon options at Joann, I decided to take my search on the road — all the way to Evanston, a suburb of Chicago. My destination was Vogue Fabrics, my nearest proper garment fabric store. (Side note: I think it’s bananas that Milwaukee, my hometown, doesn’t have a legit fashion fabric store. It’s the biggest city in my state! What gives?)
You might be thinking, “Hey, girl. Why didn’t you order fabric online?” Well, this was 2010, and I didn’t have a lot of experience ordering fabric. TBH, I think online fabric shopping wasn’t nearly as sophisticated back then. More important, though, I wanted to visit a BIG fabric store and touch everything. Because, DUH.
The drive took about ninety minutes, which were filled with fabric-shopping anticipation. I knew I wanted to line the dress, and following some research, I landed on Bemberg rayon as the ideal lining fabric. Bemberg was less expensive than silk and had anti-static properties.
Vogue felt like Disney to me — bolts and rolls and rolls and bolts of fashion fabric you’d never see at Joann. I went up and down each aisle at least twice.
In the end, I settled on two rayons for my shift dress: a solid navy for the front yoke and sleeves and a many-blue-hued watercolor-ish abstract print on white for the main body. I chose white for the Bemberg lining. I was pleased with my choices and felt like this project was going to help me level up my sewing practice.
(Note: Examining this dress today, I see A LOT of mistakes; I’m sure you can, too. I don’t want to dwell on them, because that’s not the point of this post. So, please avert your eyes from this heinous invisible zipper, etc., and focus on the task at hand: checking out my technique for cutting slippery fabric. Thanks for your cooperation!)
How I Realized the Lining Was Wonky
I hope you’re still with me, because the story continues!
A girlfriend and I planned a craft day. I was going to work on my shift dress, and she was going to knit. Or bead. I don’t remember exactly.
I laid out my Bemberg lining pattern pieces (they already were cut) and pinned together appropriate seams for stitching. Notches lined up… but the bottom edge did not. One pattern piece was significantly (like 1-plus inches) longer than the other.
I examined the paper pattern pieces. Yeah, the bottom edges should have lined up. Crap. There was too much fabric to ease into the shorter edge. Double crap. I had botched cutting this slippery, shifty fabric and would have to do it again. Triple crap.
I’m glad my friend was there, because I was on the verge of a tantrum. To avoid embarrassing myself, I chuckled and shook my head at my mistake. After some deep breaths, I recognized this as a learning experience and felt VERY glad I bought extra lining fabric to facilitate a do-over!
How I Cut the Lining (The Wrong Way)
So, what happened to the lining, exactly?
I’m good about washing fabric as soon as it comes into my possession. I washed the Bemberg rayon (and navy and rayon print) on gentle and let the fabric air dry. Then I pressed the fabric gently to remove wrinkles. Standard stuff.
This next bit is where things went sideways, because I cut the slippery fabric the same way I cut EVERY fabric. I laid the Bemberg rayon on a self-healing cutting mat and smoothed wrinkles. I placed the paper pattern pieces atop the fabric, keeping them in place with some variety of (improvised) pattern weights. Then I cut the pattern pieces with a rotary cutter.
This seems like a reasonable way to cut fabric, but, in my experience, this is not a technique that guarantees accurate pattern pieces when slicing slippery, shifty fabric. There likely are sewists who can cut non-distorted pattern pieces of slippery fabric this way; I am not one of them. I must have inadvertently shifted the Bemberg while I was cutting, because those pattern pieces were a hot mess.
How I Cut Slippery Fabric Now
When I realized I needed to re-cut my lining fabric, I researched the best way to go about this task — because I was not keen on wasting more fabric. Through a combo of Googling and dipping into my sewing book library, I came across a technique for cutting slippery fabric that involved making a tissue paper sandwich. Here’s how it works:
1.) Lay a piece of tissue paper — like the kind you stuff in a gift bag — over a cutting mat. (I buy stacks of tissue paper in the gift-wrap department at Target for this technique, BTW.)
2.) Lay your slippery fabric atop the tissue paper. Smooth it to remove wrinkles and to ensure the selvages are straight and the grainline’s in order.
3.) Lay ANOTHER piece of tissue paper atop the fabric. DON’T shift the fabric.
4.) Lay a paper pattern piece atop the tissue paper. Align it properly with respect to the grainline. DON’T shift the fabric.
5.) Gently place pattern weights (I use 2-inch washers) atop the paper pattern piece. DON’T shift the pattern piece OR fabric.
6.) Cut out the slippery fabric pattern piece with a rotary cutter.
Pro tip: When you’re laying out the slippery fabric on the tissue paper, make sure none of it drapes over the edge of the table. Excess yardage + gravity = runaway fabric. I like to roll excess, to-be-cut fabric out of the way while cutting.
The tissue paper sandwich technique works because the paper keeps the slippery fabric from shifting around. There’s something about the texture of the paper that gives you extra grip to keep the fabric from going on an unwanted wander.
I stand by this technique, and recently was reminded of its power when I made a muslin for a rayon maxi dress (to be blogged!). The muslin was made with some particularly lightweight clearance rayon from Joann. I DIDN’T make a tissue paper sandwich to cut the muslin rayon, and those pattern pieces showed it. It was the Bemberg lining all over again!
When it came to cutting my real-deal rayon for the maxi dress, you can bet your bottom dollar that it was sandwiched between tissue paper. And those pattern pieces turned out bee-you-tif-ully.
Over to you, my sewing doves: What’s your best tip for cutting slippery fabric? Have you tried the tissue paper sandwich? Please sounds off in comments! Thanks!
P.S. Here’s the previous post: How to Sew (Almost) Any Waistband: My Technique [VIDEO].
P.P.S. I don’t wear this dress a lot because it doesn’t fit the greatest anymore (it’s a little snug in the hips; I probably should send it to the thrift store). But, after editing these photos, I’m again enchanted by the shift dress shape! Dang, that’s CUTE. Should I sew another one? What fabric should I use? How do you feel about shift dresses?
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Great technique! I use fabric stabilizer/starch. I will try the tissue paper next time though!
lovely dress and such a great mix of the fabrics. looks fab.
I generally spray starch any slippy fabrics I have to keep the grain inline and then rinse afterwards. I have never tried the tissue paper technique, thanks for the share
Thanks for reading! I’ve never tried the spray starch technique. Will need to give that a go!
My Great Aunt taught me the tissue paper technique for sewing sweater knits on her treadle sewing machine. I think she used two layers of tissue for slippery fabric. I wasn’t allowed at her house when she was making formal attire.
Hi, Caryl! Thanks for stopping by! Even though it’s kinda fussy, the tissue-paper technique works like a dream.
I used the tissue paper, but also any pattern piece that was meant to be cut on the fold I made one whole pattern piece.
Hi, Phyllis! Thanks for reading. Yup, cutting flat is a GREAT way to manage cutting slippery fabric. I’ve also employed this trick in the years since I wrote this post.