What is fussy cutting in patchwork?

When I first started fussy cutting, I really struggled to find any information about what it actually refers to in patchwork and how long the technique has been around. I’ve been fortunate enough to go behind the scenes of St Fagans National Museum of History with Elen Phillips who is their lead Principal Curator Contemporary & Community History. Elen showed me some of the patchwork, English Paper Piecing and quilts within their collection and it was astounding to see hexies from hundreds of years ago which had been fussy cut so that, for example, the lines would radiate outwards! Here’s my version of lines radiating outwards from the centre of my hexie flowers

So it seems that fussy cutting is far from a new technique but I wonder whether the stitchers then knew it as “fussy cutting”? It is really hard to find any literature/written references to the history of fussy cutting!

What does fussy cutting mean in today’s age? There is no set definition in the Oxford dictionary so what do patchworkers mean when they talk about fussy cutting? I’m going to share a blog post about what I think fussy cutting is within the patchwork and quilting world!

Within patchwork, fussy cutting typically refers to cutting a piece of fabric in a way which specifically targets a section of the pattern (it may be because you want to show off a whole motif, part of a motif or to recreate the motif from pattern matching).

It probably makes more sense to show what I am talking about! So if you were making an English Paper Pieced hexagon (hexies) quilt, you may just decide to cut the fabric in any which way so as to get the most hexies as possible out of it! I used the Sally Kelly Fantasy collection to cut some hexies to make an English Paper Pieced cushion from.

I didn’t do any fussy cutting as I wanted to maximise the fabric that I had which meant cutting into it in whatever way in which to maximise its capabilities and to get the most hexies from it!

The other thing I wanted to say is that, in my view, fussy cutting refers to targeting a print or a motif in a specific way. This means that means that, for me, fussy cutting isn’t just using a specific colour. All patchwork essentially involves choosing colours to use in whatever we are stitching. What marks fussy cutting out as a specific patchwork technique is that it is looking beyond colours and to the potential of the actual print/motif in what we’re making.

So, what sorts of fussy cutting are out there? There are lots! I am going to stick with English Paper Piecing for my examples on this post but you can fussy cut with anything (any EPP shape, dressmaking, scrapbooking, card making, patchworking).

Fussy cutting a whole motif:

This refers to specifically targeting a motif/print so that you can show it in its entirety within your patchwork shape/block. This could mean fussy cutting it so that there is a whole motif in the centre of your patchwork shape like I did with this strawberry fabric.

You could also fussy cut a whole motif but move it slightly further to one side of your patchwork shape. This can often create a really interesting secondary design as well as the design created by the targeted motif.

You can see that I chose to move the strawberries slightly further down in my diamond (rather than placing them at the centre of my patchwork piece) and it has created a slightly different overall effect to the previous block.

Fussy cutting an identifiable motif

You don’t always have to fussy cut a whole motif for it to be identifiable! For example, I wanted to fussy cut Santa for a Christmas block but he was much too big to fit in my EPP shape (typical Santa eh?)!

I wasn’t going to let that stop me though! I still fussy cut him (it sounds more morbid than it really is!) and I managed to fussy cut enough of him so that it is identifiable despite the fact that it isn’t a whole motif!

Similarly, I couldn’t fit the whole unicorn in my patchwork pieces but I could still fussy cut them in a way that makes the original motif identifiable.

Pattern Matching

Oh the joys of pattern matching…pattern matching and I have a love/hate relationship. I love the finished look but I do find it incredibly difficult to do!

I know some people feel it is a pointless technique as it involves cutting up a motif just to stitch it back together again. I understand that but essentially all patchwork is cutting up fabric and stitching it back together again. I don’t think pattern matching is futile for those reasons as it is a method that enables you to still capture the whole motif that may not have otherwise fit in your shape. For example, I absolutely adored this cat and I really wanted to use it as a whole motif on the 2020 #fussycuttingsewalong but it was too big to fit as a whole motif within the individual house.

The only way I could use it was to pattern match it and, yes, that involved cutting the motif up into four and stitching it back together so that I have matched the motif’s pattern across all 4 of the EPP shapes in my block.

You don’t always have to pattern match across all of your patchwork shapes! It can still look really effective just by pattern matching a motif across two shapes.

Similarly, you can combine pattern matching with some blenders/solids to make your pattern matching pop even more!

Mystery sections

I absolutely love the potential of fussy cutting mystery sections!! It is really great for making sure you use every scrap within your stash! Say that you’ve fussy cut several blocks with identifiable/whole motifs using this striking owl print like this:

This could also mean that you’re left with a fabric that has lots of owl legs on it! These can absolutely still be used to create a new kaleidoscope effect.

You could create a similar effect by fussy cutting just the eye of the owl…

Both of these blocks have used a section of the owl print in a way that makes it hard to identify the original motif in order to create a new pattern/design. It is a really fun and creative fussy cutting technique that challenges you to look at patterns/motifs in a completely new light in order to see new design potentials. It also works fabulously for making sure no scrap gets left behind!

Mix and Match fussy cutting

Fussy cutting doesn’t always have to be used for every single one of your patchwork pieces. You could also go for an overall scrappy look but sneak in a bit of fussy cutting! This works fantastically when you don’t have enough fabric to fussy cut it consistently so slipping in some fussy cutting every now and then can really make it pop against the rest of the patchwork. I really loved this flower on the Makower fabric but I only had enough to fussy cut it for one hexie (as well as the half hexie at a push!)

I decided to intersperse that fussy-cut flower in amongst other fabrics from the collection. It still works beautifully in amongst non-fussy cut hexies to create a stand-out effect.

You also don’t have to fussy cut identical motifs. Fussy cutting can be a really great opportunity for using a range of prints in your stash and seeing what you can create such as words, scenes, new creatures etc!

So, there we go! My summary of fussy cutting (with a particular focus on fussy cutting when English Paper Piecing), the different styles of fussy cutting, the benefits of different techniques, how to ensure there is no wastage and hopefully some creative inspiration too! I do also have a range of fussy cutting videos available on my YouTube showing all of the different fussy cutting techniques – sometimes it helps to see it in action!