Focus cutting: definition, terminology and tutorials

When I first started paper piecing (for more info about this form of patchwork, click here: Paper Piecing: definition, terminology and tutorials), I also began to learn about something called “fussy cutting”. Fussy cutting is when the fabric has been cut in a specific way (rather than cutting ad-hoc) and it may be to highlight a specific motif, part of the motif or a particular design. I wanted to learn where the technique came from but I really struggled to find any reliable 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, paper piecing and quilts within their collection and it was astounding to see hexagons (also sometimes called 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 hexagon blocks!

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 also likely that, historically, it was a technique that people deemed to be from an upper social class would engage in as it meant they had the fabric/resources to cut it in a specific way. However, it is really hard to find any reliable literature/written references to the history of “fussy cutting”!

What does “fussy cutting” mean in today’s age? The Oxford English Dictionary (2012) definition of “fussy” is not a positive one…

It is also a term that has been used to belittle female voice and what they say (Hedlin and Åberg, 2016), to undermine care when someone (often a mother or mother-figure) is told not to ‘fuss’, and to infantilise an actions such as “fussy eaters” . As much as we can argue that we are ‘reclaiming’ a word as one that is positive, I actually don’t feel that we can, or should, change the actual definition of a word in wider society. I fear that continuing to use ‘fussy cutting’ as a name for a technique within sewing perpetuates women’s sewing as something of little value, that is fussy, that is value-less and ‘unnecessary’. Rozsika Parker has written incredibly powerfully exploring the dual face of embroidery as being both a powerful tool for women to make their voices heard and also as a tool used to perpetuate the subjugation of women, domesticity and the stereotypical societal view of the ‘ideal woman’. Rozsika’s book can be found here.

There is also a fascinating and insight BBC Radio 4 ‘Word of Mouth’ episode with Professor Deborah Cameron who discusses the words uses to describe women and can be found here:

It is for these reasons that I prefer to use the term “focus cutting”.

The Oxford English Dictionary (2012) define focus as:

The words we use matter and I believe that describing our sewing, our actions, our makes and our drive as being “fussy” devalues what we do. I believe that when we cut the fabric in a specific way we are being focussed (and not fussy) in targeting a specific part of the fabric which ultimately bring a part of that fabric into the sole focus of what we are sewing. The definition of focus is one which values what we do and what we make as well as being a more accurate description of the technique in itself.

What is focus cutting?

Within patchwork focus 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 Paper Pieced hexagon quilt, you may just decide to cut the fabric in any which way so as to get the most hexagons as possible out of it! I used the Sally Kelly Fantasy collection to cut some hexagons to make a Paper Pieced cushion from.

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

The other thing I wanted to say is that, in my view, focus cutting refers to targeting a print or a motif in a specific way. This means that, for me, focus cutting isn’t just using a specific colour. All patchwork essentially involves choosing colours to use in whatever we are stitching. What marks focus 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 focus cutting are out there? There are lots! I am going to stick with Paper Piecing for my examples on this post but you can focus cut with anything (any patchwork shape, dressmaking, scrapbooking, card making and more).

Focus 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 means that the main focus of your block is a whole motif!

It could be cutting the fabric so that there is a whole motif in the centre of your patchwork shape like I did with this strawberry fabric.

You could also focus 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.

Focus cutting an identifiable motif:

You don’t always have to focus cut a whole motif for it to be identifiable! For example, I wanted to cut Santa so that he would be the focus of my Christmas block but he was much too big to fit in my paper piecing shape (typical Santa eh?)!

I wasn’t going to let that stop me though! I still cut him (it sounds more morbid than it really is!) so that he was the main focus and he was still 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 focus cut them in a way that made 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 #focuscuttingsewalong (which was renamed from the #fussycuttingsewalong for the reasons I outlined at the start of this page) 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 paper piecing 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!

Focus Cutting mystery sections

I absolutely love the potential of applying the focus when cutting to creating mystery sections!! It is really great for making sure you use every single piece of fabric within your collection! Say that you’ve focus 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 focus 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 focus 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 fabric gets left behind!

Mix and Match focus cutting

Focus cutting doesn’t always have to be used for every single one of your patchwork pieces. You could also go for an overall freestyle look but adopt a few areas of focus cutting! This works fantastically when you don’t have enough fabric to focus cut it consistently so slipping in some specific focus 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 focus cut it for one hexagon (as well as the half hexagon at a push!)

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

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

So, there we go! My summary of focus cutting, the different forms of focus cutting, the benefits and difficulties with different focus cutting techniques, how to ensure all fabric is used, why I choose to use the term focus cutting instead of “fussy cutting” and hopefully some creative inspiration too! I do also have a range of focus cutting videos available on my YouTube showing all of the different focus cutting techniques – sometimes it helps to see it in action! Just to note: in the videos I refer to it as fussy cutting as the videos were filmed before I developed my voice on words and ideas for a new term.