One of the most basic skills in fabric collage is cutting. Using scissors is a skill so taken for granted that it’s something we let pre-schoolers do. But there’s a pretty big gap between cutting construction paper snowflakes and fabric collage. It takes practice and hopefully a few hints will help as well.
Recently I’ve begun to pay more attention to how I cut because I’ve become more familiar how other people cut. Some don’t cut in the optimal way for fabric collage. They cut as they have learned to do in traditional quilting. It makes perfect sense, but I need to help my students relearn how to cut for fabric collage.
The first morning of my classes, as I’m talking about how to get started, I demonstrate cutting out shapes from fabric. When I take out my favorite detail scissors, someone often says, I have those scissors but I’ve never known how to use them. Someone else says, I have those scissors but I’ve never used them that way. In a more recent class, someone said, You could do a whole blog post on just how you use those scissors.
So here we are.
Let’s start with the equipment. Full-size shears are perfect for some things, those tiny little snips are good for others, but for fussy cutting around fabric prints, I use Gingher 6-inch knife-edge appliqué scissors (pictured above). Sometimes they’re referred to as “duck-billed,” though I usually call them “pelican-bladed” (I mean, really, doesn’t it look more like a pelican?). These are my personal favorite scissors and have used them since forever.
There are many other types of lovely scissors out there. If you have a personal favorite, use them. But if you’ve ever wondered about how to use those funny-shaped duck pelican scissors, this blog post is for you.
Your scissors—regardless of make or model—will work best if they are sharp. I’m pretty sure most of us know that, but sitting down to do some work is not the time to be reminded (once again) that we forgot to take them in or send them off to be sharpened. So I now have three “pelicans,” one that’s nice and new and sharp that I bought to use in the videos below, one I’ve used for a long long time and now has a couple dull spots and needs to be sent back to Gingher for sharpening, and one that’s even older and now ruined since I didn’t send it back to Gingher for sharpening.
Years ago, I was told that Gingher scissors should only be sharpened by Gingher—that they made it cheap and easy to send them to the factory and they came back postage-paid to you all nice and perfect again. Yeah, right, but it was even easier to hand Pelican #1 over to a professional sharpening service though a local fabric shop. My mistake since they never worked the same. I should have listened. Instead, I wound up buying Pelican #2.
Now that that trusty tool is in need of sharpening, I have finally looked up where and how to send them in (turns out it is easy) and will do it right this time. A quick check on a review page told me there may even be hope for Pelican #1! But since it’ll be 3-4 weeks before they come home, and I need this tool now, Pelican #3 has entered my life. Maybe I should name them?
There’s not a whole lot more I can say about using these scissors. It will be most helpful if I show how I use them. Thus the videos below. I’ve broken down cutting into three processes:
- Cutting shapes out of printed fabrics
- Trimming to the line of your drawn design
- Cutting a glued collage subject away from its foundation
1. Cutting to Prints in Fabric
These scissors allow me to cut very close around the edges of prints I find in fabrics—and using the contours I find in those prints is integral in how I construct my fabric collages.
Cutting out hand-sized chunks of fabric with a rough “fussy-cut” is how I get students started with the collage process, this first video shows a finer fussy cut, but either way it demonstrates how I use my pelican scissors to cut around fabric prints.
2. Cutting to Your Design
These appliqué scissors allow me to cut tight against flat surfaces. Since I draw my subject matter onto a foundation fabric and proceed to fill in with small pieces of printed fabric, I often need to trim away some of those shapes when they extend over a drawn line. I find I can use the straight side of these scissors (the top of the beak, let’s say) as way to stabilize my hand as I cut against the surface of the foundation fabric.
3. Cutting Away Foundation
When the image you’re working on is completed to the point where the original drawing is filled in, it’s time to consider the background. One easy way to audition different background fabrics or ideas, is to cut the foundation fabric away from the collaged and glued image in order to place it on different possibilities.
Here, I flip the scissors over and use that strange pelican blade to lift and protect all the collaged shapes that make up the outer edges of my subject, while slashing away and freeing the foundation fabric underneath. Like magic.
One recent student referred to these odd pelican duck scissors as “the magic scissors.” I’ve found that just like when it comes to sewing machines, we all have our favorite tools. A pair of pelican scissors is a tool I’ve found helpful for fabric collage. Maybe they can be helpful for you too.
P.S.—These days many of my students read this blog and come to class with a basic knowledge of what I’ve already covered in blog posts, which leads them to offer suggestions for what I could add or elaborate on, such as how I use my pelican scissors. If there’s something else I’ve neglected to cover, or you’d like to see, be sure to comment below!