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:

  1. Cutting shapes out of printed fabrics
  2. Trimming to the line of your drawn design
  3. 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!

25 Comments

  • Thank you, Susan! I have a pair of these Gingher’s still in the box, thanks to your informative blog, they will now be used.

  • Wow! I too have a pair of those scissors that sit in their package. Thank you so much for all you are doing to help us learn your method.

  • I love your blog and all the effort you put in to your directions and videos. Now that I understand how to use these scissors, I will get a pair. I have one of your books and have been working up the courage and the stash of fabrics (thanks to an earlier post on how you select your fabrics) to actually try a spiral. Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge and inviting me to have the courage to explore collage!

  • I am so inspired by you and your amazing art! Looking forward to giving it a go myself one day, thanks to you! You are so kind to share your knowledge and inspire the rest of us to step outside our boxes and try something new. Thank you!!!

  • I was one of those peeps at a class encouraging a post on this subject. I bought a pair for class, & was totally stumped! This is a great refresher to what I learned in class … while I still like using the scissors I’m more accustomed to, I still grab the Pelicans to force myself to get used to them. They ARE useful, just heavier than the other scissors I use. There is a learning curve … thank you, Susan, for this really helpful post!

  • My Gingher’s get quite heavy when I’m cutting, so I recently bought a pair of Double-pointed Duckbill Appliqué scissors from Havel’s to see how they compare. The Havel’s are slimmer and have a pointed end on both blades, which is helpful in tight spots. And they seem to weigh less. They are a nice addition to my toolbox, but not a replacement for my Ginghers.

  • I’m left handed and it seems like gingher doesn’t make a left handed appliqué scissor. I have found other brands that do, Havels, Famore, New Mark, etc. What other brand would you recommend because some of these other brands got mixed reviews.
    Thank you so much.

    • I don’t have any experience with the other brands. I would pay attention to the reviews. Vicki O in the comment below has used Havels, so there’s one positive review.

  • These scissors are the sharpest I have ever owned! I am just in awe of the amount of fabric you have cut to make them dull!!!

  • I’ve had these scissors for years and have used them only once or twice. Thanks to your blog, I will pull them out and put them to good use! Again, thank you for your wonderful posts. I enjoy every single one.

  • This was really a good idea, I bought those scissors after I saw you using them. Tried them and found them a bit cumbersome. Now I have tried after your video and I really like these scissors. So glad a student spoke up and suggested a blog. Thank you so much for your generosity with your time. I learn more after every one of your blog videos and can apply what I learn from you in many area’s of my art quilting.
    So excited about getting into you class this year. Really looking forward to Maine also.
    Thanks again

  • When I took your class last year your supply list had the bladed scissors listed and I bought them. Learning from you in your class has shown me many ways to use them. I keep them in my arsenal when cutting collage art.
    I particularly enjoyed hearing your story regarding one of your classes all showing up with “Stork” embroidery scissors.
    See you in a few weeks at Asilomar!

  • Thanks so much for this, Susan!! After watching this video and seeing how easily you manipulate these scissors, I realized that I had been unsuccessfully trying to use an “off-brand,” not the genuine Gingher pelicans that you have. I ordered the real thing and they are way better! Thanks!

  • I’ve heard about your work and seen your classes posted at Woodland Ridge Retreat Center but I’ve never explored what exactly it is that you do. Now that I have discovered your blog and have begun reading its contents I have this burning desire to learn how to use your techniques. You have opened my eyes to so many awesome possibilities! Thank You!

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