You can’t make a quilt if you don’t cut some fabric.
That’s the simple truth. Once fabric and pattern are in hand, the next step is cutting. And I’ll admit (and as many of you already know) this part is the one I like least in the entire quilting process. However, unless you buy a pre-cut quilt kit, you can’t get to the fun stuff until you’ve sliced and diced it all up. Making sure you have good scissors, rotary cutters, and a good cutting mat will make this process easier, accurate, and if you’re the least bit like me – a little more enjoyable. So, today’s blog will talk about all those cutting tools, what makes the good ones good and the great ones great, as well as how to take care of them. Each one of these is an investment in both money and ergonomic ease. Choose wisely and be prepared to plunk down some cash.
Scissors Verses Shears
Okay…I’ll admit since the introduction of the rotary cutter to the quilting universe, scissors are nearly a second thought now. Until the 1980’s, quilters traced around templates and then cut their patches out with scissors. Once rotary cutters showed up on the quilting aisle in fabric shops, the use of scissors to cut quilting fabric declined. However, even though we cut most of our quilt tops out with a cutter, there still are times when scissors come into play. It’s important to know what makes up a good pair of scissors and how to take care of them.
To begin with, there are two types of “scissors.” There are the scissors and shears. What’s the difference? A lot. To begin with shears are shaped like this:
And scissors are shaped like this:
This is the quickest way to tell them apart. Now let’s get into specifics.
Shears are primarily used in garment construction. The bend between the handle and the blades makes shears the perfect cutting instrument for slicing through multiple layers of fabric. The blade length is longer in shears than in scissors – the beginning length in most shears is 7-inches. Scissor blades can start as small as an inch. The handles are different, too. Shears’ handles have one hole for the thumb at the end of one blade and a larger hole on the other to accommodate four fingers. Shears were developed for serious fabric cuttage. Their shape is perfect for cutting several layers of material without putting undue stress on the wrist and fingers.
At this point, your burning question is “Do they have a place in my quilting world?” Maybe. Depends on what kind of cutter you are. If you’re comfortable cutting multiple layers of fabric with a large rotary cutter, then probably no. However, I do keep two pairs of shears in my studio and find they’re easier than scissors to use when I need to cut batting.
Scissors, on the other hand, can run the gamut in blade size and use. There are specialty scissors out there for nearly every type and kind of crafting. My aim is to make you understand the differences, what makes a good pair of scissors, give you an overview of the types, and tell you what kind I keep in my studio.
Scissors differ from shears in blade length, handles, and what they’re used for. Blades on scissors can vary from as small as 1-inch to greater than 8-inches. And there are some non-scissor scissors (such as snips) which are generally tossed into this category. The handles have two holes of the same size, which means one can accommodate the thumb and the other one or two fingers. Other than the shape, the biggest difference between shears and scissors is what they’re used for. Shears are made for big, heavy-duty cutting jobs. Scissors aren’t. They are for small cutting projects.
With the differences between the two explained, let’s talk about what we need to look for no matter which one we decide to purchase.
- The blades should move easily. You shouldn’t have to force them apart or back together. If they’re difficult to open and close, this will tire your hand quickly.
- Look at the pivot point or screw. This is sometimes called the button. You should be able to wipe this area clean and it should show no sign of wear or rust. I personally like my buttons to stick up above the blade instead of being inset. More on why this is preferable in a bit.
- They should feel good and have a comfortable weight in your hand. You don’t want them too light (this may make accuracy difficult) neither do you want them too heavy (this will tire your hand). If possible in this internet-purchasing world, go to a store and buy your scissors. This way you’ll actually be able to hold them and get a good idea of the way they feel in your hand.
- Make sure they’re made for your handedness. Most scissors are made for right-handed people. If you cut with your left-hand, be sure you purchase a pair made for left handers. And some scissors are ambidextrous. The great news is most scissor companies make all three types – left, right, and ambidextrous.
Scissors and shears are investment purchases. If you buy quality ones and take care of them, they will last you a lifetime. My mom still has the shears she used when she made my clothes when I was a little girl. They’re over 50 years-old and still cut wonderfully. So, should you purchase one or both? If you make garments as well as quilts, then you probably want a good pair of each. If you only quilt, you can make do with only scissors. New types of specialty scissors are introduced every year. At this point, I’d like to talk about the most popular type of brands and how they rank.
The great thing about this brand is you can find them at both big box stores and many small quilt and fabric shops. They’re a great all-around brand and run the price range from inexpensive to high-end pairs with all the bells and whistles. Fiskars offers scissors, shears, and snips and has products which can be used from the kindergarten classroom to the most exclusive sewing studio. The range in cost tells you about the range in quality, so for this reason quilters, we want to head towards the more expensive end of the Fiskar models (if you can afford it).
For me, when I pick up a pair of Gingher scissors, I’m a kid again, rummaging through my mom’s sewing area. Gingher Brand has been around since 1947 and by 1965 they were the crème d’ la crème of the sewing world. Unlike Fiskar, Gingher offers a more limited range of models on the higher end. This means all quality, all the time – no second guessing needed. Basically, any Gingher scissor which goes home with you is bound to be wonderful. These scissors are all metal, although the handles may be gold or silver.
While this brand may be one of the newer ones to us quilters in the United States, Kai scissors and shears have been made in Japan for over 100 years. Kai scissors and shears are made with stainless steel and vanadium. What’s vanadium? It’s what Kai uses to make their scissors extra strong and helps them stay sharp for way longer than typical sewing scissors. I’ve test-driven Kai scissors and am impressed. Most likely the next pair of scissors I purchase will be Kai’s. Currently, I have a pair of Gingher’s I’ve used for years – since I taught French heirloom sewing in the 1980’s – and they’re still just as great as the day I bought them.
This scissors I’ve mentioned above are standard sewing scissors. There are plenty of specialty scissors on the market and now I want to mention those. Some of these are well-worth the money and others simply depend on what kind of quilter you are.
Karen Kay Buckley’s Perfect Scissors
It’s no secret I love these scissors. They come in several sizes (my favorites are the 1 ½-inch and the 7-inch ones). The handles are flexible, so they can be used for long periods of time without rubbing sore places on your thumb and finger. I think the best feature is the micro-serrated edges. I’m an avid appliquer and cut my applique pieces with these scissors because the serrated edges help keep the fabric from fraying. Two warnings about these scissors: First, if you ever need to sharpen them, make sure the tech knows the blades are micro-serrated, and second, occasionally knock-off brands appear on the internet (especially on social media sites). Purchase the real thing at Karen’s website. The imitators aren’t nearly as good as the originals.
Pinking shears have come a long, long way. Back in the dark ages when I took home ec, they were bulky, heavy, hard to open and close, and cut in zigzags. Today they come in all colors, are lighter and easier to use, and cut in scallops as well as the traditional zigzag. Before there were sergers and fray block, pinking shears were the only way (besides a zig-zag stitch on your sewing machine) to finish the edges of your fabric. The zig-zag stitch on your sewing machine would often leave a raised edge which could be seen from the right side of your sewing project (especially after it was pressed), plus it was an additional step in the construction process. Lots of sewers just opted to pink everything. I own a pair of pinking shears. I purchased them in the 1980’s when I made all of my kids’ clothes and a good chunk of mine. I still use them when I’m piecing a block with curves. Pinking the pieces works sometimes works better than clipping the curves. If you only quilt, you may want to seriously count the cost of pinking shears against the amount of time you would actually use them. If you make garments as well as quilt, pinking shears are worth the investment.
Yes. You need a pair. I use my embroidery scissors every time I sit down to sew. As a matter of fact, I use embroidery scissors so much, I have three pair – one at Dolly, one in my hand sewing kit, and another pair in my applique kit. They’re the perfect size to snip threads and trim applique pieces. While these won’t be used for cutting large chunks of fabric, you do want a pair with good points, feels solid in your hand, and can be sharpened if needed.
Rag Quilting Snips
If you decide to make a rag quilt, you can certainly use your regular scissors to make the perpendicular clips in the seams. However, if rag quilts are your thing, you will probably want to invest in these snips. Once you use the snips, I’m told you will never go back to using regular scissors. Fingers rest above the handles instead of being slipped into holes in the handles. This is a good thing, because you make a lot of cuts through multiple layers of fabric in a rag quilt and may get blisters using regular scissors. The spring action of the handles mean they will pop right back into place for the next cut with no effort from you. The rounded tips create a bit of a buffer at their ends, just enough to keep you from cutting too deeply into a seam allowance. I have made one rag quilt and have no desire to make another, so I don’t have a pair of these snips. However, if I enjoyed making these quilts, I would definitely invest in a pair of Rag Quilting Snips.
Fiskar Soft Touch Titanium Scissors/Shears
Fiskar labels these as scissors, even though they have a bend. For me, the biggest selling point with the Soft Touch is the titanium nitride which coats the blades and prevents wear. However, there is another great selling feature about these: the spring action handles. These handles prevent hand fatigue and for those of us with arthritis, carpel tunnel, or other aches pains, the spring action takes a lot of stress off the fingers and wrist. I had a pair of the Soft Touches when I made clothing and loved them. They fall in the mid-range price of Fiskars, so their purchase won’t hurt your wallet too badly. By the time I wore mine completely out, I was no longer making clothes – just strictly quilting – and chose not to replace them. However, if I went back to constructing garments on a regular basis, I’d purchase another pair.
Gingher Knife Edge Applique Scissors
Before I knew these as a type of applique scissors, I was acquainted with them under the alias of “Lace Scissors.” When I taught French Heirloom Sewing, these scissors were a must for anyone trimming fabric away from lace. I use them so much I have two pairs of them. At some point, a quilter realized these chrome over nickel scissors were super-duper handy for applique. The paddle-like blade (sometimes known as the duckbill –as a matter of fact, as an instructor I referred to these scissors as “the ducks”) keeps one edge of the fabric away from the blade while the pushing edge you want to cut toward the sharp blade. The offset handles provide a good view of the fabric as you’re cutting. I applique a lot and use these scissors a great deal. They are a bit pricey. If you’re not an avid appliquer, you can live without them. However, if you’re as smitten with the art as I am, you may want to eventually invest in a pair or ask for them at Christmas or your birthday.
Gingher 4-inch Safety Scissors
These blunt-tipped scissors remind of the scissor we had to use in elementary school, but don’t let looks fool you. Despite the rounded end, the scissors are sharp. These are great to have around for little clipping tasks and you don’t have to worry about puncturing fabric or skin. You can safely toss these in your purse or sewing tote. I don’t have a pair, but my friends who travel via airplane tell me these are great to take on a flight.
I don’t own every pair of scissors I’ve mentioned. I do have two pairs of Karen Kay Buckley’s Perfect Scissors (the 1 ½-inch and the 7-inch), a pair of 8-inch Gingher scissors, and several pairs of embroidery scissors. I’ve been gifted several others, but these are the ones you’ll find out and in use in my studio. The Perfect Scissors and Ginghers are used to cut fabric. However, if you’ve quilted long enough, you know you’ll also end up cutting a fair amount of paper, too. Which brings us to the next topic…
Do I need to be super-picky about the scissors I use to cut paper?
It depends on what kind of paper-cutting you’re doing. If you’re only separating pattern pieces by rough cutting, then pick yourself up a cheap pair of Fiskars. However, if trimming freezer paper applique patterns and any other type of detail-oriented paper cutting are in your quilty future, you may want to be a bit more discerning in you paper-cutting-only scissors.
Westcott Titanium Bonded Scissors
These are definitely a “do-it-all” scissor. The titanium-bonded blades can slice through cardstock, cardboard, and laminate, as well as tissue-paper patterns. The plastic handles are gently contoured to prevent cramping or any stress to your hand. These are an investment purchase – they do cost a bit – but if you give them proper care, they should last a lifetime.
Scotch Precision Scissors
These scissors check off all the major boxes. They come with a rubberized grip which means comfort, no matter if you use them for just a few minutes or long hours at a stretch. What’s especially appealing is their universal design – left-handed and right-handed folks can use the same pair of scissors. The thumb holes are shaped to accommodate the natural squeezing action of all users, reducing not only awkwardness, but also pain and swelling when used over and extended amount of time. A quick Amazon search turned up several pairs, all around $5.00.
Canary Small Scissors
These are designed specifically for paper art, but if you’re trimming teeny-tiny freezer paper pieces for applique, you’d love to have a pair of these. Canary Scissors are handcrafted in Seki City, Japan. They have a sleek, sharp blade which can navigate small areas and tight turns easily. These are around 4-inches, are lightweight, and portable. However, the handles are small, so if you have large hands, they may be uncomfortable for long periods of use.
At this point, I want to encourage you to keep your paper-cutting scissors in one area and your fabric scissors in another. Don’t use your fabric cutting scissors to cut paper – it will dull them. I’ve heard some instructors say as long as you wipe down the blades after using the scissors, it doesn’t matter what you cut. I haven’t found this to be true for myself. I developed a system many years ago to not only keep the two types apart, but also how to tell which kind of scissor should be used for what kind of use. I began seriously sewing when my kids were young, and kids need to cut paper for all kinds of projects. After they had mistakenly grabbed my good Ginghers one too many times, I came up with this idea. Every pair of scissors destined to cut paper had red or orange handles. Fiskars have orange handles and Scott Precision scissors have red ones. One quick glance at the handles let the kids know if the scissors could be used for their art projects. I’m using the same system with my grand darlings.
Of course, there’s always this method:
But then you have to keep up with the key!
Scissors are one quilty tool you’ll use nearly every time you sit down to sew – whether you’re working at your machine or are hand sewing. Investing in good, quality pairs is the first step in scissor nirvana. Like just about every other quilting tool, regular care and upkeep will go a long way in extending the life of your scissors for years. So, now I want to give you my Top 10 Tips for Taking Care of Your Sewing Scissors.
- Avoid Moisture
Moisture is not good for any scissors. When we think about moisture, we think about water and wetness, and yes, you need to avoid having your scissors around any liquids. However, you also don’t want to keep your scissors on your ironing board. The ironing board will retain moisture from steam and if you stash your scissors on it, they come in contact with some dampness. Make sure your fabric is completely dry before you cut into it, too.
- Cut Only Fabric with Your Best Fabric Scissors
We may have several pairs of scissors we use in our studio, and probably one of those pairs is predestined for only cutting paper. But the other scissors may also cut ribbon, interfacing, fusible webbing, etc. This is fine, but you may want to keep one pair for fabric only. True, this tip is more for folks who make quilts and garments, but the first time you pick up your best scissors for a prolonged cutting job and find they’re chewing the fabric more than they’re slicing through the quilting cotton, you’ll thank me for this tip.
- Tighten the Pivot Screw and Apply Oil Periodically
Over an extended period of time, you may feel the blades are looser. It’s fine to take a screw driver and tighten the pivot screw (which is also called a “button”). You may also want to put a drop of oil on the screw, and wipe down the excess.
- Get Them Sharpened Regularly
One of the things I miss most about Hancock Fabrics is their scissor sharpener. At least once a year, they would have a couple of guys come into the store to sharpen scissors. You’d sign up for a time slot and bring in your scissors and the two men would work their magic. I finally found someone in High Point who sharpens scissors, and recently took six pairs to him – however, it had been nearly three years since they had been sharpened. Sometimes local quilt shows will have a scissor sharpening tech you can utilize. If your local fabric or quilt store doesn’t offer these services, Google local knife sharpening shops. Quite often they will sharpen scissors, too.
- Wipe Them Clean
Some fabrics are abrasive and can damage the metal on your scissors, especially some man-made fabrics. The best way to prevent this from happening is to wipe down the blades with a clean cloth after each project. Be sure to wipe the area around the screw, too. This is why I like the screw to stand out and not be inset — it makes cleaning this easier.
- Avoid Pins
Don’t cut over pins. And while this tip is more for garment makers than quilters, it’s important to remember. If you end up cutting through a pin, you’ve probably inflicted serious damage to your scissor’s blades.
- Don’t Drop Them
This can damage the alignment of your scissors, nick the blades, and cause the blades to bend or the tips to break.
- Keep the Case Closed
Store your scissors in a cool, dry place, preferably in their own sheath, pouch, or case. Be sure to store them in a place where they won’t be knocked off onto the floor. And for those of us who travel with our scissors, transport them in their case, pouch, or sheath to protect the blades. If your scissors didn’t come in one of those, wrap a rubber band around the blades to keep them stable
- Spend Your Money Wisely
We’ve already covered this pretty well. But let me reiterate this: Scissors are an investment. A quality pair will cut better, last longer, and can be sharpened over and over again. They will last you a lifetime.
- Cut At the Right Spot
It may come as a surprise, but there is a right place on the blade to cut thin fabrics, small areas, and thicker fabrics. When cutting layers of fabric or thicker fabric, start at the part of the blade near the pivot screw and use the entire length of the blade. If you’re cutting thinner fabrics or smaller areas like notches or small curves, use the tips of the blades. This sounds like a little detail, but cutting with the wrong area of the scissors can cause them be become misaligned – as well as making your cutting much more difficult.
If all of this information has caused you to pause and take a second look at your scissors, then I have done my job. Quilters use rotary cutters and mats so much that I don’t think we give our scissors the consideration we need to. I remember when I began quilting in 1986, the rotary cutter was still a relatively new tool, and it was a long while until we saw rotary cutting directions in quilt patterns. We traced around templates and then cut our patches out with scissors. Over time, things have changed, but every once in a while a pattern will grab your attention which requires you to trace templates. And you may find it easier to cut these templates out with scissors rather than your rotary cutter. A good pair of scissors makes this easier. Trimming applique pieces is also easier with sharp scissors. Invest in at least two pairs – one with 7- to 8-inch blades and a smaller pair. Keep them sharp and take good care of them.
While we’re on the subject of cutting, next week we’ll cover rotary cutters and mats – two things we all keep in our studio. So, until next week…
Love and Stitches,
Sherri and Sam