Sunday, January 10, 2016

Fake Your Own Precuts Tutorial: What the Fabric Companies Don't Want You to Know

I  feel conflicted about everything, and one of those things is precuts.

Precuts are neat stacks of fabric squares, rectangles, strips, triangles, and/or hexagons that range from an inch to a yard across. Here's a Benartex assortment (no financial affiliation with any company in this blog post):

They're precision cut, color-coordinated, hypnotically packaged, and depending on the the company, may have unhealthy food names, such as Layer Cakes. Crackers. Charms, Honey Buns, Dessert Rolls, Turnovers, Pops, and, come to think of it, Fat Quarters, which is what one complains about after consuming all the aforementioned foods.

(Robert Kaufman fabrics calls their 1.5"x 40" cuts Skinny Strips - Are they trying to be funny? Similarly: Why aren't precuts ever called Broccoli Bites, Celery Styx, or Fyltered Water?)

I'm especially fascinated by the Jelly Roll-like entities, (the term 'Jelly Roll' belongs to Moda fabrics), which are beautifully wound  into a spiral. They're usually made up of 20-to-40 strips that are 2 1/2" high x about 40" long. Other companies call them Roll Ups, Rolie Polies, Design Rolls etc.
Anthology packs their 2 1/2" strips into a bay-windowed box that looks suspiciously like it might contain chocolate:
Mmmmm. Darn you, Anthology! Despite the mocha packaging, Anthology calls them "Story Strips".

The 40-strip packs cost from about $30 on sale, to upwards of  $50 retail. That's for about 2 2/3 yards of fabric, not an outrageous price for the convenience. Precuts can save hours of time choosing and cutting. And like chocolates, we deserve them!

On the other hand, I already have all those fabrics, or reasonable facsimiles, at home. They're packed in odd, large shapes, eccentrically folded and tightly smashed into cabinets and boxes in my sewing room.

Thus, I feel guilty when I fondle new precut packs at my LQS or ogle them online. I can't come up with enough excuses to buy them.

So last week, when I was cutting 3/4" strips for Ann Brauer stripping exercises, I thought, what the heck, while I'm at it, why not make myself my very own fabric roll?

I charged ahead without doing any homework, If I had closely studied the rolls online or at my LQS, I would have first bought a new pinking-edge blade for my rotary cutter. There's a reason, I quickly discovered, that most of these commercial charms and precuts have zig-zag cut edges. Otherwise, you get stray threads - a lot of them. A pinking blade  runs around $5-$10.
With a rotary cutter and a ruler, cutting the strips is a breeze. The hard part is the rolling. It goes well for about an inch, but the more you roll, the more challenging it becomes:

I went back to the Internet photos, and realized that that I needed to fold the strips in half. But where do the folds go? First I tried to roll starting with stacked folds,
But that way,you wind up with raw edges at the ends:

Back to the Internets again. On closer study, I deduced that the folds are at the end of the roll. After some more trial and error, here's the 4-step procedure I came up with for rolling your own.

1. From scraps and/or yardage, cut a bunch of  strips to 2 1/2" high (or whatever you want), x the approximate length of your fabric. Any length is okay. You can cut off the selvages or not - personal taste. Uneven lengths are okay. Some of my strips ended at 15" - 32"  long, rather than 40". It didn't make much of a difference in the final product.

2. Iron if necessary (I don't, except to save lives), and stack the raw edges directly on top of each other (in this photo, the raw edges are lined up to the left):
3. Start bending the raw edges over.
Almost immediately, a bump will form to ahead of where you're bending.
It's only going to get worse. So pick that sucker up, and hold it up in the air! Shake out and adjust the dangling part as you roll. One person can do it, but two is better.
3. Carefully continue to roll, readjusting and straightening as you go, all the way to the end.
It's true that if all your strips are the same length, the ending folds will line up closely, at even intervals. But it doesn't look so bad the way it is.

3b. Tap your roll on a tabletop a bunch of times. That will help them align.

4. Find something groovy to tie them up with. Jute! Satin! A color that complements the fabric! Here's a blue grosgrain ribbon:

The ideal: A brown fiber that evokes chocolate (like the ribbon below, which came off an actual chocolate box).
Did you notice that the fraying worsened with every step? That's why you really need the pinking blade. Also, no matter how carefully I wound, I couldn't align the strips as perfectly as the store rolls. The fabric companies must have a special winding machine? 

You don't have to cut 40 strips. My roll of 20 strips folded in half is about 5" across - very substantial.

Despite or perhaps because of its adorable flaws, a personalized roll made by you would be a meaningful gift for your stitching and crafty friends. Perfect for swaps. Even if your giftee never sews the strips into a quilt, the rolls make excellent pincushions, paperweights or decorative coffee table toys/conversation pieces.

Take the idea little further and package it like junk food treats! I tested my roll in various vintage tin  boxes. Here's a box from holiday season 2011.

Bartons Passover chocolate box, possibly from the last millenium. 
Starbucks coffee holiday sampler box, vintage unknown. 

After I choose the perfect packaging, I will give it to my DH, so he can surprise me with it, perhaps under the Chanukah bush next winter; or under my pillow for consolation when my aging teeth need crowns; or atop my birthday cake. Then I can pretend that we paid $48 for it new, which, come to think of it, we did when I originally bought the fabric from whence the strips were cut.

On the other hand, after all this work, it's easier to just buy the danged precuts. Plus you'll be keeping the fabric stores and industry in business. In fact, now that I think of it, it's our moral obligation to buy precuts! Let's all resolve to shop for them frequently in the New Year!

PS Our family does not actually do Chanukah bushes, but if we did, I would want precuts under them.

PPS Dear family and friends, don't buy me precuts. But thanks for thinking of me. I roll my own.

PPPS Very cool round cushion project from strips here.

PPPPS. Anthology Story Strips and Hoffman Bali Pops are on sale this week at Hancock Fabrics, here! But you really should roll your own! Or not.


  1. Another great post, Cathy! You never fail to satisfy our needs. :) Do you roll your own cigars and cigarettes? (Just kidding.) :):)

    1. If I were a smoker, with tons of tobacco (or it's ilk) and rolling paper in my home, I'd probably still want to buy the premade ones. Thanks, Debbie!

  2. I have a ton of fabric scraps in all shapes and sizes. Took all the long scraps and used a technique similar to this, rolled them up by color(red, black, pink, green,yellow,etc). Now I know what I have instead of digging into a bin looking for a particular color.

  3. I want to buy the pre cuts too, especially those wonderful jelly rolls of solids. I don't really enjoy cutting and cutting strips of black or whatever I want.

  4. Kathy, here's another tip for the rolling part. Roll them a little loosely and occasionally put the roll down with cut sides on the table and tap the top (the other cut sides). It's amazing how much prettier the roll becomes. You can wait till the whole thing is rolled but why struggle? I loved your post. I've done this a few times and just keep adding to the drawer of precuts. I don't have a pinking blade but find that I really don't need it. I guess I'm a pretty good winding machine. :-)

  5. Mary, that is EXTREMELY valuable advice! I can't wait to try it! I bet that explains why the prefab rolls are so well-aligned - they must vibrate or bounce them into alignment! Thanks so much for your suggestion!


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