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Cutting fabric with quilt templates

by Bethany Kelso
(Grand Prairie, Texas)

If I have a template and it tells me to make sure I cut a 1/4 inch seam allowance, how do I do it?


Several techniques in quilting use templates. The technique you use will determine how to add the seam allowance.


Applique templates are always printed without seam allowances for two possible reasons:

  • Different appliquers will use different seam allowances.

    While a standard seam allowance is 1/4 inch, as their skill increases, many hand appliquers will use smaller seam allowances. There's less fabric to turn under the shape which means there's less bulk.

    For the invisible machine applique technique I like to use, if the piece is small or the curves tight, I like to use a seam allowance closer to 1/8th inch. Below is the back of a shape that I've prepared using this technique.

    applique template with small seam allowances

    Regardless of whether you are doing hand or turned-edge machine applique, trace the applique shape onto the fabric and then use scissors to 'eyeball' the seam allowance you need. Remember you can always trim away later if need be, but you can't add fabric back after it's trimmed.

  • If applique shapes are fused on, there is no need to add any seam allowance.

Machine Piecing

The majority of machine pieced projects use rotary cut patches. But there are those instances when you'll need to cut a patch with a template.

Always use a ruler to add the seam allowance to a template for machine piecing. You have no line to sew on, just the edge of your presser foot to find the seam line.

Use the same ruler you've used for the rotary cut patches. Align the 1/4 inch line of the ruler with the edge of the template and cut along the ruler. Repeat for each side of the template.

Cutting with a machine piecing template

Personally, when using printed paper templates, I like to cut it out just beyond the printed line, say with about an 1/8th inch margin. I find it so much easier (with my old, far-sighted eyes) to align the 1/4 inch ruler line with a printed line than a cut edge.

The Carolina Lily quilt block pattern is a good example of a pattern that can be machine pieced that requires templates for some of the pieces. (There is a free download for the templates to make that block towards the bottom of that page.)

Hand Piecing

Unlike machine piecing, where you have a guide (the edge of your presser foot) to identify the seamline, in hand piecing it is the line drawn around the edges of the template that shows a quilter where to stitch.

You'll want to cut 1/4 inch outside the drawn line, keeping the seam allowances pretty uniform. You'll need this quarter inch just like machine piecing to help hold the quilt together. (A smaller seam allowance might fray away and come apart as you stitch the block or with use.)

But because you don't need a precise 1/4 inch, you can either use a rotary cutter and ruler or a scissor to cut the patches out after tracing them onto the back of your fabric.

So, in the end, it depends on how you're putting your quilt blocks together that ultimately decides the method you'll use for adding a seam allowance.

Thank you for your question.


Julie Baird

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