Discover Vintage America - AUGUST 2019

Cut it out! Contemporary fussy cutting trends

As discussed in last month's column, fussy cutting has a long history dating back to the 1700s in England and its popularity continues to grow to this day. It appears that the phrase "fussy cutting" may have originated with famed quilter Eleanor Burns in the late 1980s or early 1990s. In my library, the earliest use of the term was found in a 1996 book by Ms. Burns. Other books of the time used the term "window cutting."

Detail, fussy cut eye and frog Beatles Challenge quilt 2003, Sandra Starley collection

In a 1999 interview conducted by Quilters Save Our Stories via the Quilt Alliance, Burns said the phrase came from her sister Patty. "Yes, she told me 'fussy cut.' What's really interesting, we may have coined the word 'fussy-cut' but now it's a standard in the industry. And that's really fun to see something you started as just common terminology." She explained, "Fussy-cut means you would have a large floral design with a lot of flowers. You might just specially cut out one flower and use that one flower repeat throughout your quilt, so it's just specially cut out of the fabric to use in a certain piece. It puts together a really pretty design – fussy."

Alternative names include selective, specialty and fancy cutting. "Window cutting" refers to using a window template to highlight a motif so it can be cut out properly. The desired shape can be cut from a piece of paper to create a frame that can be moved over fabric until the best section is found. A clear plastic window allows you to see a pattern and cut out the right piece. On the more expensive end, there are a whole variety of special fussy cut rulers and templates that will help you get designs lined up and cut out quickly.

For more than 40 years, Jinny Beyer has been a pivotal person in the use of mirrors and other techniques to create fussy cut design repeats to create kaleidoscope designs. Paula Nadelstern has also promoted such patterns and offers special fabric for fussy cutting techniques.

Detail "Weed Free Garden", Magic Stack-n-Whack ®️, Georgia Starley collection

Bethany Reynolds transformed the fussy cutting world in the late 1990s with the creation of her "Magic Stack-n-Whack" technique. The method creates kaleidoscopes in a unique way. "Rather than finding and cutting each piece individually, a quilter can cut and layer a number of large, identical print rectangles to make a stack." This method was extremely popular, and thousands of quilters purchased her books, took her classes, and made quilts with this innovative technique.

Fussy cutting is all about the love of fabrics and using them to their best advantage. That may involve selectively cutting out a tiny dot to create a bird's eye appliqué or using bold fabrics in big blocks. In her 2008 quilting reference book, The Quilter's Catalog, Meg Cox talked about being enchanted with a special fabric. "In the case of this particular floral print fabric, there was one element of (Amy) Butler's design that I especially love, so I cut around those big flowers and excluded other parts of the design. This is called 'fussy cutting.' Be aware that if you decide to fussy cut your fabric, you'll have to buy extra."

Additionally, patterns and papers are available to create the current craze of elaborate English paper piecing patterns including Brimfield Blocks, Lucy Boston or Patchwork of the Crosses, Millefiori and La Passacaglia. Go to Instagram and search #fussycutting or #fussycut. Or join in this year's #fussycuttingsewalong featuring weekly challenges.

Sandra Starley is nationally certified quilt appraiser, quilt historian, and avid antique quilt collector. She travels throughout the U.S. presenting talks on antique quilt history, fabric dating classes and trunk shows as well as quilting classes. Learn more at Send your comments and quilt questions to

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