April 30, 2020

Substraction cutting

Thank you for the nice comments on my previous post. I'm happy to hear from you!

Today, I thought I would show you something I have been trying out in the past few weeks. There's no time like now to try out strange new techniques and this is one I came across on Pinterest around the time that schools here in the Netherlands closed (I actually thought about recommending it to my students but I'm not their pattern making teacher and I don't want to mess up someone else's teaching...).
It is called "subtraction cutting" and it is a way of making clothes by which, instead of cutting the pieces you need out of a piece of fabric and discarding the rest, you cut away some pieces you don't need in the middle of a piece of fabric and what is left becomes the garment. The technique is the brainchild of designer Julian Roberts. Many of the pictures you will find on Pinterest and without a doubt on other platforms as well seem to be from people who attended workshops taught by him. But you don't have to be able to attend one of those. This is a designer who is interested in spreading his ideas and to that end his manifesto is available as a free download on The Cutting Class

To be fair, this is a technique which is at the same time very simple and very complicated. With a bit of help from the booklet and in possession of some kind of pattern for a basic top, anyone with a bit of sewing experience can have a go this. And is fairly likely to end up with a result that will look unique and creative.

However, it is hard to really get your head around. And harder yet to predict what your finished dress will be like. Normally, as a pattern maker, I know what it is I am making. Here, the insecurity is part of the process (it says so in the booklet...).

I made two dresses using deep stash fabrics to try this out:

This one was made from viscose/rayon jersey using a method explained in the booklet. The top part was cut and constructed normally but from the waist down, the rest of the garment (front and back) was one big piece of fabric. In that piece, I cut two sets of holes which were sewn together to create the draped effect.

This dress is wearable, especially after I cut away some fabric at the front hem (done before I took these pictures), but it taught me not to go too close to the hemline with those holes. Having a loop of fabric around your legs below the knee isn't very nice.

The second dress was made in the way you will see most if you do a search for subtraction cutting. It's pattern/fabric lay-out looks something like this:

This is not really the lay-out I used for this dress. This one has the bodice pieces on the bias and one extra long curved seam connecting the bodice pieces (but I didn't take a picture).

You use two pieces of fabric, each of about 1 meter wide (mine were a bit wider) and 3 meters long. You sew them together along one long side, place your pattern pieces and cut them out. Then, you sew the other long side and the short side close to the bodice pieces, so the whole thing looks like a duvet cover with holes in it. 
Then, you sew the bodice pieces together and connect the round holes (which have to be large enough for your hips to pass through) according to plan (the red lines in my drawing. 

And this is the dress. 

In most pictures of these dresses, you will see the points of the original tube of fabric turned out but I prefer them turned in. 

It looks the part but it's not really wearable because it has quite seriously too much skirt. In part, that is my fault because I made that long, curved connection between the bodice pieces. That became an insanely long side seam...

And of course, because the skirt is such a complicated, interconnected thing, you can't just cut it down or hem it up.

After these dresses, I've started doing some quarter-size tests with different arrangements of holes and bodice pieces. I'll show you those later.


  1. I love subtraction cutting and came across the technique a few years ago. I keep meaning to do experiments, but you need quite a lot of available fabric, something I don't have.

    1. Yes, that is one of the main problems with it. Thanks to years of shopping at the local market with its bargain fabric stalls between the vegetable sellers, I have fabric. That makes trying this easier. However, stay tuned for what I learned from my experiments because I don't think you always have to use quite so much fabric...

  2. Fascinating! Yes please on the quarter-size tests! This is the kind of thing I love to ponder while I'm waiting for a bus or for the kettle to boil. (not so much likely to wear- but still) Kimbersew

  3. I fell foul of this a year or 2 ago...I tried and tried but it just wasted a some lovely fabric. Ah well. Not for me!

  4. I love these kinds of unusual dresses - and came across this via Tree from stitchless TV - haven’t tried it yet but did download and read the book - love the way it’s written and the spirit of experimentation. It hadn’t occurred to me to do 1/4 size mockups - d’oh! Of course! A way to play around without using so much fabric - as yes trying to understand what you get in the end does my head in. Thanks for the reminder re this fab technique - I’ll be having a play with a massive stack of old pillowcases that have been hiding in the linen cupboard this weekend! Tiny dresses!