Once you have cut into fabric, whether precut bundles or pieces from the bolt, and used parts of them for a first project, you are left with what many call scraps. The definition is a bit arbitrary though, so here is my take on “scraps”, “scrappy” and “offcuts”. This blog post is part of the mini series Let’s Talk Scraps!
In This Post
I will cover the following in this blog post:
- 1. Thoughts On A Scrappy Look
- 1.1 Scrappy Stash Building
- 1.2 Internal Friction
- 2. Thoughts On Fabric Scraps
- 2.1 The Scrap Bin
- 3. Thoughts On Fabric Offcuts
- 3.1 Defining Offcuts
- 4. Why Define Things?
- 4.1 Avoiding The Junk-Drawer Phenomenon
- 4.2 My Fabric Storage
- 5. Wrapping Up
1. Thoughts On A Scrappy Look
I find it the easiest to get into this topic if I start from “scrappy” as in “a scrappy look”. A scrappy project can be created from fresh (never cut into before) pieces of fabric, or it can utilise smaller, leftover bits from a scrap bin for example.
No matter the origin of the pieces used, the final design is a mix of fabrics and this unique blend is intentionally mixed.
Intentional refers to the fact that the finished look should be mixed, not that there may or may not have been an element of improvisation present.
To sum up, “a scrappy look” can be achieved through:
- improvised piecing of a mix of patches
- a planned design of a mix of patches
- cutting into previously uncut pieces of fabric that are at least a few in number and different in presentation
- cutting into pieces of fabric that have already been used in some other project, and which are at least a few in number and different in presentation
If you want ideas on how to achieve a fabulously scrappy look, two designers, whose work I admire greatly, are Australians Sarah Fielke and Jenn Kingwell.
1.1 Scrappy Stash Building
When you are starting as a quilter, in order to create a scrappy look you need to spend some energy and financial resources on acquiring fabrics from different collections, possibly by different designers.
Buying a cohesive, intentionally designed collection will not create the scrappy look you desire, but the latter will most likely stem in a more varied origin:
- One technique to approach stash building for projects of a scrappy look is to go by colour rather than collection and/or designer when doing your shopping.
- Another would be to buy collections of precuts, but open them up and mix into the existing stash.
1.2 Internal Friction
A different way to describe the scrappy look could be “harmonious enough but with a bit of internal friction”. This keeps it arbitrarily in the eye of the beholder without throwing out any and all constraints.
With that said people do test merrily, then show off the results on Instagram, and sometimes those creations look rather obnoxious. But the interesting part about scrappy is that a single, quite repulsive (too judgmental, is jarring better?) block can look off-putting on its own, yet when combined with other, equally “unappealing” blocks, the final project works, somehow. And sometimes it is a total no even then.
The human brain looks for patterns and if there is one to be found, even when our conscious design sense would say no, the brain is happy. Perhaps the weird but wonderful scrappy look has something to do with this?
What does this translate to in the context of stash building? Your shopping basket to an outsider may look as if you have no idea of what you are doing. Be bold though. Sometimes the best projects happen when we have no plan whatsoever, but test our way step by step to the end result.
2. Thoughts On Fabric Scraps
So what about scraps? When does a piece of fabric like a fat quarter become a scrap? How much have you used in a project for it to no longer qualify as its original size but a scrap?
And are all scraps equal in size in order to qualify as a scrap, or do we relate the concept to its original piece? In that case a scrap of a half-metre original piece is much larger compared to a scrap of a charm square original piece.
When we don’t define concepts thoroughly, we end up referring to vastly different things when thinking we understand a word the same way.
In this case, a lack of defining “a scrappy look” in relation to the lacking consensus on “scraps”—and “offcuts”!—means we make scrappy quilts and other projects in different ways, from different starting materials.
2.1 The Scrap Bin
Now is the time to bring up the scrap bin(s). Some of us throw in their bin(s) anything they have cut into once, for one project. This causes the definition of scrap to be activated 1) as soon as one project is made, 2) regardless of size of original fabric piece, and 3) regardless of size of piece used in first project.
Others, like me, cut from say a fat quarter the piece I need for a project, then fold it and put back in storage, not a scrap bin. I don’t have scrap bins but use a few minigrip/ziplock bags for small bits of remnant fabric. If I want a scrappy look, I just cut from a large number of fat quarters, skinny quarters or half-yard/metre pieces living in my boxes of fabric storage.
Going back to the definition of a scrappy look, this means:
“Some of us start a scrappy quilt in the scrap bin, whereas others create it from organised fabric storage.”
If you up until now thought that scrappy quilts cannot be made until you have amassed enough in specifically your scrap bin, I am here to inform you that you can, as long as your stash contains enough friction as per my addition above. I usually don’t buy collections at all, but choose by colour solely, and that is how I organise most of my stash as well.
3. Thoughts On Fabric Offcuts
This is where it gets interesting: fabric offcuts. These are scraps, no question. They are true remnants, “leftovers”, remaining bits.
Offcuts arise for example when you use the stitch-and-flip technique to sew a triangle corner, then cut a seam allowance, and have created one quilt block as well as two offcuts in the shape of the two outermost triangles.
I heard the concept mentioned the first time during QuiltCon Together 2021 in Daisy Aschehoug’s lecture “Small Stitching”, but offcut seemingly was synonymous with scrap.
3.1 Defining Offcuts
Thinking about it further I wanted to define these separately, so in my view offcuts are for example: a) what is left of flip-and-stitch patchwork, b) what you produce once you come to the end of a batch of jelly-roll strips pieced together, or c) what cutting the pieces for quarter circles creates as leftovers.
- have an element of predictability
- are inevitable remnants when choosing to make particular shapes and/or using particular techniques
- tend to be odd shapes with challenging bias edges as a result
- tend to be small in size
- tend to be disposed of frequently
Offcuts by my definition are a sub-type of scraps and very specific in nature in other words.
In the name of sustainable development, I encourage you to use these bits in pet beds, as toy stuffing, in small projects such as key rings or appliqué details with doodle outlines on pouches, and more. If you don’t like them, consider giving them to a quilty friend or sending them to someone else as a donation.
4. Why Define Things?
Why does it matter to spend time thinking about and defining in minute detail words such as scrappy, scrap and offcut? It does not, yet it does.
In my own work I do what I feel like and it is unnecessary to define things in terms of a project. When it comes to fabric storage, however, it matters because I would put resources of very different sizes in a scrap bin. If I wanted to use those pieces later on, I would have to handle each one again to find out how much is left.
4.1 Avoiding The Junk-Drawer Phenomenon
It would a bit like a junk drawer in a kitchen, into which you throw stuff you have not officially created designated storage for. In order to find something in there you can spend quite a bit of time rummaging through the contents without a plan. In the end you might not even find the object you are looking for.
That is not how I like to store things, but I do my best to create a home for each object I own, keep it there when not in use, and then return it to that precise location after using it. And I have no junk drawer. Since every decision comes with different sorts of consequences, spending time searching randomly is not an enjoyable idea in my view, but being organised allows me to use that time on meaningful activities instead.
4.2 My Fabric Storage
The same applies to fabric. Pieces, which are close in size to a fat or skinny quarter still, have potential to go in many different directions, but if I were to cut them down systematically into predictable squares or rectangles without a specific pattern in mind, I’ve committed to those shapes and they cannot magically be grown larger. It stifles creativity and feels boring to me, so they remain in organised storage.
Offcuts on the other hand are what they are, small in size and oddly shaped most of the time They are stored separately from larger pieces for a good reason.
When you are looking for a new pattern to use, scrappy and scraps are normally used interchangeably. It is worth paying attention to whether the meaning is visually mixed (scrappy) or if the pieces called for are smallish in size.
An underlying point I am making as well is that a scrappy pattern tends to be written such that bulk cutting from fat quarters or other precuts is not instructed, but you will only be given a number of pieces to cut of a particular size. The final fabric amount needed will remain unknown that way. Of course you can choose to cut many pieces from one print/solid too, if you don’t mind a less scrappy look.
5. Wrapping Up
Scraps are interesting in that they can be the most effective type of fabric to rejuvenate creativity after a time of no sewing. It is easy to keep chasing the latest prints, but in my opinion magic often starts to happen once those are combined with older patterns. Dating projects to a specific year becomes harder then and somehow their lifespan seems to increase as well.
Sarah Fielke and Jenn Kingwell were already mentioned, but another inspiring name worth bringing up at this point is Blair Stocker, American and a huge talent in the field of colour, values to be precise. Her book “Wise Craft Quilts” has some gems in it. But of course there is an enormous number of scrappy patterns out there for free on quilt blogs as well!
What thoughts arise in you on scrappy, scraps and offcuts? Share in the comments below!
This blog post is part of the mini series Let’s Talk Scraps!