Thursday, December 10, 2020

A better way to use paper templates

Every now and then I want to make a quilt that uses shapes with angles that are not marked on my quilting rulers. 

My Clear Skies quilt from 2013, from the pattern Kyoto Garden by Judy Martin in her book Stellar Quilts.

I'm not a fan of tracing paper templates onto fabric and cutting out the shapes with scissors.  If instead I trace around a paper shape with a rotary cutter, I tend to end up with a gradually smaller template as I accidentally shave a little off the template, which is also problematic. However, as long as the shape doesn't involve curves, there's an easier way, as I learned from Judy Martin's book Stellar Quilts when I made the quilt above seven years ago.  I can tape the template to my ruler and use the straight edge of the ruler to rotary cut a nice, clean edge.  

To demonstrate, I'll use the templates shown below from my Stellar Breeze pattern.  You could also use specialty rulers for this particular shape, but not everyone has the budget for those.  Plus, once you figure out this technique, you can use it for other templates that may not have a ruler substitute.

Pairing paper templates with a ruler

Step 1: Make sure that the template has been printed to the required size. In my patterns, and many others, template pages include a plain square as a size reference and the pattern specifies what size the square should be.  Use a quilting ruler to check that the square is the right size.  If it is, then the rest of the printing on the page should be as well.

Step 2: Carefully cut out the templates.  I use my rotary cutter and a quilting ruler lined up with one side at a time to get clean, straight cuts.

I'm going to demonstrate first with the G/H template shown above.  

Step 3:  Use a fabric strip cut to the width specified in the pattern.  Fold the strip in half, wrong sides together, and square up the cut end of the folded strip.  Keep the strip folded.  Place the template on the strip at the cut end.  In this case, the left side and bottom edges can line up with the left and bottom edges of the fabric strip.

Step 4:  You can now see that the long diagonal is the edge you'll want to cut.  Tape the template to the underside of a quilting ruler, with the template's long diagonal flush with one edge of the ruler.

Step 5:  Place the ruler over the fabric strip, lining up the template with the fabric again as you did in Step 3.

Step 6: Use your rotary cutter to cut along the long side of the template.

Step 7:  To cut a second piece, rotate the ruler and line up the template with the previous cut...and discover that the side of the template where you need to cut to complete the next piece is in the middle of the ruler.  You just can't make that cut this way.

You could remove the template and reposition it, but unless these are the only two pieces you need, you'll be reposition things a lot.  Instead, make a second copy of the template and continue to step 8.

Step 8: With the side you need to cut lined up flush with the edge of the ruler, tape the second template to the ruler.  Just make sure it doesn't overlap the first template.  I marked the second template with a large red asterisk to make it easier to keep track.  Now you can line up the template with the previous cut again, and have a ruler edge where you need to cut to complete the second shape.

Step 9: Rotate the ruler to use the first template again to cut the next piece, than rotate to the second template to cut the next.  Continue cutting pieces on this way, alternating templates.

Step 10:  Remember that you cut through two layers of fabric because the strip was folded in half, so each cut yielded two pieces.  Because the two layers of fabric were wrong sides together, the two pieces are mirror images of each other, which is exactly what you need for a triangle-in-a-square unit.

Trimming Points

You may have noticed this template has angled cuts at the tips.  These are meant to help you line up the parts of the triangle-in-a-square properly.  If your template includes trimmed points to help you properly line up components when piecing, you can use this technique for trimming points as well. 

Step 1: To add these cuts to the G/H pieces, simply reposition the template (or a another copy) so the cut is flush with one edge of the ruler.

Step 2:  Position the ruler so the template matches the cut shape.

Step 3:  Use your rotary cutter to trim away the tip that extends past the ruler and template.

Step 4:  Repeat steps 1-3 for the remaining trimmed tip.

Another example, just to get the hang of things!

Cutting the large triangle (Template B) from my pattern follows the same steps.

You can see the second side of the triangle is under the middle of the ruler where you can't cut.

Simply rotating the ruler doesn't properly line up the angles of the template and cut strip. Because this shape is symmetric, you could flip the ruler so the template is on the top side of the ruler, but then the template is not right on the fabric.   I find it harder to line things up exactly when the template is floating a ruler thickness above the fabric, so I prefer to use a second template to position the cut for the second side of the triangle.  Again, I've marked the second one with a red asterisk.

Keep alternating between templates at each cut to cut additional pieces.  Don't worry about mixing up the templates.  If you try one and can't line it up to cut a triangle, you'll know to use the other instead.

I've shown you how to pair these two templates with a ruler, but you can extend this to other templates.  Just remember that you need to match up the side of the template where the cut will be made with the edge of the ruler, and that you can use multiple copies of the template for different angles and sides.

I hope this helps you try out some new patterns and ideas. Please feel free to send me an email if you have any questions, or to share what you've made with this technique.


  1. Now that is a brilliant idea! I'll have to remember that for when I ever get to cutting again! ---"Love"

  2. This is a great tip!

  3. Genius! I will try to remind you to link up after the 22nd...this hint is a keeper for sure.

  4. I've done this and it works great. Putting the paper on the opposite side of the ruler and marking it is a good idea, one I'll have to remember.

  5. This was really helpful, thank you so much!

  6. So clever and simple! Thanks- I really have a problem with those "slivers", on both paper and template film.

  7. This is SO clever, Joanne! Thank you for sharing this great idea :)

  8. Very clever! I have avoided paper templates, but maybe now I will have the courage to use them!

  9. Thanks! This is extremely helpful! -Jeanne

  10. I don't like to buy expensive templates unless I really thing I will use them a lot and/or have a good coupon so this idea will really come in handy!!

  11. For the first block cutting rectangles the size of both requires only one cut from template. Great tutorial

  12. This is still so helpful! Thank you!


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