Who Are You Calling “Fussy”?!

Sometimes there’s a saying that is so commonly used that you don’t even think twice about it. Last month, while on vacation with my family, my brother Steven commented on how cool my specifically planned cutting looked in my English paper piecing project. I told him how in the quilting world it’s called “fussy cutting”, and how much fun I was having with this, my first foray into it. He looked at me with an almost offended air, repeating with disdain, “fussy cutting”?!

english paper piecing at the ocean
Fussy cutting in practice for my Lucy Boston Patchwork of the Crosses center.

Steven is an artist who lives in San Francisco among many other artists of various trades. Perhaps this is why he was so taken aback by the terminology paired with quilters’ practice of selectively cutting a fabric based upon a particular element or design. He reasoned, “You wouldn’t call Michelangelo a “fussy” painter. You might call him meticulous, or careful, but never fussy.”  He has a point.

Dictionary.com offers this definition for the word fussy:

fussy

[fuhs-ee]

adjective, fussier, fussiest.

1. excessively busy with trifles; anxious or particular about petty details.
2. hard to satisfy or please:
a fussy eater.
3. (of clothes, decoration, etc.) elaborately made, trimmed, or decorated:
All the bric-a-brac gave the room a fussy, cluttered look.
4. full of details, especially in excess:
His writing is so fussy I lose the thread of the story.”

It’s true; the definition of the word fussy holds a decidedly negative air. “Petty details”?  “…a fussy, cluttered look.” Losing the thread of the story because of the fussy writing. None of these definitions or examples are very flattering. Personally, I think that fussy cutting in quilting is a skill and style that deserves a more complimentary, positive name. Then again, it’s just a word, right?
Choosing a design to selectively cut. From @nightquilter on Instagram
Choosing a design to selectively cut. From @nightquilter on Instagram

This conversation got me thinking: who coined the term “fussy cutting” and when did it start getting popular? I wonder if it was a saying created by the quilters, or by those seeing the completed work. A bit of googling uncovered the fact that the first evidence of selectively cutting motifs from fabric was the development of Broderie Perse in England in the 1700’s (from answers.com, so take it for what it is). The article goes on to explain that “…this technique was used by women of wealth, who had the leisure time to devote to this style of applique. Their goal was to make a “best” quilt that would be shown off to friends or used on special occasions.” In other words, it was women of wealth who could afford the time and fabric to select only very specific features to make a “best” quilt, leaving the fussy cut refuse to waste or other small, non-functional projects. Was the term “fussing cutting” created by those of lesser social status out of semi-contempt of those who could afford such fabric waste and leisure?

In searching more, in an interview with Eleanor Burns conducted in 1999, she casually mentions that she and her sister may have coined the term “fussy cutting”. Here’s an excerpt of the interview:

Brenda Horton (BH): Now you called your sister the fussy one but you “fussy cut” sometimes on your patterns, is that where you got the term?

Eleanor Burns (EB): 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.

MF: Explain to us what “fussy-cut” is.

EB: 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.

It doesn’t sound very disparaging, although between sisters, perhaps there is a bit of a teasing tone? What do you think?

Assiduous cutting with Amy Butler's Lark fabric.
Assiduous cutting with Amy Butler’s Lark fabric.

For me, I can no longer say “fussy cutting” without thinking of my conversation with my brother. Here’s my IG post from the night of the conversation:

fussing cutting IG postI wrote: Testing out my fussy cutting choices for my next #patchworkofthecrosses. Talking with my artist brother, we decided that “fussy cutting” is quite pejorative. So now, it will be punctilious, meticulous, assiduous, deliberate… but never “fussy”. Who’s with me!? #assiduouscutting not #fussycutting 🙂 Thanks, @vanfremdling and thanks to@goinghometoroost and @amybutlerdesign for the fantastic fabric for my @kickassiduouscutting !! #epp

I’m sure that “fussy cutting” will still be part of my quilting lingo, since when in Rome! However, I will also be using “assiduous cutting”, “meticulous cutting”, and “punctilious cutting” interchangeably. Personally, I lean toward “assiduous cutting” since then I can say I’m doing some “kick-ass-iduous cutting” tonight!

What do you think? Do you think “fussy cutting” has a derogatory inclination? If you are a quilt historian and have any more information regarding the origination of the term “fussy cutting”, I’d love to know!

Until then, have fun with your punctilious, meticulous, assiduous, deliberate, and okay… sometimes fussy… cutting. I know I will!

 

23 thoughts on “Who Are You Calling “Fussy”?!”

  1. Very interesting. I have never really put any thought into the term. I think at this point it will be hard to break my habit of saying “fussy cut” unless there is clearly a word or phrase to substitute, because I think it will take some deliberate consciousness to change.

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  2. Actually I like your newly coined terms for fussy cutting. Sometimes the terminology used among the quilting world can be just a little too corny for me. Meticulous and deliberate….. Like those both!

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  3. You’ve jam packed vocabulary, history, and art into one fascinating post. I agree “fussy” sounds a bit pejorative, at least after I look up “pejorative” in the dictionary. Of your other suggestions, “kick-ass-iduous” is the most memorable.

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  4. What a GREAT post!!! I think I like your kick-ass-iduous cutting the best! Quite a tongue twister though. And to be fair, I never liked the term either. Always made me feel like what I was doing was useless and a waste… Thank you for the history lesson. 🙂

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  5. As an artist, I’ve never liked the attitude you often find in the art world, that art is something beyond the understanding of the general public, a kind of high and mighty, self-important, condescending kind of thing. (No judgement on your brother, who I’m sure is very nice.)

    That’s part of the appeal of quilting for me: it’s soft, cozy and approachable, as well as a wonderful vehicle for artistic self-expression.

    I love that fussy cutting is such a quaint, old-fashioned term without any pretentiousness whatsoever. But I love your terms, too. They are fun although somewhat fussy to say.

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  6. Oh I very much agree! It has the connotation that the whole craft is silly and that cutting things very deliberately is especially silly. Yet when I “fussy cut” something I do not *feel* fussy! It is a lot of work, and I very much agree that meticulous is a better way to describe the process!

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  7. These are certainly some interesting thoughts. I’ve never thought very much about “fussy” cutting, because I so rarely do it. I think you’re right about the pergorative nature of the term, although I think it’s lost a lot of the original connotations. I’ll certainly keep this in mind when if I ever get around to meticulously cutting any fabric.

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  8. Very interesting post! I’ve always disliked the term, it makes me think of little old ladies, with immaculate hair, eating posh sandwiches with the crusts cut off! I much prefer your variations.

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