Updated: Apr 5, 2021
Actually, I have a confession to make. Sorting scraps makes my inner organization nerd really happy. I'm that quilter that says the thing no quilter says. I know; it's weird. But I like the process of taking something that causes me low-grade anxiety (a controlled mess in the corner) and making it feel useful. But how do you get to a happy place for your own scrap management? It's about knowing yourself and your preferred working style and then setting some guidelines. Notice I didn't say rules. If you call them rules, then at some point you'll have to break them. Who needs that anxiety?
Here's how I work my scraps. Your mileage may vary, but I hope some of this explanation of my process is useful to you.
I keep a plastic bucket that is an old plastic storage drawer for scraps. It's not small, but not giant either. It sits on a shelf to the right of my cutting and sewing tables.
Once a precut or fabric that I cut from yardage has any part of it used, it's a scrap. If I cut a little piece off a jelly roll strip, the rest is scrap. Used part of a fat quarter for something? Then the rest is scrap. Yes, I end up with some pretty big "scrap" pieces. That's ok. I do it like this because when I look at my fabric stash, I don't want to be trying to remember "did I use part of that pink fat quarter, or was it a different one?" If I pull something out of storage, I know it's a full strip, layer cake square, fat quarter, etc.
When the scrap bucket gets full (to the point that I can't easily smoosh more bits in there), then it's time to sort.
When it's time to sort, I give myself permission to only do part of the job. The scrap bucket doesn't have to get emptied every time.
I have a finite number of pieces into which scraps can be converted. These will vary based on what you tend to use most often in your own quilting. My list is this: 2-1/2" and 2" strips; 5", 4", 3", 2-1/2" squares.
Anything that can't be cut into one of these sizes is "confetti." I have a growing interest in taking up miniature foundation paper piecing, so I might add a smaller square later, but for now, that's the list.
Starting the sort ...
Empty the bucket on the table.
Pull out anything that looks big enough to fold.
Pull out anything that's a big pile of the same fabric.
Pull out batting scraps and fabrics that are not quilt cotton.
Pull out scraps that look like they're already square or rectangular.
Pull out anything that looks like it's recognizably one of the conversion shapes (like 2-1/2" strips).
At this point, I have a table that looks kind of like this, and the confetti pile is already half the size it was!
I've already also pulled out some bias strip leftovers, some sewn units, and some selvedges. One day I'm going to do one of those cute selvedge projects I keep seeing on the internet. But not today. I keep one of those plastic zipper bags that sheet sets come packaged in for random sewn things ... blocks that I've done to test sew a pattern or for practice, pieced borders leftover from projects, etc. The sewn units all go into that bag. Sooner or later they'll become part of some other project. If you have any pieces like this, put them away now, so that they're off the table. It's fun to watch the piles disappear!
At this point, I start picking through the confetti pile, looking for pieces that are big enough for one of my pre-determined cuts. After I cut them, scraps go back into the confetti pile.
I have some favorite rulers for this process. The first is my Omnigrip Non-Slip 6" x 24" ruler. This ruler is the workhorse of the cutting table. I use it to cut yardage, and it's long enough to cut the long side of a fat quarter beautifully. If you're just starting out with quilting, you can't go past this one for a first ruler purchase.
My next most commonly used ruler is my Olfa 6" x 12" Frosted Advantage ruler. I love this ruler, especially when working with dark or patterned fabrics. The very light frosting on one side means that you can still see any lines you've marked on your fabric, but you can also easily read the ruler markings. Genius. This ruler is my favorite for cutting squares. It's so easy to see three sides of the fabric and know that you're making a square cut.
My last ruler for scrap management is my Omnigrip Non-Slip 2-1/2" x 18" ruler. It's a teeny bit of a luxury item because of course, you can cut 2-1/2" strips with the 6" x 24" ruler, but this one is fast to use. It's a bit lighter and easier to manipulate, and you don't have to look at the markings on the ruler to cut strips, since it's 2-1/2" from edge to edge. I also use this one to cut 2" strips.
Remember I said that I give myself permission to only do part of the scrap management? That might look like only cutting the stuff in the "already looks like squares or rectangles" pile or the stuff in the "big enough to be folded" pile. I might choose to throw everything else back into the bucket for the next round. Don't punish yourself by forcing some arbitrary rule. If you're making progress on getting stuff out of the scrap bucket, then it's a win.
After I cut all of my "looks like squares or rectangles" pile and part of my "big enough to be folded" pile, I had cut a bunch of pieces and the confetti bucket was reduced by more than half. I'll cut some more of the folded stuff tomorrow. Probably. And periodically I will send the confetti to my Mum for use in her incredible art pieces. I put the cut pieces in labeled plastic bags and keep them in a basket in my stash. They're ready for whenever I want to use them.
If scrap management gets you down, I hope that this post has been useful to you. If you'd like to share your scrap management pro-tips, please leave us all a comment below :)