Basics + Techniques | Quilt Making | Quilting | Sewing

How to Use a Rotary Cutter & Mat

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INSIDE: How to Use a Rotary Cutter & Mat

My first quilt was a high school graduation gift for my baby sister.

With naive optimism, I used cardboard templates and scissors to cut out the individual quilt pieces. The quilt boasted an assortment of country blue sawtooth star blocks offset with cream-colored sashing.

I was certain Country Living would want to know about this incredible work of art. Long before the internet and accurate rotary cutting, my enthusiasm waned.

I didn’t make another quilt for 25 years.

cutting fabric with rotary cutter

How to Use a Rotary Cutter & Mat

My ability to match seams and points on that first quilt was non-existent. It’s no wonder; I was tracing and hand cutting everything. Now I know; if I want perfectly straight and accurate cuts I need to use a quilting ruler, rotary cutter, and mat.

This trifecta of cutting has changed the quilting world by simplifying the cutting process. No more hand tracing templates then hand cutting quilt pieces.

Now, line up your fabric along one of the grid lines of a cutting mat, place the ruler where it’s needed to make a cut, and zip-zip, a quilt piece is ready to sew.

The real trick to this is getting the right supplies.


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Choosing a Rotary Cutter

When I was working on my first quilt, rotary cutters didn’t exist. If they had, I might be sharing a different story. If you’re new to quilting then choosing a rotary cutter could present a challenge.

  • How do you know which rotary cutter is the best for your needs and budget? Rotary cutters use razor-sharp blades to swiftly cut through layers of fabric and makes safety your primary concern.
  • What size should you get? Some will be sized 45mm and others will be 60mm. These numbers refer to the blade size. Do you know which one is right for new quilters?
  • Which one is right for you? A rotary cutter has two types of safety covers. Most rotary cutters come with a manual retractable blade cover that you open for use and close when finished. A few manufacturers make cutters that have blade covers designed to sheath when you let go of the handle.

Personally, I only use this rotary cutter because the blade retracts when I let go of the handle and it includes a locking button. Other rotary cutters require you to manually cover the blade which can easily be overlooked.

Left uncovered it wouldn’t take much to brush your hand along the sharp edge or knock it to the floor, creating an entirely different hazard. Until you’re experienced, stick with the auto-retracting blade.

rotary cutter on a mat

Different Rotary Cutter Blade Sizes

Blade size matters. Technically, rotary blades come in a variety of sizes. New quilters only need a 45mm rotary cutter for beginner projects.

I’ve outlined the different sized rotary cutters so you won’t get overwhelmed at a store and have no idea what to choose.

  • 28mm Rotary Cutters are designed for cutting small pieces and curved pieces.
  • 45mm Rotary Cutters are perfect for cutting through one or two layers of fabric. This is your best choice for your first rotary cutter. Personally, I used this size for a long time before I moved to a larger one.
  • 60mm Rotary Cutters will cut through several layers of fabric at one time. Once you have made a few quilts, you will want to invest in a larger rotary cutter.

It’s not unusual to run across festive rotary cutters that are ergonomic or are available in fun colors. You may even see your favorite teachers using them in an online class.

These will work fine, but I would not recommend them for anyone getting started. Wait until you have experience cutting through fabric layers before trying something unique.


Choosing a Cutting Mat

When cutting with scissors, it’s not a problem to lay something out on a table and cut. Not so with a rotary cutter; you’ll need a self-healing mat in order to make safe cuts and preserve your table.

Once again,  shopping for a cutting mat can present a few challenges. Seeing them all lined up at the sewing store can stop a newbie in her tracks. There are several manufacturers that offer mats with a variety of features. Should you get double-sided? (Absolutely!) Do the different colors make a difference? (Not really, but some are only single-sided.) How do you know which size mat is right for you?

Strip Piecing Basics
  • 24″ X 36″ Double-Sided Cutting Mat is your best option as long as you have a place to store it flat. It will last for years and handle almost any sized project.
  • 12″ x 18″ Double-Sided Cutting Mat is another great option. Most quilt pieces aren’t that large and this one will fit most quilting needs and can easily be stored.
  • A Rotating Cutting Mat is a nice add-on cutting mat. Why would you need one that rotates? When cutting smaller pieces it’s nice to not have to turn the fabric. Although it is not essential, I keep on my sewing table which simplifies quick cuts when sewing.

Caring for a Rotary Mat

Taking care of a rotary mat is simple and will make your mat last for years and years. This video has some great tips on how to take care of your mat.


Choosing an Acrylic Quilting Ruler

Imagine trying to cut out quilt pieces using a rotary cutter and a piece of cardboard. It won’t work and I have a scar to prove why. Razor sharp rotary cutters need a proper acrylic ruler to make cutting safe.

Acrylic rulers are designed for the blade to ride against the edge making this the safest way to cut fabric when using a rotary cutter. Most come with a non-slip backing which prevents the ruler from moving when cutting. Quilting rulers will be clear and have markings that allow you to line up accurately before cutting.


Why Are There So Many Different Quilting Rulers?

To this I say, why not! If you have the budget and space there is a quilting ruler to ease almost any cutting dilemma. Practically speaking, you can get by with some basic rulers while you grow your skills.


Do You Need Square Rulers?

acrylic ruler set

Quilt blocks are square and owning square rulers means perfectly square squares. This economical four-pack of rulers comes with a 2.5″, 4.5″, 6.5″, and 9.5″ square and will handle most of your square-cutting.

Understand, the point to any quilting ruler is achieving an accurate cut. Make this a priority and you’ll know which rulers are the best for you.


One More Tip for Straight Fabric Cuts with a Rotary Cutter & Mat

The simple solution to perfectly straight fabric cuts is this: Make sure all of your rulers are the same brand.

When you use the right tools you’ll get beautiful results. It’s that easy. Accuracy becomes the byproduct.


That First Quilt…25 Years Later

someone holding up a quilt

With all its faults, my first quilt continues to love and be loved. It can be found next to my sister’s family room sofa, waiting to comfort sick kids or warm chilly bones. The hand quilting is miraculously still intact with the binding showing some wear.

Sometimes, when I see this quilt, I am reminded how far quilting has come and it makes me wonder where it will be in another 25 years.


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