Rotary Cutter Basics and Tips

Using a rotary cutter has revolutionized quilting since the invention of the home rotary cutter system in the late 1970s. Before then, all we had were scissors, and cutting patches was tedious and time consuming. With rotary cutters, that time has been greatly reduced while increasing accuracy immensely. And as you know, accuracy in quilting is essential for nice points and matching seams. Whether you are new to quilting and using a rotary cutter, or an experienced hand, this post will show you the basics and then some tips learned over the years to make things a bit faster still.

rotary tips

So let’s begin with the equipment. As most fabric is 40-42 inches wide, your cutting mat should be at least 24-inches top to bottom to cut full strips. I find that a 24x36 inch mat suits most needs. Larger becomes difficult to reach across, and smaller isn’t as versatile. Most quilters have a variety of rulers in lots of sizes, but to begin, choose one like this one that is long enough to cut a strip across a folded piece of new quilting fabric, and wide enough to suit most of your cutting needs. A ruler that is clear with a non-slip back like this one will help keep your cuts straight while making it easy to see the lines. You’ll also need the cutter (a 45mm cutter is the best size to start with), and a safety glove. The suction handle is nice too.

When the cutter is open, you’ll note that the blade extends upward from the handle, so your position of cutting needs to be at an angle from above to have the most control over the cutting. How you hold the cutter is a personal preference, most quilters will grip the handle with the forefinger on top of the cutter to have better control. Others do just fine with a handshake grip. Whichever grip you choose, the cutter should be in line with your arm and wrist to give you the most control. You’ll find after you have made some cuts, that lint will sometimes collect under the cover. Clean this out with a soft cloth, wiping from the hande outward, taking care not to pull the cloth across the blade. If necessary, take the blade out of the handle for cleaning. If the blade gets rusty or dull, replace it.

40-42 inches wide

Always close the cover on the blade every time you put the cutter down. Just get in the habit of using your thumb to slide the closure tab up as you are putting the cutter down. This way you will never cut yourself on an unprotected blade, and knocking it off the table won’t put your legs or feet at risk. If you do ever drop your cutter while using it, step back as it falls and never try to catch it. Just let it fall and pick it up when it lands. It is also a good idea never to be barefoot when using the rotary cutter, just in case it falls on your foot while open.

rotary cutter

Put on a cutting glove to protect your ruler hand. This safety glove is not cut proof, only cut resistant, but it will keep you from taking off the end of a finger in case the cutter slips. When using the ruler, place your fingers slightly curved with the little finger off the left edge to help keep the ruler from slipping. (If you are left handed, use your right hand to hold the ruler, keeping your pinkie off the right side.) Gloves come in packs of two, and work equally well on the right or left hand. Using the non-slip ruler shown here will help reduce slippage too.

put a cutting glove

To begin, properly place your fabric carefully on your cutting mat. Smooth the fabric, making sure it doesn’t have any waves or wrinkles in either layer before you cut. If you need to, press the fabric first. Place the fold of the fabric on a horizontal straight line on the mat near where you are standing, with the selvedge edges away from you. It is much easier to cut standing up rather than sitting down, increasing your control. Using the next to the bottom line allows you to see the markings at the edge of the cutting mat.

smooth the fabric

Put the cut edge slightly over a line on the left. (Left handed quilters, use the line on the right side, and cut strips to the right) Cut on this line to straighten the edge and make a clean cut. Using the zero line makes it easy to use strippy math to make the cutting go faster.

put the cut edge slightly

Place the ruler at the place for the size strip you wish on the mat, or the ruler, or both.

place the ruler

Now, place your gloved hand on the ruler, little finger off the left edge. This will help you remember to keep your fingers off the right side edge for safety, but it also prevents the ruler from pivoting while you are cutting. Place the blade against the right side of the ruler at the bottom, using it as a guide for the cutter. Begin cutting, using a firm pressure on the cutter moving the cutter up the ruler. Always cut away from your body, never towards yourself. Never cut across horizontally.

place your gloved hand on the ruler

Smoothly advance the cutter up the ruler with firm even pressure, just to the point past your hand and stop.

firm even pressure

Now, without releasing your grip on the cutter, lift your ruler hand off the ruler and place it back down at a point just above the cutter.

ruler hand off

Advance the cutter again to just above your ruler hand.

ruler hand

Continue in this manner until the strip is cut.

cut the strip

If you have small areas to cross cut, using a suction handle can give you even more stability. Place the suction handle on the ruler in a place that will allow you a comfortable grip. Using a slight angle is comfortable for me.

suction handle

Flip the suction handle up to engage the suction.

engage the suction

Don’t forget your safety glove, the handle is an adjunct for control, not a substitute for safety.

safety gloves

Line up your strip size and cut in the same manner.

strip cut sizes

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Using the rotary cutter to cut multiple strips at once increases the speed at which the cutting gets done. Simply line up your strips along horizontal lines on your cutting mat, and place the ruler at the size you need. Cut using the same procedure of moving the cutter, then your ruler hand alternately until the cutting is completed.

cut multiple strips at once

So, next let’s do a series of cuts using the strip math method. Begin as usual with placing the fold on a near horizontal line, and square off the left edge.

strip math method

Using strip math, you can double check your cuts as you go. For example, if you have a number of strips to make all 3-1/2 inches wide, using the mat for the measurement with the ruler as a double check will increase your accuracy and your speed. In the example, the first cut will be on the 3-1/2-inch line on the mat. It is also the same on the ruler, with a bit of tape for ease of finding the correct line.

using strip math

The next cut will be on the 7-inch line. (3-1/2 + 3-1/2 = 7) For clarity, I have moved the cut strip aside purely for demonstration, in real life I just keep cutting.

cut will be on the 7-inch line

The next cut will be on the 10-1/2-inch line (7 + 3-1/2 = 10-1/2)

10-1/2 inch line

Continue adding 3-1/2 to the previous mark until you have the number of strips you need. Quilters call this strip math, and it works well for easily added numbers. For 2-1/2-inch strips, cut on the lines 2-1/2, 5, 7-1/2, 10, 12-1/2, 15, 17-1/2, 20, 22-1/2, 25, etc.

continue adding 3-1/2

A tip for quickly finding your measurement is to align some painter’s tape along the line you want to use. Putting a break in the tape ensures that you can see the edge of the fabric.

align some painter's tape

Plus it is easy to do cross cuts for making squares with the tape already on the ruler. It is especially helpful if you are doing odd cut sizes, like 1-7/8, that don’t lend easily to using strip math. Make your first cut, then slightly move the cut square out of the way.

making squares with the tape

Then line up the painters tape for your next cut. Putting a horizontal line on the ruler along the top (or bottom) edge of the strip will increase your accuracy.

line up the painters tape

Rotary cutters are also the best way to trim your quilts after the quilting is done. Using the edge of the ruler, line up the edge of the top. Using the same cutting procedure, carefully trim away the excess batting and backing.

rotary cutters

Cutting wider fabrics is possible if you fold twice, cutting through a maximum of four layers at once. Just be sure both folds of the fabric are accurately on a horizontal line on the cutting mat, or you will get angled strips like boomerangs. It also helps to have a larger 60mm cutter if you routinely do four strips at once.

cutting wider fabrics

Using the appropriate line on the ruler, line up the cut with the edge of the fabric, making sure that a horizontal line on the ruler also is aligned with a horizontal line on the mat. Aligning the fold along a horizontal line on the ruler will help with accuracy too. Note that the ruler isn’t long enough to cut the entire strip, so the cut will need to be made in two parts. Begin as usual, moving your cutter and your hand alternately until you get near the top of the ruler.

line up the cut with the edge of the fabric

Then, move the ruler up, taking care to align the edge with the proper line for the size strip, once again aligning the top fold with a horizontal line on the ruler. Complete the cut.

move the ruler up

A few final tips -
If your cutter doesn’t cleanly cut the strip, it is probably time to change the blade. Cutting with dull blades increases the likelihood of making mistakes, cutting inaccurate lines, and slipping off the ruler line which will ruin a cut and possibly make the fabric remaining unusable for a few inches. Keep a new blade in your stash so you are always ready to cut. A blade can go dull at anytime, and hitting a hidden staple or a previously forgotten pin can ruin a blade in a hurry. Never cut anything but fabric with your best cutter.

When changing the blade, pay close attention to how the cutter is assembled with the spring nut curved side up as you take it apart. Assembling it back wrong will result in the blade wobbling in the handle and not cutting straight. Dispose of used and dull blades by using the new blade’s packaging, or by taping it inside two pieces of cardboard. Be very sure that the blade edge is not exposed, even a dull blade can make a dangerous cut in flesh. If you use the dull blades for paper cutting, you can keep them in a metal box like mints come in. Always keep tools like this out of the reach of children and pets.

If you need bias strips, align the 45-degree angle on the ruler with the edge of the fabric and make a cut to get a straight edge along the bias. Then use the strip measurement marks to cut subsequent strips on the bias. Do not use a folded piece of fabric for the initial cut, or you will end up with ‘V’s. You can fold the fabric after the first alignment cut aligning the cut edges to continue, placing the fold on a horizontal line. Bias strips make the best binding for quilts, as the threads will go over the edge, not along the edge, increasing the durability of the binding.

final tips

Wear your safety gloves to change blades, and be sure you only have one blade inserted in the handle. The blades often come in packs of multiples, and they will stick together. The gloves will grip the blades just a bit and make it easier to separate them. You may believe that the gloves aren’t necessary for using a rotary cutter, but there are many quilters who will tell you differently, mostly those who have made trips to the ER after slicing off the end of a finger. It is far less expensive to buy and use the gloves!

Quilting is so much more satisfying when your strips, squares and other shapes are accurate. Stop by my blog for more tutorials and projects. Have fun, and be safe!