How To Use a Rotary Cutter To Cut Fabric

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Essential tools for rotary cutting include a mat, a rotary cutter and several rulers.

It’s easy to use a rotary cutter to quickly and accurately cut the fabric pieces for your quilt top. Here’s how:

The following step-by-step photos and directions for using a rotary cutter to cut your quilting fabrics were first published in First-Time Quiltmaking by the Editors at Landauer. You can also watch our video on straightening and cutting your fabric here.

If you are left-handed, see our post on Rotary Cutting for Lefties.

 

For accurate quick-cutting fabric, we recommend that you begin by purchasing the following:
• a large self-healing rotary mat (at least 18″ on one side)
• a 6-1⁄2 x 6-1⁄2″ rotary cutting ruler
• a 6-1⁄2 x 24″ rotary cutting ruler
• a 45-mm or 60-mm rotary cutter (it looks like a pizza cutter)

Using a Rotary Cutter

If your rotary cutter does not automatically retract, protect yourself from an accidental cut by habitually sliding the blade protector into place, each time you set aside the cutter.

A NOTE OF CAUTION—ROTARY BLADES ARE EXTREMELY SHARP!

A new rotary cutter blade is extremely sharp but can dull quickly. Before replacing it with a new one, try cleaning it and turning it over. Carefully disassemble the rotary cutter, keeping the parts in sequence. Use a soft cloth to wipe the lint from both sides of the blade. Turn over the blade and reassemble. Once again, handle blades with caution!

Starting with a Mat

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Either side of a rotary mat can be used for rotary cutting. For accurate measurements, use rotary rulers instead of the pre-printed lines.

Always rotary cut fabric using a rotary mat to protect your work surface. Unprotected surfaces will be permanently scarred, and you’ll dull the rotary cutter blade.

Use rotary mat’s gridlines only for positioning fabric. Do not depend on the rotary cutting rulers for accurate measurements. The gridlines on the mat may not be accurate, and with repeated rotary blade passes gridlines can become distorted.

 

Positioning the Fabric

Lay the fabric flat on the rotary mat, with the selvage edges aligned at the top and the fold at the bottom. Note that this fabric's raw edges are not straight; the left edge needs to be straightened.
Lay the fabric flat on the rotary mat, with the selvage edges aligned at the top and the fold at the bottom. Note that this fabric’s raw edges are not straight; the left edge needs to be straightened.

Use two rulers to cut a straight edge from which all other strips are cut. You’ll need the 6-1⁄2″ square small ruler and the 6-1⁄2″ x 24″ long ruler. Here’s how to do it:

Fold the fabric through the crosswise grain to make the selvages meet. Then, hold the fabric upright to make sure the fold is flat, and the selvages are aligned.

Note: If you only have a 6″ ruler, see “Measuring Options” below for an alternate method.

 

Straightening the Fabric

Lay the fabric on the rotary cutting surface, preferably with the folded edge toward your body. Smooth the fabric, keeping the selvages aligned.

Use the small square ruler as a guide for positioning the long ruler.
Use the small square ruler as a guide for positioning the long ruler.

1. Lay the small ruler along the folded edge, placing one of the marked ruler lines on the fold, and the left side of the small ruler near the fabric raw edge.

Place the long ruler beside, and to the left, of the small ruler, butting them together smoothly. The right edge of the long ruler should lay against the left edge of the small ruler.

 

Begin rotary cutting at the fold, always rolling the cutter away from you.
Begin rotary cutting at the fold, always rolling the cutter away from you.

2. When the rulers are aligned with the fabric fold, pull away the small ruler, keeping your left hand on the long ruler to hold it in position. The long ruler should be positioned so its right edge is inside the raw edge of the fabric. Make sure both fabric layers of the folded fabric will be cut.

 

"Walk" your fingertips, rolling the rotary cutter parallel to your fingers.
“Walk” your fingertips, rolling the rotary cutter parallel to your fingers.

3. Hold the rotary cutter vertical, and with steady pressure, roll it along the right edge of the long ruler, from the bottom to the top.

 

Roll the rotary cutter in a vertical position, making sure the blade does not tip to the side.
Roll the rotary cutter in a vertical position, making sure the blade does not tip to the side.

4. As the cutter rolls, “walk” the fingertips of your left hand upwards across the surface of the long ruler, maintaining pressure to hold the ruler in place while the rotary blade pushes against it.

When the rotary cutter reaches the top, the raw edge of the cross grain has been cut and straightened.

Don’t move the fabric! At this point, adjustment to the fabric can disturb the perfect alignment of the cut edges of the fabric.

 

Measuring Options

If you have only a 6" wide ruler, use two rulers to measure 6-1/2".
If you have only a 6″ wide ruler, use two rulers to measure 6-1/2″.

To cut a 6-1⁄2″-wide fabric strip without access to a 6-1⁄2″-wide ruler, use two 6″rulers to measure and cut
a 6-1⁄2″ fabric strip.

1. Use your small, 6″ x 6″ ruler to measure 1⁄2″. Butt the 6″-wide long ruler against the square ruler as shown in Photo 1. Together, they total 6-1⁄2″.

2. Rotary cut along the 24″ length of the long ruler.

 

Strip-Cutting the Fabric

Use a piece of masking tape on the ruler as a reminder of the fabric strip width you're cutting—this strip measures 3-1/2".
Use a piece of masking tape on the ruler as a reminder of the fabric strip width you’re cutting—this strip measures 3-1/2″.

Cutting fabric into strips, also called strip-cutting, is most easily done with rotary cutting tools. First, straighten the left edge of the fabric. Then, use the 6-1⁄2 x 24″ ruler and the rotary cutter to cut fabric strips in the width needed for your quilt project.

1. Use the long ruler to measure the appropriate strip width. As when straightening the fabric, align the ruler marks with the fabric’s left edge, start at the bottom fold, and roll the rotary cutter toward the selvages, along the right side of the ruler.

 

Re-Straightening the Fabric

After several successive cuts, strips will become slightly crooked from the distortion caused by the rotary cutter and from a ruler that’s even a hairline off the mark. Fabric selvages may also become unaligned.

Re-straighten the left edge of the fabric after three for four strips have been cut.
Re-straighten the left edge of the fabric after three or four strips have been cut.

1. Realign the selvages. Cut the left edge of the fabric and continue to cut strips.

 

Fabric strips may look like this after four or more cust have been made without re-straightening the left edge. Notice the "elbow" that begins to form in the center.
Fabric strips may look like this after four or more cust have been made without re-straightening the left edge. Notice the “elbow” that begins to form in the center.

You might find it helpful to turn the fabric around and straighten the opposite end—a great way to neaten any leftover fabric that goes back into your stash.

Expect to restraighten the left edge of the fabric after cutting three or four fabric strips.

You may need to completely open and refold the fabric, then re-straighten the left edge, as described above, before continuing to strip-cut.

 

Sub-Cutting the Fabric

When the fabric strips for your project have been cut, you’re ready for sub-cutting each strip into a smaller size using the rotary cutting rulers and the rotary cutter.

Always begin sub-cutting the fabric by straightening the fabric strip's left edge. Here the selvage is removed.
Always begin sub-cutting the fabric by straightening the fabric strip’s left edge. Here the selvage is removed.

1. Begin by straightening the left edge of the fabric strip to remove the selvage.

 

Use the small square ruler to sub-cut a 3-1/2" fabric strip into 3-1/2" squares. Note that the masking tape is used as a quick visual guide to indicate the measurement on the ruler for the 3-1/2" square.
Use the small square ruler to sub-cut a 3-1/2″ fabric strip into 3-1/2″ squares. Note that the masking tape is used as a quick visual guide to indicate the measurement on the ruler for the 3-1/2″ square.

2. Use the small square ruler to sub-cut the fabric strip into smaller units.

 

See it in action! Watch our video on how to safely and accurately cut your fabric:

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