Quilting Basics: Rotary Cutting 101
Alright, Mom, this post is for you. Oh, and everyone else who has ever had me cut out their quilt pieces for them because they are cutting pieces one at a time. Oh, and you newbies who wanted me to walk you through the block of the month one step at a time? I told you I was going to start at the beginning. Just because I love you. xoxo
Let’s talk about rotary cutting.
First things first, you’ll need a rotary cutter (mine is 45mm), an acrylic ruler, and a self-healing mat to protect your surfaces. For other tools you’ll need to start quilting, check out this post I wrote a couple years ago.
You’ll need some fabric you want to cut up, too.
Alright, chickadees, here goes.
There are a couple things you want to keep in mind when you’re using a rotary cutter, which are obvious, but crucial. First, that little blade is SHARP. Seriously people, you can lose parts of digits with that little beggar. Be careful. Please. Second, you should be using your rotary cutter on a clean, level surface that is high enough for you to work without hunching over and not so tall that you’re scrunching up your shoulders. For most people, that’s counter height, approximately 36″. Using the right height counter makes it possible for you to put the right amount of pressure on the ruler without hurting yourself or shifting the ruler because you’re in an awkward position. Third, always, always, ALWAYS put the guard up after EVERY cut, and keep it off the floor. Just make it a habit. If you don’t, you risk kicking that little blade and really doing some damage to a toe. Ask me how I know.
Now that those are out of the way, some tips and tricks for using a rotary cutter.
There are multiple ways to do this. I typically fold the fabric selvedges together and line the selvedge edges up with a horizontal line on my cutting mat. I then trim the adjacent edge as needed at a 90 degree angle to the selvedge. This makes the rest of your cuts more accurate and also helps you avoid a peak in the middle of your long strips. Always make sure you are cutting square to the fold and the selvedge. If you are cutting multiple strips, you will probably have to re-square your edge after multiple cuts.
Anytime you can, cut vertically.
Meaning, lay the fabric out so that you can make your cut starting close to you, and moving the rotary cutter away from you. (Always move it away from you, just like cutting with scissors.) If you are right handed, you’ll want to position yourself so that you are just a little bit to the right of the place you are cutting. This gives you maximum visibility of both your ruler and your blade. This is crucial for both accuracy and safety. Horizontal cuts are much harder to accommodate accurately and severely limit your visibility. Consider turning your mat or fabric instead.
When positioning your ruler for a cut, be accurate, but be generous.
Put your ruler on the left edge of the appropriate line on your cutting mat–remember, the blade is thin, but still takes up some space too. Positioning your ruler this way will insure you aren’t cutting your pieces just a hare too small–which in many projects can really add up. Check to make sure that all the lines on the ruler are also aligned, there should be no ruler lines intersecting cutting mat lines unless you are cutting on an angle on purpose. Instead, ruler lines and mat lines should be either stacked on top of each other, or parallel to each other.
Now that your ruler is positioned, you’ll need to hold it down securely.
Resist the urge to put your left (right for lefties) hand flat on the ruler to hold it. When you put your hand flat, you tend to put diagonal pressure on the ruler causing it to slip forward and away from you, resulting in a crooked cut. It also creates a single pressure point which allows the ruler to pivot. Think a fulcrum in a seesaw. In addition, a flat hand position causes your thumb to be quite close to the edge of the ruler, and many people spread their hand out more and more as they try to put pressure on the ruler, resulting in cuts to your thumb. Instead of the flat hand, try making a claw shape out of your hand, and bending your wrist so that your arm is perpendicular to your hand. This places direct downward pressure on the ruler, making slips less likely. In addition, spreading your fingers this way and using your fingertips provides several pressure points on the ruler, which prevents a single pivot point and adds security.
You will notice in the pictures that my palm is always off the ruler and my thumb is always parallel to the edge, even in extreme cases where I am using both my fingertips and knuckles for pressure.
Position your hand in the middle of the ruler.
Always try to place pressure on the whole ruler, not just one point. You don’t want any space between the mat, the fabric, and your ruler, because the fabric will slip in and out of alignment as you push it with the rotary cutter. Be sure your fingers are all clear from the edge. If you are making a particularly long cut (18+ inches), you may need to move your hand, position it first at about the 1/3 mark, and again at the 2/3 mark. Stop cutting while repositioning your hand, and make sure the ruler is still perfectly aligned and hasn’t been bumped in transition before you resume cutting.
Cutting multiple layers.
One of the great things about rotary cutting is that you can cut quite a few layers at a time (I have cut up to 10 layers of regular quilting cotton with a fresh blade.) While this can be a huge time saver, it can also make quick waste of your fabric if you make a mistake. I have found that my biggest mistakes come when my blade isn’t sharp enough, or I don’t put enough pressure on my ruler. When you’re cutting through several layers, like cutting squares from strips, for example, here’s what happens. You place your ruler on top of a stack, and suddenly, you’ve created a pivot point because the height of the stack of fabric lifts the ruler enough that it doesn’t touch much of your rotary mat. Like we discussed earlier, a pivot point causes ruler movement. So, in this case, your best option is to position your hand so that your fingers are on either side of the stack, if it’s a small piece, so you can press the ruler all the way down to the mat, or if the piece is larger, use extra downward force centered on the piece–that’s when I tend to push my claw hand down to the point where my knuckles are also on the mat.
In these instructions, I’m going to walk you through cutting squares from multiple strips.
First, position your strips horizontally so that you can cut vertically. Stack strips precisely on top of each other. Trim off the selvedge edge.
Move your ruler to the appropriate measurement line, press your fingers down on either side of the strip.
Once everything is aligned correctly, make one quick, firm cut. Leave the strip stack and the freshly cut squares where they are. Move your ruler to the left and reposition it for a second cut.
The best hand position for your rotary cutter should allow for precision of movement, stability, and top-down pressure. This means, no gripping the handle in your fist. I like to position my hand as shown, using my pointer finger along the top for perfect pressure, my thumb along the side to avoid left and right wobbling and quick guard access, and my other three fingers along the bottom for counter pressure.
Finally, be fast and firm.
Once you have squared up your fabric, aligned your ruler, and positioned your hand, the final step is to actually make the cut. In a lot of ways, this part is the easiest, and yet, most people have a really hard time with it. Your most accurate cut is going to come from direct, firm pressure on the rotary cutter and a fast, decisive cut. Don’t go slow, this gives time for the fabric to move and shift as you leisurely roll along. Don’t seesaw back and forth along your ruler, this shreds your fabric and kills your accuracy. If your blade is sharp, just one firm fast cut ought to do it. If your blade can’t make the cut in one pass, either you aren’t using enough pressure or your blade needs to be replaced. Slow, jerky movements and deep gouges in your rotary mat are signs of too much pressure.
Alright my friends, go and cut those block of the month squares and rectangles with your new found knowledge! Questions and tips in the comments of course, and if you left a question on the last post, I’ll be answering those today in the comments. Be sure to check back.
PS Up next, a quick break to show off my finished Scrappy Tripalong quilt, a fabric bleeding mishap, and Piecing 101.