Quilt School

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.

RotaryCutting-13To start, you’re going to want to square up your fabric.

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.

RotaryCutting-23Avoid moving anything until the entire strip has been cut into squares.

RotaryCutting-25Hold the rotary cutter for precision.

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.

RotaryCutting-24As you gain experience, you will be able to cut more layers, and even several stacks of multiple layers at a time. But that’s a topic for Rotary Cutting 102. :)

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.

Quilting Basics: 10 Tips for Starting your First Quilt

Now that you’ve learned a little bit about the basic types of quilts, the tools that are handy to have, and the parts of a quilt, you’re ready to get started–and I can’t tell you how excited I am for you new quilters to become just as addicted as the rest of us!  Here are 10 tips to get you going on the right foot.

1. Choose a beginner pattern.

Start simple. Choose a pattern that only uses one or two types of simple blocks. Even better, choose a pattern marked “beginner” so you know there won’t be too many twists and turns. There are even a lot of free patterns online for small table runners or baby quilts.

2. Start small.

I suggest starting with something small. Small quilts and table runners are easier to maneuver, and quicker to finish. You will feel so much more confident with your first project under your belt! Also, they (of course) require less fabric which equals less cost on your first try.

3. Use high quality fabric.

It will make a HUGE difference if you use high quality, 100% quilters cotton fabric. It is more expensive, but will save you a lot of grief and frustration. Higher quality fabric holds its shape better, feels better to the touch, retains color better, and is more durable. I promise it’s worth the extra price.

4.  Read the directions, twice.

Seriously. Read each instruction in your pattern twice, and make sure you understand what it says before doing anything–especially cutting. You can unpick seams if you sew something wrong, but if you cut something wrong, you may end up short on fabric. As an old quilting saying goes: “Measure twice, cut once.”

5. Check your seam allowances.

Make sure you are really great at a 1/4″ seam allowance. Almost all quilting patterns use the 1/4″ inch, and if your seam is off it will make all your measurements off throughout the entire quilt. You don’t want that, I promise. So, take a little ruler, and make sure you know exactly how to sew that seam. Mark it with masking tape if you need to, or get a presser foot that is a perfect 1/4″ from the edge.  Then, practice, practice, practice.

6. Keep your needle sharp.

Your needle should be changed every 8 hours of sewing. Why? A dull needle will make sewing your pieces really hard. The seams won’t be as straight or accurate, and your fabric can pull and pucker.

7. Press your seams.

Just press them. Don’t iron them. Pressing a seam means putting the iron straight down on the fabric, and not moving it. This helps the fabric keep its’ shape, and the quilt block from being skewed or warped. If your pattern tells you which way to press your seams, be sure to follow.

8. Choose appropriate batting.

If you’re going to try machine quilting your first quilt on your own, choose a thin batting. It’s easier to manipulate and work with, and will fit better under the arm of your machine. If you’re planning on tying your first quilt, you can use a bit thicker batting.

9. Use colors you love.

Lots of people will tell you different things about color–what goes together and what doesn’t, what not not mix, and especially what is trendy. When choosing the colors for your first project, choose colors and prints that you love. It makes a huge difference in your attitude and motivation to be working with fabric that you love to look at.

10. Don’t stress out.

Really, truly, just don’t. You will make mistakes. All of us do. Even the most experienced quilter rips out seams now and again. Take slip-ups with a grain of salt, learn from them, and move on. Keep a sharp seam ripper nearby, take a deep breath and jump in.

Starting a new quilting project is so much fun, I can’t wait for you to join the ranks! Enjoy the learning process, follow these 10 guidelines, and you’ll be whipping up beautiful projects in no time.

Quilting Basics: What tools do I need to start quilting?

While there are millions and billions of quilting tools, templates, and doohickeys out there, there are only a few you really need to get started. The rest you will acquire with time, I’m sure. Here are the basics.

Sewing machine:

You can quilt with just about any sewing machine out there, because really, all you need is a straight stitch. If you’re new to quilting, but want to get into machine applique, you’ll probably want a machine that does decorative stitches as well. These days, even the most basic machines have at least a straight and zig-zag stitch.


You’ll read all kinds of information out there about which thread is better, discussions on cotton thread vs. polyester thread, and especially information on why you should never use one or the other. Here’s what I have to say: don’t stress it. Unless you’re planning on making quilts that will last centuries (I’m not), just choose the thread that matches best and go with it. I generally try to use cotton thread with cotton fabric and polyester with synthetics, but I don’t freak out if they occasionally mix it up. Here’s why: I use my quits. Every day. I fully intend that they’ll be reduced to shreds at some point, and that’s alright. Some people will tell you that if you mix cotton and polyester your seams will be stronger than your fabric, or vis versa. Quite frankly, my quilt will probably be trashed by the goobers long before it can fall apart on its own. If, however, you’re wanting to make quilts that last for-EV-er, you may want to read up on the thread controversy and come to your own conclusion. For the record, I use Gutermann 100% cotton thread almost exclusively, it’s a high quality thread that doesn’t lint up my machine as badly as the cheap threads.


Both sewing machine and hand sewing needles. In general, a universal needle will do you just fine. Be sure to stock up, you’ll want to change needles after about 8 hours of sewing with it. You’ll want little “straw needles” for applique and binding too, I use size 11.

Flat surface for cutting:

A desk, a floor, a counter top…the possibilities are endless.

Scissors and/or rotary cutter, mat, and ruler:

Some good sharp scissors will of course be helpful, as will a basic rotary set. It takes a bit to get good at rotary cutting, but it saves SO. MUCH. TIME. A rotary cutter is a circular blade that you roll along a ruler to cut through multiple layers of fabric at a time.

Iron & Ironing Board:

Nothing too fancy here, just a good, clean iron. It will help if it has a steam setting, but it’s not necessary. Make sure your ironing board cover is clean, too.


Get some quilters pins with a flat head, rather than a little ball or bead at the end. These will help you get things lined up just right. Also, you’ll want some curved safety pins, for basting.

There you have it! Really, most of this stuff you probably already have. If you watch for sales and discounts, you should be able to get a basic rotary set and some pins for under $30.

Happy quilting!

Quilting Basics: Pieced & Applique Quilt Tops

Alright, here’s the deal. Quilts can be made in a zillion different ways. Usually though, quilt tops consist of the same basic pieces: either pieced blocks, applique blocks, or a combination of both. Blocks are just a term used for the (usually) square piece of either pieced or appliqued fabric. You put lots of fabric blocks together, they make a quilt top.

Here’s the lowdown on the difference between pieced and applique blocks.

Pieced: A quilt top made from smaller pieces of fabric. Blocks generally consist of several smaller pieces. Blocks can be arranged in many different ways to make an interesting pattern. However, there are other ways to make pieced quilt tops, including using strips, and using random “crazy” blocks.

Applique: An applique quilt is also made of blocks, but the pattern on the blocks is made by pieces of fabric sewn to the top. The pieces can be attached by small, hand-sewn stitches, or by machine stitching.

So there’s the lesson of the day, chickadees.  Questions?


Page 1 of 212