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Using a Rotary Cutter

Using a rotary cutter

Using a rotary cutter for the first time can be a little daunting. A rotary cutter is a tool with a very sharp circular blade, mainly used by patchworkers for cutting fabric with a special quilting ruler on a self-healing mat designed for the purpose. They are predominantly used for cutting straight edges of fabric. In this article, we explore the tools you need and the correct, safe way of cutting fabric with this important piece of kit.

Safely use a rotary cutter

You can purchase rotary cutters in four main sizes. The blade sizes that are generally available are 18mm, 28mm, 45mm and 60mm. A 45mm blade is probably the most useful if you only choose to have one rotary cutter in your sewing box.

The blades on the cutters are extremely sharp and so you should always look for a cutter with a safety cover to prevent injury. Do not skimp on price and quality – we recommend you buy a reputable make. The main rotary cutter manufacturers are OlfaFiskarsCloverOmnigrid, Truecut and Prym

Keep rotary cutters away from children.

A rotary cutter should be able to cut through six layers of standard quilting fabric with ease. It is very important to replace the blades regularly to avoid ragged cuts. You can easily buy new blades and also a special sharpening tool if you prefer to sharpen your own blades.

 If you are going to cut with a rotary cutter, you must buy a self-healing mat. This means that the surface of the mat ‘recovers’ after you’ve used a rotary cutter on the mat. 

Self-healing mats are available in a variety of sizes and are marked in imperial on one side and metric on the reverse side. You must always keep the mat flat and avoid exposing it to heat as it will buckle and refuse to lie flat. 

You can ‘clean’ your mat by wiping the lint away frequently to avoid build-up. There are a number of ideas for cleaning the mat – take a look at these articles by C&T Publishing or National Quilters Circle.


Patchwork rulers

You can choose from a bewildering array of rulers for rotary cutting. My advice is to choose an imperial ruler, as patchwork is always measured in imperial, at least 4 inches wide and 12 inches long as a good starter ruler. You can buy rulers with different coloured markings – mine are the Omnigrid rulers that are marked in very bright yellow so you can see the markings clearly. I also like rulers with the half inch measurement clearly marked. Rulers usually have angle markings on to help you when cutting triangles too.

Some rulers have non-slip pads built in that will help anchor the ruler to your fabric. Take a look at rulers by Omnigrid or Creative Grids for these type of rulers.

Technique for rotary cutting

The first step in cutting your strips of fabric is to get a straight edge as the starting point for your strips. Fold your fabric with the fold at the bottom and place the ruler parallel to the selvedge so that the ruler sits across the whole length of the fabric. Line up the straight markings on the ruler with the fold of the fabric.


holding a ruler when rotary cutting

Span your fingers across the ruler to hold it in position. This ensures the ruler is being held with even pressure to avoid it slipping. Keep your fingers away from the edge to avoid nasty accidents!

Open the blade on your cutter and butt it up against the edge of your ruler. Keeping it straight and upright, roll the blade AWAY from you whilst holding the ruler steady as above. Move your hand up the fabric to maintain pressure as you cut. Roll firmly so that the fabric is cut without any chinks or snags. 

Close the blade immediately after you finish the cutting. 

You now have a true straight edge for cutting strips. 


Cutting patchwork strips

Flip the fabric over so that the newly straightened edge is on your left.  Using your ruler markings, measure the width of strip you want to cut – in the picture above, I am cutting 3 inch strips. 

Personally, I only ever use the ruler markings to measure my strips – never the markings on the mat – as these are not always totally accurate and the rulers are marked more accurately. Some people will only use rulers from the same manufacturer to maintain consistency in measurements too.

Cut your strips, aligning the ruler with the straight edges on the side and bottom of the fabric. 

The following suppliers have a large range of rotary cutting supplies:

Olfa Cutters

The Cotton Patch

Sew Essential


For our other beginner’s sewing guides please visit our techniques section and click the beginners tag.