How to Use Rotary Cutters (Even if You have Two Left Thumbs)

The first time I decided to make a quilt I had no idea how to properly cut fabric, or even to figure out the sizes I needed to cut! I had only used scissors before, and this was my first try with a rotary cutter and mat, given to me by my mother-in-law.

I found a picture of a quilt I wanted to make and tried to figure it out. I estimated how big I should cut triangles and cut them as that; triangles! I used old clothing fabric, which was probably a cotton/poly blend, and then I sewed them with what I am sure was not a 1/4” seam!

What to Use?

Using the proper tools is an important component of making your quilts as accurately as possible. A good rotary cutter and cutting mat are indispensable. Always keep your rotary blade sharp; a sharp blade will make it easier to cut pieces accurately.

Another necessary tool is a good ruler. My favorite is an 8 1/2″ x 24″ acrylic ruler. There are many great rulers and tools available to make quilting easier, but you’ll be able to make most projects with this ruler.

I also find a square ruler is useful for crosscutting squares from strips. Square rulers come in many different sizes, but I like a larger one (9 1/2″ or larger) for squaring up blocks and finished quilts.

Always use the measurements on the ruler, not the ones on the mat. I’ve found rulers to be more accurate than the lines on a mat.

Cutting Your Strips

  1. To cut strips, fold the fabric so that the selvages meet. Lay the fabric on the cutting mat with the folded edge toward you. Fold the fabric again toward the selvage.
  2. Place the ruler on top of the fabric along the right edge, aligning your ruler with the fabric fold. The raw, uneven edges should extend beyond the ruler’s edge. Cut along the long edge of the ruler to trim off the end of fabric, making a straight edge. Discard this strip. (Reverse the procedure if you are left-handed.)

Rotary cutting diagram

3. Turn the fabric or mat around and place the straightened edge to your left. Cut strips in the width specified in the project instructions, measuring from the straight edge. For example, if you need a 2″-wide strip, place the 2″ line of the ruler on the straightened edge of the fabric and cut along the right edge of the ruler.

Rotary cutting diagram

4. To cut squares and/or rectangles from a strip, unfold the cut strip once so that it is folded in half. Place the selvage edges to your right and make a cut, creating straightened edges as you did previously.

5. Place the newly cut edges to your left. Align the proper measurement on your ruler with the straightened end of the strip and cut the fabric into squares or rectangles.

6. To make half-square triangles, cut the squares once diagonally from corner to corner.

7. To make quarter-square triangles, cut the squares twice diagonally from corner to corner.

Rotary cutting diagram

Making Templates

Some patterns require you to use templates that are a different type of triangle (or other shape.)

  1. To make a template, trace the pattern provided onto template plastic with a fine-tipped permanent-ink pen. Use utility scissors to cut out the template.
  2. Place the template back over the pattern and check to make certain you have cut it accurately.
  3. Place the template on the fabric as directed in the project instructions. Carefully cut around each shape with a rotary cutter, making sure to not cut the plastic.

Needless to say, my first attempt at quilt blocks got thrown in the garbage! You should have seen how wavy, uneven, and hideously ugly they looked! Now when I cut quilt pieces, I use the proper equipment, I measure accurately, and I don’t have to throw them away!

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