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Quilt Basics - Rotary Cutting & Trimming - Part 2 of 5

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Quilts start out as lots o' little pieces. So it makes sense the first thing you should learn about in quilting is how to cut your fabric! If you ask any quilter what she/he feels is the best cutting tool for the job, the answer will be: a rotary cutter. Many compare it to a pizza cutter, and if you've sliced up your share of pizza pies, a rotary cutter may not feel foreign to you at all. If not, pay close attention to all we have to tell you. In Part 1 of this series, we discussed the rotary cutter along with the other basic tools you’ll need to start quilting. If you haven’t done so already, we recommend checking out this article before proceeding with today's installment.

Historically, when the only method for quilting was by hand, the pieces for a patchwork quilt were cut out with scissors. Obviously, you can still do that today, but why? It's so much easier, faster... and more acurate to use a rotary cutter, cutting mat, and the appropriate acrylic ruler.

The rotary cutter is a fantastic little invention developed by Yoshio Okada, founder of the OLFA Corporation, in 1979. He was inspired by the "sharp edge created when glass is broken and how chocolate bars break into segments."  You can read about the history, as well as see a variety of new cutting tools, on OLFA’s website.

If you’ve never tried a rotary cutter, it can be rather intimidating at first. We assure you, it’s actually easy to use and slightly addicting (much like quilting overall). However, if you start without proper instruction, you can easily cut your pieces inaccurately, or even worse, cut yourself. Therefore, in this tutorial, we’ll be stressing safety first and foremost. We'll show you how to properly use a rotary cutter, cutting mat and quilt ruler (also referred to as an acrylic ruler, cutting ruler, etc.) to cut strips and shapes for patchwork piecing.

Fabric and prep

Before you can use a rotary cutter, you need something to cut. We discussed the various types of fabrics you can use for a quilt in Part 1 of our series. The most common option is cotton. If you’re a regular Sew4Home visitor, you know how much we love to use cotton. There are always new, hard-to-resist collections being introduced. In fact, be warned; building a large stash of fabric is a common side effect of quilting and you can easily become a fabricholic

For our examples, we'll be using 44/45” wide cotton in solid black and white.

In quilting, as in all forms of sewing, it’s important to preshrink your selected fabric. You can read more on this subject in our Preshrinking 101 tutorial

It’s also important to press (and starch, if needed) fabric prior to rotary cutting. Some quilters feel this is optional, but we consider it a must. Fabric cuts more easily and accurately if it’s properly prepared and crisp. 

Tools you need

As discussed in Part 1 of our Quilting Series, you need specific tools for rotary cutting. We have a variety of rotary cutters in our S4H studios, which are chosen based on the type/thickness of fabric we need to cut. We have a wide selection of quilt rulers and templates too, as well as a variety of cutting mats. The more you do, the more options you acquire, but to start out, get at least one of each.

Rotary cutter 

One with a protective shield or a safety lock of some sort is good to help prevent accidents when the cutter is not in use. 

Cutting mat 

This goes hand-in-hand with a rotary cutter. Small ones are good for small items, but a larger surface is best for multiple uses.

Quilt ruler

Get one with non-skid surface, or a lip on the edge. This is very helpful because the rulers can easily slide and cause you to cut inaccurately. Make sure to familiarize yourself with all the markings on your specific ruler. The one we use the most in the Sew4Home studio is 5” x 24” with a lip edge that helps hold it in place.

  

Templates and specialty rulers

These are optional, but will certainly make their way into your quilting tool box as you begin to expand your quilting experiences. Both templates and rulers are available in a variety of shapes and sizes. Some are designed for a specific purpose, such as cutting appliqué pieces. Others are for a specific type of quilt block or may be called for in a custom quilt pattern or tutorial.

Basic DO-this-DON'T-do-that rules

  1. Set up your cutting area with a cutting mat, ruler(s) and rotary cutter all at the ready.
  2. Stand up. Yes, stand up! In order to properly use a rotary cutter, you should be standing not sitting. 
  3. For those who cannot stand, it's recommend to use an ergonomic rotary cutter(similar to the one below). They are available for both right hand and left hand use.
  4. Determining the best position to hold the rotary cutter can depend on the type of cutter you own, as well as what feels most comfortable to you. 
  5. Some people like to place their index finger along the top of the cutter. On our particular rotary cutter there’s even an indentation molded into the plastic for your finger. 
  6. Others wrap all fingers around the handle. 
  7. Regardless, your overall goal is to keep your wrist straight to avoid injury.
  8. Always, always cut away from you, never towards you. And, do not cross your arms over on another. 
  9. If you’re right handed, your ruler should be to the left so you can cut the fabric from left to right.
  10. If you’re left handed, your ruler should be to the right so you can cut the fabric from right to left.
  11. Don’t forget about your other hand. You’ll need it to hold the ruler firmly in place. Make sure your hand, especially your thumb and index finger, is on the ruler not hanging off the edge. Otherwise, you could seriously hurt yourself.
  12. Correct hand position:
  13. Incorrect hand position:
     
  14. Determining the right amount of pressure needed to cut your fabric may take a few tries (remember our mantra: test first on inexpensive fabric!). 
  15. When guiding the blade along the ruler, make sure you are pressing down firmly. This is also why standing up is important. The blade is circular and glides easily so pressing down too hard is counterproductive. But, not pressing down hard enough will result in fragmented cuts across the fabric. It’s also possible to slip and hit the ruler, which can ruin the blade and/or ruler.
  16. As you move along the length of your fabric, always lift and move the ruler for the next cut, don’t slide it as you can shift the fabric and cause it to be off grain for the next cut. For accuracy and remaining on grain, never ever move the fabric!
  17. Rotary cutting is not a race; you don’t have to be speedy. You can even stop in the middle of a cut if needed. For example, if you’re cutting a long piece of fabric, you can stop to reposition yourself (and your ruler) to reach the opposite end. 
  18. Most importantly, be 100% sure of the measurement (or width) of the strip you want to cut before you start cutting. Remember to account for the standard quilting seam allowance of ¼" on all sides that will be seamed. 

Ready to give it a try?

Cutting strips

NOTE: In our examples, we will be demonstrating right-handed cutting. For left handed cutting, you cut across the fabric from the opposite direction.

  1. Once your fabric has been properly prepared (see above), lay it on your cutting surface with the selvedges together and the fold toward you. 
     
  2. If your fabric has any waves in it, it’s not straight
  3. Flattening the fabric may mean the raw edges will be uneven; that’s okay because we're going to trim this away before we cut our strips.
  4. Using the grid lines on the cutting mat, line up the folded edge with one of the lines going across the mat. We always use the one on the bottom.
  5. The first cut is always to straighten the fabric, or in other words, to cut the fabric even on the crossgrain, as we mentioned above. To do this, you have to cut the fabric at a 90° angle. You can use the ruler and grid on the mat (remember, our ruler has a lip on the bottom, so we know it’s straight with the edge of the mat/table). 
  6. Or, you can use two rulers and the grid on the mat.
  7. Leaving the ruler in position, you are now ready to make the first cut.
  8. As described above, make sure your hands are in the proper position. Place the edge of blade against the edge of the ruler at the folded edge.
  9. Holding the rotary cutter firmly, pressing down (not too hard), roll the blade keeping it pressed against the ruler as you cut the fabric. Trim away just enough to create a clean edge.
  10. The fabric is now "squared" and ready to be cut into strips, using the predetermined width needed for your quilting project.
  11. For our purposes, we want 3” strips in our quilt, so we have to cut 3½" wide strips to account for our seam allowances (3" finished width + ¼" on both sides). 
  12. Remember to pick up the ruler! Don’t slide it across the fabric.
  13. Using the guide lines on the ruler, line up the edge of the ruler 3½" from the straight cut edge of the fabric.
  14. Once again, cut across the fabric. to create your pretty 3½" strip.
  15. Continue in this manner until you have the desired number of strips. If you’re following a pattern or tutorial, you will be provided with that number.
    NOTE: Some quilts are sewn with only strips (no other shapes), using what’s known as the "strip piecing method." We’ll talk more about this in Part 4 of our series.
  16. Make sure to keep the strips folded in half if you plan to use the strip to cut other shapes. We will be cutting our strips into shapes in the next section. 

Cutting shapes

  1. Basically, there are two ways to cut shapes from fabric with a rotary cutter:1) use fabric strips like we just cut above, or 2) use templates to cut various shapes from a larger piece of fabric. Below we'll show you both. 
    NOTE: In many quilt pattern instructions or tutorials, when you’re cutting pieces from other fabric pieces (or strips) it’s referred to as sub-cutting (or cutting segments) for the quilt block units.
  2. A number of shapes can be cut from fabric strips, such as squares, rectangles and various types of triangles. Using a rotary cutter to do this is no different than the steps described above. You simply need to pay close attention to your measurements. Remember, ¼" seam allowances should be included.

Squares

  1. Carefully position one of the folded strips along a horizontal line on the cutting mat, in the same manner you did above.
  2. Place the ruler over the selvedges end (ie. not the folded end) by approximately ½" -¾" (depending on the depth of the selvedge). 
  3. Use the rotary cutter to trim away the selvedge.
  4. If you recall, we need 3" squares for our quilt. So, adding in our seam allowance requirements, we will to cut the fabric strips at 3½" intervals to get 3½” squares.  
  5. Line up the cut end of the strip with the 3½" marking on the ruler to cut a 3½" square.
  6. Since the fabric strip is doubled, you will get two squares for each cut; another reason why rotary cutting is considered to be much quicker than using scissors.

Rectangles

  1. Using the same strip, we will show you how to cut a rectangle. 
  2. For our purposes, we need a 3" x 4½" finished rectangle in our quilt. What size rectangle should we cut from the strip? If you said 3½" x 5", then you’re starting to get the hang of this seam allowance math!
  3. We know our strip is already 3½" wide. So, all we need to do is cut the strip in a similar manner to what we did for the square, but instead of cutting an even length to width for a square, we cut the strip at 5” intervals.
     

Triangles

  1. It’s just as easy to cut triangles. You can start with the squares or rectangles you just cut above. However, one word of caution, the math to determine the triangle cut size is not as simple as for a square or rectangle. You can learn more about how to do this math in quilt books, and on the Internet – there are quick reference charts available too! We’ve provided a quick math equation below for determining the cut size in relation to the finished size of each of our examples. 
  2. Keep in mind, the angle cut will be biased and can stretch out of shape. So, when you piece a triangle into your quilt, you have to handle it carefully so as not to distort its shape. 
  3. To cut two triangles from a square, simply cut the square on the diagonal. 
  4. These are known as half square triangles
  5. Quick math for half square triangles: Add ⅞” to the finished size you want for your square. For our 3" square example, we need to cut our squares 3⅞”
  6. To cut four triangles from a square, simply cut the square along both diagonals. These are known as quarter square triangles.
  7. Quick math for quarter square triangles: Add 1¼" to the finished size you want for your square. For our example, we need to cut our 3" squares at 4¼".
  8. You can also cut triangles from rectangles by cutting on the diagonal. These are known as long triangles in quilting.
  9. Another way to cut triangles and diamonds from fabric strips is to use the angle markings on your ruler.
    NOTE: As we mention above and below, there are specialty rulers for cutting triangles and other shapes from strips or larger pieces of fabric.
  10. Using the 60° marking, you can cut equilateral triangles from a strip by alternating the ruler as you cut (for each side of the triangle and each triangle thereafter).
  11. Align the ruler to cut the first side.
  12. Then, using your first cut as the new edge, align to cut the second side.
  13. Quick math for equilateral triangles from a strip: Add ¾" to the finished size you want. For our example, we need to cut our strips 3¾".
  14. Using either the 30°, 45° or 60° angle, you can cut diamonds from a strip.
  15. Quick math for diamonds: Add ½" to the finished height and width you want. For our example, we need to cut our squares 3½".
  16. We cut our sample diamonds at a 45° angle from a 3½” strip. As above, we alternate the ruler for each end of the diamond. For the first cut, we used the 45° angle marking on our ruler. 
  17. For the second cut, we align the cut edge with the appropriate width measurement for our strip. In our example, the meant aligning the 3½" mark along the cut edge.   
  18. Sliiiiiice... and, you have a lovely diamond.

Templates and shaped rulers

  1. As you become more and more addicted to quilting (we did warn you), you'll begin to fill your quilting toolbox with specialty rulers and templates to make cutting even easier thanks to special shapes and markings for each unique tasks. These tools generally come with their own usage instructions or you can find more information online or in quilting books. 
  2. You follow the same basic rotary cutting steps as described above when using a template or specialty ruler.
  3. Depending on the type of quilt project your working on, sometimes you may make your own templates using template plastic (or even a paper pattern). Rotary cutting with these can be a bit more challenging because of the thickness of the plastic. You can easily cut into the template, which can ruin the template itself, ruin the rotary blade, or both. So take extra caution when using template plastic with a rotary cutting.

Cutting layers

  1. In our examples, we’ve been cutting just two layers of fabric, but what about cutting more than two?
  2. You have to be cautious when using a rotary cutter on multiple layers because the accuracy of the cut lessens. However, we will show you two examples of how and when you may need (or want) to cut through multiple layers.
  3. If your cutting mat is smaller than the piece of fabric you want to strip cut, you can double it over. As a result, you will be cutting through four layers. 
  4. Fold the fabric in half along the lengthwise grain, matching selvedge to selvedge, the same as above. 
  5. Then, fold the fabric in half again, bringing the folded edge to meet with the selvage.  
  6. Cut strips exactly as described above.
  7. You can also stagger the strips to cut more pieces at one time. 
  8. Lay the first strip on one of the horizontal grid lines on the cutting mat. Then, lay a second strip, overlapping the first on the next horizontal grid line and so on. 
  9. This can be tricky, and again lessens the accuracy of your cutting. Do not stagger more than six strips at a time. And, bear in mind, this technique works for strips but not for everything you cut for piecing.

Trimming

  1. After you've cut your pieces and started sewing, you usually have to do a little trimming (what's called "truing") of the pieces so they stay the same size. You can use a rotary cutter for this too. We’ll talk more about it in a upcoming segment of this quilting series.
  2. It's also a good a habit to periodically check the accuracy of your cuts whether strips, squares, etc. Sometimes you need to do a little trimming along the way.

Additional hints & tips

  • Our examples above illustrate right handed cutting techniques; if you are left handed, rotary cut from the opposite direction. 
  • Sometimes you’re so focused on cutting the fabric, you don’t realize your finger has wandered off the ruler. Similar to looking over your shoulder before merging onto the highway, always check your hand position on the ruler before you start to cut.
  • If the rotary blade is not cutting evenly or if there are still threads connected where you cut, your blade is probably dull and needs to be replaced. There are sharpening tools for rotary blades available as well. And just like razor blades, don’t just toss used rotary blades in the garbage; make sure to discard them safely.
  • Determine the size of rotary cutter to use based on the thickness of the fabric or number of layers to be cut.
  • Some quilters use the markings on their ruler in combination with the grid on the mat for accurate cutting. However, you can ignore the mat and only use the markings on the ruler. Whichever method you choose, be consistent with each cut otherwise you can confuse yourself!
  • When cutting strips, open the strips periodically. If there is a bend in the middle you need to straighten up the fabric again. 
  • You can certainly use a rotary cutter for other types of sewing too, such as garments and home décor. It’s actually a preferred cutting tool for some fabrics like rayon and velvet.
  • You don’t always have to cut with the blade perpendicular to the fabric. You can angle it slightly if it helps with being precise.
  • When cutting larger items or pieces of fabric, if can’t reach a certain area, always move the mat or move yourself; never move fabric!
  • In quilting, it’s not uncommon to see cuts in increments of ¼" and ⅛" for various types of block patterns, as well as angular cuts. It’s important to know how to use your ruler and read the various markings and increments. The manufacturer’s packaging should include instructions about different ways to use the ruler. Or, you ask someone at your local quilt shop to demonstrate how to use a specific ruler.
  • It’s difficult to use a rotary cutter for pattern matching stripes and plaids. These are better cut flat with scissors.
  • Clean the dust and lint from your rotary cutter regularly, and always have a replacement blade (in the appropriate size) on hand before you start your project. 
  • Rotary blades can rust over time, especially in humid environments.
  • As we mentioned earlier in the tutorial, when using a rotary cutter, safety is number one. This extends to children who are in or around your sewing area. We have a previous tutorial that focuses on sewing room safety here.
  • We always recommend practicing any new technique until you feel comfortable with it. Rotary cutting is no different. You can try using scraps, but we recommend using a ½ yard of inexpensive fabric, such as muslin.

Related Sew4Home Tutorials

Below are a few additional Sew4Home tutorials that relate to rotary cutting and rotary cutting tools. And, there are always new quilting tools being introduced, including rotary cutting ones. Keep your eyes peeled for new favorites and feel free to bring them to our attention for a possible review. 

Product Review: Rotary Cutters

Products We Love: The Gypsy Gripper Cutting Tools

CHA Show New Product Find - AccuQuilt GO! Fabric Cutter

How to Fussy Cut Fabric Motifs & More

Contributors

Sample Creation and Instructional Outline: Jodi Kelly

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Comments (9)

Donnas said:
Donnas's picture

When I preshrunk my fabrics , the unfinished edges began raveling. Should I just zigzag along the raveled edge, as shown? I am using 100% cotton. 

Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home said:
Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home's picture

@ Donnas - Perhaps I'm misunderstanding the question. We don't show a zig zag stitch above. Pre-shrinking can cause raveling, but if you are at the step of cutting your pieces, you can simply avoid those edges. Zig zagging is usually reserved as a finishing options for a seam allowance. But again, maybe I'm not understanding your question. 

Kurstie said:
Kurstie's picture

Thanks for tutorial, new to this so now I feel a lot more confident, Cheers

M Webb said:
M Webb's picture

Thank you for all of this wonderful information on ways to us an "everyday" quiliting ruler! Your information was very helpful!

Jane Coombs said:
Jane Coombs's picture

There are only a few more days to check out the nominees in SewCalGal Quiling Awards. If you are a newbie, it is a great way to familiarize yourself with the craft. There are categories devoted to new products and new books as well, as well as fabric designers and retailers. 

auntbarky said:
auntbarky's picture

Great information.  I'm new to rotary cutting-enjoyed this tutorial. 

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