How to Use a Rotary Cutter

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Are you new to sewing and wondering how to use a rotary cutter?

Or have you been using one for a while and want to be more accurate, efficient, and make fewer mistakes?

Maybe you thought rotary cutting is just for quilters.

Regardless of your skill level or what you like to sew, you’re certain to learn something in this comprehensive post on how to use a rotary cutter.

What are the Rotary Cutting Tools?

There are three rotary cutting tools on my list of essential sewing tools.

Rotary Cutters

Different rotary cutters

Rotary cutters are hand-held tools with a sharp, rolling, retractable blade. They are used to neatly and easily cut clean edges.

Rotary cutters can cut through multiple layers of fabric. You can also cut curved lines with a rotary cutter.

Cutting Mats

Rotary cutting mats

Cutting mats are self-healing mats and should be used whenever you are using your rotary cutter. These mats go on top of your table and underneath your fabric.

These special cutting mats are designed to be used with rotary cutters and protect the surface of your table as well as extend the life of the blade.

Rotary cutting mats have a grid on them along with many other lines that cross and curve through the grid. These lines can be used in a variety of ways to ensure accurate measuring before cutting.

Rotary Cutting Rulers

Rotary cutting rulers

Rotary cutting rulers are also called gridded rulers. These measuring tools are made to be used with rotary cutters.

They are usually made from acrylic and have marked grid and angle lines with easy-to-read numbers for both right and left-handed users. They come in all shapes and sizes.

Buying Rotary Cutting Tools

Rotary cutting tools - cutters, mats, rulers

Buying Rotary Cutters

Rotary cutters come in a variety of sizes, handle shapes, and styles. 

The diameter of the blade comes in different sizes too. 18 mm, 24mm, 45mm, and 60mm are common diameters.

  • Small (18mm and 24mm diameter) rotary cutters are good for cutting around curves, templates, and small pieces but will dull more quickly.
  • Medium (45mm diameter) rotary cutters are all-purpose a work well for cutting up to four layers of fabric.
  • Large (60mm diameter) rotary cutters will allow you to cut through many layers or stiff fabric.

Rotary blades are VERY sharp, so there should be a guard that covers or protects the blade when not in use.

Some rotary cutters have guards that move out of the way automatically when you start cutting and others have a button that must be moved and locked in place to release and secure the guard.

If you have small children or pets, the cutter with the button would be safer.

Buy extra blades when you purchase your rotary cutter. Over time the blades become dull and sometimes get nicked. When this happens it needs to be replaced.

Buying Cutting Mats

Cutting mats come in many different sizes.

Medium and large sizes are great for working at home and smaller ones are good for taking to classes, quilt group, and retreats.

There are even small mats that rotate making it easy to cut fabric without moving it.

It’s recommended to store cutting mats flat and keep them out of direct sunlight because they are sensitive to heat.

Pay attention to the lines on the cutting mat. They should be clearly marked with grid lines. Ones that have angle lines are a bonus.

Some mats have lines on both sides but different colors on each side. This can be helpful when working with light/dark fabric.

Other mats are all one color but don’t have lines on the back. This can be useful if the mat’s grid lines distract you from the ruler’s markings.

The front and back sides of rotary cutting mats.
Left photo: the front of mats Right photo: the back of the mats.

Buying Rotary Cutting Rulers

Cutting rulers are also available in many different sizes, shapes, and colors.

Make sure the ruler is see-through and about ⅛- thick. The ruler markings should be clearly visible and easy to read. The inch lines should be different from the quarter and half-inch markings.

Starter Tools for Rotary Cutting

Tools to get started with rotary cutting

First Time Buyer Tips

Bonus Item

rotary blade sharpener

A rotary blade sharpener may extend the life of your blades.

(I’ve had success sharpening dull blades but not so much with nicked ones.)

Rotary Cutting Safety

Rotary cutter blades are VERY sharp.

The following safety tips will reduce the likelihood of the rotary cutter inadvertently jumping, skipping, or bouncing when you’re using it.

You’ll be less likely to cause injury to yourself or damage the fabric, ruler, or mat.

  • Never leave the sharp blade exposed when the rotary cutter is not in use.
  • Always close the blade guard when you aren’t using the rotary cutter.
  • When using the rotary cutter always push it away from your body. You can control the blade more easily and keep it against the edge of the ruler if you are pushing it away from you.
  • Cut standing up if you’re able to. You have more leverage and can better stabilize the ruler with your other hand.
  • Check the blade regularly to make sure it doesn’t have any nicks.
  • Replace (or sharpen) the blade if it is dull or has nicks. 
  • Never cut over pins.
  • Only use acrylic rulers (no metal or metal-edged rulers).
  • When replacing the blade, put the old one in the case the new one came in or wrap it up in paper or fabric before tossing it in the trash.
  • Keep rotary cutters out of reach of children and pets.

Rotary Cutting Vocabulary

In order to better understand the rotary cutting basics described below, there are a few geometry terms you need to know related to the lines on the rotary cutting mats and rulers.

  • parallel – lines that are an equal distance apart; they will never intersect or come together
  • perpendicular – lines that intersect at a right angle
  • horizontal – lines that go left to right
  • vertical – lines that go up and down
  • right angle – a 90-degree angle
  • squared – when the cut edge and the top/bottom edge are perpendicular to each other; the intersection is a 90-degree angle

Applying the Vocabulary

rectangle with letters A-D to apply geometry terms
  • The blue lines are horizontal and parallel to each other.
  • The red lines are vertical and parallel to each other.
  • Lines A and B are perpendicular to each other. So are lines BC, CD, and AD.
  • The red lines can represent a cut edge of fabric. The red lines are perpendicular to the blue lines.
  • Each corner is a right angle.
  • The rectangle can be described as ‘squared‘.

How to Use a Rotary Cutter

General Information

Place a cutting mat underneath the fabric to protect the surface from the sharp edge of the blade as well as to extend the life of the blade.

Holding the Rotary Cutter

Hold the handle firmly in your dominant hand at about a 45-degree angle to the cutting surface. Keep the blade straight up and down (perpendicular) to the cutting surface and against the edge of the rotary ruler.

How to hold the rotary cutter

Holding the Ruler

Hold the ruler in place with your non-cutting hand.

Two different ways to hold the ruler

Make a long, continuous cut instead of short choppy ones to get a clean-cut edge.

For long periods of cutting, hold the ruler in place with your entire hand.

  • Place your hand flat on the ruler.
  • When you push down to hold the ruler in place, your shoulder is exerting the force, not your fingers.

For short periods of cutting, hold the ruler in place with your fingers and a pinkie anchor.

  • Spread your fingers out. If you can, let your pinky finger rest on the table. This will help help to brace the ruler.
  • Keep your fingers and thumb away from the edge of the ruler where you will be rolling the rotary cutter. 
  • If you’re making a long cut, push the rotary cutter as far as you can, then ‘walk’ your stabilizing hand up the ruler before making the next cut.

Rotary Cutting for Quilting

Make the First Cut – Use the Lines on the Mat

The purpose of the first cut is to square up the fabric and get a straight edge for all the other cuts. To do this, use the grid lines on the mat.

Tip: If you’re new to rotary cutting, only make one fold in the fabric. With practice, you can fold the fabric again to make four layers but you have to be careful or you’ll get the dreaded V-cut (explained below).

Prepare the Fabric

  • Prewash, almost dry, and press fabric. Be careful to not distort the edges of the fabric when pressing.
  • Fold fabric with selvages together and square up fabric.

Lay the Fabric on the Cutting Mat

  • Lay the fabric on the cutting mat with the fold either towards the top of the mat or closest to you. (This is a preference so try both ways to see what works for you.
  • Align the folded edge with a horizontal grid line on the mat.
    • Right-handed quilters – place the bulk of the fabric to your left.
    • Left-handed quilters – place the bulk of the fabric to your right.
how to lay the fabric on the mat for the first cut

Make the First Cut

  1. Align a horizontal line on the ruler exactly with the folded edge of the fabric (which should be on a horizontal grid line on the mat). The bottom edge of the ruler should be extended below the folded edge of the fabric by at least an inch and should also be aligned with a horizontal grid line on the mat.
  2. Line up the right edge of the ruler (left edge for lefties) with a vertical line on the mat close to the edge of the fabric. There should be a strip of fabric extending beyond the edge of the ruler.
  3. Double check and make sure the fold is still on the mat line, and the alignment of both the horizontal and vertical lines of the ruler extending beyond the edge of the fabric are lined up with the grid lines on the mat. This will ensure the first cut is square. Tip: Lean over and look straight down at the ruler. Otherwise, your cut may be off by the thickness of the ruler.
  4. Hold the ruler firmly to keep it from moving, place the rotary cutter against the edge of the ruler, and trim away this narrow strip.
making the first cut

Remember, the purpose of the first cut is to square the fabric and straighten the raw edge.

  • Right-handed quilters – you’ll trim the right edge
  • Left-handed quilters – you’ll trim the left edge.

After the First Cut – Use the Lines on the Ruler

Ruler lines are more accurate for cutting strips than mat lines. So, use the lines on the ruler to cut strips. Strips can then be cut into squares, rectangles, and other shapes.

  1. After making the first cut (described above), carefully rotate or flip the fabric so the bulk of it is now to your right (for righties) or your left (for lefties)
Line up the fabric with the ruler lines.
Use the lines on the ruler NOT the lines on the mat.

2. Place the ruler on the fabric, lining up a vertical line measurement of the ruler with the cut edge of the fabric. (e.g. If you’re cutting a 2-inch strip, line up the 2-inch vertical line on the ruler with the cut edge of the fabric) The bottom edge of the ruler should be extended below the fold line.

3. Check a horizontal line of the ruler (this could be a whole number or fraction) along the fold and make sure it is lined up.

Tip: Lean over the table and look straight down at the ruler. Otherwise, your cut may be off by the thickness of the ruler.

4. Hold the ruler firmly to keep it from moving. Place the rotary cutter against the edge of the ruler and trim away the measured strip.

cutting strips with a rotary cutter

How to use a Rotary Cutter for Clothes 

You won’t need a cutting ruler to cut out patterns.

Howerver, you will need a cutting mat to protect the surface of your table.

Tip: For long cuts, a 45mm rotary cutter does the trick but a smaller blade (18mm) allows you to get more precise cuts and goes around curves in small areas better.

Don’t Cut Through Paper

Cutting through pattern paper may cause the rotary cutter blade to dull more quickly.

Cutting through pattern paper and fabric at the same time, may cause stretching of the fabric. This is especially problematic with knits, but not so much with woven fabric.

When using a rotary cutter to cut out clothes patterns, it’s better to cut only through the fabric. 

Methods for Cutting Out Clothes

Method 1: Transfer the pattern onto the fabric using dressmaker’s carbon and a tracing wheel.

Method 2: With scissors, cut exactly along pattern lines for your size, place the pattern pieces on the fabric, and secure them in place with pins or pattern weights. Then…

  • A – either go around the pattern with the rotary cutter or 
  • B – trace a line around the pattern piece then use the rotary cutter to cut on the line

Cutting Methods for Other Projects

Generally speaking, you can use the cutting methods explained in the quilting section when you need to cut pieces with straight lines.

If a project has pattern pieces or templates with curves or waves, the cutting methods for clothes can be used.

How to Eliminate the V-cut

When cutting strips it’s never fun to discover a V-cut.

It can be subtle or more pronounced, but either way, this cutting imperfection will wreak havoc when you start to piece.

A strip with straight edges and a strip with a v-cut
The top strip has straight edges. The bottom strip has a slight V-cut.

There are a couple of reasons the V-cut happens.

Problem One – The more strips you cut, the less square the fabric is.

Solution – When cutting a large number of strips, periodically realign and straighten the cut edge of the fabric. Your ruler can help you remember to realign. 

The fabric is only “in square” with the fold for the width of your ruler. Therefore, if you are using a 6-inch-wide ruler, you can cut up to 6 inches before you must resquare your fabric. Likewise if your ruler is 4 inches wide, you can cut a maximum of 4 inches before resquaring.

~Nancy Johnson-Srebro from Rotary Magic

Problem Two – Cutting through too many layers at one time.

Solution – There are a couple of ways to solve this problem.

  • Only cut through 2 layers at one time if you’re using a 45mm rotary cutter.
  • When you’re cutting long strips and you need to fold the fabric more than once, take your time and fold carefully.
    • First, fold selvage to selvage
    • Then, flip the fabric out in front of you so the fold is away from you.
    • After that, fold the selvages over to meet the original fold.
    • Careful check for any wrinkles or bumps along the fold.

Check that you have folded evenly by laying your ruler on the fabric, aligning one of the inch lines with one fold. The measurements at the other edge of the fabric should be the same all the way across the width of your ruler. If it varies, you have not folded straight.

~Nancy Johnson-Srebro shares from Rotary Magic

Reducing Aches and Pains

Rotary cutting tools allow you to achieve very accurate cutting as well as save you countless hours of hours preparing pieces for your creations.

However, using them does have some drawbacks.

If you’ve ever found yourself standing at the cutting table for any length of time, you’ve probably felt some of the negative consequences for using rotary cutting tools.

Good news, though…there are some steps you can take to help minimize the discomfort brought on by rotary cutting.

Standing Tips

  • Stand straight when you rotary cut if you’re able to. This will help decrease shoulder and neck pain because you won’t have to reach so far to complete a long cut.
  • Position yourself so you can look down at the ruler and fabric when cutting. In addition to getting more accurate results, your back and shoulders won’t have to work so hard when cutting longs strips.
  • Use a cushioned mat at your cutting station to stand on like the ones made for kitchens.
  • Make sure your cutting table is the right height. When standing at the cutting table, make sure to stand up straight and relax your shoulders. Your hands should fall naturally on the mat.  The best table height would put the cutting the surface 6-8 inches below your elbow. If you have to bend over a table and it’s too low, more than likely you’ll develop a backache. Shorter tables can be raised with table risers.

Cutting Tips

  • Keep your wrist as straight as possible when rotary cutting.
  • Move the rotary cutter more using your shoulder and elbow to reduce stress on your wrist.
  • Keep rotary blades sharp. A dull or damaged blade requires more pressure to get through the fabric.
  • Try rotary cutters with different shaped handles and see which ones are easier and more comfortable for you to use.
  • Rotary cutters with large handles may reduce stress on your hand. You can increase the diameter of a rotary cutter by wrapping and taping a layer of soft foam around it. Make sure not to block any button or mechanism that allows you to move the blade guard.

Ruler Tips

  • For short periods of cutting – Use your fingertips to hold the ruler in place. This will help prevent hand pain.
  • For long periods of cutting – Place your hand flat on the ruler. This way you’re pushing down more from your shoulder instead of using your fingers.

Ongoing Discomfort

Don’t ignore signs of pain if it persists. Repetitive strain injuries are no joke and can be serious and permanent if not treated.  Things to look out for:

  • Tightness, stiffness, soreness or burning in any part of your hands or arms.
  • Numb, tingly, or cold hands
  • Loss of strength or coordination in hands.

FAQs for Rotary Cutting

Why isn’t my rotary cutter cutting?

Over time the blade can become dull and nicked.

A dull blade will slow down your cutting as well as affect precision.

After you make a cut with the rotary cutter, if you notice threads are still connecting the “cut” piece to the bulk of the fabric, the blade probably needs to be replaced.

Replace the blade if you consistently get uncut threads.

If you notice these uncut threads are at regular intervals, the blade probably has a nick in it and is damaged.

Nicked blades need to be replaced.

Nicks can be caused by running over a pin or catching the edge of the ruler.

To keep from catching the edge of the ruler, make sure the end of the ruler is at least an inch or two below the edge of the fabric you’re cutting

Dull blades can be saved for cutting paper. Make sure to label those blades if you save them.

Store old blades in a labeled container

When throwing old blades away, make sure to wrap them in fabric scraps or paper before putting them in the trash.

How many layers can you cut with a rotary cutter?

That depends. The more layers there are the more likely the cuts will not be accurate. There is also a chance of getting a V-cut (described above).

With time, patience, and the right size rotary cutter you can cut 4 -8 layers with accuracy.

Make sure to regularly check the alignment of the fabric edges. Straighten and realign when necessary.

Can a rotary blade be sharpened?

Yes. There are blade sharpeners that are made to work with rotary cutter blade.

I’ve had good luck sharpening dull blades but nicked blades are harder to smooth out. It’s my opinion, if your blade is nicked, it should be replaced.

Tips for Using Rotary Cutting Tools

Rotary Cutter Tips

  • An eyeglasses case is a great way to store rotary cutters when traveling.
  • When replacing the blade, lay out the parts in the order that you remove them.
  • Rotary cutters aren’t for every project. Use scissors when it doesn’t make sense to use a rotary cutter.
  • The fewer layers you cut through, the more accurate your cutting will be.
  • When working with multiple yards of fabric, divide it into smaller more manageable pieces for better cutting accuracy.
  • Whenever you change the blade, carefully wipe off lint and dust that has accumulated on the rotary cutter.

Cutting Mat Tips

Distracting mat line? Turn mat over.
Left photo: Grid lines on the mat make the ruler lines hard to see. Right photo: The backside of the mat doesn’t have grid line.
  • If the lines on your cutting mat distract you, turn your mat over and cut on the other side if it doesn’t have lines on it.
  • When you need a longer cutting space than your mat seems to allow, turn your cutting mat so the short end is in front of you and the long end is parallel to the forward motion of your cutting hand.
  • Use either the grid lines on the ruler or the lines on the mat, but don’t use them both at the same time.

Ruler Tips

  • Use one brand of ruler throughout one quilt project. Even better if you can use just one ruler. Ruler markings may vary slightly between brands and even between rulers so by using only one brand or ruler you’ll get the most accurate cutting. This will help reduce or eliminate problems during piecing.
  • Use either the grid lines on the mat or the lines on the ruler, but don’t use them both at the same time.
  • When cutting long strip sets, cut along the lengthwise grain if possible. To do this, fold the fabric so the raw edges are matched up and the selvages are folded in half and aligned. Make sure to cut off the selvage when making the first cut.
  • Lean over the table and look straight down at the ruler when checking alignment. Otherwise, your cut may be off by the thickness of the ruler.
  • Only cut where your hand is stabilizing the ruler. If you cut past this area, the ruler may slip.
  • Cut standing up if you’re able to. You are better able to see if the ruler marks are lined up with the fabric edges before and while you’re cutting.

Books for Your Quilting/Sewing Library

Rotary cutting books

Both books have timeless suggestions, techniques, and tips not just about rotary cutting but also include helpful advice on piecing and finishing quilts.

Rotary Cutting and Speed Piecing – from Rodale’s Successful Quilting Library (published in 2000)

Rotary Magic: Easy Techniques to Instantly Improve Every Quilt You Make by Nancy Johnson-Srebro. (published in 1998; a lot of visual examples for both right-handed and left-handed cutting)

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My main goals are to support, empower, and inspire you to discover the joy of sewing.

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