Rotary Cutting

There are two schools of thought about rotary cutters and their use. They’re either loved or hated. The anti’s have never discovered what bliss it is to do without those fiddly templates. They’ve probably had the sort of cutter which is not hand-shaped, which makes your palm hurt and your back ache. Those who love them probably don’t need to read this article, though I've seen some highly dangerous methods at group meetings, so perhaps they do!


Refer to Essential Equipment for more details about the rotary cutting ‘trio’ that is needed, You need the biggest self—healing cutting mat that you can afford, one that will tale a full metre of fabric folded in four. Yes, that’s one enormous advantage of the cutter - you can do several thicknesses at once. If you’re into strip piecing, the bigger the better. The best mats are double-sided, with inches one side and centimetres on the other, allowing you to follow projects in either measurement.

The smaller cutters are not so practical for cutting through several thicknesses of fabric. For many, the most comfortable and effective to use are the hand-shaped ones manufactured by Fiskars and Olfa. Depending on how much cutting you do, the blade sharpness will dull in time. There is a gadget on the market to sharpen them at home. Take great care when changing blades - they’re as sharp as surgical instruments. Alternatively use one of the blade exchange / sharpening companies.

Personally, I enjoy using a long metal draughtsman’s ruler - rather expensive, but worth it in the long run. They have a rubber strip on the back which grips the cloth very well. The transparent rulers are less expensive and a great aid to accuracy. Set up the width you want by placing the line of measurement on the plastic ruler immediately over the edge of the cloth. Then place your metal ruler against the edge of the plastic one. Hold it very firmly, with thumb and fingers spread, and remove the plastic one. You can then cut against the metal edge with no chance of taking a slice out of it. I became the less-than-proud owner of a wavey-edged plastic ruler before I learned that trick!

Before you start, make sure your fabric is ironed and folded absolutely straight, or you will finish with a very kinky strip.

Cutting the fabric
Cutting the fabric

Cutting the fabric

  1. Position the fabric so that the selvage aligns with a horizontal grid line on the mat. Lay the ruler across the left hand edge of the fabric as shown (reverse for left handers). The cross—lines on the ruler should coincide with selvage and grid line on the mat.
  2. Hold the ruler in place with downward pressure of your left hand. You may find it easier if you put your third finger or little finger on the mat against the edge of the ruler.
  3. Hold the cutter in your right hand, with the blade side towards the ruler. Hold the cutter to the right of the ruler with the blade touching the mat in front of the fabric. Retract the safety guard and cut away from you in a smooth action, keeping the pressure even.
  4. Stop cutting just past the far edge of the fabric. Close the guard on the cutter. Do not move the main piece of fabric, but slide the ruler away to the left and remove the selvage strip.
  5. You are now ready to cut strips of your chosen width. Simply overlap the ruler by the required measurement, ensuring that the ruler is correctly positioned along its entire length and that it is at right angles to the straight edge of the fabric.
  6. Cut strips across the fabric. You only need to move the fabric when you "run out of mat". Move back to the left hand side of the mat and realign.

Safe use of the cutter

  • ALWAYS cut vertically, away from your body
  • NEVER move both hands at once. Hold the ruler firmly down with one hand, fingers and thumb well apart, near the beginning of the cut. Cut up to as far as the extent of the fingers on your holding hand. Keeping your cutter hand still, with the blade still in the cloth where you stopped, move your holding hand further along and keep it firmly pressed down. Resume cutting. That way the cloth won’t budge from its measured spot and you will keep all your fingers intact.
  • ALWAYS close your cutter blade when you put it down. It can easily get covered by a piece of material, hiding an open blade. If you’re not on the ball you can get a nasty gash. (The more modern cutters have special safety features such as retractable blades as standard.)
  • ONLY cut in one direction and that must be away from your body. There’s no need to go backwards and forwards. When you come to the top of the material, close the blade of your cutter and put it down. Gently pull the strip aside to check if the layers are cut all the way through. If necessary, cut any threads that haven’t parted.
Setting squares
Setting squares


To cut squares, first cut the fabric into strips adding 1/2in seam allowance in total (1/4 + 1/4in) to the finished measurement and then cut crossways along the strip into squares.


Right angle triangles are a piece of cake. These are made by cutting a strip to the width required.(One difference is that you must always add 7/8in seam allowance to the finished size.)

From your strip, cut as many squares as you need. Place each square in turn with diagonal corners against a line on the mat, place the ruler along the line and cut. Simple as that. Other varieties of triangle can be cut using the marked angle lines on the mat. It’s better in this case, in the interests of accuracy to cut only one square at a time.

First published in Patchwork Basics 2002