How to Use a Rotary Cutter to Cut Fabrics

  • 01 of 03

    Rotary Cutting for Quilters

    Rotary cutting tools and fabrics
    Emilia Kun / E+ / Getty Images

    Rotary cutting long strips of fabric is the starting point for the majority of rotary cutting tasks used in today's quilt patterns, especially strip-pieced quilting projects. Individual patchwork shapes can be 'sub cut' from strips as needed.

    Accurate rotary cutting is essential for successful quilts and quilt blocks. New quilters can save money by practicing with inexpensive muslin or bargain fabrics before cutting more expensive quilting fabrics.

    The instructions for most quick-pieced quilt patterns tell you to rotary cut long strips of fabric from selvage to selvage -- across the fabric's crosswise grain, and that's what we'll cover in this tutorial. However, it's fine to work with shorter strips until you are comfortable with long strips, and strips of fabric cut along the fabric's less stretchy lengthwise grain work nicely, too.

    Rotary Cutting Helpers

    • Always roll the rotary cutter away from your body and follow other rotary cutting safety guidelines.
    • Never use a rotary cutter on any surface other than a rotary mat.
    • Crisp fabrics are easier to rotary cut. Use spray starch or sizing to make fabrics stiffer.
    • Attach gripping tabs to the bottom of rotary rulers to help keep them from slipping on fabric. Many types of grippers are available commercially, including clear versions that won't obstruct your view of ruler lines.
    • Some quilt patterns tell you to stack strips before rotary cutting shapes from them. The more strips you stack, the less accurate the resulting patches will be.
    Continue to 2 of 3 below.
  • 02 of 03

    Learn How to Rotary Cut Long Strips of Fabric

    Diagram to fold fabric for rotary cutting
    Janet Wickell

    Square Up Fabric Before Cutting

    It's important to square up one end of the fabric before you rotary cut the long strips required for a quilt pattern. After squaring up, the leading edge should be a 90-degree angle to the fold.

    1. Fold the fabric along its length, selvages together. The fold should be straight, with no puckers. Selvages might not be perfectly aligned, but that's okay; it's most important for the fold to be accurate. Press lightly (the press may already be in place if you did not pre-wash the fabric).
    2. If you are working on a small rotary cutting mat, you may need to fold the fabric again, making it four layers deep. Beginning quilters should stick to one fold because each new fold makes inaccurate cuts more likely.
    3. Place the fabric on a rotary mat with the fold near the bottom edge of the mat and the side to be squared on the left. Align a square (or any) rotary ruler with the folded edge, its left side near the left edge of the fabric, but with a bit of excess (in both layers) beyond the left edge of the ruler.
    4. Place a long rotary ruler to the left of the first ruler, edges flush against each other.A horizontal line on each ruler must be exactly matched to or parallel to the fold.
    5. Remove the right-side ruler. Place your hand on the remaining ruler to hold it firmly in place and roll a rotary cutter from bottom to top along the ruler's right edge. Spread your fingers out to hold the ruler securely, but take care to keep fingers out of the path of the cutter. A commercial tool, such as the RuleSteady, can help keep fabrics from shifting and protect your hand.
    6. The fabric's cut edge should now be at a 90-degree angle to the folded edge.

    If you are left handed, work from the opposite side of the fabric, placing fabric and rulers in mirror-image positions.

    Quick note... Some quilters square up an edge from the right side of folded fabric, aligning a rule on the ruler with the bottom edge and trimming off a small excess on the right. Afterward, they flip the fabric around and cut from the left.

    We prefer the method explained in the steps above since there's no need to flip the fabric around, which sometimes allows its layers to shift.

    Continue to 3 of 3 below.
  • 03 of 03

    Rotary-Cut Strips and Patchwork Shapes

    Diagram re checking strips for accuracy
    Janet Wickell

    Rotary Cut the Long Strips and Shapes

    Rotary cut the fabric strips required for the project beginning at the squared-up edge. For example, if you need a 3" wide strip, align the 3" mark on the ruler with the left edge of the fabric. Align a horizontal line near the bottom of the ruler with the fold. Use a rotary cutter to cut along the right side of the ruler.

    Before you make each cut check to be sure that the left and bottom edges of the fabric align with vertical and horizontal markings on the ruler. If they do not, square up the end again before cutting more strips.

    It isn't unusual for the leading edge of the fabric to become out of square after several cuts -- square up as many times as necessary to keep strips accurate.

    How to Tell if the Edge of the Fabric Is Still Squared Up

    One way to make sure the leading edge of the fabric is at a 90-degree angle to the bottom of the strip is to open a rotary-cut strip to its full width and look at the area near the fold. If the strip has a bend in the middle, the fabric's left edge is no longer square. Correct the problem, and move on.

    How to Rotary Cut Segments from Strips

    Place your rotary ruler near the right end of a cut strip, aligning a horizontal rule with its lower edge. Cut along the right edge of the ruler to square up the end of the strip.

    Turn the strip around and cut segments from its left edge in the same way you cut the original fabric strips, aligning the strip with markings on the ruler as required for each shape.

    Fabric Strips Cut on the Bias

    Long (stretchy) bias strips are sometimes used to make quilt binding and for applique shapes that bend easily into graceful curves, such as flower stems.

    To cut bias strips of fabric, align the 45-degree mark on a long rotary ruler with the fold in the bottom of the fabric. Hold the ruler in place and cut along its right edge.

    To make the next cut, align the correct line on your ruler with the angled edge of the fabric and the 45-degree line with the fold. Rotary cut along the right side of the ruler again. Continue until you have the number of strips required for your quilting project.