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Learn how to use a rotary cutter...safely...

You are ready to go...tools in hand, fabric prepared.  How the heck do you use this rotary cutter without losing a finger or two?  That is an absolutely valid question!  No worries….lets discuss how to use a rotary cutter and how to do it safely.

Rotary cutters are wonderful tools, but they can be scary and intimidating at first.  Before you start cutting, it is important to make sure your fabric is prepared and and ironed smooth.  Wrinkles or set folds will affect your ability to fold precisely and get a perfect cut!

Use the right tool for the job...

Rotary Cutter and Ruler
Rotary Cutter, Rotary Ruler and Self-healing cutting mat

A self-healing cutting mat and ruler are used together with your rotary cutter, to cut straight, square pieces of fabric for your projects.  Think of your cutting mat and rotary cutting ruler as carpentry-style squares that you are using to get straight lines.  Straight lines = accurate measurements = beautiful projects.  These are absolute must have tools for quilters!

However, these tools might not be vital to your success, if you are going to be making clothing items or projects with intricate patterns.  Some sewers use their rotary cutter for curves and more advanced pattern pieces with high degrees of accuracy.

I have not had luck mastering this skill, and much prefer to cut out curved and detailed pieces with my sewing scissors.  The majority of my sewing falls in the realm of home decor, personal goods/gifts and blankets/quilts.  Therefore, my rotary cutting tools get a lot of use!

Check & Secure the Rotary Blade...

Before you get started, make sure the blade is on your rotary cutter correctly and turns smoothly around the attachment point.

There is an attachment knob or nut on the back of most rotary cutters that you loosen and tighten, to remove and change your blade.  Make sure this is tight and secure before trying to cut anything.  You don’t want that blade coming off and falling on your toes…it is SHARP!

Prepare & Fold your fabric

We also need to prepare your fabric for cutting.  It is important that you fold your fabric in the right dimension for your project.  The vast majority of the time, I end up cutting across the width of the fabric (WOF) which varies depending on the fabric type you are working with.

Most of the fabrics that I work with have widths of 44 or 58.  This means that you will have to do some math to figure out the best way to cut out your projects.  No advanced trigonometry here, just some basic arithmetic and a few geometric principles. 

Need help with fabric orientation and where to make your cuts?

The tutorials on this blog will walk you through the best way to orient the fabric for the featured project.  This will help you learn the best way to make this determination when you venture out on your own.

The infographic below can help orient you to your fabric, if you are getting confused.  It took me a while to really understand WOF vs cut length....

WOF, common sewing term
Selvage vs. Cut Edge

Verify that you will be cutting across the WOF...

Folding fabric for cutting
Fold into quarters, across the WOF

When cutting across the width of the fabric, your fabric is folded into quarters ACROSS the width.  My trick is to fold selvedge to selvedge first, to orient myself to the fabric.  Then I fold in half again, along the same orientation.

I always verify that I have folded into quarters, across the width.  If the WOF is 44 inches, each quarter should measure around 11 inches.  This means that you will have a folded piece of fabric about 11 inches wide on top of your cutting mat.  This is a quick and easy check to make.  Always do it before you cut!  Remember, measure twice cut once.

One of the keys to an accurate rotary cut, is in the fold...

It is VERY important that you fold the fabric very neatly and precisely, without any folds or creases.

If you have a large cut of fabric, you may need help doing this.  I often enlist the help of my hubby to fold and prepare pieces over 4-5 yards long.  He has actually gotten quite skilled!  This is something that gets easier with time and experience, even for "helpers".  It's also another reason to find yourself a sewing posse!

Precision counts when preparing for your cuts...

Rotary Ruler
Rotary Ruler lined up squarely with horizontal & vertical grid lines of cutting mat.

Getting accurate cuts comes down to the precision in your preparation.  Line the rotary ruler straight up and down your chosen vertical line and also along a horizontal line towards the bottom edge of your cutting mat.  This will make sure you are making an absolute straight and square cut, not a “wonky” one.  Notice how the ruler is place precisely along both the horizontal and vertical grid lines on the mat.  This is very important.  Next we add fabric...


Square up = creating a straight, square cut edge of the fabric

Now it’s time to square up your fabric, after all it is hip to be square….sorry, I love me some Huey Lewis!

After you have your fabric folded nice and neat into quarters (across the WOF), it is time to position it on your cutting mat. For everything to be square, you must lay the straight folded edge of your fabric, precisely along a horizontal line on your cutting mat.

You will notice that the cut edge of your fabric is not very straight!  The cut edge is the edge of the fabric that was cut at the store, before you brought it home.  Before going any further, you must square up that cut edge.

Squaring up fabric
Lay ruler along horizontal and vertical lines on your cutting mat to prepare for your cut.

Find the spot on the cut edge that is the shortest across the length of fabric.  You want to find the shortest point at which to cut off the uneven cut ends to leave you with a square edge.

You always should try to cut off just enough of the edge to square it up without wasting too much of that beautiful fabric.  We don't waste fabric!

Always keep the blade covered unless you are actively cutting!

Once the ruler is in place, double check the placement.  Remember, we measure twice cut once.  Place gentle downward pressure on your cutting ruler while preparing your cutting tool for operation.  Hold the rotary cutter in your dominant hand and slide the blade guard out of place, you can usually do this with your thumb.

Rotary Cutter
Rotary Cutter with blade cover in place.
Rotary Cutter
Rotary Cutter with blade cover retracted, ready to cut.

A wide rotary ruler helps protect your fingers...keep those fingertips back away from the rulers edge!

Rotary Cutter in action
Slide rotary blade along length of rotary ruler while exerting pressure down on ruler, fabric and cutting mat.

Place the rotary blade along the rulers edge, a few inches below the bottom edge of the fabric.  Push firmly down on the rotary ruler and fabric while at the same time pressing the rotary cutter down and slide it up along the cutting edge until just above the top edge of your fabric.

You must exert enough pressure on your rotary ruler and fabric, so that it does not slip while you are cutting.  Make certain to keep the fingers on your non-dominant, ruler-holding hand, a few inches back and away from the edge of the ruler and the blade of the rotary cutter!  We need those fingers!!!

Check your cuts before moving your ruler and fabric...

Don’t move your cutting ruler until you check to make sure the cut went through all the layers of your fabric!  If it did not make a clean cut through all the layers, take another pass with the rotary cutter in the same manner.

It is really hard to realign the fabric edge once it has moved off its cut-line.  Try to avoid that hassle by checking the cut before moving your fabric.

A dull rotary blade is NOT your friend...

If it regularly takes you more than 2 passes to cut your fabric, either you need to push down harder on your rotary cutter or you may have a dull blade that needs replacing.

You did it!

Now your fabric is squared up and prepared for you to cut out the pattern pieces for your project!  And hopefully you have kept all of your fingers in the process….

Seriously...safety first

Rotary Cutter Ruler Grip
Omnigrid Ruler Grip

In all seriousness, there are some extra safety tools that you can use when using your rotary cutter if you feel so inclined.  There are a few types of rotary ruler handles, that attach to your ruler via suction cups, to help hold it in place while cutting.  I recently purchase the Omnigrid Ruler Grip, after debating it for a LONG time.  You can check out my product review here.

There are also cutting gloves available, made of protective materials, to keep those fingertips safe in the event of a collision with the rotary blade.  The investment may be worth it if you tend to be on the "clutsy" side or are teaching younger sewers to use these tools.  Better safe than sorry...fingers are priceless!

Now go practice!

Would you like to practice this skill with any easy beginner tutorial?  Check out my posts Sew a Pillowcase: A Tutorial for Beginners using French Seams and Blanket Scarf: A Quick & Easy Tutorial to get started!

Be safe & stay well,

Jen J