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Quilting Basics Part 2- Rotary Cutting

Onward in our quilting techniques adventure! See Quilting Basics part 1 if you haven't already! I've covered what constitutes a quilt and creating a 1/4" seam allowance in part 1. Today I'm going to cover cutting tools and techniques for cutting. If you have pre-washed your quilting fabrics, press them flat with a hot and steamy iron before cutting. I strongly recommend starching fabric well while pressing to help fabric maintain it's shape. Fabric stretching out of place makes accurate quilting difficult.

Trying to cut a gazillion straight lines with a pair of scissors will make you stop quilting really fast. Now don’t get me wrong, a sharp pair of fabric scissors is absolutely wonderful and also a must have! With quilting though, using a rotary cutter is a huge time saver. This is like cutting a pizza with a small knife versus using a pizza cutter. If you had one pizza to cut, sure you may tackle it with a knife but we are going to be cutting a lot of pizzas. To do rotary cutting, you will need a safe place to make the cuts, a self healing mat to protect your counter or table top, a clear acrylic ruler, and of course a rotary cutter.

This rotary cutter by Martelli is my favorite as it is easy to grip. If you're right handed, you have to use one for right handed use and of course a left handed one for lefties.

It is worth investing in a self healing mat that is a decent size. I use this 24" x 36" double sided mat by fiskars. This allows for multiple cuts to be made without having to move the fabric and allows for longer cuts. Similarly, it is helpful to use a thick clear acrylic ruler that is decent sized. I use a 6 1/2" x 24" ruler and a 10" square ruler but the rectangular ruler is all you really need to start. The rulers and mats have grids to keep measuring, aligning, and cutting easy and accurate.

When rotary cutting, place your fabric on the mat, use the ruler over the fabric, apply gentle pressure on the ruler with your non-dominant hand, and cut with the rotary cutter in the dominant hand against the ruler. Always cut away from yourself, make sure your hand on the ruler is not hanging over the edge, and do not cross your hands when cutting.

There are two approaches to cutting that are useful for different types of cuts. The first is using the ruler for measuring. To do this, line the fabric up with the grid on the mat so that the numbers along the top and bottom of the mat are still visible. Then use the length of your ruler to match the lines on the grid to make cuts. This is useful for making multiple parallel cuts when strips are needed. The second method does not require careful placement of the fabric on the mat. Instead, use the markings on the ruler to measure and cut. Hence the benefit of having a clear ruler with grids. Another trick when making many cuts of the same size is to stick a post-it on top of the ruler at the needed measurement so it's quick to find the right grid mark.

Generally, cuts should be made along the grain of the fabric as diagonal cuts stretch easier, making it easy to distort a perfectly cut piece. There are times however when not cutting with the grain is worth the extra work.

Fussy cutting is one of them. This means carefully cutting the pattern piece using a specific part of the fabric to capture a fabric detail. This is used especially for large print fabrics where you want the fabric's design centered in your piece. Sometimes you just don't want that cute fox, flower, or bunny sliced in half! As shown on this fabric called Fox Field by Tula Pink, there are many ways this fabric could be fussy cut to highlight the flowers or animals. The other down side to fussy cutting is that more fabric is wasted this way so consider extra yardage if not included in the pattern.

Once all the pieces are cut, it's time to start putting them all together into the quilt top. Ready for more? Check out Quilting Basics Part 3! Happy Quilting!


Hi! I'm Jen, a quilt pattern writer, product & fabric designer, mom, and retired nurse practitioner and certified nurse midwife. Whether you're new to quilting or making your 100th quilt, you're in the right place. Check out the tutorials, quilt patterns, coloring pages, and featured quilters. 

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