Part 5: Quilting Rules or Guidelines How to use the Rotary Cutter

Special Note:  With the exception of one photo, the hands in this post’s pictures belong to my husband (Jerry).  I knew which angles I wanted the pictures taken, but was having troubles explaining them to him. In the end it was easier to teach him how to hold the rotary cutter and cut fabric.  So I took the pictures and Jerry was my model.

How to use the Rotary Cutter

Body posture– Always stand while you are using the rotary cutter (unless you have a physical disability) you will have less neck and shoulder fatigue.

Always cut away from your body. You will have more control of the cutter when cutting away from your body because you can see where you are going. This also allows you to cut more accurately and stay in alignment with your ruler.

Cutting the fabric

The following directions are for right-handed cutting. (I will do my best to describe left-handed cutting in the parentheses)

  • Place fabric on the mat; lay it with the fold toward you as you are facing your cutting table. This goes for right and left-handed cutters. The edge of the fabric you are going to cut will be on the left side of the ruler. [Refer to the photo] The bulk of your fabric will be on the right of your ruler. (Left handed-cutters: The edge of the fabric you are going to cut will be to the right side of the ruler. The bulk of your fabric will be on the left of your ruler.)


  • Firmly place your non cutting hand on the ruler, in the middle of the ruler so your fingers are away from the cutting edge of the ruler. Place your thumb near the bottom of the ruler [refer to photo below] and your finger tips a comfortable distance up the ruler, don’t stretch your fingers out too far. [Refer to photo below, this is my hand ]


  • With the rotary cutter in your right-hand hold it so the handle is at a 45 degree angle to the table top. (Left Handed-cutters: Follow the directions above with your right hand on the ruler and directions for holding the rotary cutter in you left hand)


  • Place the rotary cutter against the ruler’s edge, a little before the fabric [see photo above], then cut away from your body, stopping when the blade is about even with the figure tips on your non cutting hand. Do not lift the cutter away from the fabric; just hold it in place while you reposition the non cutting hand on the ruler. (Left handed cutters, follow the same directions.)


  • To reposition your non-cutting hand, walk the hand up the ruler. Put the thumb in the new position followed by your figure tips, remember to place your fingertips a comfortable distance up the ruler. The cutting hand stays still until the non-cutting hand is in the new position.
  • Now you are ready to cut again. Continue to cut away from your body, stopping when the blade is about even with the figure tips on your left hand. Follow Step 3 and 4 to reposition your non-cutting hand and continue cutting until you come to the end the fabric.


This process may seem unnatural, but with practice the movements will become comfortable and smooth.

How to Square the Fabric

Before you can begin cutting strips for your project, you will need to square up the fabric to get a good clean edge so all the strips will be straight and uniform. *Note: I recommend you practice cutting on inexpensive muslin before you try cutting on your more expensive fabric.

  • Make sure the salvage edges are together. You may need to iron the fabric to remove puckers and wrinkles. I f you need to iron the fabric, you will need to allow it to rest and cool off before cutting. If you cut it immediately after ironing it, the fabric will shrink up a bit and the strips will not be the correct size. Remember the Laws of Physics: When heat is applied to something, it expanse and when it cools it shrinks.
  • Now that you have smooth wrinkle free fabric and the selvage edges are together, you are ready to square up the fabric. Besides your fabric, you will need your rotary cutter, a 6” x 24” long ruler, a 5 or 6” square ruler and a mat that measures at least 17” x 23” (These are the measurements of my Olfa Cutting Mat).
  • You will be cutting strips that are cross grain cuts. (Refer to photo)


  1. Lay the fabric on the mat; lay it with the fold toward you as you are facing your cutting table. This goes for right and left-cutters. For right-handed cutters the bulk of your fabric will lay to your left. (Left handed cutters, the bulk of your fabric will lay to your right.)
  2. Place the 5 or 6” square ruler on the fabric with the bottom edge aligned with the fold of the fabric (refer to the photo). Next place the 6” x 24” long ruler right up against the square ruler (refer to photo)
  3. Cut the uneven edges of fabric with you rotary cutter and discard the scrap. Now you have a nice even, straight edge and are ready to cut strips for your project.

IMG_1246-editedAvoiding the “V” When Cutting Strips

Your fabric strips will only stay straight as far as your ruler is wide, which usually is 6 inches. After that, sometimes the fabric strips beyond the 6 inches will develop a “V” when you open the folded fabric.  To avoid this “V” you will need to square up your fabric after every few strips. Yes, you will lose a bit of fabric, but it is better to lose a half of an inch or so then to have to recut strips because they have developed the dreaded “V”, which is a bigger loose.   There is a saying, “Penny wise but pound foolish” be “pound wise” and square up after every few strips.

Happy Cutting, Kathy

Next time: How to Read a Quilt Pattern


A Correction

It was called to my attention that in my last post titled, Part 4: Quilting Rules or Guidelines – The Rotary Cutter, Its Care and Safety, I used the wrong term, screw, when I should have called it a bolt.  As it was explained to me, a screw has a pointy end and a bolt has a flat end.  I have corrected this error.

Thank you for your understanding.

Happy Quilting, Kathy

Part 4: Quilting Rules or Guidelines: The Rotary Cutter, Its Care and Safety

A Little History

The Rotary Cutter revolutionized quilting in a way no other tool has in the history of quilting. The first rotary cutter was introduced by the Olfa Company in 1979 for cutting out pattern pieces for garment (clothing) making. Quilters quickly adopted it for quilt making. Acrylic rulers and cutting mats soon followed as did strip cutting techniques. Using the rotary cutter, ruler and mat, accurate quilt pieces can be quickly cut out.

Prior to the invention of the rotary cutter, quilters used handmade templates usually cut out cereal or shoe box type of cardboard. Using a pencil, quilters would trace the shape on the back side of the fabric. The quilter then cutout the shape plus ¼” seam allowance all around the shape. The template edges would be worn down by the repeated tracing, creating inaccurate pieces. To avoid this, the quilter made many templates. Long bladed dress making shears were used to cut out the shapes. It was difficult to accurately cut out small quilt pieces using the long bladed scissors.

Folding fabric into squares, rectangles, and triangles was another method used to form the shapes of quilt pieces to cut out. Once the fabric was folded in to the desired shape, the quilter then cut on the folded line to create the desired quilt pieces. This technique also rendered inaccurate quilt pieces.

Rotary Cutter Care and Safety

The rotary cutter is a tool that needs to be used properly and carefully. It is extremely sharp and can inflict deep cut if not handled with care and knowledge. From personal experience, I advise you to keep your total attention on the rotary cutter while cutting; even the slightest distraction can cause an accidental cut requiring a visit to the emergency room for stiches. Most rotary cutters come with a “Blade Guard” and a safety lock. This guard is there to protect fingers from the razor sharp blade and the lock if engaged will protect everything from your fingers, feet, toes, floor, passing children or pets from being cut from an accidental drop. Always engage the lock every time you put the rotary cutter down even if you set it down for a second.

Types of Rotary Cutters

Rotary Cutters come in sizes 18mm, 28mm, 35mm, and 60mm. The medium size and large cutters enable you to cut fabric into strips and other pieces, without templates, quickly. There are two basic styles:

You can see the arrows on the black sliding guard and lock. Pulling the guard down uncovers the blade.  Pushing up places the guard back over the blade.

18mm Rotary Cutter

28mm Rotary Cutter

Back of 18mm Rotary Cutter

Back of 28mm Rotary Cutter







The first are cutters which have a guard you pull back with a finger or thumb to expose the blade. When you push the guard back into place the blade is covered.



blade closed img 1366 open blade

Y0u can see the arrows on the black sliding guard and lock. Pulling the guard down uncovers the blade.  Pushing up places the guard back over the blade.

The second types of cutters have a spring which automatically pulls the blade back into the blade guard. The blade is exposed when you apply pressure to begin cutting. This type of guard seems safe at rest, but if it is dropped or knock off the table the blade will come out with any type of pressure. It will inflict a cut on anything or anyone the cutter comes in contact with.

35mm Olfa Rotary Cutter

35mm Olfa Rotary Cutter

This style of cutter has a push button lock (mine is red). You push the button closed to lock the blade inside the rotary cutter and you press it open from the opposite side (see photos).

img1273 editedimg1272 edited














I repeat, get into the habit of locking the blade every time you set the rotary cutter down. The blade guard also protects the blade itself. The blade can get nicked or damaged in a drop so that it is not able to correctly cut fabric. If this happens you will need to replace the blade. A replacement blade can cost between $5.00 and $8.00. You can save a bit if you buy replacement blades in multi packs of 5 or more. A multi pack of 5 costs about $25.00. Watch for sales at the national fabric stores and then stock up.

Parts of the Rotary Cutter

Labled parts-Rotary Cutter

Labled Rotary Cutter

How to Change the Blade of the Rotary Cutter

  1. Unscrew the nut on the side of the rotary cutter and remove. Set it aside

img 1263 nut

18mm Rotary Cutter

28mm Rotary Cutter









2. Remove the small metal washer (Notice the inside hole of the washer has two straight edges. These will help you to put it back together correctly.) Set the washer next to the nut.

img 1261 metal washerimage 1368 washer









3.Next is a large plastic washer or the sliding guard and lock, remove this and set it with the nut and metal washer.

img 1258 plastic washersliding Lock and guard

4. Next is the blade, carefully remove it. Even though it needs replacing it is still sharp enough to give you or anything it comes in contact with, a nasty cut. For now set the blade aside with the other parts.

img 1257 bladeBlade








5.The bolt with large head is the last piece to remove (it will literally fall out of the cutter) set it with the other parts.

img1250 labled bolt











img 1373 Bolt

6.Clean the lint off the inside parts of the cutter.

img 1250 clean lintimg clean lint












7. Once the lint is cleaned away, reassemble the rotary cutter

8. Replace the large head bolt (Refer to photos above)

9. Every carefully remove the new blade from its packaging and place it on the bolt.

10. Put a tiny drop of sewing machine oil near the center of the new blade.

11. Place the plastic washer on the bolt

12. Place the metal washer on the screw; make sure the flat side of the inside fit the flat sides of the bolt

13. Place the nut on the bolt and tighten until finger tight

14. Place the old blade in the plastic case of the new blade and discard into the garbage. If it didn’t come with a case then tape the old blade to a piece of cardboard and discard.

Next time: Part 5: How to Cut With the Rotary Cutter