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Tools of the Trade – Part One

About Quilting Tools - Rotary Cutter, Cutting Mat, Quilting Ruler
By Barb Bergquist

Every trade, craft or art form has its tools, and quilting is no different.  What do you need?  What is the best?  And how do I choose what tool to use?  Many different kinds of tools and many different brands of tools are available from various manufacturers and retailers.  Let’s address one question right now.  The brand that you choose is up to you.  Chances are that if you will ask five people which is best, then you will get five different answers.  Most available on the market are good tools.  Each may have different or advanced features and each will have different price tags.  The one that is best is the one that fits your purpose and your budget.  With that said, let’s talk about some of these tools.

Let’s start today with the basic tools, those that a new quilter would need: cutting mat, rotary cutter, and ruler.

A cutting mat serves two purposes: it protects the area where you are working, and it extends the life of your rotary cutter blades.  They come in assorted sized from small ones that fit in a small area near your sewing machine, to very large ones.  They come double-sided with the ability to cut on either side, and they now have some that fold for easier storage.  Which one you choose will depend on factors such as work and storage space available and how much you are willing to spend.  For your first cutting mat, I would recommend one that is 18”x24”.  It is large enough to cut most fabric pieces without having to reposition the fabric to finish the cut, but small enough to fit most workspaces, be easily carried, and be stored.  If you are committed to the art of quilting, then I would also suggest the largest one available (24”x36”) for long cuts, and a small one to use in your workspace near your sewing machine.

Because a cutting mat will wear over time, you may want to consider a double-sided mat.  If you are purchasing a double-sided mat, note that some are ruled the same on both sides (whether inches or centimeters) while others have different measures on each side (i.e., inches on one side and centimeters on the other).   The different measures come in handy if you work with patterns from different countries, while the same on both sides makes it reversible for longer use.

To extend the life of your cutting mat, be sure to keep it clean.  Olfa, one of the manufacturers of cutting mats, recommends the following method to clean self-healing mats. 

Fill your bathtub with room temperature water (not hot, not warm, and not cold).  In the water add ¼ cup of white vinegar and a squirt of a mild dish soap, enough for a good lather. Use any soft bristle brush such as a mushroom brush to gently scrub the mat, working up a good lather from the soap. Rinse the mat with cool water to remove all residue.  You can air dry the mat or dry it with a cotton towel.  Do not dry it in direct sunlight as the sun could damage the mat.  The water will make the mat supple again and extend the life of the mat.  It will also keep your rotary cutter blades sharp longer since you are cutting into a softer surface.

Enough about mats.  Let’s move on to rotary cutters.  You will find a number of brands and sizes of rotary cutters on the market.  What is common to rotary cutters is their razor sharp blade made of high grade steel.  Rotary cutters are usually classified by the size of their blade.  The common sizes are 18mm, 28mm, 45mm, and 60mm.  (I also saw one brand that had one at 65mm but that is a unique size.)

The 18mm rotary cutter is small and light, perfect for travel.  It is ideal for intricate, detailed cutting, most often used for appliqués and curved quilt pieces.  For small-scale projects and tight corners, you can best use the 28mm rotary cutter for greater accuracy and precision.  The 45mm cutter is the one I most often use.  It is ideal for most projects, cutting through as many as six layers of fabrics.  For heavy duty use and multiple layers of heavy or thick fabric, you will want to use the 60mm rotary cutter.

But that is not all that distinguishes a rotary cutter.  There are a number of styles of cutters, some determined by the grip and others by their function.  Many rotary cutters have a standard straight handle that the quilter grips, but some styles have various types of ergonomic grips.  Another rotary cutter is made specifically for cutting fleece and other cutters have been engineered to cut circles.  If you are looking for something unique for straight cuts, Fiskars features a Rotary Cutter & Ruler Combo.

The rotary cutter blades also vary.  Most are for straight cuts, but you can also find pinking blades, scallop blades, wave blades and Victorian cutting blades (whatever that is).  When to change the blade?  It is best to change to a new blade at the slightest hint of dullness on your current blade. How do you tell when a blade is dull?  Often times, when it starts skipping and leaving little stretches of fabric uncut or when I have to use too much pressure to make it cut, the blade is dull.  You should also replace the blade immediately when you discover a nick. 

Let’s move on.  Time to talk about rulers!  Rulers come in many sizes (of course) and shapes (surprised?).  Starting out, you will want a rectangular ruler that is about 6”x24”.  I say “about” here because I have worked with a 6”x24” ruler for years, but when someone lent me their Creative Grid ruler that was 6½”x24½”, I fell in love with that extra ½”.  Why?  Because we work with ¼” seams, most pieces we cut are something + ½” and with that extra ½” added to the Creative Grid ruler, I can cut a 6½” strip easily.  But that’s me; it may not matter to you.  That is why you want to buy what fits you and the way you work – not what someone says you should buy.  (It’s your money; spend it the way you want.)

Rectangular rulers come in an assortment of sizes.  You can get 6” wide rulers that are longer than 24”, and of course, shorter too.  Smaller rectangular rulers that are 3”-4” wide and 9”-12” long can be handy to keep in your sewing center near your sewing machine to handle short cuts or quick trims.

Rulers also come in squares that are perfect to square-up (i.e., trim) pieced blocks.  Unless you want to buy an assortment of sizes, I would suggest a 12½” square and a 4½” square.  These are common sizes and gives you both small and large square rulers.  If you have a finished block size smaller than either of these sizes, you can center the ruler on the blocks and trim them to the desired size.

Other ruler shapes are available for a variety of uses.  Some are more commonly used, such as the triangular rulers and circle rulers, and others are made for specific block designs, such as a hex ruler.  Another special ruler that you may find is a stripology ruler.  This unique ruler is designed to cut multiple strips without moving your ruler.

Wow!  I bet you didn’t think that I’d have that much to say about these three tools – the cutting mat, the rotary cutter and the ruler.  Now you understand why this is only part one!  Watch for next week’s post where I will cover more of the tools of the quilting trade.


Barb Bergquist along with husband, Ron, own A Block Away Quilt Shop.  A dedicated quilter with more than 25 years of experience, she is now actively sharing her love of quilting through the work in her shop.

Contact Us:

Phone: (956) 638-1961
Location: A Block Away Quilt Shop
                 2706 N. 10th Street
                 McAllen, TX 78501
Hours: Mon-Sat: 9AM-9PM, Sun: 10AM-6PM
Email: barb@ablockaway.com


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