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Quilting 101: Rotary Cutting Basics & Practical Tips

Updated: Jul 5, 2023

Quilting 101 Series: Rotary Cutting. Are you to ready to cut some fabric?

Last time we talked about the Top Ten "must have" quilty tools. Now that you have the tools, let's talk about the quilting 101 step--cutting your fabric.

Now you have all these fun new tools and (hopefully) some exciting fabrics to make your first quilt. Have you picked out your pattern yet? If not, I am more than happy to recommend some easy, quick beginner patterns to get you started. Or maybe one of our readers has a suggestion (maybe one they wrote?) they'd like to share.

But before we start that--if you are just beginning this quilting journey--let's practice using a rotary cutter and cutting the fabric accurately. We can use some scrap fabric you may have, or an inexpensive fat quarter you've picked up and know you'll never use in a quilt. Just make sure it's 100% cotton, though. Other fabrics may stretch and that will just lead to frustration while you're learning.

First, let's put a new blade in your rotary cutter. Here's a short video of how I do it.

I happen to have a Quilters Select 45mm cutter (which I love!) but it's the same process for all cutters. Used blades can be dangerous to dispose so I take an old blade package and mark it with an "X" so I know those are the bad ones. When I replace a blade, the used one goes in there and when it's full it will be safe in the garbage. Be careful with the new! (ask me how I know). Don't touch the edges. They will have a film of oil on them from the manufacturing process and that's okay. You don't need to wipe it off. It will lubricate your cutter and will wash out if it gets on any fabric.

Quilting 101: Rotary Cutting. Iron your fabric prior to cutting
  • Iron - I iron everything before I start cutting. Sometimes I even starch before I iron, especially if I'm going to be making lots of bias cuts. It's a personal choice, but I have never pre-washed my fabric before using it. There are stabilizer products in the fabric for the manufacturing process and those will help keep your fabric much easier to work with. And since I wash all quilts when I'm finished, it will wash out before it goes to its new owner. But you will definitely have lovers and haters on pre-washing. When ironing a small piece like this, just unfold it and iron like doing a shirt. You can spray some Best Press or water on it to get the wrinkles out if the fabric is pretty creased. If ironing something 1/2-yard or larger, I will iron it as it comes off the bolt but not on the crease. Once the length of fabric is ironed, I will open it up and get that darn crease out before refolding.

  • Fold in half - Then you will fold the fabric selvedge to selvedge (which will be your straight edges). When doing this, make sure the fabric is flat and doesn't have a wave in it. The left photo is a good fold and the right photo has a wave in it and should not be cut. Just know that sometimes the left and right edges will not line up because the bolt isn't always wound precisely.

  • Fold in half again - Now this is just a fat quarter and it won't really matter but if you have a full width-of-fabric piece, you'll want to fold it again so your ruler will cover the entire width.

Fold in half again and run your fingers on the fold. Ensure that the fabrics are right in the fold together

This is kind of hard to see, but as you learn quilting 101, you do not want to miss this step: When you fold it in half again, run your fingers along that fold. You want to make sure both of the fabrics are right in the fold together. If you can feel another fold just above the folded edge, you know that the fabric isn't folded correctly. When that happens, I open it back up and fold the first crease up to the selvedge edge and that usually helps. For larger pieces more than a yard, I usually end up putting them on the floor and doing the folding so I know my folds are perfect. If you don't fold it correctly and you cut a strip, it will have an "elbow" in the middle and it won't match up to your other cut pieces. If that doesn't make sense, let me know and I can maybe do another video just for that. Also, when I have a long piece of fabric, I will fold it from the side like I'm putting it back on the bolt so it's much more manageable to work with. A lot of people will use cardboard or comic book inserts (a nice white piece of backing board you can get on Amazon) to use in rolling up your fabric.

  • Trimming the edge - This is going to be your first cut to "square up" your fabric. If you are right-handed, lay out your fabric like this on your cutting mat. Line up the bottom of your fabric with a straight line on your ruler. Hold your ruler firmly near the right edge (not too close! Again, ask me how I know) with your left hand. Make sure your rotary cutter is straight up and down (don't cut on an angle) and slowly run it from the bottom to the top of the fabric to remove the selvedge. If you are left-handed, just reverse all this. Even with solid fabrics where the selvedge is the same color as the fabric, I will cut off the selvedge because it has little pinholes in it from the manufacturing process. You certainly don't want those in your quilt!

  • NOW we can make our first cut! - Carefully (I repeat - carefully) turn your fabric so the cut edge is on the right hand side and the fold is at the bottom. You want to make sure it doesn't get out of alignment on the cut edge. First line up the bottom edge along the ruler line then line up the cutting measurement on the left side. In this photo, I'm making a 5 1/2" strip. Depending on your ruler, you can line up the left edge right on the 5 1/2" line all the way up the fabric or you can line it up at the right edge of the line (using the left edge of the line will make the piece a little too large). Choose where you want to line up and be consistent when cutting all your pieces. Once you've done it a few times, it will be the line you use forever. It just becomes second nature.

  • You did it!! You made your first strip cut! When I started, I would fold the fabric in half again to make sure the top and the bottom were the same width (I'm a little OCD).

Now that you've practiced, it's time to move on to that pattern! That's going to be our next topic--Quilting 101: How to read a pattern and how to keep your pieces organized.

What do you think? Did this help? I wish someone had this much detail on cutting fabric when I was starting. There were quite a few mis-cuts in the beginning, I was so frustrated.

Do you have any tips for newbie quilters when cutting fabric? What topics do you want to see in my quilting 101 posts? Share them here and we'll include them in the next post.

Thanks so much for reading! I appreciate each and every one of you.

Be sure to check out the rest of the website and let me know if you have any questions or comments. I'd love to hear from you!


Ghost Writing for Quilt Patterns available.

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I think I'd like to see a video of this. I am not new to cutting but I think it would help others to "see" how you do this. Also, never thought of folding twice! I wasn't taught that so what a great idea.

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