Last week we talked about all things scissors…fabric scissors, paper scissors, embroidery scissors, how to take care of your scissors…we covered the field from how much to spend to how to store them. This week we’re turning our attention to the other cutting instrument in your quilt studio – the rotary cutter. This cutter is the second most-used tool in quilt studios, with the first being the sewing machine. Initially rotary cutters were developed in the 1980’s and were used in the garment industry. It wasn’t long before quilters decided they needed this tool in their lives and it made the leap from the sewing notions aisle to the quilting making aisle. What did quilters do before this? Well…they used scissors. Quilters would spend ours cutting out their quilt patches by hand with sharp scissors. Each piece of fabric, as well as each completed block, required precision trimming with scissors.
Once the rotary cutter was introduced, not only did the cutting and trimming become faster, it also became more accurate. Quilters could quickly move through the cutting process. Before the rotary cutter, cutting could take days (or even weeks) of tedious work. This change made quilting more exciting – at least for folks like me who would rather get through the slicing and dicing as soon as possible so we can get to the good stuff. In the blink of an eye, the rotary cutter changed the quilting industry and quilt making forever.
The choice of rotary cutter is just as important as the one you will make about the scissors you use. And making that decision can be difficult, because as soon as you hit the rotary cutter aisle in a brick-and-mortar store or a website, the choice seems endless. Couple that with the fact the price range varies as much for cutters as they do scissors, and it’s easy to feel dazed and confused. So, the first item we’ll discuss is what to look for in a rotary cutter. Just like scissors, rotary cutters are an extension of your hand. You want to make sure the cutter feels comfortable and is controllable. Safety features are also important. As you begin your search for your perfect rotary cutter, keep the following in mind:
- There is a wide variety available. You have to search for the one which best suits your needs. There are different brands, some use different blades made from different metals and there are narrow ones and wide ones. Handles can vary from brand to brand and even be different within the same brand. Some come in kits with fun accessories which will make your cutting experience easier and more enjoyable. When I began my search for a rotary cutter, I made a list requirements: It had to be ergonomically friendly for carpel tunnel, blade replacement should be easy, and it had to have a blade cover. As I shopped, I disregarded any cutters which didn’t meet those requirements. It took a while, but the I still use my original cutter almost daily.
- There is more than one size blade diameter. Most blades run from 18 mm to 60 mm in diameter. Which size do you need? It depends on your cutting preferences. If you like cutting multiple layers of fabric, then you need to steer your shopping towards the 60 mm sized rotary cutters. However, its important to remember as the size of the blade increases, you may lose accuracy, maneuverability, and ease of cutting. If you’re creating intricate shapes with your fabric, fussy cutting, cutting around templates, or cutting through no more than two layers of fabric at a time, you will probably want a smaller, more maneuverable blade. You may want to purchase an 18-mm to 28-mm cutter. If you want one rotary cutter to cover all your cutting needs, then the middle range cutter (45 mm) is probably your best bet. With this size, you won’t lose a great deal of precision, but you will still be able to cut through most fabrics easily, including stacks of thinner fabrics. Personally, I have 45 mm, 28 mm, and a 60 mm rotary cutters. Bear in mind I didn’t purchase all of them at once, but over a quilting life span of 34 years. If I had to pick one size rotary cutter to keep and disregard the rest, I’d chose the 28 mm. As a rule, I cut no more than two layers of fabric at a time (I have accuracy issues if I cut through multiple layers). For me, the 28 mm is ideal. However, for cutting through batting, you can’t beat the 60 mm. I purchased the 45 mm when I started quilting, and still use it for cutting strips. You will need to weigh your cutting habits against your wallet and decide what is best for you.
- Consider blade safety. A good safety feature to look for on a new rotary cutter is a button which allows to retract the blade when you’re not using it. And as a general rule, you want to keep your fingers away from the blade when cutting, as well as push the rotary cutter away from you when slicing through any fabric. I can hear some of you now, “I don’t have kids in my home. Why do I need to retract my blade when I’m not using it?” Allow me to offer up a personal experience.
For the longest time, I never retracted my blade. When I began seriously quilting, my kids were older and knew not to touch my rotary cutter. I’d lay the cutter down on my cutting table, walk away, and not worry about it. Then one hot, southern summer day, I was cutting out a quilt and needed a potty break. Let me emphasize it was a hot day and I had on shorts. And sandals. Two important points. I put my rotary cutter down and moved away, and in the process accidentally knocked my cutter off the mat. It skipped down my bare leg and across my sandaled foot. I had a total of four gashes which would not stop bleeding. It took my son, a local fireman, and God only knows how many butterfly band aids to stop the bleeding – all because I didn’t retract the blade when I left the cutting area.
You need a rotary cutter with good safety features. Trust me.
- Consider the blade material. A good blade will save you both time, energy, and money. It will allow you to cut through as many as six layers of fabric at a time. You won’t have to exert a lot of effort to move the cutter through multiple layers of cloth, either. You’ll be able to use it through multiple projects without needing to replace it. You won’t have to re-purchase fabric because your blade had tiny burrs on it and as a result, it chewed your fabric. Most of all, a good blade is safer. With a good, sharp blade, you’re less likely to exert so much force on the cutter you lose control over the blade. The best rotary cutter blades are made from tungsten or carbon steel – the same material good kitchen knives are made from. So, when you’re shopping for rotary blade replacements, be sure to read the package carefully to make sure the blades are made from one of these metals. Olfa’s blades are made from Tungsten steel and Improve Cut blades are comprised of carbon steel. Titanium blades are a recent addition to the blade family. I sew with titanium sewing machine needles, but haven’t tried these blades (I tend to purchase rotary blades in bulk and don’t need anymore right now). However, some of my quilting buddies have used the Titanium blades and have nothing but good things to say about them.
All rotary blades dull over time. As you use your cutter, notice if you have to put a lot of effort in pushing it through the layers of fabric or if the blade “skips” cutting in places. If either of these are true, then it’s time to replace the blade. And I’ll admit, this is not my most favorite task, but replacing the bad blade with a good one really makes cutting easier. All good cutters will let you remove and replace the blade, allowing you to keep the handle which best suits your hand. If you’ve tossed the blade replacement directions, YouTube or Google search your particular cutter. I just about guarantee you can find the directions (and better yet, a video) on how to replace the blade.
I quilt a lot, and as a result I use my cutter several times a week and must replace my blades pretty regularly. If this is also your scenario, you may want to do what I do – purchase blades in bulk. I’ve found this very cost-effective. If you don’t quilt as much as I do, most brands of blades come in packs of five. However, blades are among the more pricey consumables in a quilt studio (discounting fabric). The good news is big box fabric/hobby shops stock most of the popular blade brands. Use their 40 percent off coupon to buy your blades.
- The blade handle is very, very important. You will be gripping the hand of your rotary cutter for hours. It’s very important the handle is comfortable to hold at the angle you’ll use it. Fiskar’s ergonomic handles are a quilting favorite, but my advice concerning rotary cutter purchase is the same as buying scissors: if possible, go to a store and purchase it. Hold it in your hand and imagine pushing it through layers of fabric for hours at a time. If your hand is comfortable with the initial purchase, any subsequent purchases can be made online.
However, if you can’t purchase your rotary cutter in person, be aware there are some brands made specifically for special needs. There are some handles specifically designed with arthritis and grip issues in mind. My Comfort Cutter from The Grace Company allows you to add attachments to your handle, so it can be personalized for your grip, and is designed to allow you to press from overhead, making cutting easier.
- Your particular brand of cutter may offer accessories. It’s a given you’ll need rotary cutting mat to go with your cutter, and we will discuss those later in the blog. However, there are some other accessories you may want to consider. First, there’s a ruler track. A ruler track can be carefully placed on your fabric, then your rotary cutter fits into the track on the ruler like a rail car, and you simply follow the line up and down. This provides a very straight cut. The only draw back is at some point you’ll run out of “track,” limiting the length of the cut.
Another accessory which comes with some cutters is extra blades. This is a nice added bonus, since you will use those blades.
- Make sure the cutter fits your handedness. Like scissors, rotary cutters come made for right-handed people and left-handed people. And some cutters are ambidextrous and may be used by righties or lefties. Be sure to read the cutter description to make sure it will work for you.
Now, with all that said, I’d like to list the six best-selling rotary cutters.
Fiskars 45mm Contour Rotary Cutter
This rotary cutter cuts smoothly and precisely, even through as many as six layers of fabric. It works for either right or left-handed quilters and the ergonomic design prevents hand fatigue, allowing for accurate cutting for extended periods of time. My favorite thing about this cutter is the thumb control on top of the handle. One touch with your thumb causes the blade to engage or retract (meaning the blade won’t be exposed when you lay it down). This cutter comes with steel blades.
Fiskars 60mm Titanium Softgrip Comfort Loop Handle Rotary Cutter
If you’re comfortable cutting multiple layers of fabric, this is your cutter. It’s ergonomically designed to prevent hand fatigue and provides excellent control. It’s made for right or left-handed quilters and this design provides great visibility for either. This cutter comes with a titanium blade so it’s tough enough not only for cutting through multiple layers of fabric, but also wonderful for squaring up quilts or cutting batting.
Olfa 45mm Deluxe Handle Rotary Cutter
This cutter cuts up to six layers of fabric easily and works well for most quilting applications. The rubber grip contoured handle is easy on the hand, but not as ergonomically friendly as the previous listed rotary cutters. The handle does include a squeeze trigger blade control which allows it to self-retract. When engaged, the red button keeps the blade open for longer periods of time. One of the best characteristics about this cutter is the blade can be moved to either side, making it perfect for either right or left-handed cutters. The Olfa 45mm Deluxe Handle Cutter also has a pinking blade which can be used on loosely woven fabrics (such as homespun) to keep fraying to a minimum.
Olfa 60 mm Deluxe Rotary Cutter
This handy-dandy cutter can slice through 8-layers of fabric at a time. The handle is ergonomic and includes a squeeze trigger which allows the blade to self-retract. This cutter is a good choice for anyone who makes tote bags or quilted purses. It can easily cut through the thin foam used in making those. Just avoid cutting foam which is thicker than the width of the blade. It also makes easy work of trimming the quilt sandwich or cutting batting. Quilters who make rag quilts find the 60mm Deluxe cutter especially useful when cutting through those projects that involve layers of wool.
Martelli Ergo 2000 45 mm Rotary Cutter
Allow me a moment of complete self-plugging of a product: I love Martelli Cutters because of their ergonomic design. The cutter puts your hand in perfect alignment for cutting, taking a great deal of strain off the wrist, arm, elbow, and fingers. And because of the added pressure of correct hand alignment, a quilter can cut up to 15 layers at a time. Since Martelli’s are built so differently than Fiskars and Olfa, changing their blades is a bit different, but the company puts out handy YouTube videos which explain how to use the blade guards and how to change the blades. You can’t switch the blades to different sides, so you will have to purchase either a right-handed or left-handed cutter. The cutter can be refilled with any 45-mm blade on the market. These cutters are not (at least to my knowledge) sold in fabric or quilt stores. The company does vend at many, many quilt shows and has a wonderful on-line store. I can also personally attest their customer service is stellar. I’ve contacted them before about an issue I was dealing with concerning their 45mm cutter and they simply shipped me a brand-new cutter, no questions asked.
Olfa 9551 Rty-1/G 28mm Straight Handled Rotary Cutter
This cutter is perfect for small quilting projects. A quilter can push the tab forward to use the blade and pull it back to retract it. It’s great for working on small pieces, or cutting out around templates or applique pieces, as this cutter handles curves smoothly. The blade switches sides for either right or left-handed users. Keep out of the reach of children as this cutter is pretty simple to figure out.
How to Care for Your Rotary Cutter
Just like scissors, purchasing a rotary cutter is a financial investment. And with any such pricey purchase, it’s important to take care of the cutter so it will last a long time. It’s equally important to take as much care of the blades. While the blades will be replaced, there are some things you can do to prolong their lives.
- Never cut paper or interfacings with your cutter. This will dull the blade. If you find yourself reaching for the cutter when your want to cut these, purchase a separate cutter for cutting paper or interfacings.
- Be sure to keep pins away from the cutting area. If you accidentally hit a pin, it will put a nick in the blade, and it will no longer cut all the way through the fabric.
- Old blades are still very sharp. Find a way to safely dispose of these. Some folks fold an index card in half and tape the short sides. They put the blade in the pocket and then tape across the top. I keep an empty parmesan cheese container in my sewing room. I put used blades, dull pins and needles, and broken sewing machine needles in this. When it’s full (and it takes a long time to fill it), I duct tape the top securely and then toss it. Whatever way you decide to dispose of your used blades, make sure it’s secure enough that the blades won’t injure anyone emptying the trash.
- Don’t scissor back and forth with your cutter. It will make a rough edge along the seam and loosen the threads. Instead, use the strength in your shoulder to push the blade forward, away from your body in one smooth action. It takes practice, but eventually you will make steady cuts.
- Store the cutter and blades out of the reach of children. These things are sharp. Kids are way smarter than we give them credit for. They can figure out how to use a rotary cutter in a hot second.
- Never leave the blade open on your work surface (see personal injury story above). Get in the habit of closing your blade each time you place it down.
You want a cutter which will fit your hand and take as much strain off your wrist, elbow, arm, shoulder, and fingers as possible. My advice is to purchase the cutter which best fulfills your requirements and doesn’t bust your wallet. Your choice of cutter will depend on what kind of quilter you are. If you’re primarily a piecer, comfortable with cutting through multiple layers of fabric at a time, you will probably opt for a 45mm or 60 mm cutter. If you usually are cutting around templates or dealing with applique pieces, a 18mm or 28mm cutter may be just what you need. If you’re mostly an applique quilter and cut your applique pieces out with scissors, you may opt for the 45mm rotary cutter. It will still handle layers of fabric, but remain controllable in the event you do decide to use it with your applique. The choice is a personal one, and eventually (if you quilt long enough) you may decide you need a couple of different rotary cutters in different sizes.
I had planned to cover rotary mats in this blog, but I’m already well over 3,000 words. We’ll hit those next week. So, until then…
Love and Stitches,
Sherri and Sam