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How To Choose the Right Cutting Mat for You

This blog is the last one in the cutting trinity.  We’ve talked about scissors and rotary cutters.  Today we’re looking at the final leg of the cutting tripod – the cutting mat.  Whether you use scissors or a rotary cutter to slice and dice your fabric, chances are you will use a mat with either or both.  A cutting mat is simply a great cutting and measuring surface.  We will examine what makes a good mat and – more specifically – what quilters should look for in a mat.  Then we will talk about the five best cutting mats on the market today.  So, get comfortable and grab a beverage because we’re dissecting cutting mats today.

As quilters, we automatically think we’re the only ones out there in the cutting universe who use cutting mats.  But we’re not.  There are many mats made for sewers and quilters, but there are a lot of other hobbyists who use mats for their passion, also.  It’s important to purchase mat which will work best with your hobby.  So, it stands to reason the first question anyone has to answer is what kind of cutting tool will be used on the mat?  For us, that means a mat which can hold up to a rotary cutter.  For other folks this means a mat which can withstand a knife or straight edge blade.  Most mats come with a description somewhere on the label.  Read it through to make sure it will work for whatever you’re using it for.  Generally, unless you’re simply using it for measuring and not any cutting, a 2-mm mat is too thin for any blade.

This means the second question is how thick is the mat?  You want a mat which is 3-mm thick or more. Anything thinner than 3-mm is not durable and usually has a plastic-y feel to them.  This means they won’t handle a rotary cutter blade.  As a matter of fact, the blade may slice through any mat thinner than 3-mm.  Somewhere on the mat’s label should be the number of plies in the mat, what the plies are made of, and how thick each of the plies are.  Ideally, you want a 3-mm or thicker mat and the inner ply to be fatter than to outer ones.  A thick inner cutting mat ply helps prevent the mat from being cut through and prolongs the life of your rotary blades.  Another attribute you want is for the matt to be self-healing – which means the plies are manufactured from separate tiny pieces of material which are pressed together creating a solid surface to cut on. Whatever type of cutting implement you use on this mat, the blade will go between these tiny pieces. This separates them rather than cutting into the entire unit of the surface.  After cutting, all these little pieces go back together – more or less.  No matter how careful you are with your mat, eventually you must replace even self-healing mats.  But a mat which is self-healing generally lasts longer and doesn’t develop “ruts” in the mat from your rotary cutter for a good while.

What’s the mat’s surface like is the third question you need to ask.  Does the mat have a textured surface?  Does it have a glare?  A glare isn’t good.  When a mat reflects the overhead light, it makes accurate cutting difficult because it’s hard to see the fabric and the grid lines.  You also want the surface to be slightly textured.  If the mat is slick, it’ll be easy for the fabric to slide around, making accurate cutting impossible.  If the mat is too textured, it will dull your rotary blade.  All mats are generally gridded – either in inches or centimeters.  It’s really handy to have the grid numbered on all four sides.  I live in America, so my mats are in one-inch increments.  If the mat is large, it’s super nice to have a measuring line in the middle of the mat as well as at the top or bottom.  If I’m cutting shorter pieces of fabric, this means I have a closer measuring guideline and don’t have to use a long ruler to cut small pieces of fabric.  I also think (at least for quilters), the mat should be marked with 45, 60, and 30 degree angles, and have clearly delineated bias lines for cutting bias strips.  Beginning quilts may not use these so much, but the longer you quilt, the more important these become. 

The last five rotary mat considerations depend entirely on your preference.  These include color, size, markings, quality, and features.

Color – You don’t want a mat which is the same color as most of the fabric you quilt with.  So, when choosing a mat, try to purchase one in a color that will contrast most of your quilts.  For instance, if you love the color green and use green in most of your quilts, you may not want to purchase a green cutting mat.  Invest in a grey, pink, red, or blue one.  When I began quilting in the 1980’s, mats came in two colors – green and gray.  Now there are lots of color options in mats.  Some mats will have different colors on each side, and some are the same color on both sides, but one side may be gridded and the other side plain.  Make sure you can easily see the grid marks no matter what color you decide to buy.

Size – The best size mat for you depends on a couple of factors:  What size quilt do you most often make and what kind of space do you have available in your cutting area?  You don’t want a mat larger than the table it will be placed.  Can you leave your mat out all the time, or will you have to store it between uses?  Do you like to use long rulers and cut lots of yardage needed for large quilts or do you make primarily small projects and use shorter rulers?  Answering this question is important, especially if your space is limited and your budget it tight.  If you can only afford to purchase one mat when you begin to quilt, make sure it’s the right mat for you.

Grid Measurements – Most mats have a measuring grid which covers the surface.  If you live in the United States and purchase most of your patterns in the US, you want to make sure your mat has measurements in inches.  However, if you live outside of the US and purchase most of your patterns in countries other than the US, you may wish to have metric measurements as well as standard measurements on your mat.  The good news is that there are mats which have the standard inches on one side and metric on the other, so you are free to purchase whatever patterns from wherever you want and still be able to do the cutting without any math conversions.  This wasn’t a huge issue until patterns were sold via the internet.  Now we can purchase patterns from anywhere and with the right kind of mat, cut the quilts out without any issues. 

Another item to pay attention to is whether the markings on the mat incorporate the sizes you traditionally use.  For instance, the mat’s description may read “11-inches x 17-inches.”  This may mean the mat’s surface measures 11” x 17” but the grid lines on the it may only be 10-inches x 16-inches.  Look at the mat carefully to make sure it measures how and what you need it to. 

Quality – We’ve already discussed it’s important the mat be self-healing.  Let me also add to this some self-healing mats can have as few as three plies and as many as 15.  The thickness of the mat will impact how you will want to store it, whether it may warp, and how long it will last.  You will also want to check and see if the mat has a warranty.  Most reputable mat producing companies usually provide some kind of warranty to assure you they believe in their product and stand behind it.  You will pay more for this added quality, but it’s worth it to have a product which will stand up to years of use and if anything does go wrong, the manufacturer will make it right. 

Added Features – Considering all this information, it’s easy to see there are literally hundreds of mats to choose from.  However, there are other features you may want to consider before you go mat shopping.  If you’re like me and attend quilt retreats, classes, and workshops or you enjoy taking your quilting on the road with you as you travel, you may want a mat which can do double-duty.  There are mats which have one side that allows you to cut and then you can flip it over and the other side lets you do your pressing. 

There are mats such as these:

That open like a portfolio and one side is for cutting and the other is for pressing.  There are cutting mats that can be taken apart and packed, then reassembled once you’ve reached your destination. 

And there are mats which rotate (these are my favorite).  The rotating mats are really good for those quilters who paper piece or work with tiny piecing units or small applique blocks. 

Now with all of this information, before I leave you, I want to list and describe the five best cutting mats for quilting and sewing in 2021.  These are not my choices but were polled from quilters in Quilters Review.  All of these mats are self-healing.

  1.  Crafty World Professional

This is often called the “best cutting mat” and it comes in three handy-dandy sizes:  9” x 12”, 12” x 18”, and 18” x 24”.  It has blue and green color options and seems to be the best mat for quilters, hobbyists, and crafters.  It’s versatile and flexible can be used for everything from quilting, garment making, and model kit building.  It has a smooth surface and the self-healing capability to ensure it lasts 10 times longer than ordinary mats. Thick and double-sided, it’s easy to use and accurate for cutting quilting fabric.  Clear lines are available in 1/8-inch measurements.  The 3mm thickness protects your work area and has a non-slip base to keep it firmly in place, no matter how much you’re cutting.  It will last for years before it needs to be replaced.

  •  Olfa’s Fabric Cutting Matt

This mat is only 1.5mm thick, so it is on the thinner side of self-healing mats.  However, it is a larger mat – 24” x 36”.  It works great for cutting those long pieces of quilting fabric with your rotary cutter.  The mat has one side which is solid green, and the other side comes printed with grid lines in one-inch increments.  The surface is smooth, but should not be used with fixed-blade knives – it’s made for rotary cutters.  This mat does have the angle markings I mentioned earlier.  And as rotary mats go, the Olfa is pretty easy to clean – a gum eraser can remove anything that gets stuck in the mat.

  •  US Art Supply Self-Healing Cutting Mat

This mat is very similar to the Crafty World Professional, but this one come with a pink and blue color option.  This is an 18” x 24”, and it has five ply construction.  The grid marks are in ½-inch increments with 1/8” marks for accurate cutting and both the 45-degree and 60-degree guides.  The mat is reversible and both sides have the grid markings.  It is 3mm thick, resilient, can be used repeatedly, and has a long-life span (well…a long life span for a mat, anyway).  If you aren’t crazy about pink and blue, there is also a green and black option.

  •  Dahle Vantage 5-Layer Healing Mat

This mat’s five layers means it has maximum self-healing potential, and this one mat covers all the bases from sewing to crafting to cropping.  It comes in three color options:  black, blue and clear.  It also comes in several sizes:  9” x 12”, 12” x 18”, 24” x 36”, and 36” x 48”.  Each of these mats feature a 3mm thickness and has a preprinted ½-inch grid to allow for accurate measurements.  The five-layer PVC construction means this mat has maximum self-healing.  PVC construction protects all of your blades from becoming dull and damaged.  It also has a limited warranty, so if your mat doesn’t meet your expectations, you can return or replace it.

  •  US Art Supply, Self-Healing 5-ply Cutting Mat

This mat measures 36” x 48” and is green and black.  It has 5-ply, self-healing construction as well as ½-inch grid with precise alignment due to the 1/8-inch marks.  It also has 45-degree and 60-degree markings.  The mat is reversable and has the grid on both sides.  This mat can handle rotary cutters, craft tools, sharp blades, and writing instruments. 

Once you’ve decided which mat is the right one for you, it’s important to make sure you place the mat on a hard, flat, solid surface which is at least as big as the mat.  If you try to cut on a soft surface (such as carpet), your cuts won’t be as accurate.  At this point, if you’re like me and don’t like to cut through more than two layers of fabric at a time, you’re good to go.  However, if you like to stack your fabrics and cut multiple layers at once, make sure 1) Your rotary cutter can handle multiple layers and 2) You’re stacking the same type of fabrics together (such as all quilting cottons or all batiks).  Mixing thin and thick fabrics for cutting will make the process difficult and your slicing and dicing inaccurate. 

After you’ve used your mat for a month or so, if possible, turn the mat so you’re cutting from the other side.  This will slow down the wear and tear on the mat and evenly distribute the erosion. 

Cutting mats are an investment, and you will probably want to make them last as long as possible.  You can extend the life of your mat by rotating and flipping them often and avoid cutting in the same place each time.  If you must store your mat between uses, be sure to lay it flat, and never, ever leave it in a warm place, such as the trunk of a car.  The heat will warp it.  Likewise, if you leave it in a cold place (like the trunk of a car in the winter), your mat may become brittle.  If the mat gets dirty, clean the surface with lukewarm water and mild detergent.  However, at some point, your mat will need to be replaced.  If the surface has ruts in it and the grid marks are growing faint, it’s time to go shopping for a new mat. 

Two more items before we wrap up this blog on cutting mats.  When I began my research, I noticed several sites which had information on how to de-warp your warped cutting mat and how to restore the mat’s self-healing properties.  According to several hits via a Google search, you can de-warp your mat by ironing it.  You lay a pressing cloth or towel on your mat and press.  Self-healing properties are said to be restored by soaking your mat in warm water and then laying it flat to dry.  I’ve never tried either of these methods, but if you have and they worked, please let me know. 

I’ve completed a few quilts and am planning on a show and tell blog in the near future.  A couple of these quilts are meant to be gifts, so I can’t show them until I gift them…so….it’ll still be a few weeks.  But until then…

Quilt On!

Love and Stitches,

Sherri and Sam

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