Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Beginner Tutorial 1 - Cutting Tools Part A: Rotary Cutters

Commencing any new craft adventure can be expensive. On top of the materials you need, there can be a long list of equipment that is seen as either necessary or at the very least desirable.  In this first Tutorial we shall look the basic cutting tools that are available to assist you in making quilts.  It is important to understand that the 3 pieces of equipment I will introduce must be used together to cut fabric. There is a lot of information for all of the components and this post could quickly turn into War & Peace: Therefore I will present a post on each part over the next couple of days. Today our topic is Rotary Cutters.

Let me just say before I go any further, that you can make beautiful quilts with a pair of good fabric scissors, some chalk or a pencil and any old ruler! Prior to the late 1970's it was the only option available and there are AMAZING quilts from around the world as evidence of this. I don't want anyone to think that you MUST have the equipment I am going to talk about.  Just know that you can Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can. When you are ready to invest in this specialist equipment, you will have the knowledge you need to make a good purchase. If you already have a Rotary Cutter, I hope this information will still be useful and interesting.

My first set of cutting equipment.
When I began quilting, a friend offered to lend me some of her tools, but that was not good enough. For me, waiting is not an option: I want all my OWN tools, yesterday. Pictured here on the left is my very first set of tools. I purchased the mat & the cutter from a discount store, around $20 for both and the ruler which came from Spotlight was probably also around $20. None of it the best quality available but it certainly did the job for a while and obviously I still have them. I hope this post will explain why I upgraded sooner rather than later, and why I might have been better to spend a little more in the first place.

 There are 2 basic styles of Rotary Cutter:
  • Classic Stick (4 Blade Sizes: 18mm,25mm,45mm & 60mm)
  • Comfort Grip.(3 Blade Sizes: 25mm, 45mm & 60mm)
Classic Stick
This is the original style of Rotary Cutter as invented by Yoshio Okada in the late '70's. As such a 45mm Stick cutter is the most common you will find, available in a lot of different brands with a huge difference in prices. It is always tempting to go for the cheapest, but I discovered the hard way that you get what you pay for. On the original "cheap" stick style cutter I purchased, the mechanism for retracting the blade back and forth was decidedly uncooperative. This made opening and closing the blade a perilous activity. I therefore tended to leave it open, which was also flirting with danger as I had 4 small children hovering around me while I worked. The device cut the fabric adequately but I purchased another quite quickly rather than risk my hobby becoming a blood sport!! If you are counting your pennies, a Classic stick is probably your best buy, but choose a reputable brand and if possible try one out to see how it feels.

Comfort Grip
The name says it all really! If you are doing a lot of cutting, the handle of the Stick style just doesn't cut it (Ha, yes pun intended) The Olfa cutter pictured is called the "Deluxe" for a reason. The manner in which you grip the tool for starters lessens fatigue in your hand. This one also features a trigger grip handle. As you can see the blade is currently retracted safely. As soon as you grip the handle, the blade moves to the open position and is ready for use. Once you put the tool down, thereby releasing your grip on the trigger, the blade pops back to it's safety position. There is also a one touch locking button that can be used to lock the blade either open or closed. The cutter shown is the 60mm size which I have recently upgraded to. It is right at the top end price wise, but it will be the last Rotary Cutter you need to buy.

Regardless of which Style you use, you also need to choose the most suitable size for the work you are doing.
  • 18mm & 25mm: Used for cutting around the curves of patchwork and applique templates
  • 45mm: General patchwork
  • 60mm: Perfect for cutting larger stacks of patchwork fabric or heavier fabric
The 45mm blade is almost considered the "standard" size for use in patchwork and this size will serve you very well. As I mentioned I recently upgraded to the 60mm, but as you can imagine I do a LOT of cutting.

Care of the Blade
The retractability of the blade not only serves to keep YOU safe, but helps to protect the blade from damage when not in use. It is extremely important to only cut fabric and to only do so on a self healing mat (which I will tell you more about it Part B of this post). These cutters are brilliant for cutting card and paper, but I have set aside one of my old Rotary cutters for this specific purpose. Replacement Blades are readily available for all size, and in my experience have been universal (ie  I usually have one on hand, because Murphy's Law dictates that you will need a new blade when the shop is closed! You can also purchase a blade sharpening tool for each of the 25mm, 45mm & 60mm blades. This can't return your cutting edge to it's original degree of sharpness but it will remove any bumps or burrs and extend the life of your blade significantly. I keep the blades from my fabric cutter and demote them to the paper cutter for use before I finally throw them out. 

Just one final word on safety: A good friend found out that an Olfa cutter will insulate you from electric shock! How did she ascertain this interesting and valuable fact?? By slicing through the power cord of her sewing machine......I KNOW! Not something I recommend and it certainly highlights the importance of keeping all power cords safely away from your cutting area.

So how do you choose? Here is my list of things to look for when buying your first or even upgrading your rotary cutter.
  • Is the blade retractable
  • Does the blade lock
  • Is the blade reversible (to suit left handers)
  • Which size will best suit my main purpose
  • Which handle style is best for me
  • What can I afford to spend
In the years I have been Patchworking, I have tried many brands and styles of Rotary Cutter.  This trial and error process has led me to the Olfa range of cutter which I use, recommend and now sell exclusively. Why?? Because they tick all the boxes I have mentioned, simple as that!

Visit the Patchwork Promises Online Store to see the range of cutting tools I stock! If you have any questions about this post you can email me on



PS Fancy a treasure hunt? Visit the Olfa website and find out why Yoshio Okada decided to make the Olfa products Yellow. Leave you answer here in a comment to be in the running for a fabulous prize. SO wanna know what the booty is?? At the end of this 3 part series I will gift someone the PERFECT cutting tool starter pack! (There will be a chance to enter in each part of the series and yes you may enter at each one giving you multiple chances) TELL YOU FRIENDS!!



Kizzie @ said...

Lovely Post Lynda - I've been quilting for about a year now and learnt a few things from this post!! So thanks for taking the time!!

Yoshio decided to make the Knives yellow in colour because his brother Saburo suggested they make the knives yellow like egg yolks - a warm colour, and Yoshio agreed :)

Lindi said...

Most tools were black or silver so Yoshio mixed up a lovely soft egg yellow so the knives could be easily recognized in a toolbox and be associated with safe and familiar images.

anne said...

Great post thanks for sharing...wish this info was around when I started. Can't wait for the cutting mat post:). Soft egg yellow easily recognizable- which they are:)

jennyg said...

They colored them yellow because they are like egg yolks and it s a warm color.

Yes I agree the stick cutters are murder on shoulders because you have to put t so much more effort.

Joy V said...

It was an idea from Yoshio's brother to make them in yellow - this way they stand out from the rest of the tools in the box. Thanks for a great posting Linda and of course the chance to win.

Gene Black said...

Let's make the color of the knives yellow like egg yolks. It's a warm color.
Yoshio : Yeah! That's it!

Jeanette said...

Hi enjoying the tips,yellow for safety in the tool kit. Learn something every day!

Kerry Davidson said...

So it can be easily recognized in a toolbox and be associated with safe and familiar images.

Have just started reading your tutorials and they are excellent - just the right amount of information. thanks