The Rotary Cutter Didn’t Always Exist

It seems so obvious now, but the rotary cutter was a revolutionary breakthrough in quilt making. [heh heh heh!] Before its existence, quilters cut patches, usually one at a time, with scissors. The slow, relatively inaccurate method of cutting makes the works of art from the past even more amazing.


I made my first quilt (to the right) in 2003, cutting the patches with scissors. I’d never heard of a rotary cutter and self-healing mat. As I’ve written before, “… the quilt was finished on time and presented to my daughter at her baby shower, prior to the baby’s birth. And I told her then that I didn’t care how many babies she had, I would never make another quilt.” Truly, having a rotary cutter makes my current quilting life possible!

The first fabric rotary cutter was introduced in 1979 by Olfa, a Japanese company. It originally was intended for garment makers but now is ubiquitous in quilting and crafting, as well. Combined with a self-healing mat and rulers, there’s little we can’t cut.

The most popular blade size is 45 mm, but they do come in different sizes. This short video from Olfa runs through some information on what size to use for what project.

The blades are intended to be sharp. That means not only will they cut your fabric, they’ll cut your unprotected table surface, your skin, your fingernail, your kitten, or anything else that gets in the way. In 2010 I had a trip to the emergency room because of a bad cut. (It was a very expensive one-finger manicure.)

Here are a few safety tips.

Change your blade regularly to improve both cutting and safety. A sharper blade is safer than a duller one. You have to press harder to cut with a dull blade, increasing the potential for slipping and cutting something unintended. 

20150904_081447Dispose of old blades carefully, where no one will accidentally get cut. I put my old blades, needles, and pins in an old plastic yogurt cup with a lid. Whenever there are small people in my house, that cup gets put up above their reach. When the cup is full, I’ll encase it in duct tape before putting it in the trash.

Keep new blades in a safe place. Same theory as above. 

Close the safety guard or retract the blade when you’re not cutting. Some people think they’ll never drop the cutter or brush past it with bare skin. They might be lucky. I’d rather not depend on that. (On that note, it’s also a good idea to always wear enclosed shoes while cutting.)

Cut away from yourself, rather than drawing the blade towards yourself. There will be times when that won’t work well, but most of the time it does. It’s a good habit to have. 

Keep your fingers away from the ruler’s edge. This is what got me. I was gripping the ruler with a finger over the edge, fingertip down toward the mat. I cut off the nail the long way. 

Cut while standing. The angle will be better for safety and accuracy. 

Don’t use the blade as some other kind of tool. It isn’t a seam ripper. It isn’t a hammer. It isn’t a screwdriver. 

Don’t work while you’re overtired, distracted, or have vision problems, including insufficient light. Cutting requires your full attention. It’s not worth risking your safety to hurry along a project. 

Replace your rulers when they get nicked or worn. You don’t want to catch your cutter on any edges by accident.

Did you start quilting before rotary cutters, or without one as I did? Or do you prefer scissors to a rotary blade, as my friend Florence does? Have you moved on to a Go cutter or another type? 




39 thoughts on “The Rotary Cutter Didn’t Always Exist

  1. KerryCan

    I’m another person who started quilting pre-rotary cutter–I think when I made my first quilt (at age 18) I actually ripped the strips of fabric. So clueless. I always know here my cutter is and use it for all kinds of things, including paper and card stock. But, yes, it can be dangerous!

  2. Barb Gorges

    Made a few quilts before buying my first rotary cutter about 1980–but I was too cheap to buy a mat–thought I could just use my wooden kitchen cutting board. After my first disappointing try (the blade immediately went dull), it took a couple more years for me to buy a mat–and a new blade–and start making rotary-cut quilts.

  3. zippyquilts

    Oh yes, I made a number of quilts before I got a rotary cutter. I got to use a cutting machine like the Go at a retreat and was unimpressed. So nice to try without buying 😉

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      I’m glad you had a chance to try the Go. I haven’t been very curious about it to this point, but I understand why it would be attractive to some. Seems like you’d need LOTS of dyes for it to have much flexibility for sizing.

  4. Lisa in Port Hope

    I nicked a fingernail with my rotary cutter (and I don’t keep them long) and have been extra careful ever since. I made my first Quilt using templates and scissors, it was a class through a shop, and included two applique blocks and a Dresden plate, so it wasn’t too bad for accuracy requirements. Once I decided to stick with quilting I invested in the tools on a day when the fabric store had 40% off everything.

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Gotta love those sales! I should replace my mat soon. I have a large Olfa mat, a smaller one, and a large Fiskars one. I bought the Fiskars to replace the big Olfa, but I don’t like it as well. Someday I’ll be motivated enough to buy a new Olfa.

      Be careful! I know I’m a lot more aware and careful now than I used to be, and I still catch my skin now and then with the blade.

  5. snarkyquilter

    Many tools now sold for quilters are nice but not essential. I believe the rotary cutter is a must. I have a 45 mm and a 28 mm one, plus I have spare blade holders I use for fancy blades that make wavy and zigzag cuts. Thanks for the reminder to cut away from your body and to use a sharp blade. Recently I saw a good tip to remember when to put in a new blade. Write the date you put the blade in your rotary cutter with a Sharpie. If you’ve been using the cutter a lot it may get dull in just a few months, and you’ll know when you replaced it last.

  6. Pingback: The Rotary Cutter Didn’t Always Exist | peachysinsights

  7. quiltyteacher

    Close the safety guard or retract the blade when you’re not cutting. Some people think they’ll never drop the cutter or brush past it with bare skin. They might be lucky. I’d rather not depend on that. (On that note, it’s also a good idea to always wear enclosed shoes while cutting.)

    Yes! Yes! Yes! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been cut by a students rotary cutter that was laying exposed on a table. I now do monologue every class about rotary cutter safety! Good stuff!!! I’m so glad I found you!

          1. jimfetig

            Me too. It’s a sliding scale. My 90+ neighbor died Monday. Last week you could have pegged him for 30 years younger. Lesson learned: Don’t fool yourself.

          2. Melanie McNeil Post author

            I dunno. I worked with a lot of older people. Some were young in numbers and really old (like my mom, who died at 65 a very old woman) and some were really old in numbers and still quite young, clear up ’til the end. Maybe that describes your neighbor. Still we all gotta die, but I’d rather do it when I’m healthy than when I’m sick.

          3. jimfetig

            My neighbor was healthy until the end. His wife had a severe stroke last month. He picked up one of the bugs at her nursing home. That’s what did him in. Last time I saw him, he was trotting around with a bowl of ice cream in his hand.

  8. mosaicthinking

    I work on the floor where I have space to move. My rules are: 1. Always engage the safety lock, even between cuts. 2. Never leave the cutter on the floor, even when the safety lock is engaged. When my beloved borrows my rotary cutter for his bag building projects, failure to comply with these rules can lead to growling or confiscation (for repeat offences).

  9. Nann

    What a nice summRy, Melanie. My very first quilt lesson was pre-rotary cutter. I did not make a single block. (Note: Mariner’s compass is not well-suited for a first-ever quilt.) A decade And a lot of counted cross stitch later, I rediscovered quiltmaking and found out about rotary cutters, machine-piecing, and machine quilting. I have not looked back.

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Oh my, a Mariner’s compass is a challenge for an experienced quilter! I’ve never tackled one. I guess they are “easy” with paper piecing, but first I’d need to learn how to do that!

  10. Lana's Lark

    My first quilt, a Maple Leaf full size quilt, was cut using cardboard templates which I placed on the wrong side of the fabric and traced around with a pencil. I then cut approximately 1/4 inch outside that pencil line. Each piece was carefully pinned and sewn along that pencil line. I still have not finished this quilt which I started sometime in the 70s. I am getting closer. You would think that I would have given up but went on to make a small Log Cabin quilt by marking with pencil and cutting strips of fabric using scissors. I did not cut the strip to length until it was sewn in place. That quilt I finished. I then discovered the rotary cutter, and one thing led to another until now I have a quilting studio with a longarm on a 12 foot frame. Let’s see……what can I get next? LOL

  11. farmquilter

    I cut with scissors and hand pieced a lonestar back in 1987…got to the last point on the star, needed 3 diamonds and only had 2…and now I can’t find the blasted thing! Of course, I was trying to do this on my own with no instruction or help! I’ve moved 3 times since then and have no clue where it might be, but I can still see the bag it was in!!

  12. allisonreidnem

    My first go at patchwork was EPP hexagons – definitely BC! When I rediscovered patchwork about six years ago I’m glad I was introduced to cutters, rulers and mats straight away – I’m useless at cutting accurate fabric shapes using scissors!

  13. quiltiferous

    I, too, didn’t know there was such a thing as a rotary cutter… 1995! My first quilting books was by Georgia Bonesteel, from the 70’s, and it taught me how to cut and sew pretty accurately. I think it really gives us an appreciation for that rotary cutter, doesn’t it? =}

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Oh my goodness, YES! We’re so lucky to have the tools we do. And Georgia Bonesteel, I have (had?) a book of hers I thought was terrific, really good design skills. Thanks for reading and commenting.

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      It sounds like an exaggeration to say that, but I know it’s not! That’s how I feel, too. (Also my first sewing machine was awful, so having one that works well is a big deal, too!)

  14. knitnkwilt

    Those were the days…Many quilts remained in my head or didn’t progress beyond tracing around templates about 1/4 of the amount needed. I started quilting mid 70s, but news of the rotary cutter didn’t made it to my small town for a while after they were invented. I was surprised at how early. I found them in the late 80s.

    Never thought about closed shoes. Good hint.

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Those who’ve always used a rotary cutter can’t guess what it was like BC (before cutter.) We have a lot to be grateful for, with the improvements in tools and technology.

  15. katechiconi

    I’d like to add: don’t cut fabric using a rotary cutter and steel ruler. They’re not thick enough to stop the blade skipping over the edge and inflicting damage that needed stitching of the medical kind. I too made my first quilt without a rotary cutter, and it took a long time before I was ready to make another. About 15 years, to be precise. I still use the same cutter I bought for my second ever quilt. It works just fine, I’m used to it, and I see no reason to change it.

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Yes, there are acrylic rulers specially made for cutting, and those are the ones we should use. I’m on my second cutter. My first one was a Fiskers, too. It fits my hand better than the Olfa brand cutters.


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