Fabric Rotary Cutter 101: What is it? Uses? How to Use?

If you’re new to sewing or quilting you’ve probably heard about rotary cutters. But what are they? When do you use them? And how? I’m going to answer these questions today, and more!

Here’s what we’ll cover:

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What is a rotary cutter (for fabric use)?

A rotary cutter is a cutting tool with a circular blade and handle. You roll it over the fabric with some pressure to create cuts. It cuts fabric quicker and more accurately than scissors, so that’s why it’s preferred by quilters. It can also cut through multiple layers in one go – think 6-8 layers. Rotary cutters are always used with cutting mats so you don’t damage your table.

What are rotary cutters used for?

  • Making accurate cuts in fabric. Quilters often use them with quilting rulers to make straight cuts.
  • Rotary cutters are essential for quilting.
  • Making cuts without raising and shifting the fabric like fabric shears do. This is why many dressmakers like them.
  • Size 45mm – everyday use and basic quilting cuts.
  • Size 60mm – cutting thick fabric.
  • Sizes 28mm and 18mm – cutting small patterns and curves. They’re often used to cut applique designs and small lingerie pieces.

Different types and sizes of rotary cutters:

Rotary cutters normally come in 4 sizes: 60mm, 45mm, 28mm, and 18mm. The size refers to the diameter of the blade. The 45mm version is the most popular size for everyday use and basic quilting cuts. The 60mm size has a larger blade for cutting thick fabric. The small 28mm and 18mm sizes are often used for cutting intricate patterns and tight curves. For example, applique designs and lingerie pieces. 

The blades can’t be swapped between sizes. You need to buy a separate rotary cutter in each size that you want (source: email from Fiskars Consumer Service UK on 26 May 2023). If you can only get 1 size, get the 45mm version. It’s perfect for most dressmaking and quilting projects.

The design of rotary cutters can also vary. The classic version has a straight handle. There are also padded and ergonomically shaped versions if you need something more comfortable. You can also get specialist L-shaped versions that put less pressure on your hands. These suit people with pain or weakness in their arms and hands.

The best rotary cutter – what to look for:

  • Sharp blade. Look for carbon steel or tungsten steel (stronger) for a longer-lasting blade.
  • The blade can be hidden and locked for safety.
  • Comfortable handle. You can get straight, padded, and specialist “L-shaped” versions that put less pressure on your hands.
  • Easy to get replacement blades for. If the cutter has a universal opening, you can use blades from other brands.
  • The right size for your needs. 60mm is for cutting thick fabrics. 45mm is for everyday use and basic quilting cuts. 28mm and 18mm are for cutting small shapes and curves.

LDH Scissors has a straight-handle rotary cutter. The blade is very well concealed in a plastic “cage” when not in use, so there’s no risk of accidentally touching the blade. The blade can be locked away using the push-to-release button at the front. It comes in size 45mm which is the most popular size for everyday use. You can buy replacement blades here. In LDH’s tests, each blade lasted 3 – 4 months before needing replacement, but this will vary depending on use (source). 

How to use a rotary cutter on fabric:

Step 1: Unlock and raise the blade. How to do this varies between brands, but this LDH rotary cutter raises the blade when you push the release button down.

Step 2: Stand up and place the rotary cutter on your fabric. Push the rotary cutter forward, never towards your body. Apply some pressure on the blade so it cuts through the fabric. Standing up while cutting helps because you can use the weight of your body to apply pressure. Just keep rolling the blade until you reach the end of your cut. Lift the rotary cutter up and away from the fabric. Repeat this for each cut.

Step 3: When you’ve finished cutting, wipe any fibers off the blade using a dry cloth.

Step 4: Lower the blade. How to do this varies between brands, but this LDH rotary cutter hides the blade when you push the button up. The blade is now locked away and can’t accidentally cut someone. Store the rotary cutter away (LDH ones come with a felt pouch, as pictured below).

How to change a rotary cutter blade:

Note: the process may be slightly different for your rotary cutter, but this is the general process. I’m using an LDH rotary cutter which has a “safety cage” – a design feature that many rotary cutters don’t have.

Tip: if you’ve never done this before, take a photo of the front and back of your rotary cutter before you take it apart. This will help you remember what it should look like once you’ve finished.

Step 1: Unscrew the bolt and take apart your rotary cutter. It’s good practice to lay down each piece in the order you took it apart. It makes it easier to put everything back together again. If there’s lint on the rotary cutter, wipe this off with a dry cloth.

Step 2: Dispose of the old blade. You can wrap it in some cardboard and tape around it for safety. Then put it in the bin.

Step 3: Carefully take the new blade out of the pack. It may be covered in oil, so use a dry cloth to wipe this off. Insert the new blade onto the rotary cutter. For this style, you insert the blade inside the cage.

Step 4: Place the bolt back on. This is normally inserted into the front of the rotary cutter, where the button is.

Step 5: Turn the rotary cutter to the back while holding the bolt in place with your fingers. Place the washer on the bolt. In this case, the back of the bolt and one side of the washer are shaped like rectangles, so they need to be facing each other to interlock.

Step 6: Screw the backing onto the bolt. In this case, the flat side of the backing should be facing you. The new blade should now be held firmly in place. If the bolt is loose, the blade will wobble when you cut, so it should be quite tight. But not so tight that the blade can’t rotate. (source)

Are rotary cutter blades interchangeable?

Some brands make blades specifically for their rotary cutters, and others make ones with a universal opening. So sometimes rotary cutter blades are interchangeable, depending on the hole in the middle (eg. square vs circular). This hole needs to fit the attachment on your rotary cutter. If the attachments are the same, then you can use a blade from a different brand. Just make sure you get the same size blade (eg. 45mm blade for 45mm rotary cutters).

Be aware that a generic rotary cutter blade may not be made with the same high-quality materials that your rotary cutter originally used. The ones from LDH Scissors are made using carbon steel for more durability. Specialist heavy-duty rotary cutters sometimes use tungsten steel.

Do rotary cutters wear out? How often should you change the blade?

Yes, the blade on rotary cutters will wear out and dull with use. There’s no specific timeframe for when you should change the blade. Just change it when it stops cutting effectively. For example, if it’s skipping sections and you need to go over an area more than once.

Why is my rotary cutter skipping sections?

The blade is most likely dull and needs replacing. Or, if you’re new to rotary cutting, perhaps you’re not putting enough pressure on the rotary cutter whilst cutting.

Left-handed rotary cutters:

Some rotary cutters have symmetrical designs, so they can be used by left and right handed users without making any changes. Straight handle rotary cutters often have this advantage. Other styles aren’t symmetrical, but you can install the blade on either side for left-handed use.

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