Sew You Wanna Quilt? – Cutting Your Fabric

Welcome to the sixth installment of the Sew You Wanna Quilt? series

Last week I encouraged you to choose a first project and buy your fabric for it – and this week I am going to talk all about cutting fabric. When I first started quilting, this was the scariest part of quilting for me! Today’s post, I hope, will take some of the fear out of cutting into your beautiful fabric. What you need (must have) is:

  • a rotary cutter with a new blade
  • a cutting mat
  • a cutting ruler
  • a flat space large enough to lay your cutting mat out flat

This post will cover the following: Safety, Width of Fabric vs. Length of Fabric, Squaring up your Fabric, Accuracy, The Cutting Process, and Organization.


Rotary cutters use very sharp blades. Having a sharp, new blade in your cutter is a necessity if you want accurate, clean cuts. So, it goes without saying, that there is a little danger using this tool. I wish I could tell you I have never cut myself while cutting fabric…but, I have. Luckily, it was a small cut – but it was deep and bled a lot and had I followed a simple rule, it would not have happened.


Most rotary cutters have a safety shield which can be closed to protect you from inadvertently cutting yourself. Laying the cutter down on a mat with the blade exposed puts you at high risk to bump the blade – and that is all it takes to get a deep cut. When using the blade, stay focused and aware that you are using a sharp tool. Keep your fingers all the way on top of the cutting ruler. Pay attention. If you are distracted, stop cutting.

Width of Fabric vs. Length of Fabric vs. Bias

Instructions for cutting fabric in most quilting tutorials and patterns is for width of fabric (WOF). It is very easy to determine what the width of fabric is on a cut of fabric if the selvages are in place as width of fabric is defined as: the measurement from selvage to selvage. What is the selvage? This is the self-finished edges of fabric which keep the fabric from unraveling or fraying. The selvages are a result of how the fabric is created. In woven fabrics, they are the edges that run parallel to the longitudinal threads that run the entire length of the fabric. Selvages on machine-woven fabric have little holes along their length, through the thick part. Selvages are thicker than the rest of the fabric, and may shrink or “pucker” during laundering, so quilters usually cut off the selvage and discard it (modern quilters are now using the selvages to create unique quilts – see examples on this Flickr group).

The length of fabric refers to the threads in fabric which run the length of the fabric, parallel to the selvedge. Lengthwise grain of fabric has the least amount of stretch, so often patterns will suggest that you cut fabric for quilt borders lengthwise across the fabric.

True bias is defined as the direction at a 45-degree angle to the straight grains, but in quilting we refer to any cut that doesn’t run along a straight grain as a bias cut. Cuts with their edges along the bias are the most stretchy and unstable. Triangle pieces have at least one edge which is cut along the bias, so stitching triangle pieces along their diagonal edge can be tricky sometimes.

Squaring up your Fabric

Before cutting pieces for your quilt, it is important to square up your fabric so that your cutting is accurate. Start by folding your fabric with the selvages together. If you have a small cutting mat, you may have to make a second fold. Position your fabric with selvage edge at the top and the fold at the bottom. Line one of these edges up with a horizontal line on your cutting mat:

The following cutting direction is for RIGHT-HANDED people. If you are left handed, you will need to reverse the directions. Let a small amount of the right side of your fabric overlap one of the vertical lines of your cutting mat. Position your cutting ruler on top of the fabric with the right edge lined up with the vertical line of your cutting mat:

Put your left hand on top of the ruler, palm down. Press down firmly:

With your cutting blade open and in your right hand, put the blade edge up against the cutting ruler edge and on top of the fabric at the bottom edge of the fabric:

Maintain steady, firm downward pressure on the ruler while gliding the rotary cutter up the fabric in one smooth, firm cut:

Some quilters prefer to cut in a top to bottom cut (vs a bottom to top cut). Choose whichever is most comfortable for you.

You now have one edge of your fabric which is a completely straight, square edge:


Cutting fabric for quilt blocks must be accurate or things will not come together correctly when you begin to stitch. Take your time with cutting, making sure that you line your ruler up accurately before making a cut. It is better to be “off” by cutting a piece a little larger than you need, then by cutting it smaller (you can always correct a cut that is too large). Maintain firm pressure on the top of the cutting ruler and once you begin your cut, continue in one smooth motion, keeping the blade up against the edge of the ruler.

The Cutting Process

For most projects, you will be cutting width of fabric strips and then cutting pieces off of those strips. Tutorials and patterns give specific cutting instructions for their project. The instructions I am giving in this post are general cutting guidelines for cutting a basic square of fabric 4″ X 4″. This technique can be used to cut any size square.

Using your squared up fabric, lay the straight, square edge along one of the vertical lines on your cutting mat. Count over four inches from that edge using the pre-measured lines on your mat and place your ruler along the vertical line at that point. Put your left hand on top of the ruler, palm down. Press down firmly:

With your cutting blade open and in your right hand, put the blade edge up against the cutting ruler edge and on top of the fabric at the bottom edge of the fabric. Maintain steady, firm downward pressure on the ruler while gliding the rotary cutter up the fabric in one smooth, firm cut:

You now have a strip of fabric 4″ wide and approximately 42″ long (width of fabric).

Take this strip and fold it in half, selvage to selvage. Lay it lengthwise across your cutting mat, lining up the top edge with a horizontal line on the mat, and allowing the selvage ends to overlap a vertical line on the mat (NOTE: you will be cutting off the selvages at this point – make sure the overlap will remove ALL the selvage…usually about an inch is adequate):

Using the cutting technique described above, cut off the selvages:

At this point, you will begin making 4″ cuts down the length of your strip, moving your ruler to the left as you go. It is fine to cut two squares at a time (often quilters stack their strips and do multiple cuts at once – but, be careful that you have a blade large enough to cut through several layers of fabric). Take your time and make accurate cuts, occasionally repositioning your fabric if needed so that all the edges are even and lined up:


  • Determine if you are going to be cutting width of fabric or length of fabric and position your fabric accordingly.
  • Always square up your fabric before cutting.
  • Make smooth, continuous cuts using steady, firm pressure on the cutter and the ruler.
  • Measure twice, cut once.


If you are cutting all your fabric in one sitting, consider how you will organize your pieces. I like to use sticky notes on my stacks of cut fabric which indicate the size of the piece. Many tutorials and patterns identify components with numbers or letters – and so I also use those naming cues when labeling my cut fabric. I often write directly on the pattern indicating what fabric is going to be used for specific components so that I do not get mixed up when cutting.

Sew You Wanna Quilt?

  • Pull out your pattern or tutorial and all your fabric.
  • Take some time to determine what fabric will be used for each component of the quilt and consider writing this directly on your pattern or tutorial.
  • Follow the instructions for your quilt pattern and cut your fabric as directed, organizing and labeling as you go.
  • If you are nervous about cutting your first project and have never used a rotary cutter before – get some scrap fabric and practice squaring up your fabric and making some cuts.

Previous articles in this series:


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    • Lola T on September 4, 2011 at 09:16

    I Just loved the article it really gives a brilliant Idea of how to learn sewing on-line with such good article, I feel this is brilliant way teach those who are interested in learning this art well. I really want to learn more and implement this for my self at my place. I guess with the help on SMM will also increase the opportunity for others who want to learn well.

    • Nicole G on September 1, 2012 at 07:18

    Thank you for this tutorial. I want to cut squares using a rotary cutter, but what about fraying? I don’t have a serger and it seems like it would take forever to sew around each square when done cutting. Any suggestions? Thank you.

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