Quilting pieces should be cut accurately. If you cut accurately the first time, you don't need to trim later to "square up" your pieces. To cut accurately you need to have proper acrylic tools.
Some quilters want to purchase and use every tool and ruler available. Some quilters are very happy with one basic ruler. Most of us quilters are somewhere in between. We need different rulers or tools that perform individual functions that are necessary for each person's style of quilting.
There are different brands of acrylic tools available. One brand has black markings that are visible from both sides of the ruler. This type of ruler is very convenient for a left handed person who has to turn the rulers over to read from left to right. Another brand of rulers have yellow and black markings but if you turn the ruler over, you cannot see the numbers. Some brands of rulers are hard for quilters with visual problems to use as the "dots" on the rulers have an illusion of movement.
Begin by purchasing only one ruler of a particular brand and try it before purchasing an entire set. Some quilt shops may have rulers available in their classrooms that you can try before you buy. Take a half yard of scrap fabric to make practice cuts to see which brand of ruler suits your needs.
It is recommended to purchase all rulers in the same brand as there may be small differences between different brands of rulers. I currently use at least three different brands of rulers in my studio and have not noticed that there is a difference in the markings. Whatever brand you decide to purchase, you will want to invest in a good quality tool. It will serve you well and last a long time.
Tools And Rulers Avalable For Purchase
Basic tools and rulers and how they are used.
Every quilter should have a basic 6 x 24" acrylic ruler. Variations if this size would be a 6 1/2" by 24" or 24 1/2". This size is very usable for cutting long strips and squaring up fabric yardage for large cuts.
Another useful acrylic ruler is 6 or 6 1/2" x 12" to 13" with the 6 1/2" x 13" being more useful. There are many patterns that call for a 6" finished square and that would need to be cut at 6 1/2". You don't want to have to place two rulers together in order to make a 6 1/2" cut. The 12" or 13" long ruler is half the length of the 24" ruler and is convenient to make smaller cuts.
A smaller rectangular ruler is a 3" by 12" or a 3" by 15". Again these are very useful for smaller individual cuts after the long strips are cut.
The proper size acrylic ruler is the only tool you need. You should not have to put two tools together. I have seen instructions in books and patterns tell you how to use two rulers together for larger measurements. If you need to do this occasionally it is OK, but if you need the larger measurements often, you should consider investing in a larger ruler.
There are special tools for very accurate strip cutting. June Tailor has a large square acrylic tool called a "Shape Cut". It has slots 1/2" apart with number markings every inch. She also has a similar tool called a "Quarter Cut". It has slots that are 1/4" apart. Both tools are excellent for accurate strip cutting and for cutting accurate squares. Place the cutting tool over your fabric. Place your rotary cutter in one of the slots and cut. The slots are just wide enough to accommodate a rotary cutter. Do not lift the Shape Cut. Count over until your next cut and place cutter in slot and cut. When you have cut all the strips in one direction, carefully lift the tool and turn it a quarter turn. You can then cut across the opposite direction and have perfect squares. For best results use a 45mm rotary cutter or smaller. This tool is essential if you are cutting hundreds of 2" squares for postage stamp or watercolor quilts. If you are having difficulty keeping track of the slots in which you wish to make cuts, use a dry erase marker to mark the slots you wish to use. The dry erase ink can be removed with a dry tissue when finished.
Square rulers come in several sizes and are available in at least three brands. The smallest size available is a 2 1/2" square is used mostly for selective cutting for watercolor fabrics or for "squaring" a miniature block. The 4 1/2" and 6 1/2" size are very useful for cutting. A 6 1/2", 8 1/2" and 10 1/2" square are great for cutting and squaring. The largest available is an 18 1/2" square ruler. This is a very useful tool for cutting setting squares for larger blocks and for "squaring" appliqué blocks. Not every quilter needs all sizes of square rulers. I find the 4 1/2", 6 1/2", 8 1/2" and 12 1/2" are the sizes I use the most. I only occasionally use my 16 1/2".
Triangular specialty rulers
Easy Angle -- One of the greatest inventions is the EASY ANGLE by EZ Quilting. This tool is excellent for cutting perfect half square triangles from the same size strips that squares are cut from. With this tool the grain line is on the short edge with the diagonal of the half-square being on the bias.
Companion Angle -- This tool is a Companion Angle to the Easy Angle by EZ Quilting. This tool will cut quarter square triangles from the same strips -- having the grain line on the long side of the triangle. Cut four pieces for quarter square triangles.
Flying Geese blocks -- For the easiest way to make "Flying Geese" blocks simply cut both the geese strips and background strips 1/2" larger than finished size. Cut the "geese" using the Companion Angle and the background pieces with the easy angle. Using these two tools flying geese are simple to make with no hassle and no extra trimming.
EZ Quilting has an EASY CIRCLE CUT acrylic tool that allows you to cut circles with a rotary cutter. The sizes that can be cut are 2" circles to 10" circles. Place the ruler on either the fold line or the seam allowance line of your fabric and simply cut with a rotary cutter. For best results use a small rotary cutter such as a 28mm or an 18 mm cutter. Drunkards Path blocks and similar type blocks can be cut with this tool.
Other acrylic tools
There are acrylic wedge tools available for cutting Dresden Plate and Grandmother's Fan. There are also wedge tools that if using 36 wedges or 40 wedges a complete circle can be constructed. The instructions provided with the tools are excellent and will be very helpful if you wish to make the pattern provided.
Specialized templates are available to cut individual blocks. The acrylic templates are made for a specific block pattern and a specific size and while these are very useful, they do not give the flexibility of a tool that can cut many sizes of the same shape. Don't hesitate to purchase one of these template sets if you find it will help speed up your cutting.
I have discovered a new ruler called the "All-In-One Ruler" distributed by That Patchwork Place. This ruler is 6" x 18". The premise is you will only need one ruler. With this ruler you are able to cut strips and squares, half-square triangles, quarter-square triangles, and diamonds. One end cuts half square triangles similar to the Easy Angle tool, and another end can be used to cut quarter square triangles similar to the Companion Angle tool.
It is very convenient to have all these features in one ruler. And while it could replace several other acrylic tools, I can't imagine not having some of the other tools that have only one use. This ruler might be the only ruler I would take to a class or a retreat but I would not want to quit using some of the other specialty rulers and tools that I regularly use and like.
A question has been asked about the grids printed on mats. I checked the accuracy of the gridlines on four different brands of cutting mats and find them to be quite accurate. The difficulty with using the mat for cutting is the smaller fractional increments would be less accurate.
The best use of your grid lines on your mat would be for placing the fabric so it is square. This way you will be certain to get your first cut square with the fabric, after that you should use your ruler for all measurements.
Many books, magazine articles, and quilting teachers recommend that we not use the grid printed on the mats for accurate cutting. After researching rotary cutting instructions from several books by well known authors and different teaching websites online, all quilting teachers recommend using the acrylic rotary rulers entirely for measuring for your quilting pieces. Some quilters even admitted that they turned their mats over so they cut on the plain side and not have the grid lines being a distraction.
Your rotary rulers are printed to give you many measurements. Many more measurements than you get on the 1" grid printed on the cutting mats. Most rulers are printed in eighths and a few are available with markings in sixteenths. Because you can measure in quarters, eighths and sixteenths you will find using the ruler to measure is much more accurate than using the one inch grid printed on mats.
Correct cutting with your rotary ruler
Let's practice cutting 3" strips. After you have squared and trimmed the edge of your fabric, place your rotary ruler on the fabric. If your right handed the bulk of your fabric will be to the right. If you are left handed the bulk of your fabric will be at the left. Line the 3" line on your ruler with the clean cut edge of your fabric -- the first three inches of your ruler will be on the fabric. Place the three inch line just so it is just covering the clean edge of your fabric. This is the accurate way to cut. Do not place your fabric edge before the line as this will result in a scant cut. Be sure the line on your ruler is covering the cut edge of the fabric but no extra. Make your cut. Move ruler and place it on the fabric using the three inch line again. Continue until all strips are cut.
When cutting strips, be sure to make a fresh "square up" cut every two or three strips. Sometimes you only cut off a very small amount when squaring up and you may think it is unnecessary. But after several cuts any small discrepancy will be noticeable in cutting your strips. The accuracy of your strip piecing depends on the strips being straight and not having a "V" at the center fold.
Learn to cut with both hands
It is recommended to learn to cut both right handed and left handed. I have seen in several books instructions explaining to make the first cut and then turn the entire mat around without moving the fabric. It would be so much easier to make your first cut with your less dominant hand and then continue the majority of your cutting with your dominant hand. Take a half yard of scrap fabric and simply cut strips and squares with your less dominant hand for practice. It will take less than a yard of fabric to practice. After you get the feel for using your other hand to cut you will save so much time and frustration. Remember if you are right handed the bulk of your fabric will be to the right. If you are left handed the bulk of the fabric will be to your left.
For safety, remember to always cut away from yourself and close the safety on your blade. Keep your rotary cutters away from children and pets. When carrying your cutter to classes or guild meetings, store it in a case especially designed for rotary cutters or an old glasses case.