Six tips to get the most out of your basic quilting ruler

cutting pieces with a rotary cutter and ruler and title "6 tips to get the most from your basic quilting ruler".

Rotary cutters and rulers revolutionized quilting. Before they came on the scene, most quilters used templates and piecing by machine was challenging. Rotary cutters and rulers brought the chance to do st rip piecing, and made many patterns much more quick and easy.

Today, there are hundreds of specialized rulers available. Many are designed for one specific pattern and are super-efficient at that one thing.

There are lots of ways to save money on rulers:

  • If you are going to make multiples of a pattern and the ruler has something special, then it might be worth investing in it.
  • If you have quilty friends, maybe they have rulers you can borrow. If you try it out and totally love it, then you can invest.
  • Maybe your guild would consider buying some rulers for their library? Or people could donate them?
  • Check kijiji or other online marketplaces for second hand rulers.

Before you invest in any more rulers, make sure you are using what you have to its full potential.

The first quilting ruler I purchased many, many years ago was a 6” x 12”. This was one of the first sizes and styles available, and I still think it is the best foundational ruler.

If you are only going to have one ruler, I think this is the one to have.

Here are some tips to making sure you are getting the most out of your basic ruler.

1. Fold your fabric properly

If you get fabric off the bolt, it’s 40” wide (give or take a couple of inches.) Even if you had a 40” ruler, you probably don’t have a 40” cutting mat. So you can fold it and cut multiple layers at once.

Getting the right fold is tricky, especially for beginners. 

floral fabric folded on a cutting mat.

You want your cuts to be along the grain (the weave of the fabric). The cut from the fabric store might not be straight, so you can’t use that.

Lay one selvedge along a line on your cutting mat. Get the largest cutting mat you can afford and store flat.

Fold over the other selvedge to meet the first one. You may have to shift it to the right or to the left to get it to lay flat. You will be able to tell that the fold is correct when everything lays smoothly and the fold is parallel to the selvedge.

Then you can fold it again so there are four layers. 

fabric folded in quarters.

Now lay the ruler on it and check. The folds should be parallel to each other. This will ensure that the strip you cut is straight and doesn’t have bends in it. It is more important that they are parallel to each other than parallel to the selvedge, but the goal is all three.

2. Read the numbers

Using the same ruler over and over will help you become familiar with it. People prefer different ones, so if you are having problems, feel free to try a different brand with different colour lines, etc. But sometimes if you just keep trying you will get used to it.

To measure the fabric, make sure you are looking straight down at the ruler. If you are looking at an angle, it won’t be lined up. Think of measuring liquid for cooking. You need to bend down to see the level in the measuring cup. Same thing.

Become familiar with the numbers. Most rulers have one inch lines and half-inch, quarter-inch and eighth-inch dashes. Some have half and quarter inch lines as well, often in another colour.

If you are in doubt, count the dashes out from the inch line and remember your fractions:

2/8 = 1/4

4/8 = 1/2

6/8 = 3/4

3. Check your mat

There is some debate about whether you should use the numbers on your ruler or the numbers on your mat. There are great quilters on both sides.

Check your ruler against the mat you are using. If it lines up perfectly, you can use them together. 

Check again from time to time, because sometimes mats warp or wear out. If they don’t line up, you can still use the mat for cutting, just don’t use the lines on it to measure anything.

4. Hold the ruler still

There is nothing more frustrating than cutting a line and having the ruler shift part way through the cut.

A 12” long ruler is easier to control than a 24” long ruler, so that’s one reason I like it.

To help hold it still, it is helpful to have part of your hand on the ruler and part on the mat (your pinky and ring finger). Try pressing down with your whole hand or fingertips to see what is more secure for you. 

holding a ruler and rotary cutter to cut fabric.

If you don’t have the strength in your hand, you can get a suction handle to help hold it or use weights to help. Either exercise hand weights (3 – 5 lbs.) or heavy cans will work as long as they don’t block your vision.

5. Hold the rotary cutter up

When you slice the fabric, the edge of the blade should be just beside the ruler. Keep the cutter up perpendicular to the fabric. If you cut at an angle, it won’t be as accurate and it will be easy to slip.

position of a rotary cutter for cutting fabric.

6. Special note about rotary cutters

I know this is about rulers and not cutter, but ALWAYS close your blade when you are done. You don’t have to talk to too many quilters before hearing about a rotary blade incident.

Also, cut away from yourself. Begin close and push the blade away. The greater the angle you are trying to cut at, the less accuracy you have. Cutting from right to left is difficult and often not accurate. Cutting towards yourself is dangerous.

Cutting a strip of fabric with a rotary cutter and ruler,

If it isn’t cutting smoothly, try changing the blade.

When you keep these tips in mind, you will be able to easily cut strips up to 6” wide with only the basic 6” x 12” ruler.

The strips can then be cut into smaller rectangles and squares using the same techniques.


Elizabeth DeCroos - Epida Studio.

Elizabeth DeCroos

Elizabeth DeCroos is the designer and teacher at Epida Studio. She loves to work in quilting, pojagi and embroidery and teach these techniques to others.
Learn more and get her to speak to your group.

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