Over the last month I’ve been in a mood to upgrade and tend to my sewing tools. I acquired some new marking tools, sharpened my shears, cleaned and oiled my sewing machines, and biggest of all, DIY-ed a proper cutting height table from an old dining table top. That last one has been a life-saver!
While I was at it, I had a good look at my rotary cutting situation. I’m not a big rotary cutter user. I love my shears and always feel like I have so much more cutting control with them, especially when going around tight curves. However, there are times when a rotary cutter comes in handy, especially when I’m cutting lace, or more recently, five yards of silk bias binding.
I kept feeling like I was missing out on some big secret because my cutter never seemed to cut all the way through fabrics. It did not matter if I had a new blade or a more expensive blade. Any time I used it I’d have to run back through the pattern piece with my scissors to cut any bits the rotary skipped.
After awhile I began to think the problem might be my cutting mat.
I had two large Olfa green cutting self-healing mats that I could piece together for one large mat if needed. I liked that because it made for easier storage, but my new cutting table allows me have a “full-time” cutting mat!
While wading through the many choices in cutting mats, I came across a few interesting discoveries but I wanted more technical information on mat types. I wrote Mike Barnette, owner of cutting-mats.net, a big online shop devoted to drafting and cutting tools. I figured that might be the place to get the lowdown!
Most of us are familiar with “self-healing” mats but did you know these mats don’t technically heal? The scratches remain but close back up by virtue of the surface being softer.
Mike told me, “Most self healing mats have a hard plastic core with layers of other plastic materials.” Usually the top and bottom surface is a softer vinyl layer. “When the knife blade is removed from the cut, the vinyl layer appears to ‘heal’ itself.”
Among self-healing mats, there are various qualities and thicknesses. For instance, most Olfa mats advertised for rotary cutting are 1.5mm thick. These are the standard type you find in craft stores. Olfa also makes a more “professional quality” self-healing mat that is 3mm thick. Thicker means longer-lasting and Mike advised me to pay attention to the thickness above all else. If you are a crafter or sewist that uses a mat daily, you may want to look into a mat that is thicker than the typical 1.5mm hobby mats.
Solid Plastic Mats
A step up from the self-healing mats are those made from solid plastic instead of multiple plies of poly material.
According to Mike, these “hard surface” mats are made from solid polyethylene plastic (they do not have a vinyl surface). He says that these mats can have some self-healing properties, although they are not advertised as such.
Prolonging a Mat’s Life
Most importantly, I learned that all mats have a lifespan (just like needles and pins–we all change those, right?) and eventually lose their cutting mojo. According to Mike, “many variables affect a mat’s lifespan, including type of material being cut, type of knife used, sharpness of cutting blade, cutting pressure by user, or how often mat is rotated during repetitive cuts.”
His top piece of advice? “ALWAYS change your blade often. It makes no sense to pay $100-300 for a cutting mat and not change a $3 blade.”
To preserve the lifespan of a mat it’s important to:
- Change blades often.
- Rotate the mat regularly.
- Clean regularly with warm soapy water. (I also find a lint roller useful, which helps pick up “invisible” fibers.)
- Don’t use more cutting pressure than is necessary. I’m in the habit of pressing extremely hard in order to cut and I’m going to have to train myself to cut a little more lightly or whatever is required by a certain fabric.
I had already purchased my mat before my emails with Mike but I am very happy with my choice so far. It is a Mega Mat in the exact size of my cutting table. (I later learned that Mike’s company will cut custom mats to your size at no extra charge.) My new mat is a solid plastic mat, and about 2.5mm thick, and is advertised as “pinnable”, which I think just means the plastic is soft enough to hold a pin.
While not as thick as some Alvin self-healing mats or very thick solid plastic mats I hope this provides me with some good cutting for a few years! Just by virtue of being new, I could immediately tell the difference in cutting. My rotary cutter works SO MUCH better. I’m ready to start cutting some bias tape!
Do you have any secret tips to happy rotary cutting? I’d love to hear them!