Adventures in Cutting Mats

caring for a cutting mat | Cloth Habit

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!

Self-Healing Mats

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.

choosing and caring for a cutting mat | Cloth Habit

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!

36 comments

  1. Jennifer says:

    Hmm, you’ve just gone in the opposite direction of my last cutting mat purchase. I had a large alvin mat but swapped for three olfa which can be stowed away. The thing I got tired of with the thicker mat was fine fabrics sometimes sink into the mat rather than being cut through. My understanding was spreading tissue paper when cutting would prevent this but I didn’t ever get around to purchasing a large quantity. I’ve never had this issue with thinner harder mats so I decided to give that a try, so far so good. Sharp blades are key and I have to remind myself not to scrimp on those. Did you get any information on which style of mat is most specifically suited to fabric cutting or is there no difference?

    • Amy says:

      Hi Jennifer, I could see how that might happen because the grooves are more obvious on my new mat. I do have a large roll of tissue paper that I use for cutting single layers so it’s good you mention that! It will come in handy when I really get to cutting. I do change my blade with every single project and have bought every kind of rotary blade and brand, but it never seemed to matter, and I’m guessing a big part of that just had to do with the mat being past its lifespan.

      I’ll ask Mike about styles of mats and suitability to fabrics, or perhaps he can chime in here. For what it’s worth, my mat is advertised toward quilters so it’s suitable for fabrics.

  2. Deanna says:

    I have a blade sharpener! It is a handy contraption that screws onto the blade like a little handle and then has another dealy that you spin the blade on to sharpen it…
    http://www.pelennapatchworks.co.uk/rotary-cutters-blades-and-knives/28mm-rotary-blade-sharpener.html
    Like that… I have one for each blade size I use and they work really well to keep the blades sharp. They won’t grind out nicks if you run over a pin or something. But day to day cutting will be a breeze!
    I stop and sharpen every couple of days and blades are lasting 10x longer now.

  3. Michelle says:

    Amy, this is wonderful! I just bought new blades for my rotary cutters wondering why I had to replace them again so quickly. I’m not thinking it’s my mat. I won’t say how long I’ve had it.

  4. Mamae Lulu says:

    Good info! I have only a small mat and am waiting to purchase a new one when I set up my sewing room. Thanks for the info and hope you give an update later on how it’s working out for you.
    Mamae

  5. Katherine says:

    I never found rotary cutting to be the joy that others describe, for much the same reasons as you.

    Things did pick up when I won some “roll the gold” blades. Just a few days a go I was looking for an aussi source of these blades but did not find one…guess I’ll have to pay the international shipping.

    • Amy says:

      Oh, I’ve never heard of these before! I know from choosing knives and scissors that there is always good, better and best metals. Rotary blades aren’t cheap but it’d be nice to try something longer-lasting or perhaps a sharpener as Deanna posted above.

  6. Sophie-Lee says:

    Hmm, interesting. I’ve also been upgrading some things in my sewing machine – like you I finally decided it’s time to get a standing table for cutting (my poor back, cutting on the floor all these years) and I’m eagerly awaiting the trestle legs. I was thinking of getting a new cutting mat that sits on the table permanently, especially because my cutting mat accidentally got VERY warped so it’s not flat

    I’ve actually only started using my rotary cutter recently (the blade is probably very blunt) and have been REALLY enjoying it – finally realised why people like using them so much.

  7. Lyndle says:

    Thanks for this excellent post. I must clean my mat! And I really should find somewhere to bulk buy some blades so I can afford to change them. Or buy a sharpener. Thanks also for the link to Mike’s shop, it is new to me.

  8. sallie says:

    Oh this is such good information! I’m getting ready to DIY myself a new, proper height, cutting table and was looking to upgrade mats as well. I’ve always pieced together my mats – I have a larger one from an art supply store and a smaller one from JoAnne’s (I think it’s Fiskers) but the smaller one is all wavy and bubbled because back in my early sewing days I stupidly pressed fabric on it with my iron as well. So this is a very timely post!

  9. Laura says:

    I’ve been wanting to get a big cutting mat for my new table as well, and this is super helpful information! I’ve never been big on using the rotary cutter, since I have a annoyingly small mat now, but I’ve been convinced by all the sewers who sing their praises – I’m going to check out the options now!

  10. My advice don’t buy your rotary cutter blades from Joanns. Two reasons. 1) you can get them cheaper at places like Goldstar Tools $10 for a 5 pack. So you can toss them as soon as they aren’t super sharp. 2) Years ago when I worked at Joanns we had customers that would buy the blades and then because they were so expensive they would carefully steam open the package take out the new blades. Put their old blades back in the package and return them. Then the next person who bought them would get crappy dull blades. If a customer complained their new blades were dull we just replaced them without question because we knew what the deal was.

    • Amy says:

      Ugh, that’s horrible! I don’t buy much from Joann’s except for emergency thread and zippers. It’s a bit of a haul in traffic and I avoid Austin traffic ;).

  11. David Coffin says:

    Years ago I did extensive testing of all the available mats and cutters for a Threads review article, and ditto-ing Jennifer, I was amazed to find that the very popular “self-healing” mats were terrible with very thin fabrics, which kept getting pushed into the soft surface as often as being cut. This seemed obviously and totally unacceptable. Adding some tissue underneath to make up for the poor design of such an expensive product seems equally unacceptable to me.

    My favorite mat by a large margin was and is the so-called Big Mat, still available (http://goo.gl/b0ZjOu) in lots of sizes up to 4’x8′, very reasonably priced and shipped, and easy to cut to fit odd table sizes (the cutaway scraps are very handy!). Not coincidentally, this was also the hardest and thinnest of all the mats I tried, and also the one on which the cutting marks were the most obvious…so, it all seemed like a question of : Do you want a mat that LOOKS good or one that actually WORKS? Still true, as far as I’m concerned; not much has changed in rotary or mat technology.

    I’ve since used only these, and have found them to be very long-lasting, not at all hard on blades, and also quite cleanable with spray cleaner and paper towels, along with an occasional scraping with a little piece of plexi or a plastic ruler edge, which removes the scarcely detectable raised edges from the scorings. The only way I’ve ever found them to “wear out” is from extensive use in a confined area, where sometimes there are so many scoring marks that little chips of the mat fall out, creating a spot where cutting will skip, but this is very rare and takes years of heavy use. Rotating and even flipping are of course simple precautions worth taking.

    I find I don’t often need to change blades, and like Deanna, haven’t found sharpeners to be of much use when the blade starts skipping, but quilters are probably the best folks to advise on heavy-duty cutting, and cutter maintenance; NObody cuts as much as a quilter!

    Besides all that, my best tips would be:
    1. Have LOTS of different sizes of cutters, smaller for tighter curves and bigger for thicker layers.
    2. For complex cuts, and in general on curves, get in the habit of rotating the work as much as you can, so you don’t get into so many weird arm/hand positions. I rough cut small pieces away from the main yardage so I can pivot them easily, and often find I’m pivoting AS I cut so the cutter has to turn less. For the same reason, it’s great to have a small mat scrap around so you can pivot the mat itself.
    3. Cutting against a straight-edge or curve makes sense for high precision, but it’s very easy to veer off the edge, especially on long cuts, so be sure to always have the edge over the piece, NOT on the waste, so you don’t veer into the good stuff.
    4. If you find curves tricky, use a small straight edge and pivot that against the marked line, cutting in short straight sections, or even moving the ruler as you cut; easier than it sounds if what you’re cutting is held down—pattern weights are essential! Also keep the blades tightened a little so they don’t roll completely freely, which can get out of hand and leave you gun-shy about cutting.
    5. Blades that start to skip on fabric usually still work fine on paper, so I keep a handle or two marked for paper only. Cutting paper doesn’t dull blades that I’ve ever noticed.

    • Amy says:

      David, thank you for your extensive advice, and your mat recommendation. Any chance you remember the issue of Threads? I’m sure some readers would appreciate that if they have subscription access.

      To answer one thought–I like a mat that *both* looks good and works! I’m very sensitive to color, but that said, I prefer the best tools no matter what they look like.

      And good advice: “be sure to always have the edge over the piece, NOT on the waste, so you don’t veer into the good stuff.” Learned that one the hard way!

      • David Coffin says:

        The Big Mats look very like your pix, plain white with blue grids, or without; I always get the grids. They’re only about 1/16″ thick though. I guess I always assumed that it was the absence of scoring lines that folks liked about self-healing mats; they never look used, but since my experiments I always see the soft mats through a haze of distain so they don’t ever look good to me:)

        I’ve always found it’s the stuff you’re cutting that determines the force you need to use, so any mat needs to be able to stand up to heavy pressure when it’s needed, either for thick layers or whenever you notice skips that might go away if you pressed a little harder.

        Here’s the Threads info:
        A Guide to Rotary Cutters and Mats David Page Coffin #48 AUG/SEP 1993 p42

    • Amy says:

      And also, just to make a distinction, the mat I purchased is not a self-healing mat. It is far less flexible and feels a lot like the Big Mats you describe (and from what I can see in their videos). Unlike a self-healing, I can see the slices on my board but they are not “grooved”. I am taking some practice cuts to learn how much pressure to use. I have a lot of heavy-handed mat habits, some of which come from using cutting mats for cutting mat board and bristol paper.

    • Kerry says:

      I’d like to echo David’s recommendation for the Big Mat. About 6 months ago, I learned of it in another Threads article (http://www.threadsmagazine.com/item/4981/rotary-cutters-and-mats) in a search for a better alternative to the self-healing mats I’d been using. My mat gets a lot of use (almost daily, and lots of repetitive cuts), so I’ve been through a few of them. Anyway, I’m absolutely loving the Big Mat so far, and personally think it shows the cut lines less than the softer/self-healing mats did. It takes a lot less effort to make a clean cut, and I no longer have to go back over every cut twice to snip all the missed threads. I also like that it’s white, now my sewing space doesn’t have that constant green hue!

      Their website (http://www.sewingemporium.com) is pretty basic, and it did take me a while to get answers to my emails (I’m in Canada so we had to go back and forth sorting out international shipping), but don’t let that put you off – it was absolutely worth the effort.

      • Amy says:

        Hi Kerry, thanks for sharing your experience. I have been having the same experience so far with my new mat. I need to put a lot less pressure to get a clean cut. It’s been great!

  12. David Coffin says:

    FINALLY got the cutting-mats.net site to open; will have to check out his mats; very interesting, thanks! A LOT thicker than mine…dunno if that’ll be a downside or not.

  13. Grace says:

    Oh, my mat is so old! I think I must have bought at least 15 years ago. It’s also cracked in two places from being rolled up in a hot car during a move. Time for a new one! But first I think it’s time for a new cutting table in my sewing room.

  14. Rochelle New says:

    I really love Olfa products but I’m long past due for a new mat. I didn’t know they made thicker versions! I’ll definitely look into that. Thank you for the heads up! My rotary cutter/mat is practically an extension of my arm so mine gets a lot of love 🙂

  15. Meg K. says:

    I’ve always wanted a cutting mat that I could also iron on but have never found one. I’d like to be able to keep my cutting mat out on my work table all the time instead of having to put it away when I’m done cutting.

    • David Coffin says:

      That’d be great, but pretty unlikely, I think! My set up is to have the entire table covered with my cutting mat, and to have a little home-made press board nearby, made from about a 16 x 24-in piece of ¾” plywood covered with a few layers of blanket and wrapped tightly with heavy linen, staple-gunned around back, which can sit on another table to the side when I’m at the machine, or be placed on the table when there’s lots of detail pressing to do. The heat actually does work its way through the the mat, which starts to swell and rise up underneath. It eventually settles back down when it cools, but I’ve put some wooden spacers underneath so it doesn’t touch the mat surface; works great! And with a sleeve board, ham, and some wooden pressing tools always nearby, I hardly ever need to drag out the full ironing board.

      • Gennady says:

        Is the Big Mat or any other mats from Sewing Emporium have any bad odor? Do you know what type of plastic is used to manufacture them?

  16. Lady ID says:

    Nowadays I mostly cut with pattern weight and a rotary cutter – i have two 45mms and a 28mm. I use two large mats side by side on my large foldable table. I like that if I fold down one side of the table, I can useone mat instead.

    Sometimes I get the skipping but I thought it was because I do not consistently change blades even though I have extras. Now I know it could be two things. I still need to change the blades though.

  17. Jennifer says:

    Hi. I recently purchased a 4’x8′ self-healing mat from cutting-mats.net and I absolutely love it. I had been wanting one for a long time and I am extremely happy with it. The only possible drawback I can see is that I feel it does dull my blades a bit faster than my old Olfa mat. Has this been your experience as well? As I said, despite this perceived difference I am still happy with it. No more moving the mat around for me which is so helpful when cutting yardage and essential when cutting delicate, shifty fabrics like chiffon. Great post!

    • Amy says:

      Hi Jennifer, having a bigger mat is so helpful isn’t it? So far I haven’t noticed blades dulling faster. In fact, I haven’t changed my blades since buying the mat a couple months ago. Our experiences would be a bit different, though, since my new mat is not a self-healing mat but a solid plastic mat.

  18. Gennady says:

    Is the Big Mat or any other mats from Sewing Emporium have any bad odor? Do you know what type of plastic is used to manufacture them?

    • David Coffin says:

      Not that I’ve ever noticed or can recall, but if there was when just opened, it didn’t last long. Most other mats I’ve tried do smell a bit but only when new. Sorry, don’t recall ever seeing what the type of plastic was, not that it would mean much to me if I did know!

  19. Barbara Schoener says:

    Are the measurements on the Big Mat accurate? I have been looking for a large, one-piece rotary cutting mat but found that a couple of the mats (dahle and one that starts with an “A” can’t remember the name) are off by 3/8″ vertically from the bottom of the measured area to the top of the measured area (as distinguished from the total mat)I design, sew and sell aprons so I cut everything from cotton to satin and lace. Olfa is accurate but I need a one piece mat that is at least 36″ x 48″. Can anyone recommend one? I like the kind that have the same numbers opposite each other on the top and bottom as well as the sides so that it is easy to place the cutting ruler accurately. Most mats number one way across the top and the opposite way across the bottom and one way on one side and the other way on the other side.

    • Amy says:

      Hi Barbara, I’ll have to let someone else answer about accuracy as I don’t have the Big Mat. Mine is a “Mega Mat” (the link is in my post). As far as I can tell it is accurate but I confess that I don’t rely on the rulers of the matt—only to find a bias line when I need it. I use clear rulers for measuring, cutting and marking.

      If you want a specific size, the company I mentioned in my post will cut one to your specifications. They make mats of the same quality as Big Mat. It just so happened that the Mega Mat I purchased was exactly the size of my cutting table.

  20. Urvashi says:

    I want to buy mega size cutting mat for my fabrics.
    From where should I purchase that mat please suggest me a good quality owner to buy

    • Amy says:

      Hi Urvashi, in this blog post I interviewed and wrote about a shop that sells these mats. They are high quality. I also included links to where I bought mine. Please have a look!

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