Rotary Cutting Mat Care

The other day as I was finishing cutting out a new project, I looked down at my rotary cutting mat, and realized how thankful I was to have such a useful quilting tool. So, this got me thinking, what is the best way to care for a rotary cutting mat? Thus, the incentive for this blog post.

Most quilters prefer a "self-healing" cutting mat over a hard surface mat, which begs the question, just how do "self-healing" mats work? Well, according to Omnigrid, one of the many manufacturers of rotary cutting mats,

‘Self-healing’ cutting mats are made from independent tiny pieces [which are] pressed together to create a solid cutting surface. When … using a rotary cutter, the blade actually goes between the tiny pieces, separating them, and not cutting into the surface as a whole unit. After the cut is made, the surface [‘heals” by] closing back together...

Like all our valued quilting tools, we would like our cutting mats to last a long time. Here are some tips to prolong its life.

  1. When you complete your cutting project ensure that you remove all loose threads and fibers. If you don’t those pesky little threads can get caught in the cuts and might keep the mat from "healing.". To remove these threads, you can use a soft scrubber, an art gum eraser, a soft toothbrush, or a mushroom brush. While doing so be careful not to scratch the mat.

  2. Treat any stains resulting from spills as quickly as possible. Dampen a soft cloth with cool water and wipe up the spill. Other stains, be they pen or marker stains, can be removed with a magic eraser dipped in room- temperature water and a small amount of dishwashing liquid. Do not use harsh chemicals or cleaning solutions on your mat. The key is to treat all stains quickly and gently.

  3. Prevent Warping. It is particularly important to store your mat flat, not rolled up or standing on its edge because those ways of storing your mat will often cause it to warp or crack. If that happens, your mat could be permanently misshaped and, as a result, your cuts will no longer be straight and accurate. Also, never iron on your mat or set hot beverages on its surface. Do not leave your mat in a hot car, near a hot surface or in direct sunlight. These sources of external heat could cause your mat to warp and could cause damage to the "healing" surface. Additionally, extreme cold can cause mats to be brittle and shatter or crack. So, rule of thumb, stay clear of extreme temperatures!

  4. Avoid continuous cutting in the same spot. Vary where you cut on the mat. Repeatedly using the same cutting lines can cause deep grooves in the mat, which may not heal, and, over time, you may even cut entirely through the mat.

  5. Avoid the use of a dull rotary blade. It is especially important to ensure that the blade in your rotary cutter is very sharp. A dull blade can damage a self-healing mat because they are unable to make a thin enough cut to “fit” between the tiny independent pieces that make up the mat's surface. Also, if a blade is dull, many quilters will saw back and forth to make their cuts, and this action will likely cause damage that will not heal. It is equally as important to maintain your rotary cutter at a 90̊ angle (perpendicular to the mat) when cutting. If your blade is slanted, it may cut the tiny independent pieces, rather than separating them, leaving a gash in the mat. The bottom line: a dull blade will likely ruin your mat.

  6. Moisturize and condition your mat. Just like your hands, which can get dry and need moisturizer when working with fabric, so does your mat. Through repeated use, fabric can draw moisture from a mat and can shorten its life. To keep your mat in tip-top shape you might consider taking the following actions. Add a few drops of mild detergent to a cup of room-temperature water. Then, using a soft, gentle bristle brush such as a toothbrush or mushroom brush, create a lather and gently clean your mat. You should finish the job by rinsing with room-temperature water and then wiping it dry with a lint-free cotton towel. To further restore your mat, you might also consider soaking it in a vinegar and water mixture, lying flat in a bathtub or large tub. To do so, you should use should add ¼ cup of white vinegar per gallon of water and soak your mat for 15 – 20 minutes in that solution. You should then add a small amount of mild dish soap and then scrub gently with a soft brush. Rinse with cool water and dry with a soft towel or let it air dry flat. Either way, moisturizing your mat will make cutting easier, and your rotary cutting blades will not dull as quickly.

Even with the most conscientious care and maintenance, even the best-made self-healing mats may wear out. If that happens to you, fear not, there are a number of ways mats or portions of the mat can be used and repurposed, often for many years, long after they have been “retired.” Some of these reuses include:

  1. Repurposing of old mats as fabric templates. Simply, trace the shape you want with a pen or permanent marker, cut on the lines, and you will have made a nifty and no-cost reusable template.

  2. Old mats can be cut to fit the inside of a purse or bag, creating a stiff bottom to help these items retain their shape.

  3. If any portion of the mat is still useable, it can be cut it into a smaller mat, which could be especially useful for travel and for quilting classes.

  4. Finally, you might consider cutting and repurposing your old mats as coasters or you may put them under houseplants to protect the surface on which they sit.

So, I think we can all agree that self-healing rotary cutting mats are among a quilter's most essential tools. Unfortunately, we do not often take time to consider how to make our rotary cutting mats last a little longer. They can be a bit pricey, so it makes sense to take good care of them so they will last many years.

Do you have any tips on caring for your rotary cutting mat? If so, please share them with us in the comments.