A quality rotary mat should be a staple in any quilter's arsenal. Believe it or not, when my wife Nicole started quilting I thought we were supposed to cut everything out with scissors, like we all used to do in elementary school! AGH! Now there is a time and a place to use scissors, such as when cutting out patterns for applique, but any straight cut (like for squares or triangles) can be done MUCH faster and more accurately by using a cutting mat and a rotary cutter.
One last rant and then I'll move on with the rest of the article… =) It has always bothered me that so many shops cut the fabric we purchase with a plain old pair of scissors. First of all… have you ever tried to cut a straight line in fabric with scissors? Unless you draw a line with chalk or something else, I can almost guarantee it'll be skewed and then you'll have to square it up again later. Now some shops DO use metal tracks as guides, but that only helps so much. Creative Fires, our local quilt shop, uses cutting mats, rulers, and rotary blades to cut, which I feel is the natural way to divide and cut fabric, but I guess I'm just biased. Perhaps it is cheaper to replace a pair of scissors than the mat and blade every so often. *Rant over*
So what do you look for when buying a cutting board? Well… let's do bullet points to make it a little easier to digest.
Brand - there are NUMEROUS brands, many which may be familiar if you've been crafting long. The big ones are Olfa, Omnigrid, Fiskars, and Dritz. I've also seen Gingher. You really can't go wrong with any of these, when it comes down to it, its a "self healing" barrier between your blade and the counter or floor. Self healing meaning it'll take quite a bit of cutting before your mat starts looking chewed up. My wife and I have been happy with Fiskars lately because many of their mats have measurements on both sides, so when one side starts to wear out, just flip it over, they also have a different color on each side. YAY! Our local quilting shop has been happy with Dritz.
Size - mats come in a few various sizes, there are a few I might consider standard, but like quilting rulers there are many specialty sizes as well. Currently we have two. A smaller one that is easy to maneuver for small quick cuts (18" x 24"), and a larger more all purpose work area size (24" x 36"). The larger size is the standard, most common size you will find. Below is a picture of both sizes that My wife owns
There are some HUGE mats as well that can easily take up your entire work area, but many come with some caveats. I believe Olfa has one that is actually three of the larger size mats that clip together. Another, from an unknown brand, is a single LARGE piece, but the one's I have seen are more of a hard plastic and not the self healing material most mats are made of. This can make it interesting to store, unless you plan on leaving it out. You can roll them up, but don't coil it up too tightly because it may conform to that shape and not lay flat later, just read below.
Measurement Layout - you should look for a mat with a grid that is easy for you to read. Most mats are done with a square inch grid over the surface, and fourth inch dashes in between, as that will be what most patterns call for when cutting. Also many mats have a few lines, called bias lines, at 30, 45, and 60 degrees for cutting diagonally.
My wife said she looks for a mat with lines that aren't too thick, so as not to contribute to imprecise cuts. In other words, use your mat to square up your fabric, but use the edge of your quilting ruler for measuring and cutting.
Price - while price should definitely be a deciding factor, don't cramp yourself by buying just the smaller size to save twenty bucks. If you'll only be buying one mat to start, I would definitely recommend the larger size. You can expect to pay between $20-$25 for the smaller (18" x 24") size, and between $45-$60 for the larger (24"-36") size. Also, some craft stores, such as Joann's, will frequently offer sales or 40% off coupons to save even more. So look before you buy. Small disclaimer: PLEASE support your local quilt shops, they can't always match big box stores for price, but often offer a better quality fabric and a more personal experience. So use that extra money you saved from buying notions at chain stores to buy extra fabric at local quilt shops! =)
A few things to consider, most cutting mats are comparable to a soft plastic, they should NOT be folded and should not be exposed to extreme temperatures. I wish I had a picture of the first cutting mat we purchased. My wife happily put it in the back seat of the car along with her other quilting supplies and machine; she was on her way to a class at Creative Fires. Once there she was told that her cutting mat was not necessary, so she left it out in the car… on a hot summer day. When she came back the mat had molded itself to the seat of the car and was more in the shape of an 'L' than a flat mat. Try as we might we never did get it perfectly flat again… even by laying it out on the porch in the hot sun hoping it would remold itself flat. It's still usable, just not ideal. So unless your mat is laying flat don't get it too warm!
I am a firm believer in checking out reviews before purchasing an item, just to get some additional input from other users. Might as well learn from those before you, but sometimes it is necessary to take the advice with a grain of salt. For example, one of the largest complaints I have heard about rotary mats is a chemical like smell that accompanies them when they're new. Often this smell fades quickly, but it is a big turn off to some people. Personally, I have barely noticed the smell if any, maybe my nose is just less sensitive than others.
Hope this helped everyone to be a more savvy shopper!