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Beyond the Basics: Specialty Rulers To Make Your Sewing Faster & More Accurate

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How many sewing rulers should you own? If you had asked me that when I first started sewing, I might have answered, "I dunno... maybe three." After you get a yardstick, a basic metal ruler and a tape measure, what else do you need? I have a sewing friend who probably owns more than 20 sewing rulers. I say "probably" because I lost count, and I don't think she really knows how many she has. Before you conclude she's either obsessive-compulsive or a shoplifter, you should know her projects turn out beautifully. The rulers are the reason.

Working on a window covering project with my friend, I discovered why her finished projects always look so great. She does very precise measuring, which leads to precise cutting. So when she gets to the sewing part, everything goes together with very little error.

This is where the 20-odd rulers come in. At whatever point she needs to measure, she has the right tool to do it accurately and quickly. For example, for the hem on the curtains we were working on, she pulled out the longest ruler I'd ever seen. She was able to mark the hem all the way across without moving and realigning the ruler. Then, before we sewed, she checked the hem width again with a smaller ruler. Guess what? The curtains came out exactly right.

For me, the real fun is the stitching together part when your creation comes to life. That's why they call it "sewing" and not "measuring." However, I've come to realize that if you want your sewing to look its very best, you must have accurate measuring. And if have more than the basic tools, you can actually get things done more quickly, more easily... and get on to your (and my) favorite part.

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Make Your Measuring Surface Your Cutting Surface

Imagine how much time you'd save if you could skip the marking process and just cut your fabric as you measure it. To do this you need a self-healing cutting mat, a rotary cutter, and various rulers designed to work with a rotary cutter. (Regular rulers will either get sliced by the rotary cutter's blade or end up dulling it.)

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Cutting mats aren't cheap, but to do this right, you should really get the largest one you can afford. I found a mat that completely covered my 6' x 3' cutting table for around $160. It has measurements on both sides, so I can flip it over if I want to use a different grid. You can find a wide selection of mats both in-store at local fabric retailers as well as online. I found an online cutting mats site called Cutting-Mats.net that will custom cut any size mat up to 6' x 12'... that's huge, but when it comes to sewing surfaces, huge is cool.

What Should I Get?

Having a big cutting mat means you can use your rotary cutter with all the great specialty, non-slip rulers made by companies like Olfa, Omnigrid and others. These rulers are transparent and usually feature accurate measurement markings every 1/8". Most (in the non-slip or non-skid category) have a special surface that resists slipping. You could hunt around for your fabric marker and scissors. Or, with your rotary cutter and a good non-slip ruler, you could instantly make an accurate cut.

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You want several sizes of see-through rulers. It's great to have a big 6" x 24" one for measuring and making longer cuts. These often have various angle markings, making it easy to find and cut along the bias. A big ruler can be unwieldy when you need to move it around to make smaller cuts. So you'll also want at least one or two smaller rulers, maybe 6" and 12".

You'll also notice an item in the main photo above that looks a bit like an old-fashioned phone handset. It's really a Gypsy Quilter Gripper. This is a nifty little device that allows for easier handling of your rulers and more security when you're holding the ruler in place to cut. There's a comfortable handle with two large suction cups on the bottom. Simply press the suction cups to the ruler; then flip the levers to lock in place. Press the release levers when you want to move the handle to another ruler or put everything away. It works with smooth surface rulers at least 4"wide.

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Using More Than One Ruler At Once

As I mentioned earlier, you want the see-through rulers that have a special non-slip coating on the bottom so once you set them in place on your fabric they don't move out of place if you happen to bump your cutting table. This also means you can use them in combination, creating your own "T-square." We used this technique to fussy squares for our Here Comes The Sun pillow.

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All The Other Shapes

Rulers come in all kinds of shapes and sizes, depending on what you'll be using them for. There are classic ruler shapes (long and narrow), big rectangles, squares, triangles, L-shaped, hexagons, scallops, even some with a lip that slides along the edge of your cutting mat.

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A lot of specialty rulers have been designed for quilters and are very useful for making different size squares. Quilters are always looking for ways to cut hours off the time it takes to finish a quilt. Since they have to make dozens and dozens... and dozens of very accurate squares or diamonds or triangles, these clear rulers and rotary cutters have been a big step forward. You just line up the grid lines on the ruler to the size of square you want from your fabric and in two zips of the rotary cutter you're done. The square rulers come in standard quilt square sizes (such as 6½", 6" and 4") but you should have one (or two or three) even if you never plan to quilt. Because, come to think of it, there are an awful lot of squares in home décor sewing.

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Once you start using see-through, non-slip rulers, you'll discover how having half a dozen or more on hand isn't overkill at all. I'm goin' shopping!

For more on this topic, check out:

Product Review: Rotary Cutters

Getting Started with Basic Sewing Tools

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Comments (11)

Judith Mannix said:
Judith Mannix's picture

I too had problems with my larger ruler (6 x 24") so I bought the Gypsy Gripper. But then I found the clear plastic that
sticks to the back of the ruler and I covered all of my rulers with it. It does work, I don't remember where I bought it -
but if you can find it at JoAnn's that should be less expensive.

Piz16zolo said:
Piz16zolo's picture

Thank you; I may have to buy a new one that is definitely non-slip.

Piz16zolo said:
Piz16zolo's picture

I have an Omnigrid see-through ruler that I've had for some years. It slips all the time, even with the suction handle on it. I don't know why. Maybe it's not really non-slip. I end up weighting it with cans of soup. Help!

Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home said:
Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home's picture

@ Piz16zolo - It's hard to tell long distance what the trouble might be - especially if you're alredy using a gripper to help hold it in place. If your pressure is strong and even that usually does the trick for us every time. If you've had the ruler for awhile, perhaps you're right that it really isn't a non-slip variety. The new rulers are usually clearly marked on the packaging but they may not be identified as non-slip on the ruler itself.

Ankita said:
Ankita's picture

Just what I was looking for.....I was so confused about what should I buy.

Amazeball article

Joann from Scotland said:
Joann from Scotland's picture
Just wanted to say I really enjoyed your article. I was making roman blinds for a friend of mine recently and was having terrible problems with them. I got myself really stressed out as I could not figure out what I was doing wrong. It turned out I was not doing anything wrong but was using a measuring tape that had stretched. I now use only metal rulers and the clear ones mentioned in your article.
acwink said:
acwink's picture
I found an adhesive paper at Joann's that you put on the bottom of your rulers so they don't slip while you cut. Very helpful and effective!
Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home said:
Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home's picture
Thanks for the tip, Sonja! "Measure Twice - Cut Once" - words to live by!
Sonja said:
Sonja's picture
Great article! However, it's important to mention that everyone should measure twice and cut once. Cutting mat grids are not always accurate; therefore, they are not the best guides for measuring before cutting. It's best to use the cutting mat as a guide and count on the ruler's measurement for an accurate cut.

There's nothing worse than miscutting fabric - especially when you have a limited supply.
ladylush118 said:
ladylush118's picture
another informative article! now that i started sewing, i can see how i can use more than one ruler! wouldve helped me cut a bit more straight on my curtains! thanks!