How To Machine Quilt

How-To-Machine-Quilt

Quick note! The quilt featured in this post is my Fly Away quilt. You can find the pattern in Modern Patchwork Magazine, Summer 2016.

Machine quilting can be daunting. I didn’t even attempt to quilt my own quilts until I had 3 years of sewing under my belt. I got VERY friendly with my longarm quilter and was content to piece tops together then hand em off for her to finish.

If you read my blog post on how I became a quilter, you may already know that I began college as a fiber artist major. So it wasn’t until a professor made me quilt by pointing her finger at me and saying, “End of the line, missy. Either you quilt it yourself, or you GET OUT.”

Maybe she didn’t say it exactly like that, but as a nervous freshmen, that’s the clear memory I imprinted at the time.

Fly-Away-Quilt

After I got over the I-have-to-learn-a-new-skill?? anxiety, I promptly realized it wasn’t so bad. And, aside from basting (which I still hate), I kinda liked it. So I’m going to give you the How to Machine Quilt rundown. Below is a list of supplies and step-by-step instructions, but if you’re a visual learner, I made a quick video tutorial.

This video mainly covers the needle-down-and-pivot technique. Also, you should know that during the filming of this video the camera was physically strapped to my forehead with an elastic headband. It was uncomfortable, but a forehead bruise was worth it for you, my wonderful reader :)​

Supplies:

  • Sewing machine with a needle-down function - If you are a newbie quilter and are confused by all of this “need-down” mumbo jumbo, look at Fig.1. On most sewing machines there is an option to keep the needle down after a stitch. By default, the sewing machine will lift up the needle after each stitch. If you keep the needle down, you can raise the foot and rotate the fabric without messing up any stitches or losing your place.
  • Quilt sandwich - I will go over this in more detail later. Fig.2
  • Safety pins - You can also use basting spray. I chose to use safety pins in this tutorial because the dense quilting of this Fly Away quilt required me to stop, pivot and smash my quilt through my sewing machine A LOT. With safety pins, I knew my quilt sandwich would always stay in place. Actually, even when I use basting spray I still use a few safety pins. They’re so reliable, once you use them, you may not want to stop.
  • Walking foot - What's that you ask? It's a heavy duty foot that works with your sewing machine's feed dogs to push thick fabric and bulk through the machine with ease. For a list of quilting terms and tools, see my blog post, Quilting Terms, Tools & Supplies.
  • 100% cotton thread - Tip! Match the tread to the lightest fabric in your quilt top. This helps the quilting to blend in with the quilt and achieve beautiful texture. It also hides any stitching mistakes!
  • Masking tape - I have heard horror stories of quilters drawing guide lines on their quilt tops only to have them NEVER COME OUT! Ahhhh! The thought makes me cringe. Well, my solution to that problem is masking tape. It never leaves a mark and can be used over and over again WHILE pulling lint off your quilt. Dual purpose! Fig.3
  • Painter’s tape
  • Scissors
  • Basting Tape - you only need this if you have multiple pieces of batting that are not large enough by themselves. This stuff is really great. All you do is lay your batting pieces next to each other and iron the tape to connect them together. Viola! See below for a pic.
Basting-Tape

Fig.1 - Needle Down

Needle-Down

The Bad B’s of Quilting

The Bad Bs = Backing, Batting and Basting. blurg.

Backing - unless you are making a scrappy-backed quilt, for a throw quilt or smaller you typically only have to sew one seam. I lay my two large pieces of fabric on top of each other, right sides together, and rather than using pins, I just keep my walking foot on my machine. That way the tension is loose and no pulling occurs. I also iron my seams to the side and not open. In this case an open seam = a weak seam.​

The backing should be at least a couple inches larger on each side than the quilt top.​

Batting - For pre-packaged batting sizes, see my blog post The Ultimate Guide to Quilt Sizes​. I usually get a pre-packaged bag of 100% cotton batting cut down to a king-sized quilt. That way I can trim it to whatever size I want and I can usually get a throw and a couple baby quilts out of each bag. HOWEVER, it’s super annoying messing with such a large wad of batting. That’s the reason batting gets a place on my BAD Bs list.​

Basting - this is the process of adhering or pinning the quilt sandwich together. I end up sprawled on the floor for the majority of this process.​ Below you can see that I'm placing safety pins throughout the quilt.

quilting-instagram

Making A Quilt Sandwich

Making the quilt sandwich is my least favorite part of quilting. Thankfully, it usually doesn’t take very long and the more you do it the faster you will get at it. Different quilters have different ways of doing this, here’s my way.

  • Lay the backing fabric on the floor with the BACK of the fabric facing UP (that means the printed or right side of the fabric is facing the floor. If you are using a solid fabric, each side is reversible, so you’re good!)
  • Starting with one side, use painter’s tape to stick one side of the backing to the floor. Jump to the opposite side of the fabric and tape the other side to the floor.
  • Tape all sides of the backing to the floor, making sure to smooth out all of the wrinkles.
  • Place the batting on top of the backing fabric and trim it to fit. They should be roughly the same size.
  • If you have a pet, it’s not a bad idea to lint roll the back of the quilt top. Also, use scissors to trim long stray threads. 
  • Smooth out the pieced quilt on top of the other two layers.
  • Pin a safety pin at least every four inches working in rows throughout the quilt. Try to scatter them so that they are the most effective in holding the sandwich in place.
Quilting-Tips

Fig.2 - Quilt Sandwich

Machine-Quilt-Tutorial

Machine Quilting

Now that you have a nice sandwich, the quilting fun can commence! The key is to figure out how to keep a continuous stitch going as much as possible. It would be very tedious to have to back stitch, trim your thread and adjust the entire quilt every few stitches. So even if you want specific shapes quilted inside each block, figure out if there is a way to subtly stitch over from one shape to the next so you don’t have to keep trimming and starting over.

Machine-Quilted
  • Place both hands on either side of the walking foot so you can gently guide the quilt through the machine. Start quilting in the middle of the quilt and work your way out. This will eliminate pleats and puckering that may form if you try to work from one side to the other.
  • Place the sandwich underneath the walking foot and hit the needle down button.
  • Lock the stitch. To do this, sew a couple stitches forward and then a couple stitches back. This locks the beginning stitch in place so it will never fray.
  • When you sew to a place where you would like to change direction, simply keep the needle down, lift up the walking foot, rotate the quilt so that you are set up to stitch in the direction you want, place the walking foot back down and keep sewing.
How-to-Machine-Quilt-straight-lines

Fig.3 - Masking Tape Tip!

Machine-Quilting-Tip

Once you are finished quilting, you are ready to trim the edges and bind the quilt. For a step-by-step tutorial on binding, see my post on How To Sew Binding on a Quilt.

how-to-machine-quilt-beginner
Fly-Away-Quilt

Suzy Quilts

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25 thoughts on “How To Machine Quilt

  1. Amanda says:

    This is so helpful!! I am building up the courage to machine quilt for the first time. In the past I have gone to hand quilting because I enjoy the look and process. My most recent quilt top is calling for something different so I am going to try machine quilting it.

    • Suzy says:

      You could do both! I just started hand quilting last year and have completely fallen in love. Since it takes so long, however, sometimes I just add small touches of hand stitching and machine quilt the rest. I think you may really like the look! Check out my Kris Kross quilt or Mod Mountains quilt to see examples. Good luck!

  2. Tanya says:

    Thanks for the tips! Question what brand of batting do you use. Your quilts are so beautiful and they are flat. The first one I made came out flat but we’re thicker. I am new and used a cotton batting on sale. I am working on my second one and would like it to be flatter. Thanks again.

    • Suzy says:

      I used Pellon 100% cotton batting until just recently. My last couple bags seemed to be of a lesser quality than previous bags – meaning that I noticed the batting felt thinner. In my ideal world, cotton batting will be about 1/8″ thick and very dense. That way I can achieve great texture through quilting, get that cozy, snuggly warmth but not have it look 80’s ugly retro and puffy. Know what I mean? Anyway, a few months ago I switched to Warm & Natural 100% cotton batting and have been happy.

      If you stick with 100% cotton, you should be fine. Do you know what brand you used that didn’t finish very flat? Typically polyester and poly-blends are going to look fluffier. Pellon is a bit cheaper, so you may want to try that first if you haven’t already. I’ll probably purchase it at least one more time before ruling it out. Hope that helped!

    • Marieke says:

      If there’s a Joann’s nearby, they carry Warm and White/Natural, and they always have either coupons or it’s on sale. Usually they have packaged as well as by the yard too. They also sell it on their site (full bolts and all). In that case, it helps to wait until they do a 50% off sale and use a coupon for free/cheap shipping.

  3. Marieke says:

    Not a technique as such, but allowing imperfection in the quilting was a good reminder when I started machine quilting myself. It’s still the part I find most challenging and intimidating, but letting myself be imperfect helps me not just freeze up and end up with a pile of WIP tops. It’s still a work in progress.

    On Instagram I love seeing @carolynfriedlander and @elvengardenquilts work (check out the improv quilt she’s quilting right now, and the Aviatrix one she did, amazing!). Their styles are somewhat similar, and they just go for it and densely quilt on a domestic machine.

    As for basting, it was my bane. I had a few large quilts that I pin basted, and would have to unpick the quilting because things shifted on the bottom as I was moving the quilt around. I found a combination of spray basting for the back and pin basting the top/rest works best for me with big quilts. It stops me getting part way done and wanting to cry because I quilted creases in.

    As Dory says… Just keep swimming!

  4. Alanna says:

    I am using a walking foot, but I still have to help the fabric through. I struggle to keep an even pace and it shows up in my quilting. Some of the stitches are longer and some are really close together even though I have set the stitch length at about 3.5. Do you have any tips about how to guide the fabric through so that the stitches are more even? Do you push the fabric? Or stretch it out in front of the foot?

    • Suzy says:

      Great questions! If the tension is set properly on your machine, you should not have to push the fabric through at all. All there is for you to do is guide it while the machine feeds it through. If possible, take your machine into the brand dealer or a sewing machine repair shop and have them fix the tension or have them show you what the problem is. I would guess that there is an easy solution and the uneven stitches are not your fault – most likely a mechanical error 🙂

      • Kathleen says:

        I also have this same issue. I dont think it’s my machine because I don’t have uneven stitching when piecing only when quilting. Thank you

    • Suzy says:

      I just had another thought, are your feed dogs up? Those are the spiked moving metal plates below the foot of your machine. Feed dogs work to maneuver the fabric through the machine. If you have done any free-motion quilting or if you somehow accidentally pushed the wrong button, they could be down instead of up. Be sure they are up.

  5. Claudia says:

    Just a question. You wrote above that the pattern for your Fly Away quilt could be found in the Modern Patchwork Magazine Spring 2016. I bought the digital version of Modern Patchwork Magazine Spring 2016 and simply cannot find your pattern to your Fly Away quilt in it. Your link above however goes to the Summer 2016 magazine and I wonder. Should I have bought that one? Is the pattern there? Hope for help!

  6. Adrienne says:

    I’m curious what brand/style of machine you use for your quilts? I struggle to fit anything larger than a crib quilt through my machine no matter how I roll the excess.

    • Suzy says:

      I use a Janome Memory Craft 7700 QCP. It has an extra large sewing surface, which makes it muuuuch easier to cram larger quilts through the machine. Previously, when I used a regular sized machine, I struggled to fit throw quilts through. If you plan on doing a lot of machine quilting, you may want to look into getting a machine with that feature. Here’s a blog post I wrote about different sewing machines available ranked according to price range – http://suzyquilts.com/quilting-sewing-machines-one-best-budget/

  7. Ashley says:

    I’m a total newbie to quilting but have machine quilted my first five quilts and I sat and cried after the first two because they were so horrible. So. Much. Puckering. I was just teaching myself so I didn’t know any better! But reading this post is totally making my week. I’m starting a new quilt right now and am totally going to follow this post step-by-step when I get to the quilting stage. THANK YOU SO MUCH.

  8. Marie-Ève says:

    Thanks for this! I’m new to quilting and I’m terrified of ruining my quilt tops. I’m puzzled with the “start in the middle of the quilt” advice… won’t that be noticeable? For example if you’re going to quilt straight lines… you would start the first line in the very middle of the quilt going down, then what? Cut the thread, go back to the middle and finish that line going in the other direction? I’m lost, thanks for all your wisdom.

    • Suzy says:

      Machine quilting for the first time is stressful, so don’t worry, you’re not alone. Here’s what I do with straight line quilting:
      – Start at the edge of the quilt, in the middle. Sew at about half the pace you would when piecing. If you Speedy Gonzales your way along, the fabric will pull and look puckery (I’ve done that.)
      – Once you sew to the opposite edge, press your needle down (It’s a setting on your machine. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, look it up in your machine’s manual, or Google it for the make and model of your sewing machine.).
      – Pivot the entire quilt sandwich 90-degrees (see video tutorial) and sew the desired width of your straight rows. I count stitches here so my rows are relatively uniform. Depending on the desired row density, I sew 6 to 10 stitches.
      – Pivot 90-degrees again, and sew another row to the opposite edge of your quilt (the edge where you started).
      – Continue doing this stopping and pivoting until you either run out of bobbin thread or get to the edge of your quilt.
      – Whenever you finish quilting (especially if it’s not an edge of the quilt), lock your stitch by sewing backward a couple stitches and then sewing again on top of that forward a couple stitches.

      Using this method, you should only have to cut the thread a couple times because you will continually be sewing. Take a look at the pic below for a close up of a mini Sew Mojo quilt I made. You can see how I pivoted when I got to the edge of the quilt so I could continuously keep machine quilting.

      Continuous machine quilting pic.

  9. Jenni says:

    THANK YOU! I really honestly had no idea you could machine quilt a full quilt on just a home sewing machine…I think I thought all quilting of full blankets took place on a long-arm. Obviously I’m a noob. Anyway, thank you thank you thank you! My future is bright…

  10. Janet says:

    Do your quilt patterns come with any guides for the machine quilting patterns that you use? I’m intrigued by your wavy lines on Triangle Jitters.

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