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Straight line machine quilting is a clean, modern style that is incredibly satisfying… when done well. If you dive in with all of the knowledge and tools you need, there’s no chance your next project won’t be fabulous! You supply the tools. I’ll supply the knowledge. (And the knowledge of the tools. I’m doing double duty over here.)
If you're an incredibly visual person, here's a fun little infographic I whipped up for a quick reference. The quilt featured in this post and infographic is the Rocksteady quilt pattern.
1. Begin with a Good Baste
Before you ever sit down at your sewing machine, quilt sandwich in hand, make sure you begin with a good baste. You may be a pro quilter with perfect speed and accuracy, but your quilt can still bunch up and get puckered if your basting isn’t up to snuff.
Want more details on basting a quilt? Check out this blog post: How to Baste a Quilt.
Take your time, and make sure you don’t skip any steps when it comes to basting your quilt. Start with ironing your quilt top, as well as your quilt backing. This might not come as a surprise. BUT. You may even want to iron your BATTING. Batting sometimes gets wrinkled from being crammed into its packaging, and needs some smoothing love, too.
One little trick I only tell my favorite friends (you), is if I'm dealing with some pretty harsh wrinkles in my batting, and I've already got the backing and batting spread out, I'll take my spray water bottle and mist the batting. I'll then smooth it out and allow the wrinkles to relax as they dry. It won't get the wrinkles out completely – but well enough for it to be smooth for quilting.
When each layer of your quilt sandwich is nice, flat, and wrinkle-free, baste it, and baste it good. I prefer to pin baste, so I place a safety pin at least every 4 inches all around my entire quilt. Is it a lot of pins? Yes. Yes it is. But it’s worth it.
For those who prefer to use basting spray, be sure to spray the backing to the batting, as well as the quilt top to the batting. Don’t skimp on the spray here, quilters! I know that stuff can be expensive (part of the reason I usually opt out.)
Finish with ironing the sandwich to heat set the basting spray. If you sense any lumps or bumps, do not hesitate to take out pins or peel away layers to fix the problems. This is where you set yourself up for quilting success!
2. Ask Your Batting What It Needs
When you’re feeling pretty good about this basting business, go ahead and get to know your batting. Start your relationship off right, and ask your batting what it needs. When you purchase batting, it comes with a set of instructions on the package. Usually, these instructions will tell you whether or not you need to pre-wash it, whether or not it has scrim, and also how closely you need to quilt so that the batting doesn’t shift.
Get more batting info here:
- How to Choose the Right Quilt Batting
- Fusible Batting Tape: Why You Need it and When to Use It
- The Truth About Black Batting
- Coming soon - Does Batting Have a Right Side?
Most batting requires quilting at least 8 or 10 inches, but I’m going to recommend you overachieve a little bit: quilt every 4 inches. I know it sounds crazy, but when I spend so much time piecing a quilt, I want it to last through many many washes and cuddles. When I quilt lines at 4 inches apart at the most, I know my quilt sandwich is safe and secure and I sleep better at night. So will you.
But… what if you want to quilt closer than 4 inches? You can! Dense quilting can look beautiful and give your quilt lots of beautiful texture!
3. Walk with Your Walking Foot
To set up your sewing machine, strap on that walking foot. When I first learned straight line quilting, I was so excited that I slammed my foot on the pedal and raced from top to bottom. You better believe that after my sprinted quilt job I was very sad and confused to see that my fabric was pulling in multiple directions and stitches were skipping.
When quilting with a walking foot, don’t sew at maximum speed. WALK that walking foot. You’re working with thicker layers than when you’re piecing blocks, so even with a walking foot, you want to sew about half as fast as you would when piecing.
Let me show you an example of a Fishing Net quilt I made years ago before learning to walk my walking foot. Do you see the wave-like tension issue? It's baaaaad. I always cringe a little when I see this quilt because I know how easily that could have been avoided.
4. Quilt in the Same Direction
About the time I learned to slow my sprint to a walk, I also learned how much better your finished quilt will look if you quilt your straight lines in the same direction. The infographic above shows a diagram of what I thought you were supposed to do.
Since speed was my number one goal, I assumed that once you sewed to the edge of your quilt you pivoted and then sewed back up going the opposite direction. Let me tell you why this is not a great idea. Actually, let me show you...
You get ugly tension waves in your fabric! How heartbreaking! You spend all that time piecing and planning only to end up with sea sickness due to choppy waters and horrendous waves.
If you're wondering, I ripped out ALL of that quilting. By the time I'd ripped the final stitch I was so sick of looking at it I shipped it to my longarm quilter. She did a fabulous job. Take a look!
This is the Indian Summer quilt pattern, if you're interested.
Matchstick Grid Quilting
After going on and on about quilting in the same direction, I'm going to break my own rule ever so slightly to tell you how I straight line quilt a vertical and horizontal grid – like in this Rocksteady baby quilt seen here.
- Sew your straight line quilting just like normal – going slowly and sewing in the same direction.
- Once you are finished quilting ALL of your vertical (or horizontal, whichever way you're looking at it) lines, rotate the quilt 90º and do the same thing. Start from one end and sew slowly to the other, stopping and backstitching with the completion of every line.
I used the seams of my blocks as guides for my quilting. The order of my sewing looked a little something like this:
- Sew along one seam from top to bottom.
- Jump to the middle of the block (seen below) and eyeball a vertical stitch down the row.
- Jump to the next seam and sew from top to bottom.
- Jump to the middle of the next block (are you seeing the pattern?)
- Once I finished quilting down all of the seams and center of each block, I went back and quilted lines between my original quilting lines.
When quilting in the same direction, you have a couple options, mostly based on how large your machine's throat space is (the area between the needle and the base of the machine). I like to start in the middle of the quilt and sew one entire side the same direction. I then rotate the quilt 180º and repeat the process on the unquilted portion of the quilt.
Technically, that means the two halves of my quilt are quilted in opposite directions. Even though that is the case, I haven't found it to cause waving tension issues.
Another option is to start at one side and fully quilt in the same direction. This will 100% ensure that you don't have waves. If you quilt this way, you will need to get pretty good at tightly rolling your quilt so that it can fit into your machine.
5. Get a Fresh Needle
After I change my patchwork foot to my walking foot, I also replace my needle. I have found that a new 80/12 Universal needle and 40 wt. thread work great together when quilting. They’re basically the straight-line quilting power couple. Get ready to see magic in the making.
6. Pick a Complementary Thread Color
When picking a thread color, go with your heart… but also maybe ask yourself a couple questions first:
- Do I want the quilting to be a subtle texture or a bold design?
- Do I want the patchwork piecing to be the central focus, or do I want the quilting to be the star?
These questions will guide you to the perfect thread color. I typically pick thread that matches the lightest color of fabric in my quilt. However, if your goal is for those stitches to stand out, go for gold… or another color with plenty of contrast. It’s really up to you! Take a few spools of different colored thread and lay them out on the quilt top. This will help you visualize what they will look like.
In this quilt example I actually picked two different colors: chartreuse for my bobbin to blend with the backing fabric and cream for the top thread. If you're going to pick different colors, run a couple tests on a scrap quilt sandwich to make sure your tension is perfect. If your tension is off, you'll be able to see the secondary thread color on the wrong side.
Just remember: slow and steady wins the quilting race. Once you master that, your quilts will be even more satisfying! Do you have any tips for us? Or have you experienced the dreaded tension waves? Let us know in the comments what you did to fix them!
Check out some of my favorite notions!
- How to Choose the Right Quilt Batting
- The Best Sewing Table
- The Best Quality Thread: Part 1 and Part 2
- 5 Best Cutting Mats for Quilters
- Best Rotary Cutter
- The 4 Best Quilting Rulers
- The Best Iron for Sewing
- The World's Best Sewing Scissors
- Your Guide to Finding the Best Thimble
- Best Pins for Quilting
- The Best Quilt Marking Tools
- Fusible Batting Tape: Why You Need It and How to Use It.
- 8 Things You Never Knew About a Tailor's Clapper
- 5 Types & Sizes of Hand Quilting Needles
- Must-Have Quilting Tools