6 Tips for Straight Line Machine Quilting (a.k.a. Matchstick Quilting)

Learn the 6 simple steps to straight line quilting, or as some call it, matchstick quilting. This is a great beginner quilter tutorial!

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.

Learn the 6 simple steps to straight line quilting, or as some call it, matchstick quilting. This is a great beginner quilter tutorial!
Learn the 6 simple steps to straight line quilting, or as some call it, matchstick quilting. This is a great beginner quilter tutorial!

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.

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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:

Learn the 6 simple steps to straight line quilting, or as some call it, matchstick quilting. This is a great beginner quilter tutorial!

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!

Learn the 6 simple steps to straight line quilting, or as some call it, matchstick quilting. This is a great beginner quilter tutorial!

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.

Learn the 6 simple steps to straight line quilting, or as some call it, matchstick quilting. This is a great beginner quilter tutorial!

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.

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Learn the 6 simple steps to straight line quilting, or as some call it, matchstick quilting. This is a great beginner quilter tutorial!

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.

Learn the 6 easy steps for perfect straight line machine quilting. This Fishing Net quilt is an example of why you should sew in the same direction – to avoid wave-like pulling
Learn the 6 easy steps for perfect straight line machine quilting. This Fishing Net quilt is an example of why you should sew in the same direction – to avoid wave-like pulling

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...

Learn the 6 simple steps to straight line quilting, or as some call it, matchstick quilting. This is a great beginner quilter tutorial! This is what happens when you don't quilt in the same direction – ugly tension waves in the fabric.

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!

Learn the 6 simple steps to straight line quilting, or as some call it, matchstick quilting. This is a great beginner quilter tutorial!
Learn the 6 simple steps to straight line quilting, or as some call it, matchstick quilting. This is a great beginner quilter tutorial!

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.

  1. Sew your straight line quilting just like normal – going slowly and sewing in the same direction.
  2. 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:

  1. Sew along one seam from top to bottom.
  2. Jump to the middle of the block (seen below) and eyeball a vertical stitch down the row.
  3. Jump to the next seam and sew from top to bottom.
  4. Jump to the middle of the next block (are you seeing the pattern?)
  5. 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.
Learn the 6 simple steps to straight line quilting, or as some call it, matchstick quilting. This is a great beginner quilter tutorial!

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.

Learn the 6 simple steps to straight line quilting, or as some call it, matchstick quilting. This is a great beginner quilter tutorial!

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.

Learn the 6 simple steps to straight line quilting, or as some call it, matchstick quilting. This is a great beginner quilter tutorial!

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:

  1. Do I want the quilting to be a subtle texture or a bold design?
  2. 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.

Learn the 6 simple steps to straight line quilting, or as some call it, matchstick quilting. This is a great beginner quilter tutorial!

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!

Learn the 6 simple steps to straight line quilting, or as some call it, matchstick quilting. This is a great beginner quilter tutorial!

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21 thoughts on “6 Tips for Straight Line Machine Quilting (a.k.a. Matchstick Quilting)

  1. Mary says:

    This is awesome! Thank you. The thing I struggle with the most is actually keeping my stitches in a straight line. I’ve tried tape, using the walking foot guide, “eye balling” it, and I still can’t seem to get a really good straight line. I picked up a Hera marker for my next quilt…hoping that + slooooooowing down will do the trick!

    • Suzy Quilts says:

      The Hera marker should help, but may feel tedious if you have to mark every. single. line. I bet slowing down will be your best bet. If you need a reminder, change the speed on your machine so even if you press down on the pedal, you’ll still sew extra slowly.

  2. islandspindler says:

    I put my batting in the dryer for a few minutes before I baste, takes the wrinkles out. And if the batting has poly in or is poly, direct ironing could melt it😉

  3. chris says:

    One of my problems with straight stitching is that frequently I get an inch or so of little tiny stitches as my walking foot struggles to go over an area that is thick (like a bunch of seams are meeting in one spot). I use a clapper in an effort to get flatter seams, but still finding this change in stitch length. The other is that despite my superhuman efforts at basting I still get fabric that wants to pleat as the walking foot goes over it. Also, do you change the pressure setting on the presser foot? I know i’m not slowing down enough too, so there’s that. Ugh. So many variables. Anyway, this was very helpful and for me the struggle lives on!

    • Suzy Quilts says:

      Oh Chris, you’re cracking me up. The struggle lives on! haha! OK, let’s attack this struggle.

      Problem 1: bulky seams. I love to hear that you’re using your clapper. Are you also nesting seams so they are facing different directions? If the answer to that is also yes, what about fanning seams? This is an interesting technique that distributes seam bulk so you don’t have one big hard spot in the middle of a block. I found this video to demonstrate. I don’t find this to be necessary very often, but if bulk is a real issue, try it. I bet it will help.

      Problem 2: basting. Is the backing or quilt top doing the pleating? If backing, it could be that you aren’t stretching the fabric tight enough during the basting process. If quilt top, it might be that even with a walking foot, the pressure of your foot needs to lessen and be raised a touch. I also think slowing down will help more than you realize. I used to make table runners and even though I had a great baste, I’d zip through my quilting. At the edge of each one I’d have at least a 1/4″ of extra top fabric that I’d fold over the backing. It looked pretty janky, but at age 24 I didn’t care and just thought that was the best it could get. Now I KNOW! 😉

      • Chris says:

        Thanks! I’ll experiment w foot pressure. I also think I’m not so good at managing the weight of the quilt. I do nest my seams. I’ll look into fanning too. I feel like with each quilt I get better so onward! I loved hand quilting my Indian summer and triangle jitters quilts. Your blog post on hand quilting was so helpful. You are right tho I need to slow down! I’ve got fly away next in my que so excited to begin after holidays.

  4. SYLVIA THOMPSON says:

    Suzy, your information and how you present it is awesome! I’m new to quilting and can’t wait to read all of your blogs, etc. And my husband and I both LOVE Scrappy!

  5. Kate says:

    I love this, thank you! One question, which may be out of scope.😅 when you’re working on small pieces of matchstick quilting in a direction different from the whole (like the little triangles in the Indian summer quilt), do you do the same thing? Go all in one direction and then pick up and slide back and do it again? I’m assuming that would leave a lot of ends to weave in? Thank you for making this!

    • Suzy Quilts says:

      That’s a great question and also an exception to the rule. In that scenario I would pivot and quilt in different directions, just doing it veery slowly and smoothing the quilt as I pivoted, so the fabric didn’t wave because of pulling and tension.

  6. Pam Landolt says:

    Another excellent post Suzy! I need to remember to slow down like you advised. I get anxious to get done or have waited too long to start a gift quilt then rush the quilting. I also will start sewing my lines in the same direction. Just those two things will hopefully improve the look of my finished quilts. Thanks again for taking the time to share your knowledge with the rest of us.

  7. Cindy says:

    Parallelogram? I’ve always heard going all in the same direction pushes it into a parallelogram? Like when you sew several jelly roll strips together for a strata or bargello. I’ve done that and got a nice smiling curved slab of fabric. Know what I mean?

  8. Laurel Richardson says:

    Thanks…But what length stitch do you set on your machine for quilting??? 3.5?? ANd, with a Bernina 770, isn’t a dual feed (D) foot sufficient for quilting? (one of my dealers says “yes” the other says “no.” )

    • Suzy Quilts says:

      I quilt with a stitch length of 3 and agree with the second dealer – use a walking foot. The dual feed is awesome and definitely helps with piecing, but I don’t think it’s as powerful as the BERNINA walking foot – which really is awesome.

  9. Katherine says:

    Great tips. Thank you.
    I tend to go way too fast!
    The biggest problem I have is getting all the layers tight and flat.
    This year, I made a quilt with lots of small pieces and found that no matter how much I pin basted etc, the top would pucker. So, I flipped the quilt over, drew lines, and quilted it on the back side. The front was perfect with no puckers. Yay!

  10. Mary Holbert says:

    I use a Bernina 790 with a dual feed. Would you recommend that I use a walking foot or the dual feed? I have done the matchstick quilting and love it.

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