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Quick note! The quilt featured in this post is my Fly Away quilt. You can find the pattern in the shop! Click here.
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.
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 don't love), 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 :)
- 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. You can also read this blog on How to Baste a Quilt 3 Different Ways 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. Here are 3 different ways to baste if safety pins aren't your thing.
- 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!
- Marking tool - 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. So you never have that problem I wrote a blog post about the best marking tools that won't ruin your quilts. Fig.3
- Painter’s tape
- 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.
Fig.1 - 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. Read more about all of the different types of batting here: How to Choose the Right Batting.
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. Here is a blog post with 3 different ways to baste a quilt.
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.
Fig.2 - Quilt Sandwich
Machine Quilting Small Areas
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.
- 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.
Fig.3 - Masking Tape Tip!
Machine Quilting Straight Lines (or Matchstick Quilting)
To avoid fabric pulling one direction and then the opposite direction when quilting large areas, I do things a little differently. Below you can see my Rocksteady quilt that has been matchstick quilted. This is a great technique if you want to keep things simple and let the pieced pattern shine. OR if you are running low on time and want to do a little more than stitching in the ditch*:
- Starting in the top center of the quilt, I place my needle down and lock the stitch. With my walking foot I quilt one line top to bottom
- Rather than keeping my needle down and sewing back up the opposite way, I stop, lock the stitch, and cut the thread.
- Starting from the top again, I sew another line. By sewing all of the lines in the same direction there are no tension issues and the fabric never puckers in a weird way.
- After sewing one half of the quilt, I flip it so that the bottom is now the top and start in the center again – continuing to sew top to bottom.
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.
*Stitching in the Ditch is a quilting technique that uses the pieced seams as a guide so that you can quilt directly on those seams. If you sew right on top of the seams, the quilting will disappear as they fold inside "the ditch" of the seam.