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. Read more about fusible basting tape here.
Fig.1 - Needle Down
The 3 B’s of Quilting: Backing, Batting & Basting.
- Backing - unless you are making a scrappy-backed quilt, for a throw quilt or smaller you typically only have to sew one seam. Lay the 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.
Read a tutorial on how to match a fabric print seamlessly on you quilt backing here!
- 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)
Read a full tutorial on machine quilting straight lines here!
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.
58 thoughts on “How To Machine Quilt”
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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!
I so totally get it. I just recently finished a twin sized quilt (used a quilt as you go technique) and STILL had a crease near one edge in a small area. Sigh. I just keep reminding myself that each quilt experience has something to teach me?
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?
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 🙂
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
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.
I know this is an older comment but I’m replying in case anyone new reads it 🙂 I quilt all of my quilts (even king size) on my sewing machine. When I first started, what you describe happened to me all the time. I finally realized that I was sewing too fast and my walking foot and feed dogs couldn’t keep up with me. Once I put my speed down to medium my stitches are always nice and even with no help needed from me aside from guiding the fabric and keeping it smooth.
Try using grippy gloves when you machine quilt. You can buy special quilting gloves, but gardening gloves with a rough palm work well too. You can guide your quilt without feeling like you have to grab a handful and wrestle with it.
I would also suggest to be sure the quilt is not dragging on the floor or being caught on something, like a shirt button! I find sometimes I even need to prop the quilt on my chest or shoulder so it will move freely through my machine.
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!
Oh my goodness! You’re right! It’s the summer edition. Shoot me an email and I’ll help you out 😉
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.
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 – https://suzyquilts.com/quilting-sewing-machines-one-best-budget/
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.
yeah!! Let me know how it goes. And puckering happens to the best of us so don’t worry too much about it 😉
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.
Thank you so much for the thorough response and great tips!
Life changing advice! I wish I could go back and re-quilt my last three quilts now!
You make it seem doable, Thanks for the tips!!
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…
You respond to questions and help so much. Thank you. I am a beginner and love to follow your Suzy Quilts blog.
That’s so sweet, KC! Thank you 🙂
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.
That quilting was actually done by one of my longarm quilters. The pattern is Modern Waves.
Suzy – LOVE LOVE your quilts! I do have a quick question if I may. Will the stitches still lock if you pull the bobbin thread up and stitch 3 or 4 times at a stitch length of zero?? Thank you so much! I’m trying to quilt a quilt top I made from one of your patterns! 🙂 Thank you!
It sure will! And if I am visualizing correctly what you are describing, that will actually make a neater stitch on the back of the quilt.
I couldn’t tell what you were doing with the masking tape?
I was using it as a guide for quilting. Since then I discovered Hera Markers, though, and now use that. Check out this post for more deets – https://suzyquilts.com/quilt-marking-tools/
Awesome post. I just started quilting with a walking foot and so far have had some slight issues with the top getting stretched out/wonky when I’m done quilting which makes it un-square when I’m done. Any tips for what I’m doing wrong would be awesome!!!
My first question would be – how are you basting? If your quilt isn’t basted really well, the quilting will never look very good. Here’s an article on basting – https://suzyquilts.com/how-to-baste-a-quilt/ My second tip would be that if you are doing a simple design, like straight lines, starting from the center top of the quilt, sew one whole side from top to bottom. Every time you sew a row, backstitch, cut your thread, go back to the top and sew going the same direction. When you have one side finished, flip the quilt 180-degrees and do the same thing to the other side, only sewing in one direction. Does that make sense?
I had basted with safety pins pretty heavily, but I’m thinking I was pulling on everything (to try to “help” it, but apparently I was doing more “hurting” than helping.) while it was going through the machine and not letting the foot guide it through itself. I tried again with another project and it turned out much better! Basting is the pits though, lol.
I am making my first quilt and ready to quilt with my machine. I plan to stitch in the ditch on a 9 patch pattern. Do I begin sewing (in the middle ) from top to bottom and then over to next square and sew from bottom to top? Or begin at the top again to keep going in same direction? Do you have any tips on guiding all that fabric through the machine? I’m referring to the portions not yet sewn.
Hey Jenny, I think this blog post on straight line quilting will help you a lot.
This might be a silly question, but I would like to know exactly how you quilted around your triangles. Did you just stop, lock stitch, cut and start again just on the other side of each of those? (lock stitch etc). If so, do you also lessen your stitch length before you lock stitch?
This might be the reason I always opt to stitch straight through everything, straight lines for me! LOL.
Thanks for your help…and all your terrific designs!
In the video you can see that in this case, I kept my needle down and pivoted different directions so I would’t have to cut my thread.
I am about to start machine quilting my very first quilt and have watched this video (and others) many times. I think I’m confused because I am using an old mechanical machine. When you start on your triangle in the middle of the quilt, don’t you have tails of thread? I’ve practiced and tried trimming the tails and it’s noticeable every time. And I keep seeing people on other sites stating that it’s necessary to pull up the bobbin thread to prevent it from getting in the way, but I don’t see that mentioned here. It honestly looks to be a pain to do and when I stop and cut, there’s still bobbin thread in the bottom to have to cut.
Pulling up the bobbin thread is a great way to then bury your threads. What I’ve started doing is pull up the bobbin thread, then forward stitch and backstitch once or twice in each direction to lock the thread. Once I know the stitch is completely secure, I snip the two threads as close to the fabric as possible. I don’t like to take the time to bury threads and I find this to be a good compromise. There are a lot of great tutorials and videos on how to bury threads if you are interested in doing that.
Thank you so much for responding! I learn so much from you! I knew nothing about burying thread tails and now it’s making sense to me. Thank you!
How do you choose your quilting designs? Knowing what will look good stitched over your pieces? I’m trying mixing hand quilting and machine quilting but it’s not flowing very well. In the past I have just done straight line machine stitching all the way through, trying to add some flare to it isn’t turning out
I bet it’s looking better than you think! I usually try to follow the pieced pattern. Echoing that design turns out really well.
Is it bad to use 100% polyester thread to quilt?! I may or may not be 90% done quilting with that thread. And by may not I mean definitely am 🤭
Not bad at all! I think this article will help you feel better about it 😉 https://suzyquilts.com/the-difference-between-cotton-and-poly-thread/
Your blog posts are so helpful! You mention forward stitching and backstitching to lock the thread. I’ve read that you can’t backstitch (reverse) with a walking foot. Is that true? And if so, how do you lock the thread while using a walking foot?
You should still be able to backstitch with a walking foot. The capabilities of your machine won’t change based on changing the foot from a walking foot to a standard presser foot. If your machine has backstitch capabilities (which I’m positive it does, even if it’s a manual turn on the side of your machine) you can do it.
Hi There, I’ve purchased your Kriss Kross pattern and will be using it for my nieces twins. I saw the link in the pattern to this site. Can you tell me how you keep your quilt from having holes from the needles. I’ve been sticking to stitch in the ditch with my new machine because it doesn’t seem to matter what I do I can see the hole the needle punched in the fabric.
Hi Cheryl, it sounds like your needle is larger than it needs to be and/or it’s dull. If sewing with regular quilting cotton, I suggest using an 80/12 needle and changing it after every few bobbins. Here’s a link with some more quick info – https://suzyquilts.com/universal-needles/
Lint roller and masking tape. Thank you! You did a beautiful job! I will be referring to this again as I proceed with a project. I like the several topics covered in the Q & A too. This is one of the few blog (non-video only) that I’ve found on this topic. I find it very helpful as I can refer to it more easily (for me).
I was wondering if you have a blog or tutorial on the best way to attack straight line quilting in sections…for example, the Maypole pattern. I made a baby quilt in the Maypole pattern (only my second quilt) and quilted straight lines in between each strip and also in the ditch of every seam to create the maypole look on the back of the quilt as well. Much like the quilt you have pictured in your pattern.
Since you can’t exactly go from one end of the quilt to the other, since I was only working on small sections. I found myself not knowing where to go next, to avoid any waviness or wonky-ness. Also, my machine doesn’t have a self-cutting mechanism for the thread, so I found myself putting my head under the quilt to cut the bottom thread after each section we quilted, haha.
Is there a better method?
And what’s the best way to move across the quilt when quilting in sections like this?
Great question! Before you sit down at your machine lay out your quilt sandwich and make a quilting plan that allows you to quilt the maximum amount without cutting your thread. If that means you need to quilt in different directions, that’s fine. Two things will help you keep the waviness down:
1. Baste really well. Some people even do a combination of spray basting and pin basting to make sure the quilt sandwich fully stays in place. If you do some spray basting, don’t forget to heat set it with your iron.
2. Sew even slower. As you sew check in to make sure your walking foot isn’t dragging on the top fabric. That kind of tension will create waviness.
One example of this are the Adventureland baby quilts featured in this post I just finished. I quilted in the ditch one full quadrant before snipping my threads. That meant I was sewing up and down in different directions. I was in a hurry, so there is a little waviness, but it helped that I lowered the pressure of my walking foot so there was very little drag. When I got to the bottom edge of one triangle quadrant I backstitched, snipped my and moved on to the next quadrant. If possible, finish your quilting on the edge of your quilt so it’s easier to trim the treads and the binding will hide any backstitching.
Perhaps I’ve missed this information, if so, apologies for repetition.
You talk about reverse stitching at the end of a row of quilting, to secure.
I notice you have Bernina- do you suggest using stitch 1324 at all- resulting in the few very small stitches at both ends of a quilting row?
Any way you like to backstitch works great. Even just making your stitch length smaller (ie 1.5) is a great solution too.
I love your posts – Thank you!
I always machine quilt. For me, hand quilting takes too long 🙂
But I do have the following issue – I finish machine quilting and then squaring up the quilt, just before binding. While squaring up the quilt, I often trim quilt areas where the (quilting) stitches are secured. That causes the stitches and seams to split open. Am I doing something wrong?
I don’t think you’re doing anything wrong. Quilts change shape while we quilt them, so, to some degree, it’s inevitable that this will happen during the squaring up process. One thing you can do is as soon as you see this happen stick a straight pin in the area to remind you where it is. Once you finish trimming and squaring your quilt, hop to your machine, take out the pin and backstitch over that spot a few times. If you are sewing binding to your quilt right away, the binding process will secure those spots so you don’t have to do this.