Quilting stitches, whether sewn by hand or machine, hold the three layers of your quilt sandwich – the top, the wadding and the backing – together. As this is a beginner’s series on quilt making, I am going to look at straight-line machine quilting and you can find other types of quilting here at The Sewing Directory.
Straight-line Machine Quilting
For quilts that are sewn on a home sewing machine, straight-line machine quilting is an accessible way to sew the layers of a quilt together and some basic equipment will make the process easier.
A walking foot, also known as a dual feed foot, is a specialised sewing machine foot that makes it easier to sew multiple layers of fabric without them shifting or slipping. A walking foot attaches to the presser foot and has ‘teeth’ to grip the fabric like an extra pair of feed dogs so it passes evenly through the machine. A helpful explanation of how it works can be found on Lisa Lam’s U-Handbag blog here. Some machines come with a built-in walking foot e.g. the AcuFeed foot on the more expensive Janome models. For other machines it may be available as a separate attachment. See our guide to specialist feet for patchwork and quilting article here.
Make sure you purchase the appropriate walking foot for your machine. In addition to quilting, a walking foot is handy for quilt binding, bag making, sewing knit/jersey fabrics and sewing bulky fabrics. Quilting on a home sewing machine without one can be hard work!
This is an L-shaped bar that slides through the back of the walking foot and is held in place with a spring. It is used as a guide for evenly spacing lines of quilting. As you sew, the bar rests on top of a previous line of stitching allowing you to stitch a parallel line. Some machines come with two opposing L bars that can be attached to either the left or right side of your walking foot. If you haven’t got a quilt bar it is possible to try a DIY option- this blog post by Norma of Petit Design Co. describes how to adapt a large paper clip to use as a quilt bar. It is useful tool but not essential.
Machine Quilting Needles
Machine quilting needles are stronger than standard universal machine needles so they can cope with sewing through multiple layers. They are also longer from tip to eye. Good options to try are Microtex needles, which have an especially sharp tip; Schmetz quilting needles, and Superior Titanium coated topstitch needles, which are extra strong and have a larger top stitching eye making it easier to sew with heavier threads. For a standard quilt made from quilting cottons, I find a 90/14 needle works best, other sewers might prefer a 80/12 or if the fabrics or wadding are thicker, even a 100/16 size needle. I would recommend buying a mixed size pack of needles and experimenting on some quilt sandwich scraps to see what you prefer.
Quilting gloves have rubberised tips for better grip and make it easier to hold and manipulate your quilt whilst quilting. Some quilters use gardening gloves with the same rubberised tips, as these can often be cheaper than quilting gloves. They are not essential for straight-line quilting but many people find they help with moving the quilt as you sew and handling the bulk of the quilt as you feed it through the machine harp or throat space. They are especially useful if you wish to free motion quilt. This technique allows you to quilt in all directions and is described in a three-part series here.
It is possible to quilt without using marking tools and instead follow, echo, outline or stitch in the seam lines of your blocks. If you would like try specific quilting designs you will need to transfer these on to your quilt using a marking tool. Remember to test on scrap fabric before drawing on your precious quilt top! Options include chalk pencils, tailor’s chalk, water-soluble markers, quilter’s pencil and a quilter’s pounce. The latter is used with stencils and transfers chalk. For straight lines, a Hera marker tool allows you to create a temporary crease on the fabric. Masking tape, washi tape or quilter’s tape can also be used to create guidelines for straight-line quilting; the needle is positioned to one side of the tape.
There is a helpful post on quilt marking methods along with some handy tips on the Craftsy blog.
The thread you choose for quilting depends on the impact you would like your quilting stitches to have on the finished quilt. Using a lighter weight thread like Aurifil 50wt – the thread you may have used to piece your quilt top – will give a gentle, unobtrusive quilting effect. A slightly heavier thread, e.g. Aurifil 40wt creates more defined stitches and is also a little stronger – something to consider if your quilt is going to need to withstand lots of wear and tear. You may have to adjust your needle size and machine tension for different machine weights. Read more about thread on the Craftsy blog.
How you organise your sewing space is important when quilting. Even a cot size quilt can be heavy and difficult to manoeuvre so it is important to make sure that you are sitting comfortably and at an appropriate height and that your sewing surface has sufficient room for your quilt as you twist and turn it through the machine throat or harp space. I find it helps to sit higher than normal on a swivel chair, almost so I am looking down on what I am quilting. Your feet should be flat on the floor and your neck and shoulders should feel relaxed. Experiment with different chair heights to see what works best for you. For larger quilts, many quilters use ironing boards at the side of their sewing machine to manage the excess weight of the quilt whilst sewing. There is some useful information on arranging your sewing space and furniture on the Martingale blog.
Plan Your Quilting
Before you start quilting, spend some time planning how you are going to quilt your quilt. Will it have an all-over design e.g. straight consecutive lines running down the length of the quilt or a crosshatch grid? For an all-over design I usually start my quilting so the first line of stitching will be positioned centrally on the quilt. If you are quilting individual blocks, it is easiest to start with the centre block, and work outwards. For all-over or individual block quilting, you need to consider how your quilting lines will travel across the quilt; it’s best to aim for a continuous line wherever possible and avoid stopping and starting too often. It’s a good idea to draw a doodle on paper to plan where your stitching will start and stop and how it will travel over either a block or the entire quilt.
Starting Machine Quilting
To start quilting, place the quilt under the walking foot and manually or with an up down button move the threaded needle down and up. Pull the top thread to draw up the bobbin thread to the top – this prevents the bobbin thread tail getting tangled up underneath the quilt. Hold onto both threads and using a very small stitch – 1mm or less – sew two or three stitches forwards and back. Now adjust the stitch length to a longer stitch- around 3.5mm and sewing over the tiny stitches and sew along your desired line. Finish your quilting by reducing the stitch size at the end and back stitching. Leave the end threads long.
On the sampler quilt, I started by quilting along the sashing, stitching a scant 1/4″ from the seam lines using the walking foot as a guide. This made a grid over the quilt leaving the blocks unquilted. I then used a mix of machine quilting and some large stitch hand quilting with thicker threads on individual blocks.
Using the Walking Foot as a Guide
On your walking foot there will be different areas that you can use as a guide. In the photo above left, I am using the inner narrow section of the foot to rest against the seam line. In the right photo you can see the rest of the block; each on-point square has had a line of stitching sewn around it using the foot as a guide to echo the shape.
Stitching in the Ditch
Stitch in the ditch or ditch stitching is when your machine quilting stitches are sewn either on the seam lines or very close. The stitches are not easily seen on the quilt top and it can also be used as an understated way of quilting the whole quilt so that the focus is on the block shapes and fabrics, or for travelling across the quilt to reach a particular point to continue a specific quilting design. For some sewing machines there are walking feet with a stitch in the ditch attachment or an edge stitch foot that is designed with a blade in the centre, which sits along the seam line, and this can make your sewing more accurate.
Allowing for the Outer Edge
When you quilt the outer edges of your quilt, you need to allow for the extra 1/4” seam allowance that will be covered by binding once the quilt is quilted and the edges and excess wadding are trimmed. On the block below, I have used the walking foot as a guide to quilt a scant 1/4” away from the seam line around the inner and outer edges of the block border (aqua fabric left and bottom edge of block). On the unfinished edges of the quilt, the stitches are placed almost 1/2″ from the edge – the binding will cover a quarter inch of that so the quilting will be consistent around the block. Once the quilting is finished, it helps to sew all round the unfinished edges of the quilt approximately 1/8” from the raw edge to keep the fabric in place.
Mixing Hand Quilting and Machine Quilting
Hand quilting has a beautiful effect but does take a long time and can be a strain on the hands and arms. I like to add a little bit of hand quilting and mix it with machine quilting. For these blocks, the machine quilting is using Aurifil 50wt thread and the hand quilting stitches are sewn with Aurifil 12wt. Perle cotton is another example of a thicker thread for hand quilting and there are specialist threads available like Gutermann quilting thread that have a waxed coating to prevent the thread tangling as you hand quilt. A detailed post on how to hand quilt written by Sarah Fielke can be found here.
Instead of cutting the thread ends close to the quilt each time you finish quilting it is good practice to bury your threads. This technique stops short thread ends sticking out. To bury threads use a hand sewing needle with a large eye or a self-threading needle and push the thread into the hole where the stitching ended, through the quilt layers and away from the quilting before coming out and trimming the thread. It is possible to do two threads together. If your line of stitching starts and ends at an outer edge that will be covered by binding there will be no need to do this!
An alternative to machine quilting or hand quilting is to send your quilt to a professional longarm quilting service or in some quilt shops/studios. This will also include basting the quilt layers together. Some shops have a long arm-quilting machine available to use at an hourly rate. Another method is to tie your quilt layers together with strong thread. There’s a detailed post on how to tie a quilt at Connecting Threads.
Next time we will square and trim the quilt edges before labelling and binding your quilt!