I love to encourage and support the art of machine quilting so I thought I’d share some of my favorite tips when it comes to quilting on a domestic machine.
Find as much work-surface area as possible. A drop-in table is an excellent investment if you are considering quilting your own quilts. I would even venture to say that the table is even more important than the machine! I bought mine from a dealer over 15 years ago who is now out of business. However, you can convert a sturdy table by cutting out a large enough hole and attaching a holding tray. Be sure to search online for a plethora of tutorials and blog posts about DIY’ers who’ve done it themselves.
The table originally came with an insert that was cut to fit my older Bernina. However, when I upgraded to my new machine, I didn’t worry about cutting a new insert. I was able to lower the drop-down part of my table and level it so that the machine’s extension table covered most of the hole. Problem solved.
If you need to sew on the surface of your table, try to spread out as much as you can. Put tables behind your machine and to the left to give you more surface area in which to work. Get as large of an extension table for your machine as you can. I keep a portable TV tray on hand that I use to add more surface area to the front of my table, just to the left of where I sit. The key is to prevent too much of the weight of the quilt from dragging. Less drag makes for prettier stitches.
Be slippery and grippy when it comes to free-motion quilting. Starch the backing of your quilts before you baste them. (Heck, starch all of your fabrics while working if you can!) This helps reduce friction on the back of your quilt. Also, use a silicon quilting sheet such as a Supreme Slider to keep things slick on the bed of the machine. Use quilting gloves such as Machingers to give you a good grip while quilting.
Tip: only use a silicon quilting sheet while free-motion quilting. Do not use it while stitching with your walking foot as you will quilt right through it. I speak from experience here.
Use your hands as a “hoop” while quilting and only work on what’s in the “hoop”. When you start to quilt away from the hoop, stop (with your needle down in the quilt), reposition your hands, and form a new hoop. Be sure to remove pins before you get too close!
Use a thin thread that blends. This is my most important piece of advice. It’s amazing how many mistakes can disappear when you see the texture of the quilting rather than the thread itself. My favorite go-to thread? Aurifil 50 weight cotton. It comes in a rainbow of colors and I have zero tension issues when I use it.
I also like to use the same color thread in the top and bobbin whenever possible. This helps hides unbalanced stitching and prevents “pokies” (dots of thread showing through from the other side). You can help hide thread color changes on the back of your quilt by using a busy print on the back. (Using busy prints on the front can help hide machine quilting mistakes, too!)
Depending on my quilt design and time allotted, I will either switch colors of thread for each different color of fabric, or I will use a neutral colored tan or grey over multiple colored fabrics. Again, a thin thread is the key for blending.
Change needles often; clean and oil your machine regularly. Be very good at giving your machine the TLC that it needs. Many times when your machine sounds loud or it’s skipping stitches, you need a new needle or a bit of oil. A good rule of thumb is to change out your needle about every 8 hours of sewing time. (One of the reasons I time my quilt alongs is so I will know when to change my needles.) Consult your machine’s manual on how often and where to oil and de-lint your machine.
I prefer to use sharp, topstitch or quilting needles when quilting and like to choose the smallest needle size that will accommodate my thread. You want a nice sharp needle that will pierce the fabric and will not pull up any batting to the surface or leave holes for batting to poke through. Use specialty needles for specialty threads and save the “universal” needles for regular piecing.
Draw, then sketch, then stitch. Draw your design with pencil on paper first to practice your muscle memory and train your brain to recognize the pattern of movement for a particular design. Draw, or doodle every day for best results. Keeping a quilting journal just for drawing is a great way to develop designs and practice your “quilt handwriting.”
Next, “sketch” your quilting on a practice sandwich using two pieces of fabric with a scrap of batting in between. Use the same fabrics, batting and thread that you will use on your quilt. This will help your hands get a feel for how to move the quilt and form the stitches. It can also help you practice getting into and out of tight spaces.
Adjust your tension as needed to form uniform stitches. I usually have to lower my top tension while free-motion quilting. Consult your machine manual on how to affect your tension. Do not be afraid to adjust the bobbin tension if needed.
Sketching on practice pieces may take a little time until you are happy with the results, and that’s perfectly okay. If you practice a little “daily quilt exercise”, before you know it, you’ll be able to stitch a marathon-length of beautiful quilting stitches!
Finally, stitch on your actual quilt once you are happy with your thread tension, color choices, and quilting design. I find that a little pre-planning goes a long way. By following the above steps before I get to the actual quilt, there are no surprises and I can enjoy the zen-like relaxation that I get from a session of machine quilting.
When in doubt, add more quilting. You know the advice that says to add more of a certain fabric if it stands out too much? The same thing applies to quilting. One or two lines of quilting will stand out if they don’t look “perfect”. However, by the time you quilt the entire surface of your quilt, mistakes seem to blend in and all you are left with is gorgeous texture.
If you haven’t quite got the knack of free-motion quilting, there are quite a few textures you can stitch with your walking foot, too. Try stitching straight lines by following the edge of your foot or a piece of tape, organic lines that don’t have to be straight, or wavy lines by slightly moving your quilt from side to side as you stitch. Don’t forget the decorative stitches on your machine either. Play around with lengths and widths for an infinite variety of designs!
Take breaks between quilting sessions. I’ve found that I can only quilt comfortably for about 2 hours at a time. If I need to cram a lot of quilting into one day, I’ll start early in the morning with a 2 hour session, then take a break until after lunch for another session. Sometimes I’ll even come back later at night when the kids are in bed for another round of quilting if I’m on a deadline. Through experience, I’ve learned that I need to plan out my quilting over several days for more successful results. Remember – you can’t rush art!
Speaking of being comfortable, try to keep your arms bent at a 90 degree angle while quilting (and sewing), with your feet resting comfortably on the ground. Since I’m short and my legs dangle, that means raising my adjustable sewing chair as high as it goes and putting a book or two under my non-quilting foot for support.
Remember to have fun and enjoy the learning process. Just as you learned to crawl before you could walk, and you had to practice your handwriting before you could learn cursive, free-motion quilting is also a learned skill that takes time to develop. I truly believe that anyone can achieve beautiful results if they are willing to put in the time, patience and practice. Your efforts will be rewarded, I promise.
Above all, enjoy the learning process. Be proud of what you are trying to achieve. I will be here to cheer you on!