Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Machine Quilting 101: The Nitty Gritty

It's been a few weeks, but it's time for another Machine Quilting 101 post. Today we will be talking about the basics...the nitty gritty, if you will...of machine quilting.

The number one goal with machine quilting is a pucker free quilt, front and back. Sounds easy enough, right? (Hahahaha!)
Handling the quilt
Most often I grip the quilt with my left hand and that helps me guide it. I smooth the quilt down with my right hand and form a hoop of sorts to keep the small section that I am working on taut. I do NOT use quilting gloves. I learned without them, so using them now feels very bulky and unnatural. I know that some people find them very helpful.

We've already talked about the importance of practice, but it bears repeating. Practice is KEY! One thing I didn't mention earlier is that doodling on paper is a great way to practice before moving to the machine. When you switch to the machine, loops are a great place to start, because they are much easier than stippling.

Basic Quilting Designs
You can try loops in a line, as I did on my oatmeal quilt.
Or, you can try all over loops, as on my super stars quilt. These are pretty easy because the loops can be large or small or a mix of both. This is a fairly forgiving and flexible design.
Simply put, there is NOTHING natural about the movement of stippling, but it sure does look pretty and it produces a great texture.
Straight line quilting isn't super easy, especially if you are a perfectionist. You can call it organic straight line quilting and you have much more flexibility. :)

Look at the big picture
When you are up close, staring at a 6" square of quilting, all of the imperfections are noticeable. You may think that your quilting is less than stellar, (I know I usually do!) but this is when it's important to take a step back and take a look at the project as a whole. Often times the parts that bug me the worst in the moment are hard to find later because they really aren't a big deal. It's easy for me to get wrapped up in perfection, so I have to talk myself down every once in awhile. If it bugs you, sleep on it. If it still bugs you, then rip it out.

Slow down
If you are quilting in a high profile area, your standards may be higher. For example, when you are stitching with white thread on a navy background, you might want to be more precise in your spacing. It is much more visible than the stitching on your lighter colored prints. When I get to those spots in the quilt I take a deep breath, slow down and concentrate on my spacing just a bit more. That sounds SO corny, but it's what I do. And really, it's better to take your time and do it right the first time rather than rip out stitches.

Start and stop
When you run out of bobbin, or anytime you are starting and stopping in the middle of the quilt, you can do one of two things: 1. You can retrace a few of your stitches (use very small stitches) and overlap the old and new stitching lines. The overlap helps to secure your starts and stops. Or... 2. You can bury your threads as shown in this tutorial. The second option is my preferred method. I love that the starts and stops are invisible!

Keep an eye on the back side
Take a peek at the tension on the back every time you start a new bobbin and once or twice in between. It only takes seconds to take a peek, but it could save you hours of ripping later. I had to re-learn this lesson just this week! Thankfully the tension was QUITE loose, so the ripping was easy. But still!
For some reason after a bobbin change, my tension got quite loose. I don't know what happened, but I had to stop, get out my test scrap and reset the tension on my machine mid-quilt. It's weird, but that seems to happen from time to time. After more quilting, I was able to reduce the tension again. I don't know WHY that happens, but it does.
Trim the bulk
Before quilting, it is helpful to trim the backing and batting within an inch of the quilt top. This reduces the bulk and will help keep things manageable while quilting. Every little bit helps!  Also, it reduces the risk of extra backing fabric getting flipped over to the back and quilted down.
If the back DOES flip up and gets quilted down, cut it close to the stitched line, then pull the threads of fabric out, a few at a time, from beneath the quilted stitches.
The backing looks all hacked up, but this part will be trimmed off eventually anyway!  Again, object lessons from my quilting just this week! Sigh. It happens!

The denser the quilting, the stiffer the quilt. The looser the quilting, the softer the quilt. Make sure to check the batting packaging for quilt spacing requirements. This one the stitch distance is 4". Some batting requires the stitching to be a maximum spacing of 10" apart. That's quite a difference! It's something to consider when picking a quilting design (and batting) for your quilt.
If you are doing multiple quilting techniques in one quilt, try to keep your density fairly consistent throughout, so that when the quilt is washed there won't be bubbles and bumps. You want the shrinkage to be uniform throughout the quilt.
On my nap like an Egyptian quilt I had to go back and add lines of quilting (around the smallest inner triangles) because I left too much space un-quilted, even though I followed the spacing directions on the batting. I added the additional quilting after washing, which isn't ideal, but it was a better option than not fixing it at all. It's still a little bumpy in places, but it's better than it was.

Final thoughts
Some things come out in the wash. I am NOT a subscriber to the theory "if you can't see it from a galloping horse 10 feet away don't worry about it". I believe you should do as good of a job as you can. BUT, I also realize the need to forgive yourself those little imperfections, because it IS a hand made item, after all. What I'm saying is, don't drive yourself crazy...on either end of the spectrum! Much easier said than done.

If you don't use it, you lose it! I used to stipple so much more beautifully than I do now. Probably because I quilted almost everything with "a simple stipple" back in 2009. :) It's good to have variety, but it's also good to have a stand-by, or default in your quilting bag of tricks.

There is SO MUCH more that I could cover, but I think we will call it quits for today! I have two more topics in this series planned: threads and needles, and a post all about batting. Is there anything else that I missed?

If you have any questions, I'll try to answer them in the comments!

Here are the links to all the previous posts in this series:
Pre-Basting Prep
Working your way around the quilt
Picking a Pattern

Have fun quilting those quilts!


Lindsey Dee Rinehart said...

Hi! I am a pretty new quilter and have only done stitch-in-the-ditch as a quilting method. It's difficult for me to shove my giant quilts (full/queen) through my machine and the idea of moving it around seems...impossible. Am I missing something? I'm just using my regular machine with a regular foot, not a walking foot or anything special.

Susanhusan said...

Thank you for doing this series. It has been very helpful. Now, I just need to take your advice and practice!

Sharon said...

Thank you for covering this often-neglected topic! I think you're doing a great job. I've often admired your quilting. I think the quilting on all that open background is so important in a modern quilt, and it's wonderful to read your insights into it.

I have a top that I'm about to send to my long-armer and am thinking hard about how I want her to quilt it. Your post on picking a pattern is very helpful!

Beth @ Cooking Up Quilts said...

I had to smile when I saw your pic of the back flipped over and quilted. That hasn't happened to me yet, but only because I caught it just in time! Trimming the quilt is an excellent piece of advice, and one I'm going to use! :)

Kate said...

Great advice. I've been caught out by the flipped backing more than once, and fix it the same way as you. And stipple is definitely my go-to.

Linda Kay said...

I have trouble keeping my stitch length consistent. I tend to end up with really tiny stitches that are really difficult (or impossible) to rip out if I really mess something up. Other than continuing to practice, do you have any advice?

Anonymous said...

I have the same issue as Linda Kay. I would love to have some ideas how to practice so that my stitch length is more consistent.

Mine-rSewFun said...

Great post...thanks!

Paqui Azores said...

Preciosos tus acolchados!!!
Besos guapa :)

Vera said...

Great post, thanks for sharing.

Gemini Jen NZ said...

WONDERFUL! Thanks for the tips! I was right there with the tension issue just a few days ago - frustrating! And I like the tip to cut batting etc down to about an inch - must go do that with current quilt...cheers!

margaret said...

so many words of wisdom you have shared today, I must take your advice and practise as I have a few flimsies I am frightened to quilt on.

Sew Create It - Jane said...

Loving this series.. So throughout and helpful... As for the tension after you changed your bobbin.. It may have something to do with the difference in tension on the bobbin thread as moves from the outer edge moving towards the centre.. At least that's what I've noticed on my juki... Not much you can do about it but it might explain it :-)

Unknown said...

I really enjoyed this post. Thanks

leanne said...

really enjoying your series - thanks ! I've quilted 4 tops now (woohoo) but I do notice that my quilting seems to be really dense as my stipples are pretty small - I did loops and hearts on another top and they're dense too - I wasn't sure if its a personal thing or if quilting with more spacing is something that can be learnt ?

Anne said...

I have loved this series- thank you! Also, my mom always says the galloping horse quote, and it drives me nuts. OF COURSE I'D SEE IT- I KNOW EXACTLY WHERE TO LOOK!! :) I think you're a girl after my own heart. I once had an English teacher that had a poster that said, "Is good enough REALLY good enough?" That sign haunts this perfectionist to this day. ;)

Carolyn J. said...

I've quilted many free motion quilts and still occasionally have trouble with tension. If you have any tips or tricks on the best ways to determine how to adjust tension I'd love to see that post.

Thanks for this series, it's terrific for beginners and offers great reminders and tips for those with more experience.

Erin @ Why Not Sew? Quilts said...

great post! I don't know how many times I've had happen to me what happened in your trim the bulk pictures!

Unknown said...

Thank you so much for this post it's very helpful.

SuzyMcQ said...

Thank you so much for all the hard work you've put into this series, it is much-apprectiated and I have learned a lot of new information and some great tips.
Great job!

NettieB said...

This is a very informative series. Along with others, I'd be really grateful for advice on how to keep the stitch length consistent.

Thanks for your great work!

Diedra said...

thank you for being open about mistakes. I am a beginner (or maybe a pre-beginner) and I get discouraged but it is encouraging to know that experienced people are still learning. Thanks again.

Unknown said...

Thank you so much for this series. I've only tried to machine quilt once on my home machine - and it was a disaster!! You've inspired me to give it another try :)

Andrea R said...

I think you nailed it! there's a fine line between perfectionist and just trying to improve your skills.

The backing flipping over happens to me on every other quilt, I SWEAR. :D

Anina said...

Great tips! I haven't quilted a darn thing in months, so this was a great refresher.

Crafty Coffin said...

Ok, I'm bookmarking for the advice because I'm a very beginning FMQer. But I have a question - how did it work adding additional quilting after washing? I made a son for my quilt and I really think it could use some more quilting but I'm worried about how the stops and starts would look since they won't be hidden.

Kari Nitzel said...

I love stippling, my biggest problem is keeping the stitches even. I end up stippling with clear thread so noone sees the messy stitches. How can you keep the stitches even with a free motion foot?

Unknown said...

I have been following your machine quilting series and I am learning alot. New to FMQ, I have been quilting with my walking foot. Your blog is great.

Kale said...

Hi. Thanks for your advice. I have problems with puckers and it seems like the top and backing don't move together even with a walking foot. Also what settings do you use on your machine?? Tension and pressure foot??

Diane said...

Excellent post!

Sherry said...

Great tips. Now I need to get back my desire to quilt and stop spending all my time making quilt tops that aren't getting finished. Thanks for this great post!

Bridgid said...

Hi, Thanks so much for this really helpful series. Like some of the previous comments, I would really appreciate some advice on stitch length, and in particular, how you decide if something should be re-done (not so much for aesthetics - just being confident that the quilt won't fall apart!). I recently did some straight line quilting on a twin quilt and had lots of problems getting a consistent stitch despite using a walking foot. In the end I switched to invisible thread, but I'm still a bit concerned that one day the quilt will come out of the wash in pieces!

Unknown said...

Thanks so much for this entry, your work is excellent!

Amy said...

Thank you so much for this series. I have learned so much. I still need to quilt my Ragged Squares quilt and I think you have given me the motivation and inspiration. I would like to also see a part on binding. I know you have talked a lot about it but I would maybe like to see more. I hand sew my binding on the back and I think I am getting better at it but I would still like to see more about it. Again, thank you for this wonderful informative series.

the zen quilter said...

Okay. thanks for the tutorial, but I have to also add that I am obsessed with your Nap Like an Egyptian Quilt! LOVE IT!

Jade said...

This is such an excellent post. Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule and sharing these tips!! I'm looking forward to the thread and batting posts. :)

Mina said...

I have been working on my quilts for the scrap basket QAL and thought that you are right about practice. I noticed today that my stitch length is more consistent and I am improving my grip. I would feel more at ease with quilting if I could learn to grip better, and make better stop/starts when I run out of bobbin. I haven't been able to use my walking foot when I attach the binding because of too many skipped stitches. Any tips?

Jennifer C said...

This tutorial has been wonderful! You have been a huge inspiration for me to try new things over the past couple of years.

I tried the machine gloves today--I think there is going to be some improvement with them. I can seem to get a hold of the fabric better.

One question I do have: even after playing with the tension, is there still the occasional "pulled" thread on the back?

Again, thank you so much and keep the great ideas coming!

Ann H. said...

I just found your blog today and I'm so happy I did! The entry on Machine Quilting 101 from July 16 is one of the best things I've read on blog! I enjoyed everything about it! Thank you so much for some great information!
Ann H.

Pat said...

Excellent post. Thanks for the tip on cutting away the backing if you stitch over it. I've done that but didn't have the sense to just clip it close to the stitches. Of course I'm more careful of that these days since I've done it more than once. :(
Yesterday I was quilting something and the machine made a funny noise. Investigation showed a tiny bit of thread in the bobbin case. I removed it but then I had eyelashes all over the place. Grrrr! I wound up rethreading the needle, replacing the bobbin, and replacing the needle before everything calmed down. Double Grrrr! But at least it started behaving again.

Rachel said...

Great tips, I've been a follower forever. On the batting, I don't think that you have to quilt 10" apart, it just means that you can if you want to and the batting won't pull apart or bunch up.

Karen said...

Such a great series! So good to keep reminding ourselves to not try to be too perfect :)

Amanda Jean said...

Lindsay Dee Rinehart,

Quilting a quilt that big on your machine is a little tricky but it can be done! This will require a lot of adjusting and re-adjusting. But doing just a little at a time and adjusting your quilt as you go is just part of the process. As far as your feet...if you are straight line quilting, definitely try a walking foot. It SHOULD make a big difference, because it's designed to feed all 3 layers of the quilt through the machine at once. Make sure to check with your sewing machine dealer to purchase the correct walking foot for your machine, because they are not a one size fits all attachment. They are specific to certain machines.

I hope that helps!


Amanda Jean said...

Linda Kay,

I'm sorry, but I think that the answer to your varying stitch lengths IS mainly solved by practice. I am not making any promises, but I will try to do a little video with some hints to help you on your way. I don't know WHEN, but I will try to do it in this series...again, no promises... :)


Amanda Jean said...

Needle and Foot,

Please see comment above. :)


Amanda Jean said...


I think each person probably has a default setting when it comes to density, but I've found that if I concentrate, I can alter it, at least a little bit. It's worth a try, anyway! Especially if you are quilting so densely, you might want to try to add some more space so you can get them done faster! :)

Hope that helps!


Amanda Jean said...

Crafty Coffin,

You know, the additional quilting after washing worked better than I thought it would. I would encourage you to try it!

If you want to hide your stops and starts, you can bury your thread ends...I have a tutorial called "how to bury knots when machine quilting" (on my quilt making basics page.

hopefully that helps!


Amanda Jean said...

Kari Nitzel,

I think that you are the 5th person to ask that in the comments. I think that it will deserve a complete post of it's own. Stay tuned!


Amanda Jean said...


Not all walking feet work well, I'm sad to say! I have one machine that the walking foot works much better on.

As far as tension and pressure settings....
Tension varies depending on the thread and the be honest!

Pressure foot setting, as low pressure as possible when working with my walking foot.

I hope that helps!


Amanda Jean said...


No, I don't have any tips about skipped stitches when you are binding. Has your machine been serviced lately? If not, you MAY want to start there....

Hope that helps!


Amanda Jean said...

Jennifer C,

Oh, yes, there still is the occasional pulled thread on the back. I have noticed that if I slow down (or have more consistent speed throughout) there are fewer and fewer of them. Hope that makes sense! Some of this is so hard to explain in words!


Amanda Jean said...


You are exactly right! I hope I didn't confuse anyone with that.


Terri said...

This is such a great post, chock-full of great tips! And this series is so helpful, so I appreciate all the time you spent putting it together.

I often have trouble with the bobbin tension getting too loose so I like the idea of stopping, switching to a new bobbin and practicing on a test swatch. Sometimes my bobbin doesn't get wound tight enough, especially towards the end.

I prefer kinda loose quilting because I like to curl up in soft quilts. I really want to get a few of my quilts finished so I can use them.