Machine Quilting 101

Okay, confession time.  It’s been a year since COVID slowed us all down.  How many quilt tops did you make? 

Next question:  How many quilt tops have you quilted? 

If the second number is significantly smaller than the first number, this blog series is for you.  For the next several weeks I want to focus on the quilting process with the domestic sewing machine.  Yes, I do have a long arm, but I’m one of those long armers who doesn’t like to off-load one quilt before it’s complete.  For this reason, my small quilts are generally still quilted on Big Red while the larger quilts stay on LeighAnne. However, it wasn’t always this way.  For years, I was a “topper.”  I enjoyed the piecing and appliqueing process and quilted with my checkbook (paid someone else to quilt my quilts for me).  Nothing wrong with this, but if you’re a prolific topper, it can get expensive.  You may want to save the checkbook quilting for large quilts but get comfortable quilting the small quilts on your domestic machine.

And I’ll let you in on a little secret:  For years, the thought of quilting my own quilts scared me to death.  Drop the feed dogs and keep sewing?  I didn’t think I could do it.  But I persisted in learning the process and now, while I’m by no means an expert, I do pretty well.  What’s more, I enjoy the process.  Adding all that extra texture to a quilt top is just so much fun and is so addictive.  So, for the next couple of blogs, we’re putting the spotlight on quilting with the domestic machine.  I’m not a professional domestic-machine-quilter, but I want to share with you what I’ve learned and add lots of links and references for you to have at your fingertips.  And for a point of reference, when I mention quilting in these blogs, keep in mind I’m referring to the actual quilting (joining the back, batting, and top together) and performing the process on a standard domestic sewing machine (not a mid-arm or long-arm, although some of these steps you’ll go through no matter how you quilt your quilt). 

When we think about quilting on a regular sewing machine, there are eight general concepts to keep in mind:

  1.  The Quilt Sandwich
  2. Planning the Quilt Pattern
  3. Moving the Quilt Through the Harp
  4. Practice
  5. Posture
  6. Speed
  7. The Finish Line
  8. Stress

Hold the Pickle, Hold the Lettuce

Process of quilt sandwich assembling, sewing accessories

This blog, and maybe most of the second blog of the series, will focus on the quilt sandwich, because herein lies a lot of the success or a lot of the problems in the quilting process.    It’s super, super easy to rush the sandwich-making.  I mean, you’ve spent months (and is some cases, years) making the top.  A big part of you is DONE.  You really want to get the quilting over with, get the thing bound, and put on your bed, wall or in someone else’s hands as a gift.  I get it.  I do.  Been there, done that, got the t-shirt.  But putting together a good quilt sandwich is pretty darn important. So, we need to go through the steps.  And the first step is making sure you have everything you need.

  1.  Ironed and starched quilt top
  2. Batting – Make sure you have the kind you need for the appearance you want.  I’m placing the link to a blog I wrote about batting here: https://sherriquiltsalot.com/2020/01/29/this-is-the-batt-the-whole-batt-and-nothing-but-the-batt/
  3. Backing – Remember that backing fabric shrinks disproportionally to other quilting cottons – as much as eight percent.  You may want to prewash your quilt backing fabric, if you’re using this material instead of piecing your back from regular quilting fabric. Just for reference, here’s the link to my blog on quilt backs: https://sherriquiltsalot.com/2018/06/20/backs-for-the-quilting-groove/
  4. Sharp scissors
  5. Something to keep you quilt sandwich together as you quilt it.  These options will be discussed a little later. 
  6. A place to layout your quilt
  7. Masking tape
  8. Quilting gloves – These are pretty important.  Trust me.

Appearance Counts

Since this whole process is about enhancing the quilt top with some wonderful, quilty texture, let’s park it here for a paragraph or two and discuss why it’s so important to make sure the top is ready to be quilted.  You’ve spent weeks, months, maybe even years piecing and/or appliqueing the top.  You’ve given it the utmost care.  In order for the quilting to enhance the work you’ve already put into the top, it’s critical you flip your quilt over and take a careful look at the wrong side of the top. Clip any long threads and remove any other loose ones which are hanging on for the ride.  If you don’t, folks may actually be able to see these through the fabric once you have the quilt together and quilted.  Next, iron the back of the quilt, making sure seams have been pressed to one side (as much as possible) and everything is neat and tidy.  Press the front of the top with spray starch or Best Press (whichever is your preference).  Then set it aside while we talk about your batting.

Gotta Have a Flat Batt

Batting is sold either by the yard, by the roll, or in packages.  Generally, if you’ve purchased it by the yard or are rolling it off a bolt you purchased, wrinkles and creases are minimal.  Packaged batting has more fold marks.  It’s important to get as many of these out of your batting as you can before making your sandwich.  I don’t recommend pressing your entire batting for a couple of reasons.  First, batting is thin and the push and pull of pressing and then moving the batting can make thinner spots or even punch a hole in it.  I also don’t recommend hanging the batting in the bathroom and running the hot water so the steam can relax the creases – batting will hold that moisture for a while.  What I do suggest is unfolding the batting and letting it lie somewhere for several hours and let the wrinkles relax.  My favorite place to do this is on a spare bed.  After a day or two, I can take my portable iron (dry, no steam) and carefully press any spots where the creases prove to be extremely stubborn, and I can do this while it’s still on the bed. 

Stuck in the Middle with You

I’ve written pretty extensively about backings in past blogs, so if you have questions about how to piece a backing, I suggest you look at those (the links are above).  What is important – no matter if you’ve purchased wide backing fabric or are piecing your back – is make sure both the batting and backing are several inches larger than your top.  When you quilt your sandwich, it will shrink a bit.  Allowing for several inches of backing and batting on all the the sides will ensure you can trim all three sandwich layers down to size.  If a domestic sewing machine will be doing the quilting, two-to-three inches on all sides will be enough.  If a long arm will be used, generally you’ll need a more generous border – about six inches on all four sides.  This is due to the fact most long arm artists secure the sides of the quilt with grips and those clamps will need something to fasten to, yet still be far enough away from the quilt top they don’t interfere with the quilting process. 

The sharp scissors come in to use if the batting and backing are too large.  While you want to make sure the batting and backing are wide enough, you don’t want them too wide.  All that does is give you extra bulk you have to deal with.  And this may not be too much of an issue on a long arm, but with a domestic machine, it’s entirely different.  When quilting on a sewing machine, the idea is not to turn the quilt.  Turning the quilt can put puckers in the back if you’re not careful.  However, during the quilting process, you may get to a point where there is no other option but to turn the quilt.  Any extra fabric makes this process bulky and difficult.  Even if you’re free motion quilting from the middle of the quilt out, you’re still dealing with fabric to the left of you and fabric to the right (and there you are stuck in the middle – extra points to those who picked up on an old Stealer’s Wheel song).  The ideal situation is to keep the quilt sandwich as small as you can so there won’t be a lot of bulk next to the side of the harp or on your left-hand side, top, or bottom which can weight the quilt down, make it difficult to maneuver, or – if part of the quilt is close to the edge of the sewing table – make the quilt pull off the table.   

Before we get to how to keep your quilt sandwich together (because this topic may be a blog unto itself), we’re hitting the last three items on the list:  a place to lay your quilt out, tape, and gloves. 

It’s kind of critical to have a place which is big enough to sandwich your quilt all at the same time.  I’ve read about quilters who are able to make a quilt sandwich on a small table.  I admire this ability; however, I do not possess it.  I need a large area.  I have a cutting table on casters which I can slide out in the middle of my studio and make my sandwich.  This table will work as long as the quilt is no larger than a double.  My kitchen counter/bar works for lap and crib quilts.  Anything larger than this requires some planning. 

At this point, you maybe thinking, “Well, the floor would work, wouldn’t it?”  And it would.  If you have an area in your home where you can move everything out of the way and lay your backing out completely flat, it will certainly work for you – but not for me.  For one thing, Sam would want to participate in the process by laying on the quilt back and leaving cat sprinkles all over it (he sheds…despite the fact he’s brushed several times a week).  Second, my almost 60-year-old knees won’t take the abuse of crawling around on a hard floor and then supporting me when I try to stand up again.

The reason you need a space large enough for the back (or at least I  do), is this:  the back needs to be spread out and taped down so it doesn’t shift or wrinkle as you add the batting and top.  So, an open space on a floor would work great!  But if you’re like me and the knees are showing just a little wear and tear, the floor may be difficult.  However, all is not lost.  If you are a member of a church or other group which has an area with lots of long tables, see if you can get permission to lay out a quilt on those.  If there’s a library in your area with a public room, call or email to see if you can lay out your quilt there.  There may be a break room or some other space where you’re employed which would be perfect.  And my favorite place to layout large quilts is at my annual quilt retreat.  If I plan to quilt any of my tops on Big Red, the retreat facilities are perfect for doing it.  Lots of tables and lots of light.  When I’m finished, I can fold them up, pack them up, take them back home, and quilt them.  Oddest place I’ve ever sandwiched a quilt?  A local boat marina that had a meeting room.  You have to get creative and think outside the box, but there are places which will let you sandwich your quilt.  Many times, they’ll let you have the space for free since you’re not using it the entire day (especially if they’re supported by your tax dollars), or for a nominal fee or donation. 

After you’ve got a location to lay your quilt back out, the next thing needed is tape.  I realize this may sound kind of obvious, but not just any tape works for securing your quilt back to a surface.  You need a tape which will hold the back down securely, but won’t leave a tacky, nasty residue on the fabric.  This means Scotch tape is out – it’s not secure enough.  Electrical tape isn’t either.  Duct tape falls into the “leaves a nasty residue on fabric” category.  The two I recommend (and use myself) are painter’s tape or masking tape.  I find the painter’s tape works well for the smaller quilts, but if I have anything larger than a twin, I use masking tape.  The last thing you want to happen is for the backing to pull loose from the surface and wrinkle on you – because then you have to start all over. 

Finally, let’s talk quilting gloves.  Quilting gloves are needed for three reasons:

  1.  They reduce hand fatigue because they help you grip your quilt sandwich. The gloves have a tacky texture on them which help you really hold onto you quilt during the quilting process. 
  2. You can get a better grip on the sandwich with them.
  3. Gloves keep your hands and your quilt top relatively clean.

Yes, you can quilt without gloves, but honestly, they really do make a huge difference.  If you’re an occasional quilter, you may want to invest in these:

These are gloves from the Dollar Store.  If you look at the surface, there are little bumps on them which are slightly tacky.  They will work great for you if you only quilt occasionally.

If you quilt more often, you may want to invest in “real” quilting gloves.  These are Machingers Quilting Gloves.  These are made of nylon knit, and offer support to your hands and wrist, allowing you to quilt in relative comfort for hours.  Added bonus:  because they’re nylon, loose threads won’t stick to them and transfer back to the quilt top.  They’re seamless and allow you to easily use your fingertips or entire hand.  Only the fingertips are coated, so you get good resistance with no drag, and your hand will stay cool because there is not coating on the palm area.  These quilting gloves have been on the market for a long time, and  are the ones recommended by many well-known quilt teachers.  I have owned several pairs and I love them.  They can be cleaned but follow the directions on the package.  Since the gloves are white, they do get pretty stained after a while.   However, Machingers Gloves aren’t too expensive, so replacing them doesn’t break the bank. 

I also like the three-fingered quilt gloves:

These are Regi’s Grip.  To me, they seem a little more light weight than Machinger’s.  The biggest difference between Regi’s Grip and other quilting gloves is Regi’s leaves your ring and pinky fingers free.  I personally like this feeling better than having my entire hand in a glove, but this is truly a “me” thing and you may not like having two fingers free.  Bonus:  Since they’re gray, crocking stains don’t show up quite as badly as they do on the white Machinger’s.  One word of caution, these run a little small, so I’d order the next size up from what you normally take in a glove.

There are other quilting gloves on the market, but I own and use Machinger’s and Regi’s Grip.  They’re both wonderful products and I like them equally.  Whatever type of quilting glove you decide on, make sure they fit comfortably and don’t cause your hands to sweat. 

This is as far we’re going on quilting for this blog.  Let me throw in one more word of caution since we covered areas to make your quilt sandwich. If you plan on using a floor, make sure it’s not carpeted. It will be difficult to keep the back taped down to carpet. Second, make sure the surface (no matter if it’s a floor or a table or a counter) is clean. That’s kind of important…Next week we’ll talk about the different ways to make a quilt sandwich and the pros and cons of each.

Until Next Week, Quilt On!

Love and Stitches,

Sherri and Sam

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