Before You Add the First Quilting Stitch….

Okay… the above quote deals with an actual sandwich – the kind with bread, cheese, meat, tomatoes, etc.  However, I do think the same idea holds true for a quilt sandwich.  You want the best “ingredients” you have — a wonderful top, the type of batting needed, and a great back.  As promised, this blog will deal with the quilt sandwich, how to prepare it, and several of the different ways you can put it together. 

Let’s take a look at the center of attention, the quilt top.  I’ve mentioned you should press and starch it and clip any long threads as well as remove any loose ones.  What you need to decide now is how are you going to quilt it?  I admit, when I first began quilting on Big Red, I really did not plan this step out well.  My primary goal was getting my quilt sandwich together and then start quilting.  This was not a good idea – in soo, soooo many ways.  My quilting was never consistent, and I had a lot of stops and starts (knotting the thread and re-starting in a different place).   Ideally, you want to quilt as long as you can without breaking the thread.  Some quilting designs will run off the edge of the quilt, so this isn’t an issue, but other times you’ll have to stitch over some areas to get to your next starting point.  This is why it’s important to plan your quilting designs.  It’s so critical I want to spend the next several paragraphs discussing it. 

At this point, I wish I could spout off some magical formula on how to quilt any quilt – what works best on HSTs, or flying geese, or square-in-a-squares.  However, I can’t, because such a formula doesn’t exist.  What I can tell you is that the longer you quilt your own quilts, a couple of facts will emerge.  First, you’ll find your favorite way to quilt certain units.  Let’s take a look a HSTs, since they’re a common block unit.  My favorite way of quilting these units is this:

Nine times out of ten, if I’m quilting HSTs on a standard, domestic sewing machine or a long arm, this is my go-to quilting design.  It works its way around the block, allowing me to emerge at any point of the square and continue to my next design.  It also leaves an open area.  If the HST is large-ish, I can fill in the open area with pebbles or close meanders.  This design leaves a lot of room for variations.    This is certainly not the only quilting design for HSTs, but it’s my personal favorite.  How did I discover the design? 

First, I looked at a lot of quilts – both in person and on the internet.  Truthfully, the best way to determine what designs you like and which ones work best for you is to study quilts which have already been quilted.  And if you’re machine quilting your quilts, you need to study quilts that are machine quilted by either a long arm or a domestic machine.  I look at quilts in Pinterest and Google.  I spend about an hour a week (not all at once, but here and there) looking at quilts.  The ones which really catch my eye are saved either in a file on my phone or computer or on my Pinterest boards.  These are the ones I refer to when I’m considering my quilting designs. 

Second, the more you machine quilt, you quickly realize which quilting designs become your “go to” ones for certain units, like my favorite design for HSTs.  This realization doesn’t happen overnight, but over a period of months or even years.  The more you quilt, the more you recognize which designs you do best as well as which ones allow you ease of travel (moving from one block or one design to the next).  There is no formula for this except practice.  

Regardless of whether you’re using your favorite quilting design or are trying out something new, it’s rare that any quilter can begin the quilting process without making some kind of reference point on their quilts.  This is called “marking the quilt.”  Truthfully, I do this more when I quilt on Big Red than on LeeAnne.  With LeeAnne I have the luxury of seeing the entire quilt top spread out on the rollers.  With Big Red, I’m only seeing a section at a time and may not have a visual reference point of how I plan to get from one point to the next.  If I have the surface marked, it’s like having a road map spread out in front of me.  I just follow the blue line…

My favorite marking tool for quilt tops is a washable marker.  This means all  the ink disappears when you rinse the quilt in cold water.  I don’t use Frixion on the quilt top, because those markings can come back if the quilt is subject to cold temperatures.  I don’t use a pencil because the marking may not wash completely out.  A washable blue marker has served me well for quilting either on my sewing machine or my long arm.  When shopping for such a marker, just be sure the directions plainly state the markings can be removed by cold water.  On a couple of occasions, I’ve grabbed a blue marking pen, assuming the ink will disappear with water only to discover a few days later it was an air soluble eraser and all my marks had disappeared! Not a good day. 

After you have the correct marking tool, you must decide if you want to mark you top in great detail, use a grid, dot-to-dot markings, or use stencils.  I can explain how I go about this process, but again, what works for me may not work for you.  However, the more you quilt, the more you’ll clearly see what the most effective way for you is.

  1.  Detail Markups

This type of marking means you’re literally drawing out every line you’ll quilt.    

I find this type of markup extremely helpful if I’m quilting different designs in each block, like the picture above.  I tend to do this with smaller sampler quilts.  I figure if I go to the trouble of piecing different blocks, each block should have its own different “quilting personality.”  And frankly to do the same type of quilting designs over differently pieced blocks can actually detract from the beauty of the quilt (in my opinion).  The detailed marking process can also help you as you plan how your needle will travel across the quilt – you can strategize how you will quilt from one design to another without breaking the thread.  At times, you’ll have to backtrack (quilt over some previous stitches), but you always want that to be as short of a trek as possible.  Beginner quilters may find detail markups the easiest way to get started – there’s a line to follow.

  •   Grid Markings

This particular type of quilting strategy is called “Quilting on the Grid.”  This term can have two definitions.  The first is to stitch straight lines to form a grid pattern over the whole surface.

This is not free motion quilting, but straight lines which are quilted by hand, or by using a walking foot on the machine, which automatically gives an even stitch length. Examples of this type of grid quilting are crosshatch, dropped diamonds, or vertical and horizontal lines across the top of the quilt. 

The other type of quilting on the grid deals with lines, but instead of quilting the straight lines on your top, you draw them out, and then use the grid as a base to execute your quilting:

This type of grid quilting is a lot of fun and has endless possibilities.  If you want to try this, or want more information on it, The Grid Design Workbook by Cindy Seitz-Krug is a great reference. 

  •  Dot-to-Dot

Some of you may be familiar with this term through the wonderful Angela Walters.  This type of marking is either A) For the more experienced quilter who doesn’t necessarily need a lot of reference points or markings to quilt, or B) the quilter who is more interested in echoing and emphasizing the existing shapes in the piecing.  Instead of making lots of lines or grid marks on the quilt, you simply make a series of dots which serves as your reference points. Then you join the dots with stitching (kind of like those dot-to-dot puzzle books we had when we were kids). To do this on a long arm, you use a ruler for designs with lots of straight lines.  For straight line quilting on a standard sewing machine, you use a walking foot.  The quilter uses the block units as a reference to start and stop.  For more information on this type of marking, go to YouTube and put Angela Walters name in the search bar.  She has several videos on this.  Cheryl Barnes also has an excellent book, Dot-to-Dot Quilting.

  •  Stencils

Whenever anyone mentions quilting stencils, I think of these:

I have a drawer full of them.  I’ve been given stacks of these once someone finds out I’m a quilter (“You quilt? My mother was a quilter!  Surely you can use these!”) or I’m a sucker who can’t pass them up at estate sales/yard sales because God forbid any of our quilting heritage end up in a landfill.  If you have any of stencils like the ones in the picture, be aware this particular type of stencil is usually for hand quilting.  And yes, there can be some differences between stencils designed for machine quilting and those created for hand quilting and it’s important to recognize the disparities before you set your heart on a stencil which may not work well for machine quilting.  The best place to start explaining the differences is with some pictures.

If you take a close look at these two stencils, the first idea which pops up is the stencil on top is more complex than the stencil on the bottom.  The more complex stencil is intended for hand quilting.  The complexity of the pattern means the hand quilter would have to “travel” the needle  (push it through the batting only, not allowing the tip of the needle to puncture the quilt top or backing), in order for it to come up at another point to continue quilting.  All of these starts and stops would be harder, but not impossible, to undertake with machine quilting.  There would be a great deal of back tracking involved – so much to the point, I’d just find another quilting design I liked equally as well.

However, the stencil on the bottom is perfect for machine quilting.  The less complex design means you could quilt long lines without back tracking. 

The primary issue to remember is this:  Make sure the stencil fits the space you need.  You don’t want it too large or too small.  It should fit well with a bit of margin around the design.  For this reason, don’t be afraid to use parts of the stencil instead of the whole design.  Don’t worry if you have to extend the design by marking the stencil twice.  There are usually some type of registration marks on the stencil which will help you line everything up nicely. 

Stencils can be marked with chalk, a water-soluble maker, Quilt Pounce, graphite pencil or Hera Marker.  Again, I hesitate to use  a Frixion pen for marking my quilts.  Even though the ink disappears when it’s ironed, I’m always afraid the marks will come back.  There are gaps on stencils, but if you want you can fill those in before you start quilting. 

Quilting with stencils have at least three great benefits.  First, you can take the stencil, some paper, and a pencil and practice drawing the design several times before you actually begin free motion quilting it.  Before you poo-poo this as a waste of time, it’s important to understand that free motion quilting on either a sewing machine or long arm involves a lot of muscle memory.  The more you do it, the more the muscles in your arms, hands, and fingers remember how to do it.  As a matter of fact, the more you doodle any design you want to free motion, the better.  Feathers, pebbles, meanders – it doesn’t matter.  The more you put your body through the paces of drawing the design, the more it will remember how to correctly do it when it’s the actual quilt sandwich you’re working with. 

The second benefit is stencils are a great starting place.  You have all the marking done quickly and easily.  This frees your mind up to think about any fillers you may want to add to make the quilting a bit denser.  And the last one is this:  You can wait to mark your quilt with stencils after you make your quilt sandwich. 

However, since we now can perform ruler work on most domestic machines, as well as even work with pantographs (more on this in a later blog), it’s getting harder and harder to find stencils – at least really good ones in a variety of designs.  If you want to try quilting with stencils, I suggest you try this website:  This small business has a huge variety of stencils and marking tools at very reasonable prices.

As much as I wanted to and planned on discussing how to make a great quilt sandwich, I got into a lot more detail about marking your quilt than I thought I would.  I promise we will cover the quilt sandwich topic next week.

Lastly, an update on my brother, Eric.  He finished radiation and has begun infusions with a drug which will strengthen his bones for the upcoming treatment. He did get a second opinion from another Multiple Myeloma specialist at the UNC Hospital System.  There were really no surprises and the specialist pretty much echoed what his doctor at Duke Hospital told him – except for a couple of things.  Another consult with the doctor at Duke and they’ve come up with a plan which all parties feel will be the best in order to treat and cure this disease.  Chemo will begin April 12.  Since Eric does not live in Durham (where Duke is located), they are networking with the cancer specialist at local hospital – something they’ve done in the past with outstanding success.  This means instead of a 30-minute drive from his home, it’s only five minutes.  I feel so blessed that he and I live in the area of North Carolina we do.  We have three great teaching hospital systems literally right in our backyard (UNC, Duke, and Wake Forest).  God is good.  Please keep him in your thoughts and prayers.  Chemo will continue for several, several weeks before the stem cell transplant.

Love and Stitches,

Sherri and Sam

2 replies on “Before You Add the First Quilting Stitch….”

I really enjoyed your blog, I have learned so much this morning. I will now look at how I quilt my quilts a little more differently. Sending prayers for your brother. We lost our sister while she was waiting to get strong enough for her stem cell transplant. He sounds he has some good support.

I’m glad you enjoyed my blog and have learned so much.

The protein which causes Multiple Myeloma was discovered during some routine bloodwork a few years ago and Duke has been tracking my brother every three months for bloodwork and every six months for PET scans. The lesion discovered was small and we’re hopeful due to early detection, his prognosis is good. The doctors are optimistic. Regardless, the stem cell process is overwhelming and I do appreciate your prayers.

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