Machine Quilting 102

Several weeks ago, I wrote a post about machine quilting your quilt. I received a lot of response about the blog.  I was overwhelmed and flattered and encouraged – because it’s always nice to know folks read your blog and they like it.  I had a couple of my readers asked if I would do a follow up on the topic.  I promised I would, so here we go.  This blog will get into a little more detail, and I’ll re-explain some topics I didn’t really go into enough depth on when I wrote  As a matter of fact, if you’re new to my blog, new to this topic, or didn’t read my March 31, 2021, Machine Quilting 101 post, you may want to hop over to it now and read through it before you peruse this one.

I know many quilters quilt with their checkbooks (pay other people to quilt their quilts).  I used to be one of these.  And there’s nothing wrong with paying other folks to do your quilting.  If I had a show-bound quilt top now, I certainly wouldn’t quilt it myself.  I’m still not great with ruler work.  I would pay someone to custom quilt it for me.  However, not all quilts are show-bound.  I can save myself some serious bucks if I learn to quilt all my quilts which won’t end up in a show.  Like my Machine Quilting 101 blog, this post concentrates on the use of a domestic sewing machine.  Some of what we’ll talk about can be translated into midarm quilting and a tiny bit can be used with a long arm.  

Honestly, I think all quilters need to learn to quilt their own tops.  I’ve said this countless times before, but I sincerely believe it to be true.  Quilting your own quilts not only saves you money, but it makes you a better quilter.  Until you’ve dealt with a quilt which hasn’t been squared up properly yourself, this concept is simply some kind of esoteric idea – you’ll do it, but don’t really understand how important it is to get it right – until if affects your own quilting.  Quilting your own tops makes you much more aware of pressing techniques, seam allowances, borders, and making sure the backing is pieced correctly.  The quilting process hones the skills you learn while piecing and appliqueing.

I will also be completely truthful about another fact:  I cannot begin to tell you how very much I wish someone would have pushed me to start quilting my own quilts earlier in my quilting journey.  I had quilted probably 10 -12 years before anyone else encouraged me to put the quilt sandwich under my own needle.  Like most others, I was a little hesitant and even a little scared about the process.  But what really – well, irritated me, for lack of a better description – was it was a learning curve.  By the time I was persuaded to quilt my own tops, I had pieced and appliqued for a long time.  I was a very confident quilter.  I could sail through most patterns and techniques with very few hiccups.  But throw quilting in the mix, and I was truly a beginner again.  If I had made myself try at year two in my quilting journey, I really don’t think I would have been so hesitant.  It would have just been another technique this beginning quilter had to learn.  And I think that naivety would have taken the edge off the daunting fear of quilting my own quilt. 

So, let’s get to it.

Before you put one stitch in the quilt sandwich, there are four concepts you need to wrap your head around:

  1.  How will the quilt be used?  If it will live on the back of a couch most of the time, only to be pulled down to wrap up in when you watch TV, then you may not want to use your fanciest quilting.  A meander or loopy design may do just fine.  If it’s a play quilt for a child, you need fairly close-set lines of quilting, but the quilting could be just that – simply lots of horizontal or vertical lines, about an inch apart so the quilt will hold together through what will probably be numerous machine washings.  If the quilt will be utilitarian in use, you may want to keep the design pretty simple.  This won’t be a show-bound quilt.  If the quilt will lay on top of your bed, then the quilting will probably need to be a bit more elaborate. 

The quilt’s intended use is a great definer for how you quilt it.  This is always the first question I ask before I decide on a design.

  •  It’s important to fill the space, not the block unit.  This one is a bit difficult to explain with words, so let’s look at a quilt block:

This block is made from half-square triangles (HST). The HST is the unit which makes up this block.  If I concentrated on quilting the units, I just about guarantee the quilting would look like this:

I promise my quilting is better than my drawing.

Because that is my “go-to” quilting motif for HSTs.  But I must train my eye to look beyond the unit and take in the entire block.  The block will look better if I have a motif for the block, and not just the units. 

Sure, I could just concentrate on the block units, but if I do this, I will run into the issue of transferring over to the next block which may look like this:

This block doesn’t have nearly as many HSTs as the first one.  It would be much easier if I could find a motif for this block that can spring from the first block and move into the second block. 

I drew the entire motif in the left block and you can see how seamlessly it transfers over the the right block.

It will look better, be easier to quilt, and  be much more interesting to look at. 

Think about the whole block or even series of block, not just the block units.

  •  Be sure the design stops about ¼-inch away from the seams.  This concept does not affect quilts quilted on a long arm, and I’ll explain why in a minute.  The reason you want to try to stop about ¼-inch away from the seam is the bulk of the seam allowance can make some domestic machines “hiccup” over the seam, producing wonky stitches.  Not all sewing machines do this.  Some machines which are designed with quilters in mind are made to handle bulk – my last two Janome machines were labeled as “quilters” sewing machines and they handled moving over seams just fine.  The best advice I can give is make a couple of scrap blocks, sandwich them into a mini-quilt and try quilting over the seams.  If your machine doesn’t stall out sewing over seams, you’re good to go.  If it does, simply make sure your quilt design or motif sews stops about ¼-inch from the block seams as much as possible.

Most midarms and all long arms are powerful enough that seam bulk doesn’t bother them at all, and you can quilt over them without issues.

This quilt is a great example of even quilting. There isn’t an area which is too heavily quilted or one too sparsely quilted.
  •  It’s important the quilting be evenly distributed across the quilt top.  You don’t want heavy stitching in the middle and then sparce on the outer rows.  Likewise, you don’t want it densely stitched on one side of the quilt and not the other.  It should be evenly spaced over the entire top, so the eye isn’t drawn to one particular area. 

Those concepts out of the way, let’s talk about actual quilting designs.  The most asked question I get is this:  How do you choose your designs?  When I first got serious about quilting my own quilts, I spent a lot of time looking at the quilting in other quilts.  I wanted to see how HSTs were handled, what the quilters did with star blocks, etc.  I perused Pinterest and Google images for hours.  Eventually I got a good idea about what I liked (just a passing FYI, I’m not a huge fan of feathers, just because everybody has them in their quilt). I kept a running list on my phone. 

Cello Pointe

Now for a short lesson in quilting and kinesiology.  Lots of what you do in life relies on muscle memory.  Learned to walk?  Combination balance and muscle memory.  Can you run or ride a bike?  Again, balance and muscle memory.  Can you dance (I’m talking dance-dance – ballet, ballroom, tap – not the kind you do after three glasses of wine)?  Once more, those rely heavily on muscle memory.  Muscle memory is a form of procedural memory which involves consolidating a specific motor task into memory through repetition.  In other words, the more you do something, the more your body remembers how to repeat the action accurately.

Quilting is no different.  Quilting a quilt is actually a heavy, physical activity.  We don’t think about it like this, but it is.  Our hands are moving the quilt, changing the rate of speed and stitch length constantly.  And the more we can practice the movement, the better we’ll become at it and the easier it becomes (I mean, you don’t have to concentrate too hard about walking, right?). 

I realize my short kinesiology lesson may seem a bit out of place, but hang with me for a few more moments.  If you find a motif you really like, you need to practice it.  And I don’t start out by practicing on a quilt sandwich.  My first step in working with quilting motifs I like is to draw them.  I print the motif out and then trace it several times.  Then I free hand it.  I go through this process several, several times (I doodle on any scrap of paper near me) before I sit down at my machine with a small quilt sandwich.  But once I do turn on my machine, I already have several hours of working with the motif in my head and my arms.  It takes a bit of tweaking here and there, but by this time, the drawn motif translates fairly easily into a stitched one.  So, look through quilts until you find a motif you’re particularly interested in, print it, trace it several times, and then free hand it several more times before you try quilting it on your machine.  This works really well for me, and I have a feeling it will help you, too. 

However, even if you find between three and five very favorite quilting motifs, there will be times you’ll look at a quilt and have absolutely no idea how to quilt it.  I honestly thought after I had quilted my own quilts for a few years I would have no issues just putting any top into a sandwich, quilting it, and have an awesomely, wonderfully quilted quilt in a matter of hours.

Boy, was I all kinds of wrong.

I still struggle sometimes.  There are some days when I’m working on a quilt top that I know exactly  how I will quilt it.  Then there are other times when I think I know how I’ll quilt it, and then once the top is finished, completely change my mind.  And then there are those tops I make which leave me totally clueless as to how to quilt them.  When this last scenario occurs, I lay the quilt out somewhere I will see it several times a day.  For the Fields household, this means our dining room table is sometimes covered by a quilt top.  But this is the area of the house I pass through to get to my quilt studio.  I’ll look at the quilt carefully, both up close and from a distance.  And eventually, as corny as this sounds, it will speak to me.  I will get a really good idea about how to quilt it.  One day I will be completely clueless and the next morning I’ll wake up with the best idea ever.

If I still find myself with no ideas after a week or so, I have some go-to options.

  1.  If the quilt is lots of hard lines and geometric forms, go with some curvy quilting to soften it up.
  2. If the quilt has curves, such as a Drunkard’s Path, go with some geometric quilting.
  3. Go with the theme.  For instance, if the quilt has lots of star blocks, quilt stars in the negative spaces and soften the hard lines of the star blocks with something curvy.
  4. If it’s a heavy quilt, such as a flannel or t-shirt quilt, I will meander the whole thing. 

Once you have an idea in mind, you’re just about ready to get started.  After you’ve quilted for a while, there will be some designs you don’t necessarily have to mark on your top before you actually start quilting.  I’ve shown you my “go-to” design for HSTs.  I don’t have to draw those out any longer because I’ve quilted hundreds of those curvy lines.  I do mark how far in I want the concave line to go, but that mark is only a small mark in the HST.  The rest of the motif is burned in my muscle memory.  And the longer you quilt, and the more you repeat some motifs, you’ll also get to this point.


There will be times – probably quite a few – when you would feel much better about drawing the entire design out in a row and then transferring it to your quilt.  I do this pretty often when I’m quilting borders on my sewing machine.  There are several tools you can use to help you do this.  The first one is a light box.  You can take your printed or drawn motif and tape it to your lightbox, then put your quilt top on top of that, and trace what you need.

If the motif is large, there are some bigger papers on the market you can use for the design.  There’s large graph paper:

Graph paper on a roll can be a quilter’s BFF

Large sheets of vellum:

These sheets of vellum are 18-inches x 24-inches

And (these are my favorite) butcher paper or tracing paper on a roll.

To me, this is the most versatile.  You can cut the length you need off from the roll, draw your design, and then transfer the design to your border or quilt block via the light block and a water-soluble pen.  A few years ago, I got really lucky.  A local newspaper was changing over to all digital formats and were closing their printing facility.  They were giving away rolls of blank newsprint paper.  I’m still using the paper on that roll, and this was at least six years ago. 

Okay, this is as far as I’m taking machine quilting this week. I will have one last post on the subject next week. I had so much to say I needed to break this topic into two blogs. Next week I’ll hit some additional items needed, as well as my favorite way to stop and start quilting. I wish I could hand over a magic formula on how to make your quilting perfect from the get-go, but there isn’t one. The only way to get really good at machine quilting is practice…



Until next week, Quilt On!

Love and Stitches,

Sherri and Sam

3 replies on “Machine Quilting 102”

Awesome information for me as a beginner quilter. Working on my third quilt and found the information very helpful. Thanks a bunch

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