5 easy quilt-finishing tips for “toppers”

You-never-failAre you a topper?

If you’ve got lots of quilt tops waiting to make their debut as a quilt—but you haven’t finished them yet—you’re a topper, alright. Welcome to the club! Our own acquisitions editor, Karen Burns, compares herself to the cobbler whose children have no shoes. She is the quilter with no finished quilts!

We’ve got 5 smart tips for kicking off the New Year right by finishing those pretty tops. If your resolution is to get more quilts to the finish line this year, you’ve come to the right place!

We’ve chosen five of our favorite tips for finishing your quilts on your machine at home, all from authors who love machine quilting and can teach you how. Read on and remember—these experts all started out as students too.


From The Ultimate Guide to Machine Quilting by Angela Walters and Christa Watson

From Angela: “It’s good to practice, but what should you be practicing? The quick answer is a design that you like and would want to use on a quilt. It may seem like common sense, but you wouldn’t believe how many quilters try to learn designs that they don’t really like, just because they feel that they should. There’s no point perfecting a design if you aren’t going to use it on a quilt. For instance, when I started quilting, I realized that I didn’t like the look of a typical meander, so I never made myself practice it.

Printed panels are great for practicing filling areas with different designs.

The Ultimate Guide to Machine QuiltingYou also don’t have to learn 30 different quilting designs. Even after quilting for more than 10 years, I tend use the same few designs. I call these designs my quilting toolbox. They are basic designs that work well on several types of quilts. If you aren’t sure where to start, begin by learning these basic quilting designs. Then you can add other designs to your “toolbox” as you develop your quilting skills. My go-to designs include:

  • Swirls • Feathers and flowers • Pebbles • Ribbon candy • Back-and-forth lines • Wishbone

Of course, there are several other designs that I like to quilt, but these are, by far, the ones that I use the most.


From Pat Sloan’s Teach Me to Machine Quilt

From Pat: “Straight-line stitching is a great way to start quilting your own projects. It’s not a new technique. Sewing layers of cloth together with straight lines has been done for centuries. Quilting straight lines across a quilt is a soothing process that adds an effective design element. Plus, straight-line quilting gets the job done, which is to hold all the layers together so the quilt can be used! This method can be simple, it can be elegant, and even very detailed. You can do straight stitching in several ways. Here’s one: quilt edge to edge.

Edge-to-edge machine quilting

Pat Sloan's Teach Me to Machine QuiltQuilt a series of straight lines across the quilt. Stitch the lines as close together or as far apart as you like, but check your batting requirements: most will call for stitching no more than 4″ apart. Use the width of your walking foot as a guide (see above photo) or use blue painter’s tape in different widths to quickly and easily mark straight lines. Simply stitch next to the tape and pull the tape off when the row is complete!”


From Free-Motion Quilting for Beginners by Molly Hanson

Free-Motion Quilting for BeginnersFrom Molly: “We all have the muscle memory for basic cursive writing. You don’t need to think very hard about what to do next, as everyone knows how to form letters. I’ve found that using the basic loop de loop (which is just like stitching a cursive letter e) allows you the freedom to add text—whatever quilted word you like—and works extremely well as a quilting design. This pattern works to enhance any theme in quilting or to help express a message. The options for personalization are endless.”

Loop-de-loop and cursive free-motion quilting


From Machine Quilting with Style by Christa Watson

From Christa: “Use a decorative stitch on your machine to create an interesting design. It’s a great way to add texture to the surface of an entire quilt without having to match your quilting thread exactly to your fabric. Experiment with both length and width settings to find a design that you like. Try stitching in multiple directions, adding more or fewer lines of quilting for different effects.

Machine quilting with a decorative stitch

Machine Quilting with StyleWhen quilting with a decorative stitch, be sure you understand how the stitch is formed in case you need to rotate the quilt to continue the stitch pattern. Stitch slowly and allow the machine to do the work. If the design starts to skew or bunch up, that means you have too much drag or friction on the quilt. Once you find a stitch you like, try to find two or three more for variety. Or try combining multiple stitches for added interest.”

TIP #5: FOCUS ON FOUR (and a half) AT A TIME 

From Free-Motion Quilting Made Easy by Eva A. Larkin

From Eva: “Most domestic sewing machines have an opening that is 5″ to 6″ wide, which gives you about a 4½"-square area around the needle where there is room to easily move your quilt. When you can easily move the section of quilt you’re working on, you’ll have better control of the quilting design, stitch length, and thread tension. By simply focusing on quilting the area under your needle instead of the whole quilt, you’ll feel more relaxed and in control because you don’t have to push and pull the quilt around to move it, and you’ll be less frustrated since you won’t be pulling your thread tension out of alignment and having problems with your stitch length.

Focus your quilting on 4½" squares of space at a time.

Free-Motion Quilting Made EasyTwo questions often arise when I talk about quilting in smaller sections: What do you do if the block is larger than 4½" square? And how does this rule apply when you want to stipple a whole quilt? The answer is simple, and it’s the same for both questions. It’s just a matter of breaking the block or quilt into 4½"-square sections and working one section at a time. For example, to stipple a quilt, I would start in the center and work out to the sides by quilting one 4½"-square section at a time. You’re still quilting the sections continuously, but you change your focus from moving around the whole quilt to working on one small section at a time. In the beginning, you might find it helpful to actually mark the 4½"-square sections on the quilt. I use a white Chaco Liner and mark only a few sections right before I quilt them. I first create a “plus” pattern in the quilt, and then go back and fill in each of the four quadrants.”

We hope you enjoyed these tips from Martingale’s machine-quilting masters! To learn more about the authors and their books, simply click on the book covers above. And a final bit of wisdom from famed quilter Angela Walters: finished is better than perfect.

Be sure to tag your finished quilts with #madewithmartingale and share them on Instagram!

So, how many of your quilt tops are waiting to be quilted? (No worries—you’re in the topper club now! 😄) Tell us in the comments!



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