How to machine quilt for beginners

Posted by on November 26, 2012, in quilting & sewing,

Detail from Free-Motion Quilting Made EasySeveral weeks ago, in answers to the “wish for a talent” Quirky Question, a common aspiration was shared among Stitch This! readers—to be able to machine quilt like a pro. Funny so many of you would wish for that particular talent, as I (and others in the Martingale office) have wished for the same ability many, many times.

I’ve been reading up on how to machine quilt for…years. And I’ve been especially interested in learning how to free-motion quilt. But your Quirky Question answers got me thinking. What am I afraid of? I’ve got my basic supplies. I know the steps (at least in my head). All that’s left to do is sit down at the machine and give it a try.

So, weekend before last, I made my first attempt at free-motion quilting. I had a quilt top that’s been hanging around for at least 10 years—it’s a quilt I made during my second or third year as a quilter. It features blocks made during a block exchange with Martingale staffers. Being somewhat impulsive when it comes to my sewing, and also wanting instant results (please don’t tell me I’m the only one!), I grabbed it to practice on.

I don’t have quilting gloves yet, so I used rubber kitchen gloves (you know, the yellow ones) to help move the quilt along. They worked like magic. Unfortunately, they didn’t work any magic on my quilt top. My stitches were uneven, my loops and swoops were pointy—not to mention I was in a constant state of mild panic at the machine.

Jenny's machine quilting

When I spread my quilt out on the floor to take a look at my overall progress, however, I was completely and utterly… impressed!

Christmas quiltI’m taking the galloping-horse approach to this quilt: if you make a mistake but can’t see it while riding past it on a galloping horse, then it’s good enough. And a quilt that’s been in my UFO pile for 10+ years will be quilted, bound, and labeled—all in time to show it off during the holidays!

Machine quilting is like riding a bike; it takes practice. But once the light bulb clicks on, it’ll stay on for the rest of your quilting days. And I’ll tell you from personal experience—it feels so good to take the first step. I’m hooked!

Below, you’ll find information on two important steps to take before you begin to machine quilt: adjusting the tension on a sewing machine, and getting the right stitch length for machine quilting. Take a deep breath, arm yourself with knowledge from the pros, and then GO for it!

Adjusting the tension on a sewing machine

Eva LarkinEva Larkin’s book Free-Motion Quilting Made Easy contains an amazing array of tips for how to machine quilt, all built around three basic lessons: thread tension, stitch length, and quilting in small sections. Getting a handle on these three topics will help your machine-quilting adventure—yes, even your very first attempt!—be successful.

The first step? Knowing how to adjust sewing machine tension so your thread doesn’t get loopy, limit your progress, or (worst nightmare) come undone. Here are some examples of what to look for:

machine-quilting tension is too loose
Tension is too loose (back of quilt). The bobbin thread is lying on the back of the quilt because the top thread is not pulling the bobbin thread into the fabric and the batting. Tighten the tension by increasing the thread tension number.

machine-quilting tension is too tight
Tension is too tight
(front of quilt). The bobbin thread pops to the top of the quilt, as shown by the red thread dots.
Loosen the tension by decreasing the thread tension number.

machine-quilting tension is correct
Tension is correct
(front of quilt). Pillowing occurs around stitches.

Follow Eva’s easy steps for adjusting the tension on a sewing machine.

Thread Tension Exercise
Testing the thread tension before you start to quilt will help ensure beautiful results. The tension setting that works for one quilt will not necessarily work for the next. Changes in fabric weight, batting thickness, and thread type can all affect the tension. When making a tension sample before quilting a specific quilt, be sure to make your fabric sandwich from the same fabric and batting that you’ll use in the quilt.

1. Lower the feed dogs and place the fabric sandwich under the needle so that you’ll be sewing along its right or left side. Lower the presser foot and turn the machine flywheel by hand to insert the needle down into the fabric sandwich.

2. Holding the fabric sandwich so you can move it easily, start sewing, moving the fabric away from yourself at a steady pace. Once the feed dogs are dropped, the sewing machine’s stitch-length function is no longer engaged. If you don’t move the fabric, it won’t go anywhere! Sew until your line of stitches is 3″ to 4″ long.

3. Raise the presser foot, turn the flywheel to raise the needle from the fabric, clip the threads, and take the fabric sandwich out from under the needle.

4. Check the thread tension on both the front and back of the fabric sandwich. If the stitches are too small to see clearly, sew another line of stitches with the machine running slower.

5. Look for the pillowing effect around the stitches on both sides of the fabric sandwich. If it’s not there, adjust the tension by a half-step increment and sew another line of stitches. Continue testing until you see pillowing. In most cases the tension is too loose and needs to be tightened.

Free-Motion Quilting Made Easy Learn more about Free-Motion Quilting Made Easy, which includes 187 designs for machine quilting, plus step-by-step instructions, practice exercises, and Eva’s best tips. WAS $26.99, THIS WEEK ONLY $16.19. (Free eBook included—download it instantly!)

Getting the right stitch length for machine quilting

Maurine NobleMore than 287,000 quilters have learned to machine quilt with Maurine Noble. She was teaching machine quilting in the 1970s, back when the technique was not readily accepted by most quilters. Her classic guidebook for how to machine quilt, Machine Quilting Made Easy, has been in print for over 18 years!

Both Maurine and Eva agree that for a beautifully machine-stitched quilt, the stitch length for machine quilting must be uniform. Sounds like an insurmountable task for a beginner, right? Not if you ask Maurine! The trick is to test first. Try her exercise for determining the stitch length on your machine before you machine quilt with a walking or darning foot.

1. Using a fine-point marker, draw 2 sets of lines on a 14″ square of muslin, as shown below. Draw the first set of lines ¼" apart and the second set of lines 1″ apart.

Stitch length for machine quilting 1

2. Layer the marked muslin square with batting and backing; secure with safety pins.

3. Attach a walking foot to your sewing machine and set the stitch length at .5 mm or to the smallest setting at which the fabric still advances. On the first set of lines, stitch from line to line (¼") and count the stitches. Adjust the stitch length until you get 14 to 16 stitches within the ¼" space. You will use these short stitches to “tie off” at the beginning and end of a line of quilting. When you tie off, you will make only 8 to 10 short stitches, so the distance covered will be less than ¼". Note the setting on your machine so you can repeat the tie-off stitch again and again.

Stitch length for machine quilting 2

4. Repeat the same procedure with the second set of lines, but begin with a stitch length of 2.5 mm, 2.75 mm, or 3 mm (or 10 to 11 stitches per inch). Stitch within the 1″ spaces until you consistently get 10 to 11 stitches per inch.

5. Stitch a few practice lines: begin with a tie-off, quilt a distance, and end with a tie-off. Do this until you can change the stitch length on your machine easily and smoothly. You can also learn to increase and decrease the stitch length while you are stitching rather than stopping the machine, changing the stitch length, then starting again.

A note about free-motion quilting: You may feel tense when you first begin to work freehand with your machine. Don’t panic. This is a completely different way of using your sewing machine. Your hands and brain need to get used to moving the fabric. The machine has always done this for you when you have sewn “normally.” You will have an overwhelming feeling of freedom as you become more and more adept at controlling the motion and stitch length. Stitch control will develop with practice. It will take time, so don’t give up. Don’t forget to breathe, let yourself go, and have fun!

Machine Quilting Made Easy Learn more about Machine Quilting Made Easy, which includes 14 exercises, quilt-planning ideas, and examples from well-known machine-quilting artists like Libby Lehman, Caryl Bryer Fallert, and Debra Wagner.

How to you typically quilt your quilts? Do you machine quilt, hand quilt, or quilt by check? Share your stitching story in the comments!

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