Our beginner is machine quilting! See her sublime first stitches

Third time’s the charm! Martingale graphic designer Tara is back with a third installment of her “newbie” series, giving us a peek into the mind of a beginning quilter. Help us cheer her on! This time Tara tackles a topic that even longtime quilters can feel anxious about: machine quilting. Leave your good wishes and advice for Tara in the comments!

You can read Tara’s first post here and her second post here.


In my last post, I was nervous about starting the quilting, and with good reason. Behold: my practice wholecloth sandwich! What a mess! It did its job, though—I quickly learned that quilting is nothing to be afraid of (unless you’re this poor sandwich).

Oh my.

For my Rainbow Runner, I started out trying to “stitch in the ditch.” I thought it would anchor the quilt and help me get a feel for sewing through all three layers before committing to anything too noticeable. I had also heard somewhere that it was a good skill for a beginner to start with. In reality, I couldn’t stay in the ditch at all! Not yet, anyway. Even when I could, I noticed that some of the stitches were visible and others disappeared into the seam. I got through two ditches and wanted to start over—so I ripped them out and pretended it never happened.

Awhile back, Martingale’s director of marketing, Karen Johnson, had suggested that I quilt straight lines by sewing along painter’s tape. It worked really well for me (mostly because I dislike measuring things). I started with one set of diagonal lines across the whole quilt—about eight lines, eyeballed to be about the same distance apart.

I started quilting and realized this was quite an undertaking. I noticed that the way I held the fabric while feeding it into the machine made a big difference. It also had to be folded a certain way to move with ease around the machine . . . then it needed somewhere to go on the other side. It required much more concentration and was far more physical than I expected. Every time I finished a set of lines and still thought it needed more, I wondered, “Are you sure?”

Yes, you’re sure. Keep quilting!

At some point—I’m not sure when exactly—probably around the 50th line—I suddenly realized the quilt felt like . . . a quilt! It had changed right under me into this thick, substantial material that was a lot easier to work with. It had stiffened a little so that it rolled up and folded nicely, and now it had this texture that changed the whole look. For some reason it surprised me—I guess forgot I was making a quilt? Or I didn’t expect it to work? I’m not sure, but I couldn’t stop!

Almost done!

After 69 lines, I had this nice diamond pattern that felt amazing and looked pretty cool, but I also thought it should be just a little more stiff and flat. So I did one more round of lines, which turned my diamonds into wonky parallelograms. Between you and me, it’s bugging me that I didn’t get those nice even-looking diamonds, but it feels perfect for a runner, and I’m chalking it up to a learning experience. Now I know how much quilting density I like, and I can plan my next quilt more easily.


Did you read that? My next quilt! I’m definitely hooked and thinking hard about this project:

Wrapped in Love from Peta Peace’s
A Piece of Cake

But first! I need to bind, label, and use this Rainbow Runner to make my first quilt official. I’ve already got a pieced binding strip and label made. I can’t wait!

Thanks for sharing your newbie story with us, Tara—we all remember those “a-ha” moments when everything starts to click!

Next time we’ll find out how Tara fared with binding her pretty little runner—and finishing her first quilt!

What was the first kind of quilting you ever tried?

• Same as Tara—straight lines on my machine.
• Free-motion quilting.
• I haven’t gotten that far yet!
• Hand quilting, all the way.

Tell us in the comments!

38 Comments (leave a comment)

  • I am a relatively new quilter and you would not believe how it helps to know that other quilters make mistakes too! Sometimes I feel like literally ripping the quilt in pieces!! I just walk away, and take a break and that helps. Thanks so much for your posts!

    —Tonja Tucker on March 21, 2018
  • Congratulations, Tara! You have a beautiful runner that I know you’re going to treasure. Every time you look at it you be able to remember where you started and see how far you’ve come on your quilting journey. First quilts are special! My first quilting was an 18” square wall hanging. I learned to quilt from a book. I didn’t know any quilters and had barely any sewing experience. My piece had a water theme, and when it was time to quilt it, I found a beautiful, blue metallic thread I thought would be perfect! Unfortunately, I had no idea how tricky metallic threads can be to work with! I had to rip out my stitches so many times, I was nearly in tears. I finally called my mom, a thousand miles away, and she was the one who thought to check the manufacturer’s website for tips. Things went so much more smoothly after I bought the proper needles and got my tension adjusted correctly. Nine years on, that piece still hangs in my kitchen where I can see it every day. It’s a great reminder to keep trying new things in life; you never know what you might accomplish until you try!

    Meredith on March 21, 2018
  • I have done some machine quilting but still need a lot of practice. My first attempt was straight lines (in the ditch mostly) and then some X’s thru squares. It can be frustrating but surprisingly it looks a lot better when I come back later. I am my own worst critic.

    —Jill on March 21, 2018
  • I started with straight line quilting, with my walking foot, and quilted many quilts that way, until I got brave enough to try free motion quilting.
    You are doing great! It does get easier each time. Keep at it! 🙂

    —Kathi on March 21, 2018
  • At first I did straight line, mostly in the ditch. Then I used my decorative stitches along the ditch. Very simple, but served the purpose.

    —Pam Knight on March 21, 2018
  • I despise free motion quilting! Lol! I’ve used stitch in the ditch, done one meandering free motion, one part hand quilting and the rest of it straight lines, or I use decorative designs from my machine, ie the large zigzag, or wavy designs.

    —Judy on March 21, 2018
  • I was taking a "quilting" class at the local Hobby Lobby. It turned out to be a hand applique class, which was OK too. My first experience was a hand quilted pillow. Before I found out about Tiger Tape, my stitches were extremely small and had to be ripped out. It looked awful! And there were a few snickers in the class. I hand quilted a baby quilt after that. Since then, I’ve become a longarmer, which is a lot of fun! Don’t give up, Tara! Like everything else great, it just takes practice!

    —Vicki Adkins on March 21, 2018
  • I hand quilted my first quilt. I’ve done some machine quilting but need to keep practicing. Your table runner looks great.

    —Joanne O'Neal on March 21, 2018
  • My first ever quilt was at the age of 14. I made a baby quilt for my Algebra teacher. It was made of all denim squares and I tied it! I think back and can’t believe I really did that – out of denim, no less!! I knew nothing, obviously, but at least I can see I have truly come a looonnggg way!!!

    —Tammy Ahrens on March 21, 2018
  • My first quilt, in a class in 1976, was hand quilted, one block at a time. It was a sampler. I used almost all scraps from my dressmaking so some has polyester, some is loose weave. The instructor didn’t stress all cotton. Worst part was it was all by template!!! I did finish it and have used it on my bed.

    —Karen on March 21, 2018
  • Great Job Tara!!!! I used to hand quilt everything but now I have a wonderful long arm quilter for most quilts. Small things I usually still hand quilt unless I can do straight lines. My lines are unfortunately usually not straight. 🙂

    —Barb W on March 21, 2018
  • My 1st quilt I hand quilted with a minky back, mistake, too thick. Moved on to machine quilting with sit down, tried painters tape for lines, stiched the tape, oops. Now I’m quilting on a Coronet, so much easier. Still has a learning curve. That’s my quilting history, of probably 10 years. Enjoy the process. I have a quilting angel on my coronet to fix anything. Sometimes she takes the day off, darn it. Angela Walters is doing a quilt along you might want to check. I working on it and feel it has a good progression of designs and tips.

    —Sue on March 21, 2018
  • Hey Tara…
    An idea is to try a small wiggle on the ditch instead of trying to stay in the ditch all the way — it will hide your oopsies while looking awesome. 🙂 Another idea is to draw with paper and a marker — draw draw draw.. you’ll improve hand-eye coordination which will pay off later when you actually quilt things. 🙂
    Congrats on your first!! Looks colorful.

    —genny on March 21, 2018
  • I don’t really remember what I did on my first quilt, but know that on the second, I used the serpentine stitch on my machine. It worked out very well. Keep on quilting!

    —kraftykc on March 21, 2018
  • I have a long arm Sweet 16 machine, and have had it for 5 years. I am a part time quilter and the only design I do is "stippling" or as I call it "puzzle pieces". Can’t seem to graduate beyond that, but want to which requires a whole lot of practice. Good Luck

    —Donna on March 21, 2018
  • I still mainly do stitch in the ditch on small quilts. I’m still intimidated by free form machine quilting. So to our beginners, you go girls!

    —Donna M on March 21, 2018
  • I haven’t gotten that far yet! I usually do stitch in the ditch and like her if it does not look right I will tear it out and start all over. I am too fussy. I am afraid of ruining my piece if I do machine quilting. Tearing out is not my joy in life LOL

    —Tanya on March 21, 2018
  • Hooray for Tara! I grew up in a quilting family – by hand which is not my think. I am a midarm pantograph quilter who would love to try FM. Perhaps Martingale will provide a discount on the Piece of Cake book and we should all join Tara in her LOVE wall hanging.

    —Vicki on March 21, 2018
  • Congrats on starting, finishing and becoming hooked like the rest of us!! I, too, started by quilting straight lines. It was my first time quilting and my first time using a walking foot. I can tell you, as an experienced quilter, stitch in the ditch is not as easy as it sounds or looks so I applaud you for sticking with it! I look forward to seeing your next project and would love to hear comparisons between the two projects – easier, harder, etc.

    —Deb W on March 21, 2018
  • Very nice work. I have only done small projects, I.e. coasters and your write up is giving me encouragement for a large project.

    —Elizabeth on March 21, 2018
  • Thank you so much for sharing your experiences. It makes me feel more courageous about trying to machine quilt something.

    —gail on March 21, 2018
  • What a great job you did! Straight line was my first try also.

    —Kathy O on March 21, 2018
  • Lovely table runner. My first attempt at quilting was stitch in the ditch. It was harder than it looked.

    —Joanne L Wilson on March 21, 2018
  • My first quilt was a four block wall hanging, definitely all straight line, in the ditch quilting with a walking foot. Surprisingly, my second quilt (mini/doll quilt) was all free motion (outlining heart appliques) and my third (another wallhanging) a combination of grid quilting in the center and free-motion holly leaves in the border (because they looked like they’d be a simple motif to execute).

    I’d definitely recommend any newbie to stick with a walking foot for their first few quilts but to check out all the great books out now (like Pat Sloan’s and Christa Watson’s among others) that show how to do creative straight line and curved decorative quilting using a walking foot which will allow them to expand beyond "the ditch". The confidence gained from learning to do "pretty quilting" with a walking foot will reduce the "scared" factor when they inevitably want to move on to add free-motion to their skills repertoire.

    Vivian on March 21, 2018
  • Only hand quilting. I prefer hand working (to sew and to quilt)

    —Anne on March 21, 2018
  • I hand quilt almost everything. I have started trying to machine quilt with my embroidery machine. That is harder than I thought it would be. I bought a bunch of Christmas panels and plan to do one after another until I can do it. I plan to do free motion. I have a stitch regulator so that should be easier. You came a long way, hang in there.

    —Kay Menefee on March 21, 2018
  • I have tried free-motion quilting on my machine, but much better with straight line. I need to practice my free motion quilting.

    —Jill Ames on March 22, 2018
  • I’m not called an overachiever for no reason. My first quilt had free motion and hand quilting on it. Who said you can’t mix them. Thank goodness it was black do it doesn’t show. I also used white polyester batting in a black quilt. But hey it was my first. I still have it.

    —Stephanie Woodward on March 23, 2018
  • The quilt looks really wonderful – great job quilting.
    I usually do freemotion (simple loops and meanders) and straight line quilting. I am now learning to quilt with rulers on my Bernina 880. Just remember, everything starts with the first step.

    —Lillian K on March 23, 2018
  • Great job, Tara – you’re on your way. My first quilt was hand pieced and hand quilted…because I didn’t have a machine! It took years to finish. Now I love stitching in the ditch (and yes, I do rip out when I’m way off) and love straight line quilting with tape. I try free motion but can’t see to get the hang of it. I will keep trying, though!

    —Patricia Ludwiczak on March 23, 2018
  • After 40 years of quilting, thank heaven we have wonderful batting to use. My first quilt was using thick batting: Walking foot a must for the puffy quilt. I now play with tools on my HQ 16 standing longarm. I learn something new on each quilt and I have played with tools for 10 years. As my mom(93) says, no two alike. Every fabric and quilt will speak to you. It greatly depends on how much you love the quilt and want to give it the right texture. The quilting can make or break the look of the quilt. Often a rule when a quilt is judged. I still do not like heavy quilting.

    —Linda Christianson on March 23, 2018
  • I haven’t gotten that far yet!

    Susan E Lester on March 23, 2018
  • My first several quilts were hand quilted. Sometimes I would machine quilt one line and then rip it out and finish quilting by hand. Then came straight lines with a walking foot, wavy lines, and outlining motifs. I still have a lot to learn, but I can free motion quilt without wanting to rip it out. Keep on practicing! It’s the best way to learn.

    —Linda Towers on March 23, 2018
  • My first as well as all of my "finished" quilts so far have taken a ride to my friend and her long arm and excellent help. I have works-in-progress that are being determinedly quilted on my home machine and still on a learning curve. Congrats to Tara; she seems to have jumped right to "accomplished" quilter–cheers.

    Still a "work in progress"

    —Carol on March 24, 2018
  • FMQ – just trail-and-error. Most errors were in going too fast, and having huge, long stitches! Still not very good at it!

    —JanG on March 26, 2018
  • I actually tied my first quilts- with yarn. Then hand quilted one. Then I moved onto FMQ. So much fun!

    —Sara on March 26, 2018
  • My first quilts were hand quilted. I love the process and the look of hand quilting but use free motion and walking foot on throws and kid’s quilts that will get heavy use. My machine quilting can still use some improvement.

    —Janet G on April 3, 2018
  • I love the walk down memory lane that comes with every scrap quilt I make. I remember the quilt(s) I"ve used the fabric to create in the past and the joy it has given me to give those quilts away to someone who will love and cherish it. Plus, the fun "zinger fabrics I can slip into a scrappy quilt always make me smile!

    FENAVI on April 5, 2018

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