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!

21 Comments (leave a comment)

  • Unfortunately, I quilt by check. I know an excellent quilter who makes her living by quilting. She never fails to do what the quilt calls for and I usually let her decide. I like a lot of tight quilting so when I wash my quilt it becomes puffy between the stitches. I don’t wash my material before sewing. I used to wash it first, (as I was taught to do)but now I have found it’s easier to cut and sew unwashed material.
    I’m careful to wash in cold water with a color catcher and quilt soap. The end result is always pleasing.

    —Mary Ann on November 26, 2012
  • I do my own machine quilting on my domestic sewing machine. It is a struggle, but to me, it isn’t MY quilt if I send it out to be quilted. I’ve got a very long way to go, but I keep working at it. My quilts are not award winners, just ones I make for family, friends and charity.

    Jocelyn on November 26, 2012
  • I quilt my own quilts as well. Proficiency comes with practice. What I like to do as a warm up is to draw something with thread on a practice quilt sandwich. Then I just take a deep breath, relax and go. FYI, a little wine helps, too! (wink!)

    Jean on November 26, 2012
  • Quilt? Do you mean actually finish it? I thought you just made lovely quilt tops…. LOL!


    —Lynn on November 26, 2012
  • I like to use outline quilting, where I "free motion" quilt by outlining flowers, leaves, and other objects on potholders and wall quilts. For large quilts, I simply tie them.

    —Lynne on November 26, 2012
  • I do a combination of all four types of quilting: hand, domestic sewing machine, by check, and I have an APQS Millennium, which I rarely use. Former APQS Dealer AKA Rose Hill, MS thief took many of the items on it including manual during the thefts in my home. I ordered this machine, and a week later, was diagnosed with leg ulcers leading to my cancer and was told I’d be bed-ridden for 13 weeks minimum. Dealer was supposed to cancel my order, but preferred to keep her 20% unearned commission. When my machine came in, she placed it in her home and used it in my absence. My husband was NOT aware the order had been canceled and paid for the shipping. When I finally got it into my home, I was asked if I bought it used? One of the wheels was crushed, the others were missing.

    I’ve always been able to draw and paint and did a lot of contour drawings on my quilts. Using my eyes, as a guide, I "traced" followed a "pattern" or object and my hands followed quilting as I went. The secret is: don’t blink. For you quilters that like a pattern, Golden Threads and clear newspaper print sheets make great patterns. Draw your design on one sheet, staple several sheets together. Using a non threaded needle, stitch around your design. Remove staples, place sheets in areas and pin. Stitch on dotted line and remove paper afterwards.
    The "Machine Quilting" book that is being advertised is excellent for new or experienced quilters. Refer to it often, you’ll be surprised what you’ve forgotten.

    Keep smiling,

    Lynnita Shipman on November 27, 2012
  • I call my LAM, Kelly, after Machine Gun Kelly. It sounds like an AK-47 machine gun, when in use. I had designed a quilt, using 5 colors, and pain-sakingly had pieced it together. Later, I would learn, it’s a form of Bargello. Each of my squares were 3 inches finished and the quilt measures 50X60. I got this brilliant idea, in my early quilting life, each color would be quilted with its own colored thread and proceeded to follow, on the diagonal, the first color. When I rolled the quilt out for its second colored thread, I realized, this technique couldn’t be done on a LAM because of all the uneven lumpy bulkiness in spaces. So I first, had to frog quilt: rip-it, rip-it, and start over again. This time, I started with the first color, stitch on the diagonal across to its next same color square. My mantra was lock-stitch, start, stitch, stop, and tie off. Sometime, only one square was quilted; sometimes 2-3 were quilted depending as to how far Kelly would reach. Then, the second color, third, etc. After finishing with more than 60 thread changes, another LAQ friend of mine said she would quilt it the same way, but would use variegated thread instead. We live and learn behind every cloud, there’s a rainbow, and realize; when in doubt, meandering looks great on any quilt. For our "newbies" meandering looks like a doodle-bug with stiches here, there, and everywhere or giganic puzzle pieces.

    Keep smiling,

    Lynnita Shipman on November 27, 2012
  • Most of what I do get quilted is only in the ditch or alongside (not that I’m happy about it). I’ve taken a class on free motion and found that I hold my breath while trying to move along and every time I practice-out of breath–whew—still a work in progress. Cheers to all the brave new free motioners!

    —Carol on November 27, 2012
  • hand quilt
    want to learn to FMQ and straight line machine quilt

    —MarciaW on November 30, 2012
  • When I actually do get a quilt top sandwiched with batting (I have a closet rod full of finished quilt tops), I do something simple like quilt in the ditch, or mark the top with a wavy line. I would so love to be able to do free motion quilting. I took a class once but wasn’t very good at it. I feel like if I had a stitch regulator on my machine, I could do it. Unfortunately those machines are not affordable for me! After the holidays, I will give free motion another try! Lol!

    —Jan staples on November 30, 2012
  • I want to be able to say, "I made that quilt" and I can’t say that if someone else quilted it. My quilts are not meant to be in shows, they’re meant to be loved. Every year I make dozens of quilts for charity and that gives me lots of practice quilting for the large quilts I give to family.

    Thanks for this posting, it was very informative. I like free motion, don’t like marking and trying to stitch on a line. My quilting comes from my brain to my stitches.

    —JoAnne T. on December 1, 2012
  • I like to use my walking foot to either quilt 1/4″ along the edges, or make gentle curvy lines across or diagonally on the quilt. On a wedding quilt for my nephew and his bride, I’m about to do "low-carb quilting", dividing the batting into thirds, while having the top and backing whole. I will whipstitch the edges of the batting together after I complete the midle section. I haven’t had much luck with free-motion, or rolling the quilt to fit, so hope this method works!

    —WendyW on March 9, 2013
  • I am in the process of machine quilting my first project, a large table mat. So far I’m just using the walking foot and straight line quilting in the ditch around triangles and blocks and whatever can be straight line quilted. Eventually I’ll need to do some outline quilting and free motion quilting in some of the blocks. I’m holding my breath on that but I’m anxious to try it at the same time. I’m really pleased with the results of the walking foot quilting; I guess you could say I’m hooked. The more I learn about quilting and put into practice the more I love it!

    —Barbara Hubbard on May 21, 2013
  • I have quilted by hand for many years, but about 6 years ago I received a Hinterberg quilt frame and a Voyager long arm machine. I love to piece and unfortunately even with my long arm, I still make about 2 tops to every one that I finish. Every time I finish a quilt top, I have the best of intentions on putting it in the quilt frame as soon as it is complete. However, before I get to that point, I find another pattern that "I just can’t wait to make," and tell myself that as soon as that top is done, I’ll go back to the first one and quilt it. No such luck. I am just not that focused I guess.

    —Tonia on May 22, 2013
  • why don,t you show more.

    glenda on July 26, 2013
  • I have trouble with my machine quilting.

    glenda on July 26, 2013
  • Everyone is so right about just starting. My first free motion quilt was a large queen quilt. I was so scared because I’d worked so hard on the piecing, but I wanted it to be all done by me.
    My 2nd one was a little easier. I designed a double heart quilting pattern that turned out so cute. I think I’ll try some placemats and table runners now to work on my technique.

    —bbrower on August 8, 2013
  • I started quilting about 2 years ago. During this time I have made 8 quilts (2 for me) & working on another.

    I sent all of them to be quilted except for the last two.

    I decided to I wanted the quilts to be solely done by me … From getting the idea, purchasing the material, cutting and sewing the pieces and then taking a deep breath and doing FMQ. As what others have said, it isn’t perfect, but I like to think they have character. On top of it all, its a great feeling of accomplishment.

    —Jeannie on February 19, 2014
  • I use walking foot with the serpentine stitch. Works great. Wavy lines down and across. Sometimes dense others not so much. No real eye catching quilting but it makes the entire quilt done by me

    —Ann Grimes on January 3, 2015
  • I have always quilted by hand, but that takes a very long time. I have tried machine quilting, by sewing one line and then picking it out and hand quilting. But my stack of quilt tops keeps growing so I finally started stitching on a preprinted panel. The lines are not smooth snd the stitches are not even, BUT the overall effect is wonderful!!! Since panels are generally not very expensive, they are a good starting place to practice. Now on to actual quilts!!

    —Linda Towers on May 25, 2015
  • I have just done a machine piecing course and have reached the stage of machine quilting my cot quilt. A lady has talked of panic with free arm quilting!!! That’s exactly how I have felt deciding I would give it a go. I have a spider design using straight lines but didn’t want to stop and start so used free arm to back up on the same stitch line. Is this ok to do or not. It looks ok but the stitches are not exactly identifiable if you know what I mean!!! I must admit I think I will be so pleased to finish this quilt, I started it with gusto but my interest is waning. I have had to do a lot of unpicking with all the piecing and have no intention of unpicking the top stitching in case I accidentally pull the material.

    —helen humphrey on October 5, 2018

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