Machine-quilting ergonomics: set up for comfort


Machine quilting on a home sewing machine is becoming the norm for more and more quilters. With designers and teachers like Christa Watson leading the way, the process has been vetted and—aren’t we lucky—they’ve share their tried, tested, and true techniques with us!

For Christa, author of Machine Quilting with Style, enjoying the process is as important as enjoying a finished quilt. That’s why she’s dedicated a section of her book to setting up your quilting space for maximum comfort. And we’re sharing part of that section with you today.

So the next time you feel yourself getting tired, achy, or agitated during machine quilting, check your space and your technique using Christa’s tips below. Your body—and your quilts—will thank you.


Christa WatsonWork surface, ergonomics, and hand position all play a part in making the quilting process smooth and enjoyable. When quilting on a home machine, the surface you work on should be even with the bed of your machine, and you should have as much work surface behind and to the left of your machine as possible. This surface will help hold the weight of the quilt, give your arms a platform to rest on, and eliminate drag, which can cause uneven stitching.

A drop-in sewing table is an excellent investment if you’ll be quilting a lot of quilts. I’d venture to say that the table is even more important than the machine! Drop-in sewing tables feature an opening that the machine sits into, keeping the machine bed flush with the table surface. Custom-made inserts are available to fit around the machine to cover the opening.
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Most drop-in tables can be fitted with a custom insert made specifically for your machine.

If you work on a surface where the level of the machine can’t be adjusted, such as your dining room table, you have other options. You can build up the area around the base of the machine instead. Many companies make acrylic extension tables, which slide into position around the machine, to create the same effect as having a drop-in table and to give you more work surface. Or, instead of using extension tables, get creative and try Styrofoam or books to add height behind and to the left of the machine. It’s also helpful if you can position another table to your left, creating an L shape. An adjustable-height ironing board works in a pinch, as does a portable tray table.

Once your work surface is set up, make sure your body and hands are positioned correctly. Quilting ergonomics are very important: your feet should rest comfortably on the floor with your arms resting comfortably on the bed of your machine. If you have to quilt in less-than-ideal circumstances, be sure to take breaks often and stretch. I find that if I quilt for more than two hours at a time, my neck and arms can become stiff and sore, which means it’s time to move on to something else.

When quilting, try to “puddle” the quilt by scrunching it up near the area you’re quilting so that your immediate workspace is flat and moves freely. Stop often and reposition both your hands and the quilt to keep it feeding smoothly under the quilting foot at all times. Position the quilt so that the least amount of bulk is under the arm of the quilt at any one time.
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Hand positions for machine quilting:
Some people like to “drive” their quilt by grasping the edges of the quilt with their hands while they stitch (left); others like to tiptoe over the top by using their fingertips to gently guide their quilt under the needle (center). I’m most comfortable using my hands as a hoop, palms flat on the quilt, using the weight of my hands to move the quilt around (right).

Don’t be afraid to rotate or squish your quilt as needed to get the bulk out of the way as much as possible. I call this the “scrunch and smoosh” method of dealing with the bulk.
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Rather than rolling or folding the quilt neatly, I “scrunch and smoosh” it out of the way as needed.

There are products available that will aid you in the machine-quilting process. Two products I like to use are:

  • Quilting gloves. They give me an extra bit of grip on the quilt, allowing me to control the movement.
  • A slick silicon mat. A slick mat temporarily sticks to the bed of my machine, making for a more slippery work surface and easier movement. If you can’t drop your feed dogs for free-motion quilting (or if you get better tension when they’re up), the mat also serves to cover up the feed dogs so you can freely move the quilt in all directions.

Now that you’re all set up, you’re ready to begin your machine-quilting adventure with Christa! Pick up the print or eBook edition of Machine Quilting with Style at our website. Here are just a few Amazon reviews about the book:

Machine Quilting with StyleFive-stars “This book successfully fills a void that other quilting books miss. The reader can really accomplish a project from start to finish and gain confidence with each project.”

Five-stars “THIS is the book I wish I had in my library when I first got started quilting, to give me real ideas and inspiration that I can finish on my home sewing machine. Love the fresh ideas for patchwork AND quilting in the same book!”

Five-stars “I know it’s hard to spend money on books rather than fabric, but I’m telling you—pass up that charm pack and buy this book instead! You can thank me later.”

Machine quilting on a home-sewing machine: mastered it, learning it, or like to try it? Tell us in the comments!

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