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.
spacer 10px deep

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.
spacer 10px deep

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.
spacer 10px deep

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!

19 Comments (leave a comment)

  • I would like to learn. I took a class but it was poorly conducted.

    —Joan on March 4, 2016
  • I would like to say mastered it. Yet, when I set up my machine to quilt, I always think "gosh I wish I had more throat space". Then one day, my husband bought me a sweet 16. There are still times I free motion small items on my domestic machine, but it is SWEET having SIXTEEN inches.

    —JaniceCarole Allen on March 4, 2016
  • I wish I could say I’ve mastered it, but alas—I’m just learning. I try to glean everything I can from all the experienced quilters that share their expertise.

    —Linda Taylor on March 4, 2016
  • I feel comfortable with my machine quilting. I do think the machine we have with the big work-space helps.I am always looking for motifs to use so we won’t get stuck in one or two methods.

    —jean on March 4, 2016
  • I am a beginning domestic quilter. I am finding it fun but need to find a better setup as my machine is too high and my chair too low. I will look for suggestions in this great book.

    —DunlapQuilter on March 4, 2016
  • I had my husband build me large table to set my machine in – it really helps when I’m machine quilting, giving me a much larger support for my quilt. I will say I am a skilled beginner, need to learn more designs.

    —connie b on March 4, 2016
  • Like DunlapQuilter, my machine is too high, my chair is too low. If I raise the chair, I have to put my foot pedal on a box (where it often scoots off its surface), and the bottom of the sewing table hits my thighs. Not a great environment for learning FMQ. Still, I hope that someday ….

    —Sandy W. on March 4, 2016
  • Still learning and will probably always be in the "learning" mode. I go in spurts of working with it – on the list for next week. Gulp!

    —Bev Gunn on March 4, 2016
  • I would call myself a skilled beginner. I have a Janome with an 11″ throat which is awesome and just easily completed a full size quilt on it. I am currently using the dining room table and while recently FMQing a flannel quilt,the acrylic extension table at times grabbed the quilt and messed up my stitches…very frustrating. I am researching what setup works best and hope to have my husband build me a custom table. I think having the machine lower will really ease the soreness/tension in my neck.

    —Mary Lou on March 4, 2016
  • Thank you for these suggestions. I have always quilted my own quilts but am always looking for suggestions to do a better job, with more ease and less stress. I am enjoying the modern quilt movement’s quilting ideas, more is definitely better!

    —Glenna on March 4, 2016
  • I am a master of quilting on the home machine. It is not fun to do large quilts. Having a longarm I only do small projects on the home machine.

    —Linda Christianson on March 4, 2016
  • Learning it….because I can’t afford not to do so 🙂 Seriously, the expense of having the things that I have made professionally quilted was making a serious dent in my quilting budget. So I invested in a wonderful class that was given locally. Purchased the gloves and the silicone mat — both essentials IMHO and have begun to practice. While I doubt that I ever will attempt a double or queen sized quilt, the smaller ones are definitely manageable. Trick is to learn a few patterns well. Practice, practice, practice makes the difference here.
    _Show Me How to Create Quilting Designs: 70 Ready-To-Use_ by Kathy Sandbach was the book we used in class but is now out of print. So this new title sounds like it fills that void. Can’t wait to get a copy of it.

    —ADK Kate on March 4, 2016
  • Caryl Bryer Fallert has some great tips for machine quilting with a domestic machine. I think I saw them on her web site. One is to purchase a hoop. You simply manuveur the hoop around and it makes it much easier to move the quilt around. She also suspends giant claps or clips from her ceiling to remove the bulk weight of larger quilts. I haven’t tried either, but it makes sense they would help solve the problem of moving around a large quilt on a domestic machine.

    —Alice on March 5, 2016
  • I am dying to try machine quilting but have been afraid to give it a try. I’m hoping "Machine Quilting With Style" will Hall me gain the confidence to try.

    —Lynda on March 6, 2016
  • Have tried it, didn’t like it. Maybe if I really knew the ins and outs I could master it.

    —Colleen on March 7, 2016
  • I have tried it, but not often enough. I took a class using the preprinted panel once, and it helped a lot. But like anything else in life "if you don’t use it, you lose it". And I can’t be practicing FMQ and piecing my quilts at the same time! and working full time outside the home. We set up an unused kitchen table to hold my little Janome where the extra leaf goes. We attached brackets on the underside to hold a chunk of plywood to set the machine on. It is a HUGE improvement, keeping the weight of the quilt on the tabletop, and not dragging. It is now a piece of furniture in the corner of our bedroom as my sewing room is too tiny for another piece of furniture,

    —janG on March 8, 2016
  • A friend has bought this book and though unable to quilt her quilts did a wonderful job on a quilt after following the instructions, the book is now on order and hoping to receive it today think it is the best book I have seen for nervous or new quilters

    We love hearing that, Margaret – thanks for your comment! Christa is a wonderful teacher. –Jenny

    —Margaret (margiestitcher) on March 10, 2016
  • I have had a class, tried it and still need lots of practice. Handquilting is my preferred method on small quilts.

    —Ondrea on March 12, 2016
  • I am a beginning quilter. I made a quilt top that is still awaiting being sewn into a quilt, and I just finished a baby quilt that turned out quite well in spite of my novice quilting skills. I’m not entirely sure I enjoy quilting, but that is probably because I’m attending community college part-time and I don’t have the time to quilt as much as I would like.

    —Kay Day on March 18, 2016

Leave a comment

*Indicates required field