As we enter the final phase of making a quilt, you should be proud of all you’ve learned thus far. If you think back to Part 1 of this Series, you may have been skeptical about adding “how to quilt” to your sewing toolbox of skills. Now you can see it was simply a case of ignoring your fears and going forward with curiosity and confidence. We encourage you to remember this as we venture into the final phase!
Quilting a quilt can be very simple or quite complex. Remember, you are the creator and it’s your creative vision that drives the process. Many claim it’s the quilting that really makes the quilt in the end. However, your ultimate goal is to merely hold the layers together!
In this tutorial, we’ll be providing step-by-step instructions on basic quilting techniques that can be used on any kind of quilt (or any other quilted item, like a pillow or bag). Of course, selecting the exact type of quilting is based on personal preference, the theme of the quilt and/or that good ol’ creative vision. The main thing to keep in mind is this: there is no right or wrong.
There’s a general misconception that the final quilting is a machine function. This is not true. It’s completely a you-function! The machine is your tool, but you are controlling that tool. Quilting, especially what’s called free motion quilting, is another sewing technique you can learn and get better at with practice, practice, practice. You’ll see what we mean as we explain the details and options below.
From planning the quilt top, to planning which fabrics to use, to planning how to piece the fabric together… thinking things through is a critical part of quilting. As you can probably guess, planning how you’re going to quilt your quilt is just as important.
You need to determine which quilting method you want to use prior to sitting down at the machine. The most common methods, along with a brief explanation of each, are listed below. (We’ll be showing you how to do some of these later in the tutorial too!) Just to complicate things a little, sometimes you may use all of these in one quilt.
In the ditch quilting
You stitch in the ditch in more projects than just quilting, so this is a good overall technique to learn. In the quilt method, you precisely guide the needle in the “ditch” of the seam between the quilt blocks as you sew. This is ideal for beginners because it’s not too different from sewing a basic seam. The machine helps feed the quilt layers under the foot as you sew. There are also specialty feet that can help, which we showed you in Part 1.
Straight line quilting
This method utilizes only straight lines sewn across the quilt top in various directions. Similar to sewing in the ditch, straight line quilting utilizes a standard sewing approach. However, you can create different effects with straight line quilting, such as channel, diagonal or crosshatch quilting.
Free motion quilting
This type of quilting covers a broad spectrum. In free motion quilting, you are in control – not the machine. This means the machine does not help feed the fabric; you have to move the fabric under the needle in a specific pattern or motion. You can think of it like moving the paper under a pencil to write a letter, instead of moving the pencil over the paper. The exciting part about this technique is how you can create very simple designs (like circles), complex designs (like feathers), do what’s called echo quilting (where you outline a focal point), or try what’s known as stippling or meandering (we have to show you this one to best explain it, but “meandering” is a great way to think about it). Many quilters love the final quilting process because it’s such an enjoyable and expressive form of creativity.
Now that you have an idea of the ways to quilt a quilt, you need to pick one. When starting out, we recommend trying stitching in the ditch or straight line quilting. A great way to determine which method to use is to sketch or draw your intended quilting pattern on paper first. You can draw an actual block or copy an overall picture of your quilt top, then draw on it to determine what looks best. Our quilting lines are sketched in red in the photo below. Many experienced quilters will tell you the best way to feel confident at the machine is to sketch your selected quilting pattern over and over again.
NOTE: In the illustrations below, we’re using a miniaturized version of a quilt so you can fully see and understand each step. But don’t forget, miniatures are a type of quilt too!
After you have a quilt plan in place, your next step is to prepare the layers. The success of each step here will determine how the quilt will look when it’s quilted, so take the time (and have the patience) to prepare your layers correctly. The goal is to keep everything flat, smooth and even so the layers can be basted together. You don’t want the layers to shift or you’ll end up with a distorted quilt. Depending on the size of the quilt, you may need a friend’s help.
First things first! Your quilt top should already be neatly pressed from the piecing process. Sometimes one last overall pressing is a good idea. If things appear a little wonky, now’s the time to straighten up the edges (just like we did with our quilt blocks in Part 4A).
If you haven’t already done so, you need to prepare the quilt back. Depending on the size of your quilt, it’s very common to have to piece fabric together for a large quilt back. Quilt backs are traditionally made of a single fabric that is pieced (see our tutorial on Joining Panels to Make Extra Wide Widths). Recently, the backs of quilts have become as interesting as the tops. Quilters are using a combination of large leftover pieces from the front to create their backs. Using a 108″ wide fabric for the back is a quick solution too! Remember, the batting and backing should be 3″ – 6″ larger than your quilt top.
Speaking of batting, you should have selected a batting for your quilt in the appropriate size. We touched upon the vast selection available in Part 1. Batting should be unpackaged, unfolded, and left out overnight to relax and lessen the amount of wrinkles. Remember, you want each layer to be smooth and flat.
You also need something to baste the layers together. This can range from a hand needle and thread to quilter’s safety pins to a tacking gun to basting spray. As with anything, there are pros and cons to each method. You really have to give each one a try to find what works best for you. For our purposes, we tend to use quilter’s safety pins for basting.
You will also need tape to hold the backing and batting layers to your surface. This can be painter’s tape, masking tape, or quilter’s tape.
Layering the quilt
The goal when layering a quilt is to keep all the layers as flat as possible without pulling them taut. If you aren’t super careful at this stage, you can distort the quilt before you’ve even started. In addition, you want to keep the layers properly centered on top of one another so one layer doesn’t shift out of place.
- Determine the center of each layer by neatly folding it in half. You can mark the centers at the top and bottom with a pin or whatever marking tool you prefer.
- Locate an area to layer your quilt that is adequate in size. You need to be able to get around all sides of the quilt. For many folks, this means working on the floor. Make sure it is clean, and we recommend a gardening kneepad as well as taking plenty of breaks to save your knees and back.
- Place the backing on the selected surface wrong side up. Make sure it is smooth with no folds or tucks. You do not want to quilt a tuck into the back of your quilt! Place tape perpendicular to the edges to hold this layer in place.
- Next, place the batting on top of the backing, matching the marked center points at the top and bottom. Use your hands to smooth the two layers.
- Finally, place the quilt top on top of the batting right side up, matching the marked center points. Again, use your hands to smooth over the layers, insuring there are no bumps or lumps. If there are, now is the time to fix them, which sometimes requires un-layering everything. But better a little extra work now than a very sad moment at the end!
Basting the layers
You must baste the layers of a quilt together to hold everything in place for quilting. This is not a step you can skip! As we mentioned earlier, there are a a number of different basting methods. You should experiment with each to find what works best for you. However, regardless of which method you use, you have to make sure you’re getting through all the layers and not moving the quilt… it’s like being on one of those game shows that tests your physical abilities! Remember, a gentle hand goes a long way.
The traditional method of basting a quilt is to use a hand needle and thread. A basting stitch is a long stitch that is easily removed. We recommend using contrasting thread so it’s easier to see for removal. You always work from the center when beginning to baste (down, then across). Continue toward each side from the center. You can also baste on the diagonal. The main “con” of hand basting is that it’s time consuming to do, especially if the quilt is large.
When you choose to pin baste a quilt, you can’t use just any ol’ pins. They should be anti-rust quilter’s safety pins. (We showed you a picture above). These pins are designed to not mar your quilt, since the pins may be in place for a while as you quilt. When determining pin placement, use a systematic approach, similar to hand basting. Work from the center out, smoothing the layers as you go. If you have a clear idea where you will be quilting, you can attempt to place the pins to give yourself a clear stitching path, but usually it’s best to just plan to remove any pins that might get in your way as you stitch. The main negative of this option is the pins do become cumbersome to put in the quilt (you will eventually prick your finger) as well as to take out as you’re quilting.
NOTE: There are a number of valuable tips for inserting and removing pins on the Internet. You can also ask at your local quilt shop or quilt guild. You’ll be amazed at what quilter’s have come up with to save time… and fingers! We have a few suggestions in the Hints & Tips section below.
If you’ve ever had a job in retail, this quilt tool should look slightly familiar. It works exactly the same a tag gun for garments, only the plastic thingys are shorter. When you use a basting gun, the approach is the same as the previous two methods. You just have to be careful not to sew over any of the plastic thingys. The other downside is you do eventually have to go back and cut away all the tacks with scissors, making it easy to cut into your pretty quilt!
A good-quality temporary spray adhesive, specifically designed for this purpose, is the modern approach to basting. Many quilters swear by it. Learning to properly apply the spray and where to do it seem to be the top two challenges here. You can probably guess that besides preventing overspray onto other areas of your home, keeping the layers straight can be hard. The spray has to be applied between the layers, which means in between both the backing and batting, and the batting and top. There are a number of blogs that show how quilters approach this successfully. A general Internet search will lead you the right direction.
NOTE: Do not use just any type of temporary spray adhesive; you must use one designed for fabric. The wrong type of adhesive can seriously gum up the needle on your sewing machine and ruin your quilt!
Sewing machine settings and other tools
Since it’s been a few weeks, we will provide a quick recap of what you need to quilt a quilt from Part 1. In addition, we’ll tell you about a few additional items you can use at this stage, and go through the required machine settings.
NOTE: Once again, we’ll remind you how important it is to know your sewing machine’s features. Refer to the owner’s manual or visit your local sewing machine retailer and ask them to show you what you’ll need to quilt with your particular make/model.
At the sewing machine
As with all sewing, using the appropriate needle (type & size) and thread is important. Traditionally, quilters use long-staple 100% cotton thread for quilting in the needle and bobbin. As for needle size, you should use a universal needle size 80/12 or 90/14. However, you don’t have to limit yourself. We told you how creative quilting can be, so using a variety of thread types simply expands that creativity.
NOTE: Some quilters like to use monofilament thread in the needle to give an “antique” look to the stitching. In this case, you would only use monofilament in the needle with a regular thread in the bobbin. The needle tension is tightened so the bobbin thread comes up to the top.
Machine settings are very important in quilting. The settings you use will be dictated by the method of quilting you’ve selected. All methods use a straight stitch.
For in-the-ditch or straight quilting, you will sew in much the same way as for basic seaming. The stitch length can range from 2.5 to 3.0, depending on the thickness. The feed dogs should be in the up position.
For free motion quilting, where you are in control, the stitch length is set to 0.0 and the feed dogs are down (or covered with a darning plate).
For all three options, you may have to adjust the needle tension to compensate for the layers. Testing the stitching on a scrap “quilt sandwich” is always recommended. We’re fortunate our Janome studio machines automatically adjust the tension when we select the quilt option.
As we previously explained, there’s quite a selection of feet made specifically for quilting. Again, the method of quilting you’ve selected will determine which foot you use. In-the-ditch can be done with an Even Feed (or walking) foot or a Ditch quilting foot. Straight quilting is usually done with an Even Feed (or Walking) foot, with an optional quilt bar guide. Free motion quilting is always done with a Darning foot.
NOTE: There are also open toe versions of feet available, which are designed so you can see exactly where the needle is penetrating – ideal for quilting! Plus, some Janome models have a built-in AcuFeed™ foot that is great for handling the thicker layers of quilting. This is the foot you see below in our samples.
Since you only adjust needle tension on a sewing machine, and never on the bobbin case, Janome, our exclusive sewing machine sponsor, offers an optional bobbin case for some of their models specifically for free motion quilting. The bobbin case tension has been pre-adjusted for smooth stitching while quilting.
Many quilters like to use quilt gloves. These have a grippy material on them to help hold the quilt. Remember, quilting takes some time, especially depending on the size, and it can become difficult to hold on after a while.
A big challenge of handling a quilt in the machine is where to place the excess. An extension table can provide additional support around the machine.
In addition, bicycle clips are helpful when you need to roll a quilt to fit it through the head of the machine.
Marking tools are an important part of quilting, especially if you want to do a more complex design. As we showed in the earlier parts of the series, there are a number of marking tools you can use, as well as templates and stencils (shown below).
Where and how to start quilting
In the quilting world, there is some debate about where to start quilting a quilt. Do you start from the edge or from the center? As you now know, keeping the layers even is the main priority. With this priority in mind, you really have to try both to see what works best for you. Sometimes, it’s simply a matter of size.
Usually, if you’re working on a larger quilt, you should work from the center out, then rotate it to work in the other direction (this is when you want to roll the quilt and clip it with the bicycle clips). By doing it this way, you keep the majority of the bulk to the left of your machine where it’s the easiest to manage.
How to start to quilting is another matter. You must begin each length of quilting so the stitches do not come loose. This can be done a few ways. You can use a backstitch, like you would in other forms of sewing. If your machine has a lock stitch feature, you can use this to create a knot at the beginning of your seam. However, many quilters are not too excited about either of these options, because they do not like the “look” on the back. Instead, they tend to choose one of two alternate methods. One) they sew six or seven (or so) tiny stitches at the beginning and end of each line of quilting. This requires you to adjust the stitch length each time (beginning and end). Two) they hold the needle thread taut to bring the bobbin thread up to the top, take a few stitches in place to create a knot, clip the threads and move on.
You could also bring the thread tails to the back with a needle and hand-knot the thread in place. However, this results in a bunch of thread tails on the top of the quilt that you have to feed through when you’re completely done quilting. The choice is yours. The point is you must lock the quilting in place at the beginning and end of each line of stitching.
While on the subject, we want to mention another quilting debate. The back of the quilt should look as good as the front – this is true, but it needn’t drive you crazy. Focus on perfecting the quilting techniques outlined here and a “pretty back” will happen on its own. But it is a good habit to stop every so often and peek at the back of your quilt to make sure the stitching is acceptable.
A word about hand position is needed here too. Similar to other forms of sewing, you have to find a position that is comfortable for you. Two factors contribute to how you position your hands: the size of the quilt and how you are quilting it. Otherwise, with practice, hand position will work itself out too.
In the ditch
- Set up your sewing machine for quilting in the ditch based on the description above. Attach a ditch quilting foot, or even feed foot (or the open toe version of either). Adjust the stitch length to 2.5 – 3.0. Optional, attach a straight stitch plate
- Line up the needle with a seam in the center of your quilt. Use the handwheel to test-drop the needle to determine if the position is correct.
- Begin to sew, guiding the quilt so the needle stays positioned in the seam. Don’t forget to lock your stitch following one of the methods described above.
- Continue sewing until you reach the opposite end (or side) of the quilt. Again, lock the stitches in place.
- We used red thread so you can clearly see how the stitching runs in the ditch.
- If you look on the back of your quilt, you can see the stitching more clearly.
- Continue quilting in this manner until you’ve sewn in between each block both down and across the quilt (or diagonal should your quilt be constructed that way). Remember, you can use this technique in combination with others.
- You can use straight line quilting in parallel lines across your quilt, along either side of a seam, on a diagonal, in a crosshatch pattern. etc., etc..
- Regardless of how you plan to use straight line quilting, you need to start with a straight line marking or some point of reference. In some quilts, you will simply stitch a set distance from the seam lines going down and across. For other quilts, you will actually use a ruler and marking tool to draw a straight line as a starting point or multiple lines to follow. You can also use quilter’s tape as a temporary guide.
- Set up your sewing machine for straight line quilting based on the description above. Attach an even feed foot (or an open toe version). Adjust the stitch length to 2.5-3.0. Optional, attach a straight stitch plate.
- There are several options to keep your lines straight. Guide the edge of the foot (or a specific marking on the foot) along the seam line as you quilt.
- Sew in even parallel rows, using a quilt guide bar attached to the even feed foot.
- Draw a line to stitch along. This is particularly helpful if quilting on the diagonal.
NOTE: Make sure to use the angle marking on your quilt ruler to determine the correct angle for your stitching.
- To create a crosshatch pattern, simply cross over your previous diagonal quilting from the opposite angle.
- Sometimes, you may want to use straight line quilting in combination with in-the-ditch quilting or free motion quilting. It’s all fair game. Don’t limit yourself!
- We saved free motion quilting for last because if you’re new to quilting, you should try this after you’ve successfully completed in-the-ditch quilting and straight line quilting. Free motion quilting is a technique that should be practiced over and over before trying it on your finished quilt top. You want to get comfortable with working with your sewing machine in this new manner. Remember, you are the one in control of the feeding of the quilt under the needle. This means you can quilt in any direction you want: right, left, up, down, diagonal, curved, etc.. The real challenge is keeping your stitches even in length.
- If you move the quilt too slowly under the needle, your stitches will be very tiny and tight.
- If you move the quilt too quickly, your stitches will start to resemble basting stitches and be too loose.
- If you work in time with the speed of the needle going up and down, your stitching will be more pleasing (and hold the layers together properly)… just right, like Goldilocks!
- You can create pretty much whatever you can imagine with free motion quilting, however, you should have an idea of what you want the final creation to be. In other words, as you’re quilting, you should be thinking about where the next stitches should be headed. Many quilters will advise you to look ahead of instead of at the needle – similar to driving a car. You think ahead of where you are to get to your final destination.
- Set up your sewing machine for free motion quilting. Attach a darning foot. Lower the feed dogs (or cover the feed dogs with a darning plate). Set the stitch length to 0.0. Optional, attach a straight stitch plate.
- You can use free motion quilting to create a specific pattern or shape. This requires transferring a pattern or shape onto the fabric with any one of the marking tools we referred to in Part 1. In our example, we are using a quilt template with a marking pencil.
- Mark the design on your quilt top in a predetermined location.
NOTE: You can mark the entire quilt first, or mark as you go. This is a personal choice.
- Using the same free motion technique described above, follow the marked pattern until it’s complete. Remember to think ahead and look where you need to go next. Don’t worry if you don’t follow the lines exactly. We didn’t, and we have a fun, little wonky heart that we love! That’s the creativity in free motion quilting.
- Continue quilting the marked design(s) until the quilt is complete.
- A well-known form of free motion quilting is called stippling or meandering. It looks like squiggly or curved lines going here, there and everywhere. The one rule to remember: you’re not supposed to cross over any of your previous quilting – if you do, we wont’ tell. But… that’s the “rule.”
- Begin in one corner of a designated area – we’ll stay within our square for our sample.
- Move the quilt in a random fashion creating a curvy line of stitching.
- Continue quilting in this manner toward the opposite corner, without crossing over any previous stitching.You have to enlist the left side of your brain for this technique. Some quilters find it helpful to play music to maintain a steady free-motion rhythm.
- This is a very versatile form of free motion quilting. Use it within a specific area, like we did inside the white squares on our quilt below. Or you could make it a filler design in the background fabric of your quilt. Or, accentuate a focal point, as we did below around our previously quilted heart design.
- We’ve made this look fairly simple in today’s tutorial, but we can’t stress enough how important it is to try these techniques using scraps first. You want to be comfortable and feel confident when you’re ready to quilt your first quilt. That said, don’t worry about small errors or little mishaps – you’re the only one who knows about them. Remember, when you step back, it all blends in!
Other finishing details
You’ve made it a long way and we are super proud of you! Before we finish this series, there are a few more details to “officially” complete your quilt.
Once the quilting process is finished, trim away the excess backing and batting from the quilt edge. Most quilters will tell you to leave ⅛” to ¼” of the excess for the binding process. We talk about this in our tutorial on binding quilts (see the link below).
If you’ve made a wallhanging quilt, now is the time to create a sleeve or tabs so it can be properly suspended. If you’re following a pattern, instructions may be provided. Otherwise, we recommend referring to a basic quilt book or the Internet for quick instruction. It’s really just a simple sleeve at the top back of the quilt.
Most importantly, all quilters will tell you to label your quilt. Think of it like an artist signing her painting. Quilt labels can be simple – name, date, etc. Or, they can contain a special message to the receiver. They can be handwritten with special fabric pens or sewn with stitch lettering and/or embellished with machine embroidery and/or decorative stitching. Quilt labels are always sewn on by hand because you don’t want to stitch through your quilt top after all the work you’ve done. Below is an example of one of my own special quilt labels.
The final step is to bind the raw edges of the quilt. We know you’ll be surprised when we tell you there are a few methods for this too! Luckily, we already have some great tutorials here on Sew4Home on how to make and sew your own custom binding.
Hints & Tips
- Use water-soluble thread for basting. When the quilt is complete and washed, the basting thread simply washes away. The appropriate basting sprays are usually water-soluble too!
- Be careful when using basting spray; the adhesive gets in the air and lands on items around the area where you’re working. Some recommend placing a protective layer under the quilt to catch the overspray.
- If you don’t have enough space in your home to layer a quilt, ask your local quilt shop if you can use/rent their space.
- As we’ve mentioned a few times, quilter’s are resourceful folks! They have come up with additional tools for those of you who prefer to pin baste your layers. The pin grip covers and pin fasteners shown below help prevent injury from the pins when inserting and removing them.
- To remove wrinkles from packaged batting, place the batting in the dryer on a low setting with a moist towel.
- For a helpful tip on how to rotary cut long pieces of fabric (for backing) check out our tutorial here.
- Pre-thread a few bobbins with the selected quilting thread so you don’t have to waste time winding bobbins each time one runs out.
- When the bobbin does run out, replace it, then start back exactly where it ran out. Use your locking stitch technique of choice to begin again.
- Practice free motion quilting on paper first. You can do this with a pencil. Or, on the machine with no thread. You can also use a scrap quilt sandwich as we recommended earlier.
- When venturing into quilting a quilt, it’s a good practice to devote a little “play time” at the machine on a regular/daily basis before starting your actual quilting. This will help you to get to know your machine, as well as allow you proper time to audition the stitches, settings, etc. you are thinking about using.
- Don’t be afraid to stray from the straight stitch for quilting. Depending on the type of quilt, you can use other stitches on your machine to outline shapes etc. (Just make sure to remove your straight stitch plate if your using one, otherwise you will certainly damage your machine).
- Watch your posture (which you should do with all forms of sewing), move methodically around the quilt (up and down, left and right, etc.), go slowly, be relaxed, use both hands at all times, taking advantage of the knee lift if your machine has one.
- Depending on the size of the quilt, it’s important to take breaks in between quilting. This is a process you want to enjoy – don’t turn it into a grind.
- If you choose to make a large, bed-size quilt, you’ll have to determine how to handle the bulk. A quilt of this size is heavy, and the weight can pull it down from under the needle. Some quilter’s choose to put the excess up over one shoulder to keep this from happening.
- Hand quilting thread is for hand quilting only. Do not attempt to use this in your sewing machine.
- Make sure to clean your sewing machine bobbin area and change the needle regularly as all the fibers from the fabric and batting will build up quickly.
- We mentioned in a previous tutorial how quilting uses lots of thread. You may want to purchase larger size spools. If so, check with your machine retailer about special spool stands.
- There are many books and blogs dedicated solely to the final quilting process. We recommend checking these out so you can get an idea of how creative you can be.
- There are two other types of quilting that you may want to try that are quick and easy. One is quilt-as-you-go and the other is what’s known as tying a quilt. You can learn more about these through a general Internet search.
- If you own, or plan to own, a sewing machine with embroidery features, ask your sewing machine retailer to show you built-in embroidery quilting designs! These look fantastic on a quilt too.
Sample Creation and Instructional Outline: Jodi Kelly