Monday, May 26, 2014

Quiltmaking 101 -- straight line quilting

Although I use the words "straight line" to describe this method, the lines don't have to be exactly straight.  They can be gently curved, turn corners or make zigzags, but all the while, the feed dogs are pulling the fabric under the needle, so the seams will have uniform stitch length.

But sewing a straight line through a quilt sandwich is a lot trickier than sewing through two pieces of relatively thin material.  The quilt is much thicker, especially if you're using a hefty batt and perhaps a drapery-weight backing or one that has some seams in it.  And because the quilt contains three layers of different materials and characteristics, it's particularly susceptible to creep, where the layers shift under your presser foot.

While the feed dogs are diligently pulling the backing fabric under the needle at their appointed rate, the other two layers may be hanging back.  The presser foot on top of the sandwich is pushing down and making it harder for the quilt top to move smoothly and evenly under the needle, especially at a fat seam.  You can easily find yourself at the end of the quilt with the top hanging a quarter inch or even a half inch behind the backing and batting.

The cure for creep is to pull the sandwich under the needle from the top and bottom at the same time, not just from the bottom.  You accomplish this by taking off the regular presser foot and using a walking foot.  A walking foot doesn't just sit there like a weight on top of the sandwich.  Instead, it has little rubber feet that "step down" onto the fabric, grab it in a tight grip and pull back, then lift up and move forward to grab another stitch worth.

With the rubber feet pulling the top layer and the feed dogs pulling the bottom layer, the whole sandwich comes through in proper alignment.  (If your machine has a built-in "dual feed" or "even feed" feature you may not need a walking foot.)

I love the look of curved machine quilting, but it's only feasible for relatively small quilts.  You have to be able to move the quilt smoothly and easily in one swoop to get smooth and beautiful curves, and that's difficult or impossible to do with a huge quilt sandwich.  Similarly, it's hard to quilt right-angle turns, zigzags or Vs on large quilts, because you have to turn the entire quilt to head in a new direction.

For big quilts, I prefer the simplest possible approach: straight lines that go across the whole width of the quilt.  Sometimes I keep the lines relatively straight, other times I allow them to meander a bit from side to side or even cross one another.  Sometimes I do a second set of lines crossing the first to make a grid.

To quilt straight lines or a grid, first find the approximate center of the quilt, going the shortest way across.  Roll or fold the edges of the quilt into a package like a scroll, exposing only a narrow area at the center, maybe six inches wide.  This way you can maneuver the package through the relatively narrow harp of your sewing machine.  For a very large quilt, I secure the roll with pins, clamps or thread so it doesn't come open as I quilt.

Stitch along the center line from edge to edge.  Flip the quilt over and check the back to make sure you haven't sewed a pleat or wrinkle into the seam.  If it's OK, flip it back and do another line of stitching just to the right of your first line.

Depending on how densely you want to quilt the piece, the second line of stitching can be as close as an eighth-inch or as far as an inch away from the first line.  Add more lines of stitching to the right until you approach the edge of your unrolled area.  Check the back of the work again to make sure there are no pleats or wrinkles, then lay the quilt package flat on a work surface.  Open the right-hand fold or roll to expose a new area, just like unrolling a scroll to read further.  You probably will want to roll up an equal area on the left, to keep the package at about the same size it was to begin with.

Eventually you will have quilted all the way from the center line out to the edge of the quilt.  Now turn the quilt 180 degrees so the unquilted area again extends from the center line out toward the right.  Just as you did with the first half of the quilt, press the quilt, roll or fold to expose a new corridor about six inches wide, stitch to the right of the center line, then again and again until you reach the edge.

If you decide to quilt a second set of lines to make a grid, it will be much easier than the first set.  Since the entire quilt has been secured with stitching, you won't have to press, pin or check the back of your work for pleats and wrinkles.  Just roll or fold the quilt into a scroll and stitch, stitch, stitch.


  1. Great post, great tips, thank you.

  2. A quilting friend told me about your website and these very instructions at lunch today in Anchorage. THANK YOU! This is exactly what I needed to know!