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Beginner machine quilting headaches

by Elzsbeth
(Raleigh, NC)

Elzsbeth writes...

I'm a beginning quilter (although more advanced in piecing) and am making a crib quilt and have a lot of trouble controlling my quilt on my domestic machine.

No matter how I roll it, throw it over my shoulder, curse at it, the bulk of it blocks my stitching by pulling it out of alignment.

I spend more energy trying to control the part I'm not sewing than the stitches themselves.

It seems to easy when you're just using a small practice block, but the real thing is another story.

Incidentally, I'm talking about ditch quilting and cross hatching. I wouldn't dare get into free motion.

Julie replies...

Hi Elzsbeth!

If you're ready to throw your sewing machine out the window, then I most heartily welcome you to the club! Anyone who's quilted has experienced that very same gut-twisting frustration at one time or another. Myself included.

Let's go through some things that can help you along the road to becoming a confident machine quilter.

You only move what's between your hands.

This is a weird concept to make your own because it seems so counter-intuitive.

The only part of the quilt that you 'want' to have move is ONLY that which is between your hands—not in front of—not behind.

That's because it's the only part you have control over.

I don't know if you're a garment seamstress, but when you're sewing garments you can really clip along at a good pace for a long time, simply because it's possible to 'walk your hands' as you sew. There are only two layers of fabric. Maybe a layer of interfacing or thin lining.

With a quilt, as you've experienced, that batting adds significant bulk. If you push or pull on it from a distance (i.e. in front of or behind your hands) it acts as if it's got a mind of it's own. It'll fold and bend of it's own accord.

Setup your quilting space for success.

If you can, get at least a table top sewing table like the Sew Steady. It gives you more room for your hands and quilt. Click here to learn more about it. I quilted on one for years.

The best set-up is to have a sewing machine cabinet or table that your machine sits in so that the bed of the machine is flush with the table top. I've used both a Sew Ezi portable sewing machine table and a permanent one by Horn. All have different price points. But, again, the bed flush with the table top is a huge advantage.

Set up your quilting area so that the quilt is supported by a flat horizontal surface. One that the sandwich can't fall off of resulting in it being pulled and jerked from your control. Use portable banquet tables to extend your flat surface space.

Quilt only as far as what's between your hands.

This next step is the hardest.

STOP STITCHING—preferably with the needle down to hold your patchwork. Re-position your hands and start again.

It takes discipline to stop to reposition. We seem wired to want to just keep stitching.

Arrange the quilt under the arm of the machine to suit YOU.

When I first learned to machine quilt, the standard instruction was to roll the quilt sandwich up into a big log. Bicycle clips were used to hold it together.

Total ick!

That sucker was stiff, rigid and hard to move...for me.

Now, I only use that technique if I'm quilting long lines through the center of the quilt. That's simply to get it all under the arm of my machine. But once I get a bit out from the center, then I re-adjust the quilt with something I call 'smush-push-and-fold'.

Sometimes it's a loose accordion fold. Sometimes the quilt is puddled around the needle (especially for free motion quilting). Sometimes the quilt is over my shoulder. Sometimes I lay it on my boobs for support.

The point is, that you will need to try different things to find out what works best for YOU. Be prepared. Different quilt 'positions' may work best for different situations. It is all relevant to YOUR preferences.

Ditch quilting doesn't always have to be in the ditch.

As children we learn to do things in baby steps. 'Cause we're children, baby steps isn't a bad word.

As we mature, somehow that word can take on a negative connotation—like we're not learning something fast enough or we should be able to do it already.

Learning to manage a quilt sandwich under the needle is a big thing all by itself. Add honing in on that ditch to perfectly lay your stitches down in, well that's a whole other skill.

Once learned, you will own the skill and readily be able to call on it. That's the confidence factor. It's huge and worth every baby step it takes to build it.

So, for this quilt, you might choose to use one of your machine's decorative stitches—one that's usually called the serpentine. It wiggles evenly from side to side.
You aim for the ditch with your foot for practice. The stitches, however, miss the ditch on purpose. You can use this stitch for your crosshatching, too. It adds a great texture to the quilt. I've used it myself on baby and charity quilts.

As you've been piecing for awhile, one of the things you've probably learned is that you can do most anything in a quilt design. The important part is that it looks like it was meant to happen.

An example of this is when you put an 'ugly' or really bright fabric into your quilt top. If you add it in a single spot, the eye is drawn to it like a beacon.

Piece it in at least 3 times, and it now forces the eye to survey the whole quilt. Add it in points that form a triangle. Now it looks like it was 'accidentally-on-purpose' and you're a quilting genius for making your design sing!

Using the serpentine stitch does the same thing. The stitching is never in the ditch so the eye never expects it to be there.

This way you get to concentrate more on the act of stitching and moving, adjusting and controlling the sandwich as you quilt.

Your baby quilt gets finished.

You get more practice.

More practice develops your confidence.


You've already done a couple of other good things!

You've expressed your frustration. Getting it out helps you relax. At my house we call it venting. When we acknowledge what it is and don't let it stop us, it's a good thing.

I expect that you should be able to do this. With practice.

I don't expect that you 'should be able to do this' right off the bat.
And I certainly don't expect that you should be able to do this PERFECTLY. If you're like most quilters, only a couple of the quilts you in your lifetime will you consider 'perfect'.

It's just the nature of the craft.

The other thing that you did that was REALLY SMART is that you're not starting with a 'quilt the size of Egypt', as my girlfriend likes to say.

Can you imagine how you'd feel if this was a king size quilt? But I've seen it happen time and time again where the first quilting experience a beginning machine quilter goes for is the quilt intended for her own bed. That'd be enough to stop me from quilting I fear.

Elzsbeth, I hadn't intended to turn this into a 'War and Peace' tome. I wrote it as if I was sitting next to you talking you through. You can do this. I have faith in you.

I'd love to hear how this turns out.

To my readers...we've all been here. Please share your encouraging words below in the 'Comments'. Thank you.


Julie Baird

Comments for Beginner machine quilting headaches

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No puckers on the back, just the front!
by: Self-Taught

I just finished piecing a rail fence baby quilt. For my second quilt, I was reasonably happy with it. Since I tied my first quilt, I decided to try machine quilting this one.

I did a grid of in the ditch stitches. The parallel one came out fine. When I got to the horizontal rows, the front puckered awfully! The back was perfect though.

I am not sure what I did wrong as I basted it and it was pretty secure.

It is now my dog's quilt as there was no saving it.

Any thoughts on how I can prevent this from happening again?

From the Editor:

First I'd see if there's a way to reduce the presser foot pressure—check your manual to see if your machine has this control, as well as any recommendations for settings for quilting.

When you baste, be sure that there are pins holding things together at a maximum of 4-5 inches apart. The fast way to tell is when you put your palm down anywhere on the quilt sandwich, you feel a pin.

I suspect that your walking foot was pushing some of the quilt top fabric. The longer you stitch, the more fabric is pushed ahead of the foot. Eventally, you have to sew over it (i.e. when you get to a cross line of stitching) and a pucker forms.

A simple way to alleviate this problem is to stop with your needle down through the quilt sandwich and simply raise the presser foot. Then set it back down again. (Seriously simple, right?) This lets some of that excess fabric spread under the foot.

The other tip is to slighter pull/stretch the fabric of the top between your fingers—you're stretching the fabric perpendicular to the line of stitching you're on. This acts to ease in some of the fullness.

Finally, remember that you can always go back in and add more pins to hold and/or distribute any fullness that apppears. For short segments, I'lll actually use straight pins instead of safety pins. They're faster to insert. You run less risk of stabbling yourself because they're only used for problem areas.

I hope one of these suggestions is helpful to you.

Let us know how your next quilt turns out by sharing it in our Show and Tell section. I'd would love to see your quilts!


Julie Baird

add music

Put on some music...try various different kinds, as it flood your brain you will relax.

It will get better . . .
by: Rick

We all struggle with moving a quilt of any size through a domestic sewing machine. Everyone has to find what works best for them and oddly enough, every quilt quilts differently.

For ditch quilting, I use a flat "U" shaped foot because that way, I can see where I am going. I also keep a maximum pressure setting on the foot so the machine does most of the work and not me. I have my quilt station set up in a corner with 2 banquet tables and a machine table to stabilize the weight and keep it all loose.

A quilters halo is also a nifty gadget. Its a round ring of heavy metal coated with some grip. This is a HUGE help in moving whats only under the needle because it gives me something to hold on to. I am also using the halo with the Westalee Sew Steady templates with success.

I also just started using Superior Mono Poly thread for my ditch quilting--that way if I wobble out of the ditch, it's invisible.
And when you start free motion quilting, I ALWAYS cover the feed dogs with a business card. Your stitches will come out more evenly and you will have less tension headaches.

Good luck and happy stitching! It will get better!

Beginning Machine Quilting
by: Elaine DeFoor

Please hang in there!! I too was very frustrated. After quilting tablerunners, placemats etc., my first large quilt was a king size wedding gift for my oldest granddaughter. Boy was I in shock and thought I had met my match.

That was 2008 and now I have made so many large quilts, I have lost count. Each one has its own challenges and none seem to be the same but I love it. My first large quilt is called Amanda's Quilt on Julie's site called Share a Quilt.

Good luck and don't give up. Julie always is so helpful and gives great advice.

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