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Machine Quilting a Beginner Quilting Project

by Shannon
(Layton, UT)

I am quilting a table runner and the first one I have made. I have gotten the appliques sewn on and I am now need to quilt the seams and I need to know how to do it and the best way to do the corners and to make it look continuous.

My instructor (who did nothing but confuse me when I asked her about it over and over) made it seem very hard and I am all confused on what stitch to use and how to make it look continuous and not mess up the seams.


To answer your question, I'm going to start you from the beginning of the quilting process. I've put links to information that is on the website already. Just use your back button to return here to this page.

Gather Your Machine Quilting Supplies

To machine quilt your table runner you'll need:

  • Your quilt top, neatly pressed, thread tails clipped, make sure all the seams on the outside edge are completely stitched. Because we don't back stitch for piecing, sometimes those seams want to pull apart. Re-stitch them now if needed as it will make your machine quilting easier.

  • Cotton batting: "Quilter's Dream" or "Warm and Natural" will do fine. Cotton is nice for beginning quilting because it will "stick" to your quilt fabric. A polyester batting has a tendency to slide around a bit, so I discourage its use for beginners.

  • 100% cotton thread: Aurifil or Masterpiece (by Superior Threads) works beautifully

  • Monofilament thread: This thread is optional, but if you will be sewing over many different colors of fabric, a monofilament or clear thread will help to hide your stitches.

    YLI, Superior Threads and Sew Art all make a nice monofilament thread. This thread should feel much like hair and break easily when you pull it between your hands. It is sold in quilt stores. Joann's carries Sulky monofilament and that will work too. It should not feel like fishing line. My favorites are YLI and SewArt.

  • Safety pins: #1, nickel plated, rust proof. You'll need enough safety pins so that when you put your hand on the pin basted quilt top, you feel at least two pins.

  • Sewing machine needles: A Universal 80/12 is fine for this beginning quilting project unless you've used batik fabrics. For batiks, use an 80/12 Microtex Sharp needle.

  • Sewing machine: in good working order with a walking foot. If you have a Pfaff machine, it comes with an IDT foot that replaces the need for a walking foot. A walking foot is sometimes called an even feed or quilting foot, too.

  • Masking tape - not blue painter's tape, just plain old masking tape

Preparing the Batting and Backing

Because this is a table runner, batting and backing grain lines are unimportant. If this were a wall hanging, the lengthwise grain line should run from North to South to add stability to your quilt.

If you've pre-washed your quilt top fabrics, then pre-wash your backing. If you haven't prewashed your fabric you may want to do a bleed test.

Cut your quilt backing 2 inches larger on each side. If your table runner is 16" x 39" you'd cut the backing 20" x 43". Cut your cotton batting the same.

Layering and Basting the Quilt Sandwich

Layering the Quilt Sandwich

Unlike hand quilting where your quilt sandwich is basted together with needle and thread, a quilt to be machine-quilted is basted with safety pins.

Lay out the backing on a large, flat, clean surface. The backing is smoothed and taped to the surface with masking tape. This prevents it from shifting during the basting process.

  1. First tape the centers. Tape the middle of one side. Then the middle of the opposite side. Then the middle of one of the remaining sides and it’s opposite.

  2. Next, tape one set of opposing corners. Then the other.

  3. Finally, move around the backing filling in with tape.
As you tape, remember:

The backing is not stretched, but rather pulled taut.

The idea is to have a flat, non-puckered back taped to your basting surface. The grain line should not be distorted. If there are ripples in the backing remove the necessary pieces of masking tape and redistribute the fabric. In fact, it is the norm to adjust some of your tape pieces during this process.

The batting is centered and smoothed over the backing and NOT taped or pinned. The top is then centered and smoothed over the batting/back.

Pin Basting

With a large supply of #1, nickel plated safety pins, pin out from the center, working out to the outside edges. Pins should be 3” to 4” apart; you can have more if you feel the need. (Laura Heine, an award winning quilter and author, wrote in her book, “Color Fusion” that she places her safety pins 1 to 2 inches apart. That’s a lot of pins, but it works for her.) When you place your palm flat on the quilt, you should feel at least two pins. If not, add more. These pins are holding your quilt sandwich together so that it doesn't shift while you are quilting.

Avoid pinning through seam allowances and try to pin far enough away from a seam that will be quilted “in the ditch” or a design line so that your walking foot will not catch on the safety pins. This saves you time.

Once you're satisfied you've got enough pins in place, close them and finally remove all the masking tape. You're ready to go to the sewing machine.

Note that for your table runner, you'll only need to add only 4" to the length and width to arrive at the backing and batting size. That is because your table runner is a smaller quilt.

Sewing Machine Setup

Install your quilting foot (sometimes called a walking or even foot on your sewing machine. Set your straight stitch length to 2.5 for cotton threads or 2.0 if you choose to use a monofilament thread in the needle and a 50 wt cotton thread in the bobbin. I like the shorter stitch length for monofilament or clear thread. It reduces the shine from the thread.

If your sewing machine has a needle stop down setting, use it. It's like having an extra hand while you're working.

Does your sewing machine have a speed control? Use it. Set the maximum speed your machine stitches at down a notch or two. Quilting is not a race. Stitching at a slower speed gives your more control.

Make a practice quilt sandwich with scraps from your quilt fabric and batting. It doesn't have to be big, 6" square or 3" x 6" will work, you just need a piece big enough to practice some stitching on.

Now sew a line of straight stitches. Check your sewing machine tension. Adjust it as necessary so that no bobbin thread shows on the top and no needle thread shows on the bottom. If you've used clear thread, do you like the look or does it show too much? If you've used clear with "muddied" or "country" colors, sometimes the smoke colored monofilament thread will show less.

Machine Quilting Techniques

There are a couple of machine quilting techniques that you'll use when quilting your table runner with a walking foot. They are:The rest of the information on that page is specifically for free motion quilting with a darning foot. (Remember we have already selected our straight stitch and stitch length.)

Next we'll move on to the actual quilting. See the "Comments" below...

Comments for Machine Quilting a Beginner Quilting Project

Click here to add your own comments

by: Patti

I wanted to thank you for a very thorough explanation of beginner quilting. I am starting my first attempt at a runner and have been online for a while looking for tips. Your very detailed directive was appreciated. I am happy that I happened upon it. Thank you for the time that you took to clearly explain this complex process.

From the Editor: I'm so glad it helped, and appreciate that you took the time to write.

Now get back to quilting! There's fun to be had!


Julie Baird

Excellent Tutorial
by: AnnM

Just a quick word to say that this is a very thorough and well written tutorial! Wish I'd read it when I was starting out. Thanks!

Fantastic Information
by: Nancy

I came across your website by chance. The information and other resources are fantastic. I have already told fellow quilter about Generations. Thank you.

From the Editor: Thank you for writing, Nancy. You made my day!


Julie Baird

Beginning Quilting Instructions - Part 2 - continued
by: Julie Baird, Editor

Ditch Quilting

Install your walking foot. Read the directions, you may need to reduce the presser foot pressure.

Keep your eyes on the needle and where it enters the fabric.

To quilt in the ditch, stitch in the well of the seam, on the side of the seam with no seam allowance under it. The needle should almost rub or "kiss" the fold of the seam you are stitching next to.

If you create a bubble of fabric in front of your presser foot, stop the machine with needle down and lift the presser foot. Then lower the foot and continue quilting. Do the same if your walking foot hangs up going over a seam allowance. This raising and lowering of the foot works as long as you catch the "bubble" before it gets too big.

If you are constantly creating these bubbles as you stitch, it means your quilt wasn't properly pinned. The quilt top wasn't smoothed out as flat as it should have been. You'll do better the next time.

Now if the bubble doesn't go away, then ever so slightly stretch apart the seam line with your hands as you sew. Very gently. This can help ease in some of the fabric.

Order of Quilting

For a small table runner that is only a block wide, there's not much to worry about. But whether it's a table runner or a larger sized quilt the directions are the same.

To stabilize your quilt, we quilt the ditch line closest to the center of the quilt running North and South. Quilt in the ditch with your walking foot, starting and stopping the line of stitching with micro-stitching as described previously.

Next quilt the center-most ditch or seam line that runs East and West in the same manner. In a table runner, some of these lines may be the border.

Next fill in with ditch quilting from one of those central lines of stitching, working out to the edge.

Flip your quilt 180 degrees and again quilting the ditch lines out to the edge.

Flip the quilt 90 degrees and we are back to the North/South lines. Start from the center and do your stitch in the ditch quilting out to the edge. Flip the quilt 180 degrees and work out from the center again.

You can put a line of quilting around the outside edge of your quilt sandwich. Make it less than 1/4" so that it falls within the seam allowance of the outside edge and it will be covered by the binding later.

If you are confused by the order of quilting...upload a picture and I'll diagram it out for you.

While it is easier to just turn at the corners and keep ditch quilting on a table runner sized quilt, it's good practice to do the starting and stopping with the micro-stitching. When you get to bigger quilts, turning the quilt under the needle can stress the needle, causing it to break. It's easier to quilt tucks into the back when you turn the quilt. It's just so much easier to create a good habit now.

On to Part 3...

Beginning Quilting Instructions - Part 3 - continued
by: Julie Baird, Editor

A Simple Primer on Free Motion Quilting

Though you didn't ask, I've added some basic information on free motion quilting with a darning foot.

Attach your darning foot to your machine. Check your instruction manual if you are uncertain how to install it. Lower or cover your feed dogs. Your presser foot pressure may need to be reduced. Again, check the instruction manual.

Because you are moving the fabric (not the feed dogs), your stitch is determined by the combination of how fast you move the quilt and how fast the needle is moving.

One of the biggest misnomers I find in machine quilting is that people think free motion quilting or stippling should be done with the machine stitching at breakneck speed.

You don?t. You need to find the combination of machine speed and hand speed that work best FOR YOU. This will take practice?and the practice will make you confident.

I keep my machine set at 2/3 speed for almost everything except free motion zigzagging. Keep your eyes ahead of where the needle is entering the fabric when free motioning. It takes practice to learn to do this. Persevere. It is well worth the effort.

Because ditch quilting and free motioning use two different eye positions, it is best to do all of the ditch quilting at one time and then the free motioning and not switch back and forth between the two. Do stippling or background free motion fill last, as it tends to draw up the quilt a bit.

If you feel tension or a tug on the quilt while quilting, stop immediately and reposition the quilt.

If you need to reposition your hands, stop immediately and do so.

Remember, you must be able to move the part of the quilt that is under and between your hands. The rest of the quilt must simply be out of the way. Smush, push or fold the quilt.

Try to distribute the quilting as evenly as possible over the quilt. Areas that are heavily quilted tend to draw up.

I hope this information is a help to you. I am so sorry that your quilting teacher made this seem like it's so hard. It's not.

There's a lot of instruction here, but it becomes just second nature the more projects you quilt. Working on smaller projects like table runners and small wall hangings is a good place to start. They will build your confidence as you learn the skills for quilting. And they're so much easier to maneuver under the needle.

Good luck to you. If there's anything that I need to explain better, let me know. I'd love to help. Happy Quilting!


Julie Baird

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