Where do I start quilting?

Do you start in the centre or stabilise the quilt?



There are two main strategies when it comes to starting to machine quilt:

  • start in the centre and working your way out to the edges
  • section off, stabilise or divide the quilt into smaller areas then start quilting wherever you like.  These lines are permanent and are the first lines sewn on the quilt.  They can be done with the walking foot or the free-motion foot.

Hand quilters start in the centre and work their way out and this works for them.  This strategy has been transferred over to machine quilting and while this works for many people, it doesn’t work for all quilts.  This is because the quilting will shrink the quilt in the centre and may cause waves or puckers in the outer areas.  If your quilting is a little rusty at the start, this will be the first quilting the eye will see as it generally looks out from the centre before resting on the focal point. Your best quilting would then around the edges as you’ve gotten into the swing of things.  The advantage of sectioning off your quilt is that you can start anywhere on the quilt once the first lines are sewn and leave your more competent quilting for the focal and central areas.

If you find starting in the centre is causing problems, you may like to try sectioning off the quilt.  To find out more on how I baste for this method, you can read pin basting a quilt here. If the basting is done correctly, you shouldn’t have puckering problems with this method.  If you can’t use pins, try machine basting the quilt with water soluble thread (if you plan on washing the quilt when completed).  This is done with a long stitch length or basting stitch on your machine. Go with the basting method that works for you. Even as a confident baster, I still hold my breath for those first three sectioning lines!  The other reason for puckering, particularly with walking foot work may be your hand positions.  You can find more information in the post top walking foot tips for quilters here.


Here’s my strategy for sectioning.

  • Sew the lines that are about ⅓ on the way in, paying attention to the direction these lines are sewn  (they should be sewn in opposite directions).  You’ll know if the basting is fine when the third line you quilt crosses the second or first lines you’ve sewn and there’s no puckering.  If some puckering has occurred, first scream, then evaluate the situation.  Personally I would unpick the quilting and re-baste because the puckering will only get worse if you continue and you haven’t done much quilting yet. I feel it’s better to find out at this point rather than quilt the entire central are of the quilt only to find out there is a problem as you reach the outer areas.  The next thing I’d do is grab a little chocolate and then the seam ripper.
These are the first lines sewn on the quilt.

These are the first lines sewn on the quilt.

At this point you might be saying my quilt doesn’t have straight lines or lines that are roughly one third of the way in. Choose the lines that are closest to these areas.  Here are a couple of examples of my quilts where I had to adjust the method.

Quilts with small pieces and not many vertical lines require extra quilting. The small pieces make the quilt stretchy and prone to puckering. I quilted as many of the vertical lines as I could before starting the main part of the quilting. This quilt also required machine thread basting in addition to the pin basting.

Quilts with small pieces (one eighth of an inch) and not many vertical lines require extra stabilising. The small pieces make the quilt stretchy and prone to puckering (so it was sewn very slowly). I quilted as many of the vertical lines as I could before starting the main part of the quilting. This quilt also required machine thread basting in addition to the pin basting.


This second quilt was initially going to just be a circular machine quilting sample (my fourth machine quilted quilt) so I quilted the entire centre but I left the excess around the edge in case I wanted to do more quilting.  I’d had so much fun that I decided to do the edges.  You can see because I didn’t put in the stabilising lines around the border that the outer part of the quilt has many waves and will not lay flat.

Sectioning a circular quilt.

Sectioning a circular quilt.  Any line quilted on the bias was quilted slowly.  I show this quilt to my students to make them aware that starting in the centre and working your way out may not be the best approach.

I quilted the inner circle first and then the next centre (as shown in black).  As of these area are enclosed boxes, I had to tie off after every line.  More work but I figured it was worth it.  I then quilted outward and the outer circle.  It worked out well due to having so many pins on the lines that were to be quilted first.  You can tell if you’re going to get a pucker when you sew as close as possible to these pins.  They are always placed on a perpendicular angle to the presser foot so they can be taken out easily when the time comes.

I should have then done the corners around the circle and the squares however, these hadn’t been marked on the quilt as I didn’t know I was going to do them!  So my next quilting lines were to complete all the boxes within the circle. This meant doing one on one side and doing it’s counterpart on the opposite side so I quilted it evenly and not all the boxes were done in one area first.

When this quilting had been done, there were very few pins left in the quilt.


  • After the initial stabilising lines are quilted, the rest of the lines are done that will break the quilting up into smaller areas, these will probably be all of the stitch in the ditch work. Then it’s time to sew a line around the very edge of the quilt to stabilise it so when the time comes to put the binding on, the edge won’t pucker under the binding strip.  I have heard of famous quilters that don’t do any stitch in the ditch work and generally they say they don’t have too many problems with puckering though when I see a video of them demonstrating their machine quilting, there tends to be a little puckering here and there.  To test the theory of quilting with no stabilising lines or stitch in the ditch work, I quilted a lap quilt without it but found the seams were pushed around until they looked wobbly and just plain bad.  Never again, that doesn’t work for me.
  • Start quilting the larger designs in any area you wish. I tend to start somewhere that isn’t a focal area as I believe my quilting will get better the more I do.  In the quilt above, I left the most central design until last.
  • Work your way through the areas leaving the smallest designs, such as the fillers, until last. I will quilt a little on one side then, turn it around and do some on the opposite side and this works well for me.  If I’m in the zone on the day and the machine is purring away, I’ll tackle the focal areas.

Each quilt is different and may need a different approach.  Go with what works for you, your machine and quilt.

Happy quilting,





Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Basic HTML is allowed. Your email address will not be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS

%d bloggers like this: