Top tips for learning to machine quilt—part 1


Free-motion quilting involves moving the quilt in the desired direction only when the needle is up. If the quilt is moving whilst the needle is going into the work, the needle may break, or may damage the throat plate.

The bobbin thread must be brought to the top of the quilt, each time a new line of quilting is started and finished. To do this, place the quilt under the needle where you want to start (or finish) quilting. Hold the end of the top thread between your thumb and index finger (away from the needle), and allow the machine to take one stitch with the needle finishing in the ‘needle up’ position. As the needle is coming up, gently pull the end of the thread up. This will pull the bobbin thread up in a loop. Put a pin through the loop, and flick it toward you. This will flick the end of the bobbin thread out, and you’ll be ready to sew or secure threads.


bringing-up-bobbin-thread Pulling up the blue bobbin thread.


Keep your fingers and safety pins at least 1″ away from the presser foot at all times. You will not see your fingers or pins when quilting, as you’ll only be concentrating on a 2″ area around the needle. If you find yourself lifting fingers off your quilt so you can quilt close to the needle, it’s time to stop and re-position your hands. If a pin gets caught on the foot, it will affect stitch quality and accuracy. Take all pins out of the quilt that are under your hands when quilting as well.

When quilting, the needle needs to finish in the down position, even when stopping to re-position your hands. Failing to do so, may result in a dog leg in your stitching. If your machine has a ‘needle down’ function, engage it. Remember not to take your hands off the work until the needle has stopped. The needle may still be moving after you’ve taken your foot off the pedal.

You will only be moving the quilt about 1.8mm-2.3mm at a time. Small or intricate designs use the smaller stitch length, whereas larger designs use a longer stitch length. Stitch length is also determined by the thread thickness. Intricate designs tend to need a finer thread, and larger designs a heavier thread. It all depends on what look and effect you are after. If using a heavier thread for an intricate design, it may cause thread build up on the back of the quilt.

Feed dogs may be covered or lowered, depending on your machine. If you get better tension or quality of work without dropping your feed dogs, then leave them up. Set your stitch length to zero. You will now be in control of the stitch length and will be able to sew in any direction.

In normal sewing, your hands would be moving in opposite directions when sewing a curve, allowing the feed dogs to move the fabric forward as shown below.



Creating a pivoting movement with your hands when sewing normally.


If you create the pivoting hand movement when free-motion quilting, the stitches will form on the same spot, kind of like standing on a spot and spinning. This is because the quilt is not being moved by the feed dogs. Both hands need to move in the same direction at all times, and not in different directions. As we have all learnt to sew normally first, it may take a while to get used to moving your hands in the same direction. It’s just a case of learning to do the job the feed dogs usually do.




Hands need to move in unison in the same direction when free-motion quilting.  This can be a hard concept to grasp as a beginner.


To learn how to move your hands in unison, practice quilting this next image, concentrating on one line or curve at a time. Do this for a couple of minutes, then return to what you were quilting.



Exercise to get your hands moving together. Make these shapes about 1½” tall.


Quilt designs on all sorts of scales to see what will work for your quilts. This gives you a chance to explore how much texture each design brings to the quilt.  In the beginning, I used to quilt everything on a small scale so I could fit more on the practice sandwich. When it came time to quilt designs full scale on my real quilt, I had to practice quilting longer stitches and alter my technique.

Some upmarket sewing machines come with a stitch-regulating foot. This means the free-motion quilting stitch length will be even, despite the speed you move your hands. It will take time to learn how to use this foot, and re-adjust your quilting techniques. Some quilters like them, and some prefer to be in charge of their stitch length.

One great feature of many newer machines is the pressure dial. This allows a presser foot, in the lowered position, to be either raised or lowered even further. It is different to the presser foot lever that lifts the foot up. When sewing thicker fabrics or quilts, you can raise the foot up a little to allow for easier movement of the fabric under the foot when sewing. Alternatively, when sewing thin fabrics, the foot can be lowered even further so it has more contact with the fabric to move it through the machine. Always return the pressure dial back to its normal position after use, as it can affect stitch length and quality when sewing two standard pieces of fabric together.

Always quilt with a presser foot on the machine. When the needle is going so fast that you can’t see it, you’ll need the barrier a foot provides that you can see, so your fingers don’t get too close to the needle. It also stops the needle from getting stuck on the quilt, as it is coming out of the work.

It is always better to quilt with the machine’s pedal, rather than using the start/stop button on a computerised machine. This is because you have to take one hand off the quilt, maybe look up whilst still sewing, and press the button. If your other hand stops moving the quilt in anticipation of stopping the machine, you’ll end up with a bunch of stitches all sitting on top of each other. It may also put the hand that is on the quilt in danger of being sewn through whilst your eyes are off the work. A large quilt may need two hands on it at all times to prevent it from slipping off the table.

Start and stop quilting on intersections and change of direction points. Re-position your hands at these points too. Keep your fingers at least 1″ – 2″ away from the end or start of any line. This way, you do not have to re-position your hands when sewing a section, risking uneven stitches and dog legs appearing mid-line.

Remember to take breaks often, stretch, breathe, and drink water during the sewing session. Look out the window to exercise your long distance vision every 10 minutes or so.


Click here for the four step process I used when I learnt to quilt.


Happy quilting,


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