The four step process
Learning to quilt takes four steps: speed, even stitches, smooth curves, and accuracy. Don’t expect to achieve them all at once. Concentrate on one at a time. Once you have achieved that, then choose another to work on. Break down the learning process into 5 minute sessions, for example, if working on creating even stitches, don’t bother with accurately trying to follow a line. Practice quilting as often as you can when learning. Always have a practice quilting sandwich on hand so you have no excuse. The quicker you get through the learning curve, the more you’ll fall in love with quilting. You’ll want to finish off all of your UFOs and practice on your friends’ quilts too. You’ll also want to try all sorts of designs, explore texture and take your quilts to a new level with quilting.
Speed: Unthread your machine and put your foot on the pedal. Listen to the sound of the motor at different speeds around the half speed mark. Start and stop often, and try to get back to the same speed as soon as possible. Once you’ve found a speed you are comfortable with, move onto another speed. When following a line, you’ll tend to sew at a slower speed. When quilting a filler design, you’ll probably sew at a faster pace. Some machines know when there is no thread in the machine and will only take a dozen or so stitches before a note pops up on the computer screen letting you know that there is no thread. Whilst annoying when deliberately sewing with no thread, still do this before starting your quilting session. You may be able to disable that feature. You’ll find you’ll get into ‘the zone’ quicker, and get more out of your session, especially when you want to concentrate on even stitches. Before too long, you’ll be able to pick a speed and naturally adjust your hand movements to match. It’s important to listen to the sound of the machine.
Even stitches: Quilt a row or two of stitches (after rethreading the machine) with the walking foot. Make the stitch length about what you would roughly sew when quilting a design. Free-motion quilt parallel and close to each line, in both directions mimicking the stitch length. Slow the machine speed almost to the point that you couldn’t make a smooth curve (if you quilted one). This speed allows you to get hypnotised by the needle’s rhythm and able to move the quilt in time when the needle has come out of it, and just concentrating on the stitch length. When you have developed a rhythm, move onto sewing curves at this speed. Try other stitch lengths and in all directions when you’re ready. Going side to side is hard as we’re used to sewing back and forth. You’ll need to practise going in the direction that is blinded by the presser foot. Although we move the quilt to avoid sewing in directions we can’t see well, there may be times when it’s not worth shifting the quilt or can’t move it due to the bulk of the quilt under the harp.
Once you get comfortable with this exercise, take it up a notch by practising your starts and stops for 5 minutes at a time until you are able to start and stop sewing at the speed you’ve been practicing. If you find you are getting a run of small stitches when coming to the end of the line, you’re probably too scared to stop as you’ve built up a great speed and don’t want to lose momentum. Then have a play quilting loops or something else. I recall this being one of the hardest exercises for me to achieve. At the time I had a mechanical machine that didn’t really have a speed control on it so getting a controlled speed was pretty difficult. If I’d learnt on a computerised machine, I think I would have got it a lot quicker. One thing I tell people with a stallion (that’s my affectionate name for mechanical machines) is that you’ll get your quilts quilted quicker!
Smooth curves: This is just a case of getting used to moving the quilt under the machine. Quilt your name, curves, loops and spirals. The key to achieving smooth stitches is a case of matching your hand movements to the speed of your machine. If you are getting large stitches or points in your curves, either your hands are moving too fast, or your machine speed is too slow. In this case, skip back to working on even stitches for a couple of minutes and then return to practising your curves. Take note of whether you’re hands are slipping. If so, try a pair of gloves with good rubber grips or a piece of rubber shelf liner 6″ x 4″ in size under each palm. I have found when teaching I can tell when the student’s hands are slipping but they don’t notice until they try some gloves or liner.
By practicing the even speeds before tying the smooth curves, you’ll find you’ll get less, or eliminate sharp points in your curves as you’re not going to fast when changing direction.
When you are familiar with these three concepts, it’s time to put them together. Whilst you’ve been practising, you will have found that after a couple of minutes of continuous quilting, that you will have struck a rhythm, where your hand speed is matching your motor speed and smooth curves are appearing. You are in the zone. Then you discover that either your hands are too far away or too close to the needle, or you are about to run over a pin, and you have to stop to re-position your hands. This means that you’ll have to find that machine speed and movement again which may take another couple of minutes. Yes, this is annoying, so it’s worth practising many starts and stops in a five minute session by quilting a series of loops, stopping and starting in between each one.
If you have been ending a line of stitching with several small stitches, it is because you are anticipating stopping that line of stitching and your foot hasn’t come off the pedal yet. It’s almost like you are too scared to stop. Recognise this and work on it. As with walking foot work, remember to push down on the quilt a little firmer when starting and stopping a section of quilting to prevent dog legs occurring. Still allow the quilt to move under the needle.
Accuracy: Some beginners (okay, me, when I was a beginner…) follow a marked line quite slowly, making really small stitches because they are too scared of going off the line. The more practice you do, the better you’ll get. Allow yourself to make mistakes during the learning journey. It’s okay. I was more of a Picasso than a da Vinci in the beginning! It’s all about getting to know where the needle is going to fall within the sides of the foot. It’s also okay to use the marked line as guide only, if that is what the quilt calls for.
Some beginners are better at following a line than doing unmarked quilting.
Where was I when that gene was handed out?
If you are travel, or double stitching over a line, aim to put the needle in the same hole as the previous line of stitching. Hard to do, but worth it if you want to develop accuracy, just remember you are not a robot. The other secret to following a previous line of stitching is to sew the first line at the same speed you will sew the second line. Quilters tend to sew the first line faster than the second. At the point where they are going to start going over the line again, they instantly change their motor speed and hand movements, whilst trying to concentrate on following the line. By sewing at a constant speed, you’ve already got the speed and hand movements in place and just have to concentrate on following the line.
Now take a look back at the work from the start of the session and compare it with that from the end of the session. Look at it objectively. Are there any areas that need improvement? What happened in that area and how can it be improved upon in a 5 minute session? Did a dog leg appear in a line of stitching when you took your hands off the quilt and your foot off the pedal before the machine completed its last stitch? In this case, practice keeping your hands on the quilt until the needle has stopped. In any case, give yourself a pat on the back – you are learning a new skill.
Please excuse the lack of images, these notes are from my machine quilting class notes where I show students the exercises. It’s on my list to do a video this year about these exercises so watch out for it in the future.
When I learnt to quilt, I had a great teacher in Lee Cleland so when I got home, I analysed everything she taught me and broke it down into what I call a four step process. When I started teaching machine quilting, I taught my process and every student I have had has learnt much faster than I did because of it. I hope these exercises give you the confidence to get through the learning curve.