Staff Stories: Early Machine Quilting Confessions

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Machine quilting was definitely not in my vocabulary when it started gaining popularity, nor was it on my to-do list. I was a traditionalist, after all. Why would I “ruin” a quilt by machine quilting it?

Hand quilting was the way to go—that’s the way I learned, and that’s what I was going to do. And then life started getting in the way, and kids and a move…you get it. I was accumulating a lot of tops and not finding any time to hand quilt them.

So I took the plunge, but only quilted in the ditch—that was the easiest way to machine quilt, right? How was I ever going to do something like meander—without any lines to follow? I actually asked a friend to meander a border on a small quilt for me because I was too intimidated to do it myself.

And then I met Suzanne Hyland of Quilters Touch—machine quilter extraordinaire, designer of Machingers machine quilting gloves—at a quilt show in town.

Machingers Staff Stories: Early Machine Quilting Confessions

Machingers in action

She was demonstrating machine quilting for a local quilt store, and I was mesmerized. She was quilting all sorts of fun shapes—ferns, loops, meander, stars—easily (and without any lines to follow) on a domestic machine.

So I watched her, and watched some more, and thought that maybe it wasn’t so hard after all! I asked her about machine quilting and discovered that she taught classes. That’s all I needed to hear. I rounded up a couple of friends and drove to Suzanne’s house and took a lesson from her.

I think the biggest lesson I learned was that she doodles and doodles and doodles all sorts of quilting designs. She practices on paper before actually stitching on her sewing machine. She always has pen and paper handy to try out new designs and practice them. So I started keeping notebooks of quilting designs, and still do. Once I decide on a design, I practice, practice, practice on paper first.

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Graph paper doodling 1

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Graph paper doodling 2

Sometimes I just sketch out ideas to see if I like them. When I’m comfortable with the motion, I turn to a small quilt sandwich that I use to practice on the machine, and then I start quilting my quilt. Here are some closeups of a few of the quilts that I machine quilted.

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Quilt back – quilted a freeform sunflower

All my machine quilting now is free-motion.

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Loops and stars

I have never marked a design and then machine quilted it.

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Leaves and swirls

To be honest, I don’t think I ever will.

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Leaves and loops

That’s still too intimidating for me, but I do enjoy the freedom and flexibility that free-motion quilting allows. And it’s easy to improvise if I find myself quilted into a corner. My quilting still needs work, but I’m hoping to improve with the lessons that Natalia Bonner is providing for us throughout the year.

Do you practice your machine quilting on paper first? Please share how you get started with us.

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As part of Quiltmaker’s Year of Machine Quilting in 2014, staff members will share some of their early machine quilting experiences. Read more Year of Machine Quilting blog posts. Find more lessons, ideas and inspiration at

About Carolyn

I'm the Content Director for Quiltmaker magazine. I'm married with three grown sons and one adorable grandson.I've been quilting for over 30 years. I'm an avid quilter, but I also enjoy photography, scrapbooking, knitting, reading and hanging out with friends and family.
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21 Responses to Staff Stories: Early Machine Quilting Confessions

  1. Carol Baum says:

    I’ve been machine quilting for probably 20 years or more. Not bragging, just can’t remember just how many years ago it was. I have hand quilted my quilts but prefer machine quilting. My first quilts were okay, but I definitely was not happy with my quilting. I never gave up practicing, reading, and gaining knowledge of what makes a near perfect machine pieced quilt.
    I think the trick to successfully quilting your quilt evenly with free motion quilting is practicing doodling on paper until you have mastered the ability to draw or doodle into areas on paper and move out of them without breaking the consistency of size and pattern of your design. Sort of like knowing how to get of a tight space without overfilling it but being consistent.
    Too much quilt stitching and you end up with a stiff quilt. Larger quilting motifs or doodles make for a softer quilt. Study and practice designs from all the available motifs and doodles you particularly like.
    I quilt most of the time on an industrial machine with a quilting foot designed for free motion. Most home/domestic machines come with this foot and it is also available for industrial straight stitch machines. (I used my sewing machine to quilt for about 10 years before purchasing an industrial machine because of the large size harp and reasonable price.
    Lastly, but maybe it should be mentioned first, use new needles, change when you hear a change in sound of the needle quilting the quilt, adjust tension for each quilt before you begin by using a similar fabric-batting-fabric scrap.

  2. Cindy says:

    I had done a lot of doodling, and was pretty good at meandering, then I broke my wrist. Finally healed, tried just some simple loops today. I can no longer do it. I have to start all over. So my tip to you all out there, is to keep practicing even when you have nothing to quilt! Use those quilt sandwiches until they’re totally used up, unless of course you break something!

  3. Heather M says:

    I practice on a dry erase board usually, that way I can do the design over and over and I don’t use up too much paper.

  4. I’m so impatient, I don’t take the time to doodle first – I just jump right into quilting. This may not be the best method as I have ruined or near ruined more than one quilt. Perhaps I should give it a shot. Your leaves are to die for!

    • Carolyn says:

      A lot of times I’ll doodle while watching TV, so when I’m ready to quilt I’ve already been practicing for awhile.

  5. Béatrice says:

    Hi, from weeks now, I can’t acceed to the site, pages load & load and disapear… Have you a problem ? I subscribed digitaly Quilmaker but can’t see the web extra… Thanks for your answer.

  6. Margy Hill says:

    I’ve been free-motion machine quilting on my home machine for many years. I’ve also taught it. I always practice/warm up before I do a project. I use practice sandwiches for this, frequently made from the same fabrics in my project. I practice the designs I’m thinking of using and test out my needles and threads. I too do not mark my designs.

  7. Beth brown says:

    I have been terrified to machine quilt. I’ve tried a couple times and it ended badly. I have finally signed up for a class and intend to keep practicing until I am comfortable with it. Thanks for sharing your story!

    • Carolyn says:

      My class definitely gave me the confidence to try free-motion machine quilting. We all have to find whatever it is that works for us – classes, books, etc. Good luck with your class!

  8. Rachael Dorr says:

    Practice, practice and practice. I just got a longarm – keeping a diary of my progress at if anyone wants to come and laugh at me ;-)

  9. Susan P says:

    My first attempt at FMQ was a total disaster…then I found Quilting Made Easy and Borders Made Easy. My second attempt (using their papers) turned out a lot better and gave me the confidence I needed to keep trying. I have followed Leah Day on Youtube to help me also. My king sized quilts I take to the long arm gal…much easier to me!! Thanks for your post. Always helps to hear others experience.

  10. Briallenn Clearwater says:

    I want to encourage people to go ahead and try it on a quilt (or practice quilt) even if your doodling on paper looks like you’re not quite ready yet. I’ve discovered I am a much better quilter than I am a drawer. I’d put off using an allover feather design because it still looked so awful on paper even after lots of practice. Then I just went for it on a quilt and discovered I really could do it and it looked a lot better than what I’d been doing on paper. So for me a little practice on paper and then lots more practice on the sewing machine is what works!

  11. linda-kaye says:

    I’m no expert – but practice, practice, practice. Just take the plunge. Even if you s-i-d, do it free motion. The more you do it, you will become more confident and it will improve.

  12. Barb Johnson says:

    I have done a few quilts with straight-line quilting, a couple with stitch in the ditch and a few with a meandering pattern. I thought that I would like marking a quilt and following the lines, but I haven’t found a satisfactory way to mark the quilt top. Chalk rubs off, the ‘temporary’ marking pens aren’t always temporary. I like the idea of doodling to get the feel for a new meandering pattern.

  13. Greta says:

    Years ago I would fm quilt vest fronts for the little girls in the family but had issues with the backs puckering. I found out on a video that loosening the pressure on the pressure foot on my older machine made all the difference in the world. Now we are using darning feet and walking feet for the older machines… Not sure I am ready to start on a bed quilt yet.

  14. kate says:

    So the tip here is to go take a class?

  15. Joey says:

    I doodled on a dry erase board when I was first starting and now on graph paper in a notebook. I do have an app on my iPad that I take a picture of my quilt and doodle on the quilt to see what works or doesn’t work.

  16. Peg Spradlin says:

    I love unmarked free motion quilting because it’s so fast. But sometimes my mind doesn’t keep up with my hands and I’m not sure where to go next and with what design.
    When I mark the quilting on the top first, I can put my mind in neutral and just follow the lines. To me, that’s more relaxing than trying to think where to go next on an unmarked top. Using the patches and seams in a quilt also give me markers to go by when I’m quilting so that I don’t have to mark the top, but I have a path to follow.

  17. Linda says:

    I took a class from Angela Walters, who encouraged us to doodle. Although I used to doodle as a kid, I have not tried it for many years. I need these reminders – thanks!

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