Staff Stories: Early Machine Quilting Confessions

staffstories june Staff Stories: Early Machine Quilting Confessions
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For the longest time after I started making quilts, I tied them. The thought of hand quilting (takes too long) or machine quilting (looks too complicated) intimidated me. Now there’s nothing wrong with tying quilts. In fact, we have a tutorial on our website: Quilts Fit to Be Tied.

But the more quilts I made, the more I knew I wanted them to be quilted, not tied—I could see how much the actual quilting added to the overall design and I knew it would help my quilts last longer. My desire to learn to machine quilt overtook my fear of the unknown.

I started reading about machine quilting and realized it wasn’t as complicated as I thought.

The first book I bought was Machine Quilting Made Easy by Maurine Noble—because “easy” is what I was looking for, right? And I did pretty good with straight line quilting, using a walking foot. But I was intimidated by the idea of free motion quilting.

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Machine Quilting Made Easy by Maurine Noble

So I took a machine quilting class at my local quilt shop using that book and learned that quilting by machine can be really fun. I don’t know where my sample exercises are from this class anymore, but I do know it gave me confidence to move on to quilt my own quilt tops.

Of course, what I wanted to quilt next was a twin quilt top (actually two of them!) for Christmas presents for my nephews. Never one to start small and work my way up to a larger quilt, I wrestled with two bed sized quilts as my first real attempts at machine quilting.

First up was the Spiderman quilt. I decided to quilt spirals over the kaleidoscope blocks to create a web effect.

spiderman block Staff Stories: Early Machine Quilting Confessions

It may be hard to see, but some of my stitches were pretty long, some were very short, and occasionally, they looked pretty good.

spiderman detail Staff Stories: Early Machine Quilting Confessions

The even spirals in my mind wobbled quite a bit on the quilt. But I quilted it myself and my nephew never knew that the machine quilting wasn’t quite perfect.

Next up was the Outer Space quilt. I found “Celestial Overall” quilting design in 250 More Continuous-Line Quilting Designs by Laura Lee Fritz. I really like her pictorial designs and especially was drawn by the idea of continuous line designs so I didn’t need to lift the needle to begin a new design.

celestial quilting Staff Stories: Early Machine Quilting Confessions

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250 More Continuous-Line Quilting Designs by Laura Lee Fritz


I adapted this design so that I was quilting the moon, sun, star and planets into the corners of the star blocks.

space block Staff Stories: Early Machine Quilting Confessions

Again some of the faces were pretty good, and some were a bit wobbly. But this quilting was denser and I was very pleased with the overall quilting on this one, my second twin size quilt.

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Fast forward a few years after I began working at Quiltmaker . . . I ran into the book, Meandering Magic self-published by  Suzanne Earley. I really appreciate her method where she first quilts a giant meander and then uses that meander as a path or spine to add more quilting.

 Staff Stories: Early Machine Quilting Confessions

Meandering Magic by Suzanne Earley


A few years later, my nephews had each made their own quilt tops for the bunk beds in their camper. A bit smaller than a standard twin size, I used Suzanne’s method and was very happy with how both of these turned out.

First the Wildfire quilt with a giant meander and then flame quilting using the meander as a spine to follow (roughly shown in black).

wildfire quilt Staff Stories: Early Machine Quilting Confessions

Then the Ocean Waves quilt with a giant meander (again shown in black) and echoing lines around the spine. There are some similarities to the Spiderman quilting, but this time I knew to quilt the lines closer together and achieved denser quilting over this one.

oceanwaves quilt Staff Stories: Early Machine Quilting Confessions

While I appreciate the beauty of intricate and precise quilting, when I’m quilting for myself, I like the freedom and improvisation that comes from quilting overall designs and freehand motifs without marking. I’ve learned that the more I practice, the more pleased I am with the results.

My next challenge? I know how to write “. . . quilt beautiful feathers . . .” in a pattern, but I can’t quilt beautiful feathers. I’m looking forward to improving my quilted feathers when Quiltmaker’s Year of Machine Quilting gets to feathers. What part of quilting challenges you? Leave a comment and let us all know.

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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 June Dudley

I'm the Editor-in-Chief of Quiltmaker magazine. I have enjoyed quilting for many years. And I love to collect fabric, thread, books and all things quilty. I especially like batiks, bright colors, florals, dots, stripes and anything purple or teal.
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36 Responses to Staff Stories: Early Machine Quilting Confessions

  1. Vickie says:

    I enjoyed your article. I started quilting about 4 years ago. I have tried machine quilting with the walking foot and without a walking foot. I am always dissatisfied with the way the back looks. It always looks puckery. I have tried taping it to the table before I pin it. I have tried basting it, putting lots of lots of pins in it to keep it taut but nothing seems to work. One of my friends told me that some puckering is normal, but what is some other opinions or suggestions? Now, I just use stencils and hand quilt everything. It takes longer but at least it isn’t puckering. but, like you say, the denser the quilting is the better it looks and the way I do it, it’s not very dense. Just enough to hold it together and look ok. thanks for you help.

  2. Cathy Martin says:

    I do FMQ a bit wobbly, but I just figure that is part of the design process. Our grandson, age 8, just made a table runner (because Gramma does). He wanted to free motion quilt. So I explained it and gave him a practice piece. It was beautiful! He did his table runner and everyone thought I did it. Actually his first piece was better than anything I have done after 5 years! He didn’t know it was hard, I guess! Thanks for sharing. We all have to start somewhere. I think we are all too hard on ourselves.

  3. judy says:

    Hey there June!
    I am amazed reading your story! It could almost be , word for word, MY story! I have been attempting machine quilting, too, because I want to do my own quilting. I am learning to overcome my fear of “lines too squiggily” in the practice and learning process. Practice definitely does make perfect (or…maybe not so much, yet:) I enjoyed reading your article!

  4. I’m so glad that I recently updated my websites with correct links for purchasing the PDF version of “Meandering Magic.”

    I’m tickled to be included in your post, June. I was recently looking through some of my early work, and it’s pretty interesting to see (a) how much I’ve improved, thanks to that all important word: PRACTICE and (b) how much my style has changed.

    I have TONS of respect for anyone that does any thing more than straight line quilting on their domestic sewing machine. Good luck as your year of machine quilting progresses!

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  6. Kathy Till says:

    I tied my first quilt as I just was clueless of all that was involved in machine quilting. Since then I managed to do a stitch in a ditch queen turning 20 quilt for my granddaughter. Now I am trying to get into more free motion quilting. Thanks for the magazine articles on quilting the tops ourselves on our home machines.

  7. Laurie says:

    Thanks so much for your answers to my questions ladies. I am definitely going to try machine quilting. Before I do I am going to see if a walking foot is even available for my machine. I sure hope so. Happy quilting.

  8. Linda Baker says:

    Yes Laurie, machine quilt before applying binding. I have just finished my first free motion quilt. I did do some stitching using the walking foot and the stitches on my machine. I have watched Leah Day for ideas. Also, I pin baste. I am really enjoying learning free motion quilting but not the ripping. :-( … Yes, I’ve had to do some ripping. Seems if I relax, I can do the movements easier. Good luck, Have Fun!!!!

  9. Cheryl Leabo says:

    I’m glad to see an emphasis on the home machine for quilting! The price of a longarm is out of range for so many. I’ve made quite a few quilts- baby to twin size- on my home machine. Getting those stitches an even length is the one thing I have a bit of trouble with–even with hours of practicing, the smallest distraction (like a cat jumping up in your lap-lol) can wreak havoc on your consistency. I keep watching for a company to come up with a stitch regulator that will work on a home machine–one of these days!

    • June Dudley says:

      There are stitch regulators available for domestic sewing machines now. They are often an additional accessory and you’ll still have a learning curve to use them well. Google “stitch regulator” with the brand of your sewing machine to see if there’s one available that works for you. However, most of them are for use with the machine mounted onto a frame.

  10. Peg Spradlin says:

    Yes, you should baste your entire quilt before machine quilting. And start quilting from the center out. I use safety pins spaced 3 to 4 inches apart to baste my quilt, but some use aerosol basting spray and some use needle and thread to baste.

  11. eve elliott says:

    You are so brave to share your work with us. Mine would be hidden from the world! LOL

  12. Laurie says:

    Thank you so much for your story of how you started machine quilting. I truly appreciate everyone’s experiences and tips too. I am new to making quilts and technically I make comforters because they’re tied not quilted.
    My arthritis in my hands does not allow me to do hand quilting therefore I have to tie them. I would love to machine quilt them but am very uneasy about it especially on bed size quilts. So I have yet to try it. Am I correct in thinking the machine quilting is done before the binding is attached? Do you baste your entire quilt first before machine quilting or do you just safety pin it? I would appreciate any advice you can give.

    • June Dudley says:

      The finishing order is:
      1. Mark any quilting motifs or guidelines
      2. Baste your quilt (you can pin baste, thread baste or spray baste). Watch for more info coming soon in QM’s March/April ’14 issue–and we’ll have more in-depth info on basting as we go through the year.
      3. Quilt it.
      4. Bind it.
      I’d encourage you to start small with a table runner or crib size quilt and then work your up to larger quilts as your skills and confidence grow.

  13. Karena says:

    I am very happy you are doing this. I always get discouraged when it comes to the quilting part of my quilts. I want to do it myself, not have someone else do it. I don’t have room or funds for a long arm. My issue is keeping the stitches the same length. Sometimes they are very small and when I try to slow down, they look horrible. Do you have any suggestions?

    • Peg Spradlin says:

      Karena, it mostly takes practice to get those even stitch lengths. Many hours of practice (< :
      It sometimes helps me to listen to music with an even beat. Take deep, even breaths, and try to match the speed of your hand motion with the speed of your machine. And Quiltmaker will be publishing more suggestions during their year of machine quilting.

    • June Dudley says:

      Thanks for your answers Peg. Another idea that I find helpful is to slow down the speed of my machine (if it has a speed setting)–then I can press the foot pedal all the way down without having to think about it. I can concentrate on my hands. It takes a bit of practice to find a good setting–I’d go slower with a more intricate design–but I can’t go too slow or it doesn’t look good at all.

  14. Betsy says:

    Hi June! I just found your blog and I am glad I did. I am just getting into machine quilting, I recently took a class using a walking foot and even though I have an old machine and had trouble with tension settings I really enjoyed the class. Now they are offering a Free Motion Class. What type of foot will I need for Free Motion. Also, is there a better thread to use. I am a novice so I hope my questions don’t sound silly. Thanks for your help.

    • Peg Spradlin says:

      Betsy, tell your sewing machine dealer that you want to try free motion quilting-they should have a foot that will allow you to do that.

      As far as threads, I tell my beginner students to use a 50 weight thread-the smaller thread doesn’t show mistakes as much as a larger thread.
      Also, use a good quality thread to minimize breakage and skipping.

  15. greeta says:

    You are an inspiration. I still have to use the paper”Quitting Made Easy” to stick to my quilt but am adding flourish etc to it. One baby step at a time.

  16. Peg Spradlin says:

    I took machine quilting classes about 10 years ago at a retreat sponsored by Harriet Hargrave. The purpose of the retreat was to learn to use your domestic sewing machine to quilt any size quilt. I loved it from the word go, never looked back, and have never felt the need for a long arm. So don’t let not having the room or money for a long arm stop you from machine quilting your quilts. Or look into a sit down style long arm machine. They don’t take up as much space, have a much larger throat, and you still get to move the quilt instead of the machine when quilting, which is what I prefer.

    • June Dudley says:

      Thanks for sharing your experience Peg–your quilting has inspired me since I started working at Quiltmaker. I know you intentionally spent a lot of time learning and practicing your quilting. (Peg is one part of our sewing team and she makes many of the quilts you see in Quiltmaker.)

  17. Colette says:

    June, our stories sound so parallel to one another. My hand quilting skills do not exist since I have a disfigured thumb and while I love to quilt on my DSM, anything beyond wall hanging size puts me over the patience edge. My newest conquer will be learning how to tackle my new long arm. So far it’s been pretty fun and am looking forward to getting that practice piece off soon so that I can actually “use” it to its fullest.

  18. Hey June….. I teach…. :-D

    • June Dudley says:

      And you can quilt exquisite feathers . . . truly I know it’s like every other aspect of quilting–I can’t quilt beautiful feathers until I’ve practiced my through the ugly ones :-)

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  20. Linda says:

    Thank you so much for publishing the photos of your early quilting! It is very encouraging to see that you didn’t start out perfect but that you gave yourself credit for quilting, however imperfect it might have seemed. Being hard on myself is something I am working on, and your words struck just the right note with me.
    Learning to FMQ has been daunting. The first time I tried it I fully expected to do it just as I had seen others on videos doing it. It was neither easy nor fun as it had been promoted, and I was especially unhappy with the back side stitching, which was nothing but eye-lashing. For a long time I did nothing, then I finally read a suggestion to have a glass of wine before trying it – lol! I tried it, saw some improvement, and actually enjoyed it a little. Beringer to the rescue! ;) Since then I have often mostly done walking foot quilting with a little bit of FMQ thrown in. I often refer to's 31 Days of Walking Foot Quilting and find it very helpful.

  21. So glad you are promoting the art of machine quilting. It’s my favorite part of making a quilt!

  22. I have a hard time “wasting” fabric on practice. I know it is not WASTING, but still! It uses up the fabric. Finally, I conquered that by making placemats and practicing my machine quilting there. It is still hard for me to make myself commit to machine quilting something when hand quilting has always been my best method.

  23. Jocelyn says:

    I have a difficult time staying consistent. Machine quilting on my domestic sewing machine is very challenging.

  24. Cathryn says:

    All of machine quilting is still a daunting prospect to me. I hope to get more practice, but it’s hard when I don’t own a long arm and only get the chance to use one every two years at a friend’s house when I visit her.

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