I’ve been sewing most of my life. So how difficult could it be to machine quilt?
My sister Sam and I sailed through our first five beginner quilting classes together way back in 1990. Sam pieced up an Irish Chain in pinks, and I made a simple Rail Fence. Unfortunately, we missed the final quilting class thanks to a cruel Colorado blizzard. We knew we needed to layer and baste the three layers. Beyond that, we were lost. It took some time and research before we were ready. But we’re skilled sewists, we could do this!
My quilting plan was to stop and start as little as possible. I mapped where I would stitch in the ditch diagonally across the quilt. I chose invisible thread and attached my walking foot. You can see in the photo below that the quilting was awful. There were puckers everywhere! I didn’t have a lot of pins for the basting and I thought I didn’t need them. Boy, was I wrong. Polyester batting is rather slippery.
I still used the quilt. But it was a long time before I was brave enough to make another. Sam wasn’t too happy with her results either and immediately gave away the quilt she dubbed “The Big Pink Pot-Holder”.
When I was ready to jump back in, I decided to make a few smaller projects: placemats. To ensure better results, I used a cotton batting and I basted with both adhesive spray and pins (not recommended unless you like sticky safety pins). Then I stitched in the ditch with regular thread. It worked! I had this straight stitch-in-the-ditch thing mastered!
I had so much confidence that I chose metallic thread for my next quilt. This would include my first stab at free-motion quilting. What the heck was I thinking? The sparse straight stitching around the blocks looked fine . . .
but the free-motion motif was a frustrating mess. Free-motion quilting is like drawing a picture by moving paper under a stationary pencil. At the same time you’re doing this sort of reverse drawing, your foot is controlling the speed of the needle. It was almost more than my brain could handle. (I can hardly walk and chew gum at the same time!) The slower I went in an attempt to gain control, the worse it looked.
In hindsight, I wish I had used cotton thread. I didn’t realize the challenge I was facing with that metallic. It probably wasn’t even meant for quilting. This project could also use a lot more quilting.
Not long after that, I made a Snowball quilt. I found the perfect motif for the big white patches and carefully marked the blocks. To get a handle on the continuous line path, I practiced on an ugly fabric sandwich (why waste nice fabrics?). Invisible thread was used on the top and a purple thread on the bottom (to match the backing, of course).
Can you see the purple thread poking up to the top? Another fail. The tension was off and my needle was too big for invisible thread. Guess I didn’t learn this lesson when I quilted the Rail Fence. My practice sample would have served me better if I had used the same fabrics and batting. My stitches are still on the tiny side, but they look fairly even.
I’ve learned a lot from these early fails. I learned to baste well. I take the time to make samples from the actual fabrics and batting to test tension and I practice quilting the motifs before I work on the quilt. I use the appropriate needle for the selected thread.
I constantly look for new tools and techniques to improve my skills. And, by doing these things first, I’ve learned to enjoy the process.
What lessons in machine quilting have you learned the hard way? If you have a machine quilting tip, share it with us in a brief comment.
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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 quiltmaker.com/machinequilting.