Staff Stories: Early Machine Quilting Failures

staffstories eileen Staff Stories: Early Machine Quilting Failures

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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!

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My first quilt: The Rail Fence

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.

photo Staff Stories: Early Machine Quilting Failures 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!

photo9 Staff Stories: Early Machine Quilting Failures 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 . . .

photo4 e1389728599521 Staff Stories: Early Machine Quilting Failures 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.

photo1 e1389740147296 Staff Stories: Early Machine Quilting Failures When I quilted faster, the metallic thread would break. Look at those super teeny stitches! Ripping them out and starting over was not even an option.

photo5 Staff Stories: Early Machine Quilting Failures 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).

photo2 e1389730500967 Staff Stories: Early Machine Quilting Failures 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.

photo6 Staff Stories: Early Machine Quilting Failures My quilting has improved over the years. I still quilt most of my own tops–at least those that are smaller than bed size. And I have plenty of quilt tops to practice on. (Don’t ask me how many!)

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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.

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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

About Eileen Fowler

I am an Associate Editor at Quiltmaker. My quilting hobby, that began over 20 years ago, turned into a career when I was hired by Quiltmaker in 2008. My quilting passion is slowly taking over every nook and cranny in my house. I have a supportive husband who makes it all possible.
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10 Responses to Staff Stories: Early Machine Quilting Failures

  1. Denise G. says:

    My quilting teacher insists that we sew onto a small scrap of fabric before sewing our pieces together. Doing so prevents the needle from coming unthreaded– which can add unnecessary minutes to the project and drive u batty. I often resist this, thinking it’s an unnecessary xtra step, but it really is worth it and isn’t really time consuming at all!!!

  2. Madeline says:

    It was sooo nice to read your early machine quilting “failures”. First off, those are better than my first attempts. Actually, the size of my stitches is not so small, but not as regular, and my designs are not nearly so uniform! I have been practicing for about a year and a half, and have finally figured out that one of my biggest problems is that my machine (an antique portable) sits too high off the table, and the drag is hurting my efforts. A new table is not in the forseeable future, so I am sticking to small pieces like table runners and wall hangings. My New Year’s resolution is to try to get 3 queen size quilt tops quilted by hook or by crook. When I told a friend about it, she just offered to let my try my hand at her long-arm! I’m all enthused now!

    • Denise G. says:

      Hi! I have encountered the drag problem as well. My quilting teacher suggested making a level surface all around your machine with books, such as old encyclopedias. This allows your quilt to remain level as it goes through the machine, thus reducing drag. Hope that tid bit helps! I haven’t tried it yet, but definitely will!!

  3. Eugenia Read says:

    Thanks for sharing! I recently looked at my first thing I quilted ~ a Christmas table runner. Every time I’ve looked at it, I want to redo it.

  4. Jill Cooks says:

    I found that works for me as we’ll. I often use blendable thread (sulky cotton) that way it often blends with the top and bottom.

  5. I agree. Thanks for sharing your early experiences with us. I have successfully quilted with my regular machine, but have a difficult time getting the tension to cooperate. I wonder if it works to just have one sewing machine set up to only do quilting projects.

    I hand quilt and pass off baby quilts to be long arm machine quilted nowadays.

  6. Siobhan says:

    Thanks for sharing this! It’s nice to know I’m not the only one with hand-foot coordination issues! :)

  7. Peg Spradlin says:

    You covered a lot of excellent tips and we can all learn from your early mistakes-especially using metallic thread for one of your first free motion quilting tries. I still have no luck with metallics but I confess I haven’t tried that hard to master them.

  8. Jan Everett says:

    I am making the jump to a longarm; I never enjoyed quilted on a regular machine and knew I wanted the longarm option. I’m doing pretty well with freehand and pantos. The true challenge with it is tackling the mechanical issues as they arise. One has to be willing to problem-solve. When the machine goes wonky mid-quilt, that’s tremendously frustrating. The manufacturer (A-1 in my case) provides very good technical help and books, and if you’re willing to connect the dots, it’s not difficult, but it’s always trial-and-error.

  9. So glad you shared this! My favorite tip is to use matching thread in both top and bobbin. No matter how well the tension is set, this will help prevent those little pokies of thread from showing through!

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