Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Tips for quilting on a domestic sewing machine.

 1. Make the work surface slippery!   This helps the quilt to glide and means you don't have to support it's weight yourself. There are a couple of ways to do this:

• Use a spray like Mr Sheen liberally. I apply a few heavy coats over my entire sewing desk and leader table. I even apply it around the base of my machine being careful to apply to a rag first so it doesn't get inside the machine.

• Tape a teflon sheet or a commercial self adhesive quilting mat to your work area. (Sew-slip is one that springs to mind). If you use teflon cut a small hole for needle clearance.

 2.  Take up the weight!  If your quilt is large make sure you have something to your left to take up the weight, ideally the same height as you sewing table. This stops it dragging. If your sewing table is too narrow to have the entire quilt over it then position another surface behind. An ironing board lowered makes a suitable leader or behind the desk surface - even better if you can make the top of it slippery.

 3. Bunch your quilt.  Some people roll the quilt up leaving the work area flat, however i find this is bulky, adds too much weight, and if it hits anything your work will be very jerky. I prefer to gather it up leaving only the area you are about to work on flat - so it looks like the ripples of a pond when you throw in a pebble. This allows enough slack on every angle for you to move the quilt around without it dragging or catching.

 4. Stitch in the ditch tips:   This style of quilting is handy if you're not sure what design to do or lack confidence with free-motion, however I find it more difficult due to the need for accuracy. You can make it easier by using a 1/4 inch foot with a guide in the centre that runs along the seam line and by using a finer weight thread that's less visible if you do make a mistake. Mono-filaments (clear plastic threads) are now made in polyester and are softer and easier to sew with then the older nylon versions. However I like superior threads 'bottom line' - a very fine thread created for bobbin use but strong enough for quilting and even piecing. The khaki and ochre colours blend well with almost any mid coloured fabric.

For larger quilts only position a smaller section under the needle and sew to that point before moving the quilt and sewing again. This stops the drag pulling you out of line.

 5. Test!  Always check you current machine and thread settings on a test quilt sandwich that has similar batting and fabrics to what you are going to sew. I do this every time I have re-threaded the machine just in case there's a problem. This solves so much unpicking and allows you to fine-tune the tension as needed.

 6. Play!  For free-motion sewing always do a test with a few twists and turns, corners etc before sewing on your quilt. If you are going to do a set style be it stippling or a motif like a repeated leaf pattern make sure you do some of this style on your test to get into the swing of it.

Other free-motion tips are:

• make sure the top tension is lowered and that your bobbin isn't too tight either. The thicker the thread generally the looser the tension to allow movement without pulling on the thread.

• some threads break more easily then others, if you're wanting to use a thread like rayon or metallic don't be put off. Instead try a top-stitch needle which has a larger eye allowing it to have freer movment. A thread stand can also really help - even try putting the thread in a cup behind the machine and then feeding it through if you don't have one on hand.

• some machines are more finicky then others. Take the time to get the tension as perfect as possible on your test sandwich. Everything is easier from how hard you need to push the quilt around to how often your thread will break (hopefully not at all!) with correct tension.

 7. Get a grip!  Quilting gloves with rubberised finger tip pads really help - you can then lay your hand flat on the quilt and not have to have it in a vice like grip. There are also C shaped hoops available with handles and non slip rubber on the bottom that allow you to just place them on top of the quilt - then you just gently steer these about. Handy for people with arthritis and back pain.

 8. Good posture    prevents fatigue and pain. When you get tired you're more likely to make mistakes or try to do a rush job. A cushion behind to push your forward, a chair with arm rests adjustable to the sewing surface or even sitting on a fit ball can all help. Make sure the chair is at the correct height and use a foot rest for the presser foot if your desk is too high and you can set the chair to suit that.

 9. Take a break!    Look out the window and focus on something far away for a few seconds, shrug your shoulders or take a quick walk. I have an iron that beeps every 10 minutes, it's a good reminder for me to get out of the chair and walk over to it. It can be annoying (actually it often is!) but since I have a bad back it's invaluable too.

 10. Practice!   Really does make for much better quilting. Get used to the feel of the fabric and before you know it you'll immediately be able to tell if the tension is off, if you're sewing through more layers then you intended (it just feels different!) and get really smooth stitches.

 11. Choose the batting wisely.     I like full puffy quilts. However I sew on a standard size domestic sewing machine, so if i use something bulky, puffy or dense it can get stuck in the machine throat. For larger quilts I tend to use something like Matilda's own 100% cotton wadding. It's thick enough to still give evident quilting lines and washes well. It's thin enough that I can fit even a 2m wide quilt easily on my machine and still do creative free-motion quilting.

Hope these help! Let me know how you go, and if you've got tips to add please leave comments.



  1. Excellent tips Neroli

    I would add Rev Up/Warm Up
    Every time I stop, before I go back onto 'the quilt' I rage around for a bit on a practice sandwich, just to check I've got the spacing and tension still right. If I don't have a spare one, I just quilt over an old one.

    Helen from Hobart
    where Practice makes a tinsy bit closer to Perfect

  2. Neroli, Great advice. I find when ditch stitching to focus on the needle to ensure where the next stitch is going but when free machine quilting by eyes are always 1/2" ahead of the needle. Cheers Bronwen

  3. Good ideas both! I do the same with the practice sandwich and often end up with some interesting looking well sewn bits of fabric that be cut down to use for ATC's (Artist Trading Card), or book marks or whatever.

  4. I agree - great tips! Before I read them (while waiting for the page to load) I was thinking "what would my tip be?"

    I thought of the one about taking breaks, because I had to quilt a big quilt in a few days a few years back. I did it, but ended up in hospital needing back surgery afterwards! I already had back issues, but this really stuffed me up good.

    So maybe if you decide you are going to do a lot of quilting, allow a lot of time to do it - several days, with no more than a couple of hours each day, and plenty of breaks during that time. Don't rush!

  5. Hi Neroli

    This is a great summation of tips to help with machine quilting. Two more I would add are:

    Have your machine set down in a flat bed. I know this is not possible for everyone but last year I purchased a Sewezi table with an insert that fits around my Elna machine. I love it and tell anyone who will listen how much I love it and how I wish I had bought one years ago. And how much better it is to have the flat surface lower down (at elbow height). My neck is thanking me for it. I think a Sewezi table is a far better investment than a Horn cabinet. It is lighter to move around (in fact it is portable) and costs a lot less.

    The second thing I would say is to have an "L" shaped set up in a corner so the quilt does not fall down behind the machine or to the left of the machine. This means you only have to worry about the weight dragging at the front, not the back and sides.

  6. My tip would be to get into the habit of cleaning and oiling your sewing machine each time a bobbin empties. You don't realize how much fuzz and build up there can be. After a good wipe out with a brush and soft cloth (old, cut up t-shirt), followed by a blast of canned air, drop a spot of lubricant-oil (combination) on the hook race. My Bernina always thanks me for this, and rewards me with a low murmur of contentedness.

  7. Great tips Linda, I forgot to mention cleaning out around the bobbin, and i've found compressed air to be really handy - though make sure you have the can upright or you can blow moisture out (ask me how I know) :).

    One thing though some machines don't require oiling - my newer pfaff is one of them. They do get oiled when you take it in for a service but they advise against doing it yourself, so before oiling check your manual to see if it suits your machine.

    I love the 'low murmur of contentedness', put a great image in my mind of a sighing sewing machine. :)