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Quilting Basics Part 4- Quilting

Missed part 3? Check it out here

Your quilt top is all put together so it's time to do the quilting! Functionally, quilting is done by stitching through the quilt's layers to keep the quilt together, but it also can add dimension, visual interest, patterns, and texture to a quilt. You can do it by hand, on a home sewing machine, or a longarm machine. Another option is to have the quilting done by a longarm quilter. While there are numerous quilts pictured online that are certainly worth drooling over due to their quilting, adding a lot of quilting can take a lot of time. There is nothing wrong with keeping this step simple, especially for new quilters.

Steps for preparing the quilt layers for quilting:

  1. Press the pieced quilt top to ensure all seams are flat. Trim loose threads.

  2. Trim batting so that it is 3 inches wider that the quilt top on all sides. This means the batting will be 6 inches wider and 6 inches taller that the top. For example, batting for a 40" x 40" quilt would measure 46" x 46".

  3. Press the quilt back and trim loose threads. Trim backing to the same size as backing or slightly larger. The quilt backing must have straight edges and 90 degree corners for longarm quilting. If not, there will be uneven tension and possible puckering of the backing during quilting.

  4. If hand quilting on a hoop or quilting on a home machine, layer the quilt layers before quilting. Using a large flat area, place the quilt back with right side down. Next, place batting centered on top followed by the quilt top face up. Ensure every layer is smooth before placing the next layer. To keep everything in place, use a quilt basting spray between the layers, baste the layers by hand, use safety pins, or a price tag gun. My Grandma Louise's favorite method was the price tag gun, probably because it's a really fast and simple way to baste a quilt. The con of this method is that the tags are typically clear and hard to see. Be careful when machine quilting to avoid stitching through them and go over the quilt thoroughly after quilting to remove them all.

Hand Quilting

Developing the skill of hand quilting takes time. In the beginning, focus on making the stitches the same size, they do not need to be tiny. Even stitches will make the quilting shine. Choose a backing that has a pattern. This will help hide uneven stitches on the back. Using a quilting thimble on the index finger of your dominant hand to guide the needle, use a rocking motion to make a few stitches then pull the needle through. When quilting through areas with seam allowances, instead of rocking the needle, push it all the way through the layers, pull the thread, and then push the needle back up through all the layers. Alex Anderson is the queen of hand quilting. She's made books and YouTube videos that break hand quilting down and so you can see it in action.

Hand quilting can be done on a quilting frame or a large quilting hoop. Home frames are typically made of wood or PVC. They're usually designed to be easy to set up and take down so they can be stored when not in use. Depending on the frame, the quilt layers are placed one at a time on the frame or they're layered first then put on the frame.

Home Machine Quilting

The feed dogs of a home machine pull fabric under the presser foot and needle to make even stitches. Unless the quilting design is all straight lines and the layers are well secured together, the feed dogs need to be dropped for quilting. The feed dogs will pull the quilt bottom faster than the quilt top making the layers uneven. Use a darning foot or free motion quilting foot to create more visual space and allow for easier movement of the quilt sandwich. Adjust the tension of the machine so that the bottom thread and top threads meet in the batting of the quilt sandwich. If using the same color thread on top and bottom, uneven tension is less noticeable. Make a practice quilt sandwich to get the feel of moving the fabric through to make even stitches and to adjust tension. As in hand quilting, the goal is not small stitches but even stitches. It helps to machine quilt on a large table to provide support for the weight of the quilt layers. Dowels or pool noodles can be used for larger quilts to roll the areas of the quilt that are not being quilted to make the bulk more manageable and pull less. Using one side of the quilt rolled on a dowel allows the quilt to be fed through the machine's throat more easily. This way, the quilt layers are not bunched irregularly through the throat. Start quilting in the center section of the quilt and work outwards.

Longarm Quilting

A longarm machine is different from a home machine in four major ways. The first is throat size. The throat on a home sewing machine is typically 9 inches or less. A longarm throat is typically 18 inches or more. This extra space allows for more of the quilt available for quilting at once. This saves time as adjusting the quilt takes time. It also allows for larger patterns and less starts and stops.

The second difference is that the longarm machine is designed to move over the quilt instead of moving the quilt through the machine. To compare quilting to drawing, using a home sewing machine to quilt is like having a pencil affixed and moving the paper under it. A longarm is like moving the pencil over the paper while the paper stays in place.

Longarm frames load the quilt back and top separately on the frame's rods while the batting is placed between. The layers are not basted together prior to quilting. Quilting is starting at the top and worked down the quilt a section at a time. The extra length of the quilt backing is essential for longarm quilting as it is needed to attach the quilt to the frame. Ensure backing is prepared as described above for optimal results.

The final differences between home machines and longarm machines is price and portability. Because longarm machines are an investment, many quilters that own longarms, will offer quilting services for other people's quilts. Some longarm quilters will offer training and rent time on their machines if you want to use a longarm without buying one. Setting up a longarm takes a significant amount of time and space. Frames can be up to 12 feet long and 5-6 feet wide to accommodate large quilts. Quilting on longarms is done by free motion, meaning the quilter moves the machine or by computer. Free motion techniques use fillers, ruler work, and all sorts of swirls, loops, and feathers. Some for-hire longarm quilters choose a computer aided machine as it allows for faster, less labor intense quilting.

No matter what method works best for you, the trick with all of them is to quilt without muscle tension. It is easy to get tight with anticipation while quilting but keeping your hands, shoulders, and neck tight will only lead to pain and fatigue. Don't forget to breath and enjoy the process.

Quilting Patterns and Designs

Strategically, it is best to use quilting designs that are continuous. Meaning there are few starts and stops. Minimizing starts and stops minimizes knots in the quilt. Ideally, stitching is secured off the edge of the quilt for starts and stops and in the quilt when thread breaks or runs out. Quilting designs, even the complex ones are planned out to allow continuous stitching as much as possible. Sometimes lines are traveled over a second time to keep the design continuous. Additionally, quilting needs to be tight enough to hold all the layers together and prevent the batting from bunching when washed. Batting manufactures typically have a recommendation for a minimal distance between lines of quilting.

When choosing a design, I like to draw it with dry erase markers on a clear sheet of plastic and hold it over the quilt to get an idea of how it will look. Another technique is to draw the quilt layout on paper and draw quilting designs over it. For free motion quilting, I often practice drawing the design on paper without lifting my pen to get my mind to really understand how to complete the motion when I go to my longarm. Sometimes if I have a minute, I will draw designs even if I don't have a quilt ready for quilting. Practicing on paper adds up when you get to the quilt. Once I've planned out a design, I will then practice quilting it.

When picking a design, consider the type of quilting (hand or machine), technical difficulty, time needed to complete the design, and the quilt top's style. For example, modern quilts use solid colors and big shapes so simple straight lines are commonly used. I used this when quilting my quilt Many Moons. Baby quilts and quilts that are made to be used, often

use an edge to edge pattern also known as and all over or pantograph design. When I was longarm quilting for others, I used a lot of the edge-to-edge (pantograph) patterns from Urban Elementz. They are quick to quilt and look beautiful. Quilts made as wall hangings or for a quilt show often has been custom quilted, meaning the quilting is detailed and varied to add further design to the quilt.

Happy Quilting!!! The next post will discuss binding a quilt! Hope to see you soon!




Hi! I'm Jen, a quilt pattern designer and teacher. I founded Snapdragon Quilting in the spring of 2022 in memory of my beloved Grandma Louise, a skilled seamstress and crafter who grew beautiful snapdragons in her garden. I've been sewing for as long as I can remember and began passionately crafting quilts of my own creation in 2006. My quilt patterns bring bold and vibrant designs that blend traditional piecing methods with contemporary techniques. I love to play with color and contrast so you'll find lots of layout and color options in my patterns. Whether you're new to quilting or making your 100th quilt, you're in the right place, because here at Snapdragon Quilting, quilt patterns make sense. 

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