Machine Quilting

Don’t expect machine quilting to look like hand quilting! 

It is a great way to finish many things, and it is very attractive in its own fashion! It doesn’t need to imitate hand quilting. Look for interesting threads and techniques to make the machine quilting an important design element. 

Machine quilting takes time to learn and practice to do well. It will become easier and faster as you practice it, but at first it may seem awkward, and you may have trouble getting the tension and stitch length just right. Don’t give up early, and don’t start on your favorite quilt top.

Machine quilting requires the right tools. For straight lines and very gentle curves, use a walking foot. For the curved and stippling (free motion) patterns, use a darning foot. You will need to know how to lower your feed dogs. (Some machines have a little plastic cover for them instead.) In addition, it's helpful to be able to release or lower the pressure on your presser foot. Check your manual to see if you can do this. A flat bed for your sewing machine is very useful. This might be part of your sewing machine, or a special drop-in table, or you can buy or make one.

A clean machine is a happy machine. Begin by swabbing the accessible parts of your machine and bobbin casing with a soft paintbrush. Very long tweezers can reach into the machine to clean out threads that are caught or loose inside the machine. Get out all the lint and thread.
Wipe the exterior of the machine clean. Don’t use compressed air to clean your computerized machine.  Unless your  machine is specifically designed to be oil-free, you should oil your machine regularly. After oiling, wipe away the excess oil and sew through some scrap fabric to make sure it's all absorbed or removed.  

Replace your needle frequently. Schmetz makes needles designed for machine quilting or you can use a universal size 12 sharp. Your needle will dull faster if you use a polyester batt. You may require several needles to quilt a big bed quilt.

Machine quilting requires the same careful layering and basting as hand quilting. This is worth the time to do right. The long threads of hand basting are a real nuisance when you are machine quilting. Safety pins work  well, but you need to remove them as you quilt or sew around them. I like to use the Quilt-tak for both machine and hand quilting. It doesn’t leave such big holes as safety pins, and it takes a fraction of the time to baste a quilt! It's safer than safety pins, since nothing breaks if you stitch through one.  The Quilt Tak is more expensive than other brands of basting guns, but I have found it to be more reliable and less prone to breakage. 


  • Baste well!    
  • Lower the feed dogs while using the darning foot.
  • Reduce pressure on the presser (darning) foot.
  • Set your needle in the Stop Down position if you can.
  • Use sharp needles - change frequently.
  • Start at the edge or in a seam whenever possible.
  • Always draw the bobbin thread to the top of the quilt.
  • Hold both threads in your left hand when you start sewing.
  • Check the back of your quilt periodically.


Make a practice piece  (or two)

For your first attempts at machine quilting, use two pieces of cotton fabric, approximately 20" square. "Fat Quarters" work fine, but don't spend money on these pieces. Use your ugliest scraps.

Sandwich them with a cotton batt about the same size and use safety pins or the Quilt-Tak to baste the three layers together.

Use two different colors of thread (one for the top and one in the bobbin) so you can judge the tensions. Both colors should contrast with the fabrics you a
re using.

1997 Catherine Timmons
                If you found this article helpful, please feel free to print a copy for your personal use.   If you would like to publish it in your quilt guild newsletter or share it elsewhere, please                contact me for permission. 
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