Machine Quilting for the First Time, Part 1: Finding Inspiration for Quilting

This post is part 1 of the Machine Quilting for the First Time series; click here to read Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5.

machine-quilting-first-time-part-1-motifsUntil a year ago, every bed or throw quilt I made was completely stitched by hand—from piecing the blocks to quilting the layers and adding the binding. It was important for me to give a gift from my heart and hands with my quilts. I admit it. I was a hand-quilting snob.

When I began working at F+W Media as an Associate Editor for Quiltmaker and McCall’s Quilting I walked into another world. Every day I see incredible quilts arriving for our publications. Each and every one is beautifully machine stitched and awe-inspiring. I finally had to admit that I really needed to change my mind about machine quilting. I finally got it; a quilter can do so much with a machine. Machine quilting has opened doors to even more inspiration and creativity.

So, over the last year, I’ve become hooked on machine piecing quilts. I’ve joined the ranks of the quilt-by-check set, sending my quilts to mid and longarm quilters for finishing. Along the way, as a student of history, I also became fascinated with quilting plans, motifs, and their evolution. And now, I’m at a crossroad. I continue to get this little niggle in my head telling me that I need to learn machine quilting. There are benefits, the best one being I could totally own my creation again. And, because it’s a logical next step in my creative journey as a quilter. With this series, I’m going to get started by exploring the basics of identifying what to quilt and how to quilt it on a domestic sewing machine.

Where do I start? I am a self-directed learner. You’re probably one too. This simply says that when we want to learn something new we tend to think about the specifics of what we want to learn, identify our end goal and set out to find resources to help us reach the goal. This is the same approach I took to learn to quilt many years ago. I attended classes at my local quilt shops, went on retreats, read books and magazines and found local quilters for inspiration and guidance. Now, I’m taking the same approach to gain knowledge about quilting plans, motifs, and machine quilting. I invite you to join me on the journey.

Finding Inspiration: Fabric Design

Back in the day, quilters often took a functional approach to quilting a top and its layers with simple stitches and designs. After spending time in England, learning the extensive history of original needlework and seeing the most exquisite embroidery, I’m convinced quilting motifs evolved from these early fiber artists. Elaborate decorative stitching in quilts became more evident during the Victorian era. Fast track to today. From the evolution of the sewing machine to embroidery machines and a longarm specific for the purpose of quilting, we now see the historic embroidery-inspired swirls of stems, feathers, flowers and intricate detail in our quilts. There is an explosion of digital quilting motif designs available to us. Let’s face it; we’re more aware of the stitching that binds our quilts today. Quilters have also discovered a quilting plan is yet another extension of the creativity in the quilts we make.

I’ve learned that before I begin quilting the layers of my quilt together I need to identify a quilting plan. A quilting plan can include the motif for individual patches, blocks or simply an allover motif that will cover the entire quilt top. Furthermore, I’ve noticed that I can get really stuck on the mere identification of a quilting plan. I often struggle to find inspiration.

Sometimes the inspiration is close at hand. I’ve often heard the phrase, “the fabric spoke to me,” (of course, it’s typically telling me to purchase it). In the case of selecting a quilting motif, the fabric can provide the inspiration for a quilting plan.

I’ve selected these two fabrics from Robert Kaufman to illustrate my point. One of the fabrics includes gentle swirls to form a leaf design, the other a familiar floral design. Take a look at the quilts in this issue of Quiltmaker. Scott Flanagan picked up a leaf pattern from one of the fabrics in Malachite on page 10. Wendy Sheppard selected one of the floral paisley swirls she saw in the fabric of her Highland Roses quilt on page 20.


Getting Started

I began my research on free-motion quilting by talking to several co-workers and searching the web for articles on the topic. To get even more detail about the skills I need to develop I also picked up a few books. I studied still photos and watched videos to actually see how it’s done. I found two valuable resources right off, Free-Motion Quilting Workbook (affiliate link) by Angela Walters and I enrolled in the Craft U class taught by expert Angela Huffman, Express Lane to the Free-Motion Highway. I found the class through And for inspiration and incentive, I also perused the Quiltmaker collection Quilting Motifs, an extensive resource of quilting designs.

My research led to two keys for successful free-motion quilting: visualization and creating muscle memory. I read that the greatest skill for quilting motifs is to know where to go next while quilting a design. I have to keep the machine needle quilting in the pattern I want to create. And, the best way to develop this skill is by sketching a pattern on paper. Through this repetitive motion, my brain is taught how the design will flow. I don’t have to be artistic to do this; the purpose is to train my brain so it visualizes the design as I direct the machine needle and thread over the fabric.

machine-quilting-first-time-part-1-3Here are a few examples of my practice sketches that were inspired by fabrics I showed earlier. (Notice, they aren’t as perfectly shaped as the fabric. It’s O.K.)

I discovered it’s important to repeat the shapes of the motif, filling the page without lifting my pencil, as if I’m actually quilting the design. As I sketched, if I lifted my pencil I was really stopping the machine and would have to start a new line of stitching, without it showing. And, you can imagine what a pain that is! The flow needs to be continuous, and it takes repetitive tries to get into the groove of the flow.

machine-quilting-first-time-part-1-4At first, with a tight grip on my pencil, my markings felt very stiff as I tried to get control and exactly copy the design. Then, somewhere around the 8th page of trials, I felt myself relax and let it flow. I think it was also about then that I discovered free-motion quilting really is a lot like drawing doodles. I probably won’t ever be one of those quilters that can create precise shapes. And, I also need a larger drawing pad to keep the flow moving.

My childhood piano teacher told me at every lesson, “Practice. Practice. Practice. It’s the only way to play well and enjoy your music.” I think I’ll practice these designs some more; and then, I’m off to my machine.

Leave a Reply