Machine Quilting For The First Time, Part 2: Take Time to Prepare

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

machine-quilting-take-time-to-prepare-patternLayer and baste together the backing, batting and quilt top.

We use these words, or similar ones, in every Quiltmaker pattern. There is a whole lot of action that goes into this direction, more than these mere ten words convey. As the next step in my journey to learn how to quilt on a domestic sewing machine I spent some time learning all that is involved to follow this simple direction—which is extremely important to achieve the desired quality and beauty of a finished quilt. In parts 2 and 3 of this series I’m going to share some key points I’ve learned about quilting tools, those I need to consider first: my sewing machine and selecting needles, thread and batting. I’ll also share my notes about the quilt sandwich of backing, batting and quilt top, and the process of getting it ready before I start quilting. I’ll continue to share my notes in the next part of the series to talk about basting.

Sewing Machine, Table Top and Presser Feet

Any domestic sewing machine can be used for straightline quilting. For free-motion quilting it’s helpful to have a straight-stitch throat plate that helps the thread move easier through the three layers of the quilt. It’s also helpful to have a stitch regulator, although not necessary. A regulator controls the sewing speed and helps regulate the stitches as the sandwich moves across the sewing surface while quilting.

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Sewing machine manufacturers often include an option to purchase a table for their machine, or an extension table that slides up to the machine like the one shown. I’ve used my table for piecing and can already testify that having a large flat surface really helps to support the weight of a quilt top, particularly making it easier to manage while I’m sewing on borders, fighting to keep the quilt center collected near my machine so I’m not sewing crooked, while everything wants to slide to my lap and onto the floor.

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Most types of quilting can be easily accomplished with two presser feet, a walking foot to handle straight-line stitching and an open-toe foot (a.k.a. darning foot) for free-motion quilting. A walking foot moves the fabric more smoothly under the needle, stabilizing it for more control of precise stitches. A free-motion foot, with feed dogs lowered, moves the quilt layer more freely under the needle, providing the freedom to make freeform shapes like curves and circles.

Needles and Thread

I made a note that I should start each quilting project with a clean machine (free of lint ) and a new needle. Needles dull quickly when sewing through layers of fabric. When stitches start skipping the most likely culprit is a misshapen needle. There are three popular types of domestic machine needles for quilting: quilting, embroidery and topstitch.

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A quilting needle is slim, has a tapered point and a slightly stronger shaft for stitching through layers of fabric and across intersection seams. This needle is ideal for machine piecing and quilting. The topstitch needle has an extra sharp point and the eye has a groove to accomodate heavier threads. And, the embroidery needle has a larger eye and is made for heavy stitching with embroidery or decorative threads. I’ll add a note here about needle selection. Needles are made from different metals. Several needles have recently become very popular. Titanium nitride needles last up to 5 times longer than ones made of chrome-plated steel. Microtek sewing machine needles are terrific for piecing and quilting tightly woven fabrics, like batiks.

It’s important to have the correct needle size for the thread. Broken threads are most often caused by using the wrong size of thread for the needle. I read many recommendations to use the same thread (and color, too) on the top and in the bobbin as a beginning quilter. It’s easier to check to make sure the tension is good if they are the same. I’ve listed a guide for choosing the correct sewing machine needle and thread. Please note these are American sizes.

  • #100/16 size needle for heavy 30 weight threads
  • #90/14 size needle for medium 40 weight threads
  • #80/12 size needle for fine 50 weight threads
  • #70/10 size needle for very fine 60 weight threads

A word about tension: It’s important to make sure the machine stitching is even on the quilt top and on the backing, without loops or puckers. I test my machine’s stitches on a small sample of the fabrics I’m going to stitch together before I begin piecing or quilting.

Layer and Baste

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The layer of quilt top, batting and backing is often referred to as the quilt sandwich. The filling of the sandwich is the batting. The degree of texture we see in a finished quilt is determined by the loft of the batting (weight and thickness of its fibers) and the amount of quilting stitches in the design. A high loft batting makes a fluffier quilt. A low loft batting is easier to machine quilt and gives a flatter appearance. The batting and quilting design need to align to get the desired effect.

I have a couple more notes to share about preparing the batting for quilting. Batting needs to lie smooth between the top and backing, to not cause puckers or wrinkles while quilting. If a packaged batting is used, it should be removed from the package and allowed to “rest” before placing it in the quilt sandwich. I’ve read recommendations to lay it flat for several days, iron it or tumble dry with very little or no heat to ensure a flatter batting. One more thing, while we are on the subject of smooth and wrinkle elimination, it’s also important to make sure the quilt top and backing have been pressed. A few quilters told me to spray the backing with starch, because it makes the sandwich easier to move around on the table of a domestic machine.

I could fill a whole article about batting; there’s more to learn about the various fibers used for batting—just by reading the package labels. I’ve chosen Warm & Natural from The Warm Company to use for my quilting projects because I like the texture and weight it gives to my quilts. I encourage you to learn more about all the batting choices on the market to select the right one for you.

To be continued…

Ok, I’ve run out of space again, so please look for my article in the next issue. I plan to continue my exploration of what I need to do to prepare for quilting on my domestic machine— basting and marking a quilting motif. See you next time!

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