Top Tips for Machine Quilting Success

Truth: when I first began quilting I mostly pieced tops and avoided the quilting step like the plague. I eventually began machine quilting, but only with the feed dogs up!

This was, of course, in the dark ages when machine quilting was fairly novel, but eventually I took a deep breath (literally), and tried free motion quilting. And what a sense of freedom it is to be able to quilt anything you want, not just straight or slightly curved lines!

Here are some of my best tips for making free motion quilting easier.

  1. Keep your machine clean. Use cotton swabs to periodically whisk away lint from the bobbin area and feed dogs. And don’t forget to oil! The manual that came with your machine will guide you through these steps, or just look on line and you’ll find plenty of advice.
  2. Replace your needles frequently. If they start to make a noise like they’re working hard to pierce the fabric, change them. I prefer to use Sharps, and buy them in bulk so that I always have fresh needles on hand.

    I buy needles in bulk so that I always have a fresh one on hand.
  3. Try to set up your space so that you have a large, flat surface to work on. I’m fortunate to have a table with a hole to set my machine in, but there are other work arounds available. One way is to push tables up around your sewing table to help support the bulk of the quilt. Supporting your quilt with a flat surface, and/or using a system of clamps reducing the drag on the needle and makes it much easier to focus on the small area you’re quilting. If you’re thinking about making your own sewing table, here’s a popular link.

    flat surface plus clamps
    Here’s my quilting setup. Notice the good lighting and flat surface. I just installed the clamps on bungee cords on either side of the table to help reduce drag for larger quilts.
  4. If you’re new to machine quilting and want to hide your mistakes, consider using prints instead of solids to make your quilt top. Any mistakes you make will be much less obvious.
  5. Test your thread tension on a practice sandwich. Either make a quilt sandwich out of the same fabrics and batting as your quilt, or make your top several inches (5-7) too big in at least one direction and use that area to make sure that your top and bottom tension are even.
  6. Practice! Try practicing on a quilt that you know isn’t destined to be an heirloom. I practiced on a baby-sized nine patch and saw my quilting improve dramatically from when I started to when I finished.
  7. Make sure you have enough light. Many new machines have fabulous lighting, but older models may not. There are a variety of lights you can buy to clamp or stick to your machine to help you see better. I wrote a post on my personal blog several years ago that demonstrates what a difference these lights can make .
    Not enough light!

    Here I’ve added a strip light and Bendable Bright light to improve visibility.
  8. Focus on where you are going, not where you’ve been. Look ahead of the needle and you’ll automatically move in that direction.
  9. Quilt at a speed that is comfortable to you, but remember that if you go too slowly your curves won’t be as smooth, and too quickly and you’ll loose control.
  10. Try to relax and enjoy yourself. The more you quilt, the better you’ll get.

And, of course, every issue of MQU has many tips and techniques to help you with your quilting, so be sure to check it out!

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