QUILTID-19, Part 6: Machine Quilting (on a home machine)
After completing this quilt top in mid-April, I followed what I consider to be a time-honored tradition among quilters: I lovingly folded the completed quilt top and placed it in a drawer to be completed “later”.
In my defense, I had to order batting, and craft supplies have been slow to ship during the pandemic – both because of the generous surge of home mask-making, and because people have been rediscovering the joy of making things with their hands, which are huge things to celebrate! But by the time my batting arrived, I was fully immersed into Me-Made May and excited about garment sewing.
But finally, after about 6 weeks away, my quilt was calling to me again. I didn’t want the pandemic to end without completing my quarantine quilt! And yes, now I realize that was pretty naive of me, as sadly it seems that COVID-19 is nowhere near over. But any motivation is good motivation. So I cleared out all the flat surfaces in the sewing room and started pin basting.
My big cutting table is about as wide as the quilt, so I was able to work in sections for the pin basting by clamping the backing taut to the table, then smoothing the batting on top, then adding my quilt top.
For pin basting, I couldn’t bear the thought of opening and closing the hundreds of safety pins that this huge quilt would require. I also don’t own hundreds of safety pins. So I used regular pins. The Clover flower head pins worked best for this because they’re very long, but I only have 100 of those so the remaining 180 or so pins were my normal long glass-head pins. These still worked, of course, but they weren’t as easy to use.
I put one pin at the center of each of the square blocks, and my blocks are 4.25″ square finished, so my pins were 4.25″ apart in all directions. With a different quilting design I would have wanted more pins, but for my straight lines it worked fine.
I can’t necessarily recommend this method in good conscience because I pricked myself with pins constantly. It’s a lot of wrestling to get the quilt through the machine, line after line, and with all those open pins it was like wrestling a porcupine. But at the same time, I’m probably never going to buy or deal with that many safety pins. So yeah, I’d do this again, scars and all.
I moved my sewing machine table off the wall and butted it up against my cutting table to give me extra surface to work with while quilting.
I had toyed with the idea of free motion quilting and watched some videos, but I couldn’t decide on a design and decided that this quilt was not the time to experiment, both because it is enormous and because it is very precious. I also didn’t want to use a dense design because I wanted the quilt to remain soft, pliable, cuddly. So I kept it simple, just diagonal lines running parallel to the corners of each block (45 degrees).
I didn’t want to run the lines through the corners of the blocks, so I offset them to either side. My biggest reason for this choice was that sewing through the corners would exaggerate any corners that didn’t line up perfectly, or any quilting stitches that weren’t straight. I also think that this offset supports my “gradient” look – it helps to blend the blocks into a cohesive unit, whereas stitching along the edges or corners would emphasize the seams between the blocks.
I laid out my lines with chalk pencil (this Chaco liner is my favorite, the rolling wheel means you always get chalk, it doesn’t soak into the fabric, and it doesn’t get “stuck”). I only laid out 4-5 chalk lines at a time, because the quilt rasslin’ would rub away the chalk eventually. This was also good for my back (and brain) to have alternating activities – wrestle a few rows of stitches through the machine, then lay it out and draw again.
I wore these quilting gloves, they were a Christmas gift from my wonderful mama that I wouldn’t have thought to buy, but they were hugely helpful. Nice and grippy, and of course they also provided an extra layer of protection from the hundreds of pins that tried to attack me at every moment.
If you look closely at the quilting stitches, you can see that on every third line I added an extra line about 3/8″ away. No reason for this, I just wanted something a little more different and fun.
It’s important to note that I sewed every single line in the same direction, from the top left corner of the quilt toward the bottom right. This means that although the quilt back ended up with some wrinkles due to fabric shifting, all those wrinkles are in the same direction. I also used a walking foot – there’s no way I could have done this without one.
The other key to getting a project this size through the machine – don’t make the machine fight gravity. Hopefully all early sewists are taught to not push or pull the fabric through the machine, it’s all about guiding and steering rather than forcing. This is still true for machine quilting, but it’s important to constantly adjust the bulk of the weight so that the machine can easily and evenly feed the fabric. Here, that meant adjusting after every 10″ or so of stitches, balancing more fabric on the table or in my lap so that the fabric under the machine was never taut or dragging.
Wrestling a quilt of this size through a home machine was no joke. I’m very glad I decided to stick with straight lines. I also don’t think it would have worked to do any sort of grid or diamond pattern – think standard quilting – because every single intersection of stitches would have created a big wrinkle in the backing. It’s certainly possible, but I would have needed a LOT more pins and a more stable backing solution than just my four clamps. As with many projects – the method I used was the right choice because it allowed me to get this project DONE.
Click here to see all the posts about my Quarantine Quilt, QUILTID-19.