The Free Motion Quilting Project: Quilting BIG Quilts

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Quilting BIG Quilts

Here's another post I've been meaning to get to for a long time!

How do we quilt big quilts on a domestic sewing machine?

I know I've said time and time again that you can quilt anything, even king sized quilts on a domestic, but how do we really do it? It seems like trying to fit a circular screw into a square hole - it's just not going to fit!

The thing we really need is a strategy guide.

In the video game world, a strategy guide is used to teach you how to best maneuver your way through a dungeon and fight the evil boss at the end.

But we need a quilting strategy guide to help us deduce the best way to maneuver our quilts and fight the dreaded evils of drag, friction, and gravity that make quilting frustrating.

So here goes:

From what I've found, there are literally MILLIONS of ways to quilt a particular quilt.

Please understand that there is no WRONG way to quilt a quilt.

As long as you're finishing the quilt top and getting it out of the closet and ready to use, you're doing the right thing!

But this is where most quilters look at their giant king sized quilt tops, look lovingly at their sewing machine, and decide that it can wait another year before this monster is let out of the closet.

I think what we really need to do is to break these big quilts down. No, I don't mean chop them up into pieces, that's just plain sacrilegious!

Let's instead break the quilt top down into sections, focusing on the hardest to quilt areas first, then moving on to the easier areas.

Here's a super fancy quilt diagram that will illustrate what I'm talking about:

In this quilt diagram, you see a typical patchwork setup of 12 blocks with sashing and borders.

Depending on the sizes of your blocks and sashing, this quilt could easily be full, queen, or king.

So here's how to quilt it:

Start quilting in block #1. This is one of your central quilt blocks and will be one of the hardest to quilt.

Understand the difficulty going into it and gear yourself up accordingly your favorite music or audiobooks that will get you into the quilt slaying spirit and quilting gloves, which will help you to grip that sucker and move it anywhere you want it to go.

You will want to quilt blocks #1 and #2 in one sitting if possible. It will make you feel like you've accomplished a whole bunch because all the rest of the blocks will be much easier from here.

DON'T roll your quilt up into a log to get it under the arm of your machine! If you do this, the whole weight of that quilt will be fighting you.

Instead, slide the edge of the quilt under your machine and just keep pushing, wrinkling the quilt top up and smooshing it against the arm until you get to the center blocks.

Here's a picture of a quilt one of my great grandmothers made that I slid under the machine to illustrate how this works.

See how the quilt is just puddled up around the machine and smoothed out in the center to quilt the middle block?

It might look messy, but this works much, much easier than rolling your quilt into a log. You can actually have much of the quilt top twisted to the back so you have better access to the center.

It may take a few minutes of positioning, but you want to make sure that the weight of the quilt top is on your tables - not on your lap, not on the floor, not on your shoulders, or anywhere else you might decide to put it!

The next set of blocks will be #3 and #4, which lie above and below the center blocks. These will be much easier because they're closer to the border.

Again, try to quilt both blocks in one setting. Don't get up to check your email or answer the phone - just quilt it!

Now you're on the home stretch. You've quilted the 4 most difficult to quilt blocks and everything will be easy from here on out.

Blocks #5, #6, #7, and #8 can again all be stitched in one setting and, if your bobbin is big enough, without breaking thread.

If this feels like too much pressure for you, just try quilting 2 blocks in one setting.

Make it your goal to quilt through at least 2 blocks each day. Would you believe you could quilt a whole king sized quilt in 6 - 12 days?

Once you finish the last set of four blocks (#9, #10, #11, and #12), now it's time to work on the sashing and borders.

Sashing can be tricky because it's often the areas that excess fabric pools between the blocks. If you find yourself with loads of excess fabric or with lot of puckering, try stitching a long, high movement design, like McTavishing, in this area.

You can hide a lot of puckers if you quilt your lines parallel to the puckers.

Yes, puckers happen even to me! I don't know how they get in there, but the best thing to do is figure out how to quilt around them so they don't show in the finished quilt.

Finally, your borders will be the last thing to quilt on your quilt. They're the easiest to quilt because they're right on the edges of your quilt.

Unfortunately borders can be the most time consuming part of any quilt because surface area wise, borders often take up more space than 8 blocks combined.

I find that the best way to knock these guys flat is to break them up into sections just like with the blocks.

Aim to complete one whole side of the borders each day. The long sides may take more time, so you can always split them into 2 days each.

Whew! So there you have it!

You CAN quilt big quilts on your domestic sewing machine,
but you need to aim to knock it out as fast as possible.

The longer that monster sits on your tables, taking up space, and eating your cookies, the less you will want to work on it and the more likely you will be to chuck that guy back in the closet.

Once you try it, you'll see that quilting in this block by block method is actually a lot more like quilting the 4" squares I demo each day.

The quilt is easier to maneuver and faster to finish because it's broken up into sections.

I really don't care for all-over designs, not because they ignore the piecing design, but because they're pretty darn difficult to quilt over a big quilt.

Think about it: an all-over design requires you to be constantly moving your quilt in one direction or another.

This works great for a longarmer on a frame, but all that movement is just going to give a domestic quilter a back ache!

When you work block by block, you get to focus more on the quilting design process as well, choosing which areas of the piecing your want to show off and which you want to ignore.

Working this way also allows your brain to go into The Zone. The Zone is a special place where time stops and your brain is disengaged and you can quilt for hours on end without stopping and not even realize you've done it.

One final thing you need to keep in mind as you quilt your quilt is your machine.

Some machines are wonderful and will quilt in any direction perfectly for as long as you want them to.

But some machines will mysteriously start to break thread if you stitch backwards or to the left. Who knows why they do it, but it's good to keep these things in mind as you move around your quilt.

I've often purposefully broken thread and repositioned my quilt just to avoid the headache of machine problems due to stitching in a direction my machine didn't like to go.

And last, but not least, go have fun!

If you pieced up a king sized monstrosity that is just so NOT your style anymore, give that top to a friend this Christmas instead of allowing it to torture you!

There's no point in trying to muscle through a quilt project you're not going to like in the end.

Speaking of muscling through, I'm feeling much, much better after 2 days of rest and relaxation and loads of video game vegging on the couch.

Thanks very much for all the well wishing! I think it definitely helped me kick this cold.

Now I'm off to go defeat a monster quilt of my own!

Let's go quilt!

Leah Day


  1. Just discovered your blog today and have learned so much already. I came here looking for tips on how to get a handle on the top stitching. I'm on my second ever quilt and am determined to get good at it. Luckily I found you. I think you've got some mad skills, PhD-level quilting. I am in awe. And, inspired!! Thank you for all the videos.

  2. Thanks Leah
    The confidence is slowly building and hopefully over the Christmas holidays I may even get the nerve up to start on my Round Robin top that's been sandwiched and basted for over 18 months - I'll keep you posted.

  3. Hi Leah

    Thank you for another excellent post about quilting. Your blog is a valuable addition to the world of quilting. I have to confess I quilt my own quilts (amazing, I know!) and I wish more people would do their own quilting. So thank you for encouraging us all to tackle the bigger quilts on our domestic machines.

    I don't mean to knock people who quilt other people's quilts, indeed I envy them for they get much more practice at quilting than I will ever do and is probably why they win the prizes and I don't. I just feel it is not really 'my' quilt if someone else quilts it. I've done only half the job. I think the quilting comprises as much of the quilt as the piecing does (if not more)and I kinda have a feeling that I can't say "I made this quilt" if I hve done only half of it.

    1. Oh I am SO in agreement with you! I could get much better quilting if I paid someone else but then it doesn't feel like MY quilt! My skills are slowly getting better but it's only because I keep trying. All these long armrest or at least some, just program the computer and walk off! How is that quilting? Nope, I'll keep on quilting my own even if they aren't "Leah Day" quality.

  4. Hi Leah,

    I only found your blog a few weeks ago but I love it! I've learned so much, because I keep on finding posts that answer exactly the questions I have. For example, I had the hardest time with skipping stitches and would you believe it (you probably would, since you wrote it) - you have a post all about that! I bought a different needle and tadaa!
    Two days ago, I started quilting a monster quilt. It's a quilt for a queen-sized quilt, but because it's made for a particular bed, it's more like a king. I'm stippling it, but not all over - the design is a modified log cabin with every second strip in every block being muslin, and I'm just stippling that part and that makes the coloured strips stand out really nicely!
    This is going to be a long comment, but I have one more thing to share, because I think your quilting designs-of-the-day are great! I've been so excited about them that I've tried them on background blocks in between 9-patches on a baby quilt. I've blogged about them here: if you want to see (only one part up so far, the others will follow in the next few days).

    Thanks for having your blog!


  5. What a great post! I am trying really hard to machine quilt all of mine now. I've done up to a queen size on it, and it's difficult to get it all scrunched under the arm. I love the process though, and it's SO rewarding in the end to see how beautiful all of your hard work is. Thanks for the inspiration to try a KING size (did you just say that??) I have two hiding in my closet, I laughed when I read about that, it's so true! :D

  6. Hi, Leah. One other thing I've learned that really helps me is to extend my sewing surface under my left elbow. I set my ironing board up there at the height of my table. That little extra bit of surface area really keeps any weight from pulling the quilt away from the needle or preventing me from pushing the quilt away from me and through the needle. Thanks for the suggestions. I'm quilting a queen sized quilt now and for the first time, didn't roll it up. You're right. It is better, even on the ditch work. Lane

  7. I've taken two quilts to someone with a long-arm because I thought they were too big to handle on my machine. Next time, I'm trying it myself! Thanks for the confidence.

  8. Wow, great info. Gives me more confidence on trying out bigger quilts on my domestic. Have you done a tutorial on basting your quilts. Wondering how you do yours. Pretty please share with us!!

  9. [Bookmark]

    I've sewn both of my quilts on my regular machines... Thanks for this tutorial. I'll use this technique on the one I'll be quilting next week!

  10. I have trouble with needles breaking on my machine so I have to continually remind myself not to push the quilt too quickly - it's more likely that than the fact that my machine doesn't "like" to go certain directions. But I'm not really ready to tackle more than a throw.

  11. Great tips Leah!!! I have one of those tiny domestic sewing machines(Janome Magnolia 7330)and I sometimes feel like I can only quilt baby quilts and lap quilts... thanks for the BIG QUILT pep talk!!! And I agree... knock it out fast and early, don't let it sit around for months and months staring at you - they make me feel so guilty! =) Cheers!

  12. That makes so much sense. Thanks for the pep talk. I've got a big one that has been sitting on my shelf for two months! Gonna go get started!! :)

  13. I,ve been keenly following your blog Leah, it has helped me so much. Now I must try to quilt a full size quilt on my domestic machine

  14. Thanks so much for the tips. I'm going to use those to try to get through quilting my Mom & Dad's 50th Anniversary quilt (queen sized). They've now been married 53 years, so I really need to get this done! Limiting myself to 2 blocks is a lot more doable than quilting until I am either exhausted or annoyed!

  15. hello to all , try this , I took a old desk that has a long top on it ,and I cut out a hole to but my machine in the hole .. I set up this desk as my sewing machine table and it works out great.. I have lots of room for my quilt to lay out and sew ... I hope that this will help you all out , as it has help me out to do my quilting... carol

  16. I am interested in why you recommend quilting the blocks before the dashing. I was taught to do the ditch or other linear quilting first to stabilize the quilt before doing the interior of the blocks. I use spray basting and have not had puckers doing it this way.

    Can you share the logic behind that part of your strategy?

  17. Hi Jolley - If you've stitched the blocks in the ditch, then the entire quilt should be fairly stable, so you can really quilt the blocks and sashing in the order you like.

    The main point of the article was to emphasize quilting from the center to the outside edges. You might want to check out this video series on section quilting to get another perspective:



  18. I think that you have given me the confidence to try it! Thank you so much!!!!!

  19. Does this also apply to straight line quilting?


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