The Free Motion Quilting Project: Quilt Along #3 - Playing with Scale

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Quilt Along #3 - Playing with Scale

Let's move on to our next quilt along lesson! Today let's talk about Scale.

Scale describes the size of the design on your quilt and how far apart the lines of quilting are on the surface.

This has been something many quilters have asked about over the last few weeks so let's spend a week focusing exclusively on it. See how this works in this Quilt Along #3 video:

Now let's sum up what we've learned:

Quilting on a big scale (1 inch or bigger) means your quilting lines are quite far apart and the design is very open. A quilt quilted with a large scale design will be very soft and cuddly:

free motion quilting | Leah DayBig scale quilting is also much faster and requires less thread to cover your quilt.

Quilting on a small scale (1/4 inch or smaller) means your quilting lines are closer together and the design is much more dense. This means the design will stand out and show off more on the surface of your quilt, but it will also make the overall quilt stiffer:

free motion quilting | Leah DaySmall scale quilting is also much more time consuming and uses loads of thread.

There is also a happy middle ground between large and small scale quilting. If you quilt on a 1/2 inch scale your quilt will still be soft and comfortable, but the quilting lines will also be close enough together that the quilting lines will stand out and add to the overall quilting design:

free motion quilting | Leah DayThe trick with scale is consistency.

If you want your quilt quilted on a 1 inch scale so it's soft and comfortable to sleep under, obviously you're going to be pretty miffed if you suddenly start quilting it on a 1/4 inch scale and it becomes as stiff as cardboard.

Likewise if you're quilting the borders of a wallhanging on a smaller scale, chances are you really want to maintain that small scale throughout and not leave giant open gaps within your quilting design.

While it might not feel like it, scale is something you can learn to control and you can maintain evenly throughout a quilt. The key is having something to look at that will keep the size of the design in your mind.

I call these touchstones or guides. It's just a small item that is as big as the scale you're wanting to stitch. As you can see from the photos above, each scale was quilted using that object as a visual guide to keep the design consistent.

It can be as simple as looking at the width of your finger or thumb (1/2 inch scale), or an empty spool of thread (1 inch scale), or a marking pencil (1/4 inch scale).

Having an object to look at will keep that correct size and scale in mind. You can even hold your touchstone against the quilting you've done to make sure the lines are roughly staying the right distance apart.

The location of your hands on the surface of the quilt also have a lot to do with the scale of the design.

Your hands will generally be right around your needle no matter what scale you're stitching, but when stitching on a bigger scale you will likely find it easier to have your hands slightly further apart.

When stitching on a smaller scale, you don't need to move as much of the quilt so your hands will come closer together and closer to the needle.

If you suddenly start seeing your scale change, pay attention to where your hands are on the quilt:

- If you suddenly find yourself stitching on a much bigger scale, check your hands. If you've widened the space between your hands, it's likely feeling really easy to swing that quilt around in big sweeping movements.

Replace your hands on the quilt, take a look at your guide or touchstone and return to your chosen scale.

- If you find yourself suddenly stitching on a denser, tighter scale ask yourself what has just happened. Chances are you've brought your hands closer together and you're not able to move the quilt as quickly to create the larger scale design.

Widen your hands, take a look at your touchstone, and return to the scale you were working on.

free motion quilting | Leah DayCheck out the two mistakes in this photo above. Which is more noticeable to you?

Personally I find the cluster of denser stitching in the left side much more noticeable than the area of more open quilting on the right.

Please understand that no quilt is perfect. If your stitching suddenly gets wider or smaller, don't rip it out. Return to your proper scale and keep quilting. It's not a deal breaker and it won't ruin your quilt!

Now you may wonder - what is the best scale to quilt on?

In truth, this is different for every quilter and really for every quilt. Personally I think you should learn how to quilt on a variety of scales so you will be able to quilt a variety of projects.

Being able to quilt on one scale and only one scale can get very boring and repetitive. It's very nice to be able to switch scales depending on what you're working on and how dense you feel like stitching.

This leads to another important quilting question:

How far apart should your quilting lines be?

It honestly doesn't depend on how the quilt is pieced or designed or the intended use of the quilt, but on the batting you use in the middle.

All battings have a rating. Somewhere on the package it will say "Quilted up to 4 inches" or some other number. This means you need to make sure you have lines of quilting at least 4 inches apart, otherwise the batting could shift inside the quilt, making it lumpy.

Back in the day when we didn't have needle punched batting, we had to hand quilt upwards of 20 stitches per inch simply to keep the batting in place. These days with modern technology and battings that are engineered not to shift, we definitely don't have to quilt that dense.

We now have battings that can be quilted as far apart as 12 inches! That means you could literally quilt your quilt with lines 12 inches apart and call it done.

Not all battings have such a huge rating however. It's important to always check the packaging and note what it says. If you were planning on quilting a quilt on a 2 inch scale (2 inches between all the lines of quilting), but the batting said "Quilting Up to 1 Inch," you'd better either switch batting or stitch that quilt on a 1 inch scale.

This is a pretty important issue because one of the main questions I'm asked about quilting is "How much quilting does my quilt need?"

The true technical answer is: as little as your batting needs.

You don't have to quilt the snot out of your quilts unless you really want to! There isn't a right or a wrong way to quilt a quilt and there isn't a magical scale that works perfectly for every project.

The key is looking at your quilt and deciding how much quilting it needs based on how much TIME you want to spend on it and how much MONEY you want to spend on thread!

So that's it for this week! Take a few days to play with stitching several rows of Stippling on a big 1 inch scale, on a small 1/4 inch scale, and a medium sized 1/2 inch scale.

Don't forget to link up your progress from last weeks Quilting in Rows below!

Instructions for Linking Up Your Blog:

1. Write your blog post. Publish it on your blog.

2. Copy the link of the specific blog post. This is not just the link to your blog itself (, but the link to the specific post:

3. Click the blue link up button above and paste your link into the box.

Keep in mind that you're posting your progress from LAST week on THIS week's post. This way you have time to watch the lesson, play with the ideas, then post your progress to the next quilt along. I hope that makes sense!

As always, any questions you have, please post them in the comments below or on your blog and I'll answer 5 tomorrow on Question Thursday.

Time for me to shut up and quilt,

Leah Day


  1. My practice piece this week had a few blips with scale, and a pucker or 2, but over all I am happy with my progress. Thanks for being a great teacher an giving us the confidence to go for it!

  2. Thanks for this info - this is a question I have been asking everyone, but your explanation of how much quilting is needed is the first time I really understood the complexity!

  3. I hope you know how appreciated this series is! Thank you so much for giving us excellent videos.

  4. You always share such good info., Leah. You answer questions I didn't even know I had yet, but as I read I think, "I need to know that and I didn't even know enough to know I needed to know it!" : )

  5. Thanks Leah, I so look forward to Wednesdays. After many practice sheets I was insane and in 2 days quilted with a medium stipple a Large quilt. My biggest issue was dealing with weight and a small throat on my machine. Will be getting a table to drop machine into instead of using my acrylic extension table in the future, i hope will make a huge difference. I'm proud I took the plunge though on a real quilt.

  6. Leah-I linked up my practice sandwich square on some FMQ stitches. You said last week to show you are bad stitches and you might be able to diagnose what I am doing wrong. Help!!! I can't figure out if I am going to fast with feet or hands or the tension is not right.

    Also, one other question. Is it always a rule to stitch with thread that is invisible if you have a ton of different colors in your quilt? I have a quilt with a ton of different colors and I stitched in the ditch with a light grey color, but I would like to do that same with my FMQ. Is that ok?

    Love your videos!!!

  7. Many thanks! This is such useful information.

  8. Leah, here is a great idea for practicing your fmq on actual quilts for your followers. My neighbor and I make Linus Charity quilts for kids. These are great quilts to take the leap at fmq on. I'm going to do some this week!! The kids love them. My son received one in the hospital last year and sleeps with it every night.

  9. I like doing the stipling about 1 to 2 inches. I guess it's because I like my quilts to soft and bendy like a blanket. But the best part is all the thread I save and I still get a nice quilt. In comparing small to large scale, after I wash the quilt, I still get the same look overall. I guess for me it is more about the piecing than the quilting. Maybe that will change someday.

  10. Thanks Leah! Just curious about the pins you are using for basting in this video?

  11. You make this look so easy thank you enjoyed watching it

  12. thanks so much for the tips while watching the video. the tip about the hands is good. I am going to be careful to see how I do.

  13. Thanks for the tips Leah - I had always struggled with making my stippling larger, but i did some practice FMQ last night and used the tip to have a reference size (which was my finger) and my sample square came out quite even (i'll link up next week when i've posted some photos on my blog)

  14. Leah, you are an inspiring young woman, and I applaud the way you use your angst to move forward. This is what I did to help with scale in stippling, and I share it in case it may help someone else. On one 8.5"x11" sheet of 1" graph paper, draw (6) 3" squares. Each square then contains (9) 1" boxes. In the first 3" square, draw a continuous stipple with one loop in each of the nine boxes. In the second 3" square, draw a continuous stipple with two loops in each of the nine boxes. Continue adding one loop per square inch until in the last box you will have six loops per square inch. I always consult this chart to help me choose and visualize a scale for the project at hand.

  15. Thanks for expanding on the scale issue. I do want to suggest, though, that quilting "up to 4 inches" apart actually means at *most* 4 inches apart (or 4" and under), not at *least* 4 inches apart (which would be a minimum).

  16. jmz11, love your idea about making a about making a sheet of different densities as a reference sheet on scale. I'm going to try that.

    Leah, I also agree with Janet O. that you answer questions I didn't even know I had. Thanks!


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