The Free Motion Quilting Project: Quilt Along #8 - Quilting a Real Quilt

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Quilt Along #8 - Quilting a Real Quilt

It's Wednesday again and I have super exciting news: I finished this 4 year old UFO!

free motion quilting | Leah DayThis quilt is called Crazy Pepper and I quilted it in about 3 hours on Sunday night. Through this process I remembered and re-learned many things about quilting real quilts on a home machine and I'd like to share them all with you for this weeks lesson:

Pinmoors pin anchors and Machingers Quilting Gloves were both super helpful tools for getting this quilt quilted so quickly and easily on my machine. Learn more about them in the Quilt Shop.

So this week let's talk about quilting real quilts on a home (domestic) sewing machine! I know this is what most quilters want very badly to do, and having finished this little quilt this week, I can certainly say it's a wonderful feeling to have completed this quilt after moving it around my sewing room for nearly half a decade.

But I won't lie to you: quilting a bigger quilt on a large scale can be challenging.

There are a lot of things we have to deal with when quilting a real quilt that really aren't a factor with a practice quilt or cheater cloth.

Here's just a few challenges I dealt with while quilting Crazy Pepper:

- Wild, busy, crazy prints - We have access to amazing, gorgeous fabrics these days which can create beautiful quilt tops, but there's a slight downside of the crazy print getting being so overwhelming you can't see where you're going.

- Matching Thread - Not only are you going to get lost in the crazy prints, matching thread with these crazy colors means you won't know where you've stitched because you can't see where you've been!

- Thick, bulky seams - Pressing your seams OPEN (yes, we will get to this debate later) definitely helps to reduce the bulk of seam lines, but sometimes when 4 or more pieces match up all in the same area, it's impossible to reduce the extra layers entirely. This extra bulk is an extra challenge when stitching a soft, curvy design like Stippling.

- Bulky Quilt - Even with awesome tools like the Supreme Slider to make the quilt glide more easily over the table and Machingers gloves to help grip the surface, moving this quilt quickly and smoothly in these large shapes was a tricky.

So these are the typical challenges of a real quilt and they shouldn't be minimized.

The fact is the quilting process is not always the easy, fast, fun, simple process that piecing or applique can be. We're doing something a lot more labor intensive than slicing up fabric and putting it back together. We're stitching three big pieces of fiber together SECURELY - it's bound to take a bit of time and effort to get this done right!

The fact that we choose to do this with a home sewing machine is not a lesson in insanity or futility. Yes, there are bigger machines that can do the job faster and more efficiently, but they also come with price tags that most of us can't stomach.

The flip side is also true. Ask a hand quilter if her life is painless. She might not have the same trials as we do (shoving a quilt into a small machine arm for one), but you better bet she's bled on more than one quilt!

So let's get one thing straight: when I say this is "challenging" I don't mean to intimidate you.

I'm simply being honest: quilting a real quilt in one big giant piece is not going to be as easy as quilting practice quilts or a quilt broken down into smaller pieces.

There are ways to make it easier though, so here's some tips I picked up while quilting Crazy Pepper:

1. If you have crazy prints, do yourself a favor and contrast thread color.

Seriously, if you have a quilt top made of fabrics that are practically dancing with excitement, how will a contrasting thread color hurt? The benefit of contrasting thread is the simple fact that you will be able to SEE where you're going.

free motion quilting | Leah DayVisibility is truly key with free motion quilting. If you can see where you're going and where you've previously stitched, you'll be able to focus more of your attention on actually forming the stitches and maintaining a good stitch length.

Many quilters want to match thread, usually thinking it will hide mistakes better. The problem with this is you will make MORE mistakes if you match thread because you can't see where you're going!

Think of it like poor Red Riding Hood walking through the forest. What if the forest was psychedelic red and the path was ruby red as well? She wouldn't be able to see the path from the forest, or even herself, in her red jackety/cape thing! She'd be totally lost and the big bad wolf wouldn't even have to bother with eating Grandma, he'd just stalk Red Riding while she was wandering around lost in that crazy red wood and...

Let's just say it won't be pretty!

2. Avoid super bulky seams

For my Crazy Pepper quilt, I stitched Stippling using an All Over Quilting technique. I covered this a good big in Quilt Along #2 - Quilting in Rows as well as How Do I Quilt This Series.

Basically I broke the quilt down into 4 quadrants using rows of stippling, then filled each open quadrant with more rows of the design until each space was filled.

In the process I crossed a lot of seams! Rather than intentionally stitch over tricky areas, like where 4 blocks all matched up at once, I simply avoided these areas. I stitched up to the area, I stitched around them, but I tried not to stitch right through the middle of that seam connection.

free motion quilting | Leah DayThis is a great way to not only avoid messing up your design, but it's also a good way to avoid breaking thread. A lot of times a weaker thread will be able to take normal stitching through 3 layers of fabric, but as soon as you add a few seam allowances in the mix, it snaps.

You might notice this as you quilt some this week. Pay attention to WHERE your thread breaks if you're struggling with it. Notice if it breaks right on a seam line or in the middle of a plain fabric area.

I once used a thread that would break the instant I hit an area with seam allowance. For the longest time I thought it was something I was doing wrong to cause the thread to break, then it slowly dawned on me as I stitched a simple quilt that had blocks every 4 inches. This thread literally broke every 4 inches on that quilt! It was so frustrating I remember throwing it across the room at the end of one row and never using it again.

Now for one last detail about seams: let's open the debate about pressing seams.

Many quilters advise us to press seams to one side or the other, not open, because apparently this will weaken the seam if you stitch the quilt in the ditch, or stitch over the seam, and the needle happens to exactly pierce the thread piecing the two blocks together.

For the record - I've never, ever seen this happen, and I've pressed seams open since I started quilting in 2005.

Open seams are more accurate, produce less bulk and layers within the quilt, and are easier to stitch in the ditch. That's three major benefits that all make quilting the quilt much easier!

Most of this issue can be sorted out in the piecing of your quilt. Try reducing the stitch length you piece with to 1.5 - 1.8 on your machine. This smaller stitch length will not only be more accurate, if a single stitch happens to be pierced in the quilting process, it certainly won't undermine the integrity of your quilt.

3. Keep the bulk out of the machine

This sounds a bit impossible, but you can usually find ways to shift any quilt so most of the bulk is either behind the machine or to the left side of it.

When the bulk is all shoved up inside the harp space it can be really difficult to move the quilt as quickly and smoothly as you need to when quilting on a bigger scale. At times I had to make a tough decision: a particular area or direction I was quilting in didn't feel very natural, but if I rotated or moved the quilt, all the weight would be working against me.

In these situations, I would often leave the quilt in the trickier position, stitch a narrow row to get out of the position, then rotate and get comfortable again as soon as possible.

The biggest key here is to understand that you really need to be able to quilt in ALL DIRECTIONS. Stitching from left to right or from the top down can work for smaller quilts, for smaller scale, but when things get big, you might have to work at tricky angles and just make the best of it.

4. Smooth and stretch the borders as you go

The borders of any quilt are going to be tricky if you haven't planned ahead and added 1" to the width on all sides.

Of course, all of my UFOs (and most likely yours too) won't have extra wide borders so we're going to have to carefully stitch to the raw edges of these quilts without creating pleats or ripples in the surface.

The best method here is just to keep things smooth!

Smooth things out with your hands, spread carefully, then hold the quilt top in place with both hands as you quilt right up to the edge of the quilt. I often like to quilt off the edge a few times to lock the top in place so it doesn't roll up on the edges.

free motion quilting | Leah Day(Note - you will see a 1/4" stitch line around the edges in this photo because the binding has already been attached from the back. This stitching was NOT in place while quilting the quilt)

5. You've just got to DO IT!

Getting Crazy Pepper on my machine was an eye opening experience because so many times I've assumed that a plain piece of fabric, or a cheater cloth quilt, is exactly the same as a real quilt.

For the record - they're not!

A real quilt is a REAL quilt and usually has a lot more fiddly things going on that plain fabric or cheater cloth just can't simulate.

A real quilt has seam lines, crazy colors, multiple thicknesses, and piecing issues that a plain piece of fabric just won't have. The only way to know what quilting a real quilt will feel like is to DO IT!

But don't let this intimidate you! No amount of practice is going to make a quilt perfect. You just have to get a quilt top basted, get it on the machine, and figure things out as you go along.

Personally I can say that quilting this quilt was a fun, interesting, and educational experience. It was SO different from what I've done for years and years that at times I struggled to maintain a big scale stipple throughout the quilt.

But I can say this: I definitely enjoy finishing a quilt in 3 hours!

Nothing beats the feeling of taking a UFO quilt top and turning it into a finished quilt. I swear I've moved this quilt around my sewing room at least 20 times over the last few years, and many times I've considered throwing it in the trash just to get it out of my room, out of my way, off my plate.

Every time though, I kept it because I knew it would make my Mother-in-law, Ellen, happy. And just to finish off this post, I'll share with you the story of why it's called Crazy Pepper and why I'm so happy to have it finished in time for Ellen's birthday:

Way back in 2008, Ellen's dog, Pepper got a weird skin rash that caused her to itch all the time. She lost almost all her fur off her hind end and was just plain miserable.

Fortunately Ellen found a solution by giving Pepper a bath almost daily. She started taking her to a pet grooming place and every time Pepper came home, they tied a small scrap of fabric around her neck.

Ellen started saving these scraps for me, all wild colors, crazy prints, and funky styles. Not all were even 100% cotton, but I knew I could still use them to create a foundation pieced crazy quilt.

But once the top was together, how to quilt it? Back in 2008, I was just getting into show quilting on a tiny, dense scale. This certainly didn't seem like the right quilt for that style of quilting.

So I folded up the top and saved it. And saved it. And saved it.

Does this sound familiar?

This weekend as I drove back from Greensboro, I remembered that quilt top and decided enough was enough! It was truly a perfect quilt to finish with stippling because the soft curves and wiggles of this design nicely contrast with all the sharp angles and lines of this funky crazy quilt.

Is this quilt perfect? Absolutely not! But it was created with love, it will be given with love, and that is what truly matters.

Now let's link up so we can see what you did with last week's lesson!

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.

It's high time we shut up and go quilt a UFO!



  1. I had all of those problems on my last quilt. Busy patterns, matching thread, bulky quilt... I could have practically written this post!!! But, I don't think I would have changed any of it. I found the best solution was very bright lighting so that you can see the stitching. Anyway, love the story about Pepper and I bet you are correct regarding the stippling on this one, that it was the best quilting option. I did not do the quilt along this week, but I have been blogging. Stop by for a visit:

  2. I aappreciate this post! I am trying to quilt a king sized quilt in my home machine. The only other thing I have quilted is a wallhanging, in the ditch. This one is also in the ditch just because I did not have time to practice stippling before quilting it (I only have a week to get it quilted). We did hand stitch the very center of it though, so that has helped. I'm going to share this the blog post with my next update on my blog!

  3. The one thing that I struggle with on every quilt is the thread color. Right now I have a high contrast black and white quilt in my machine. I'm just now finishing up the stabilizing grid and getting ready to fill in with free motion. I feel almost paralyzed because I don't know what color thread to use! Black will look too harsh on the white areas. Likewise, white will look dopey on the black areas. I think charcoal gray might work, but it's such a struggle!

  4. It was great to watch you quilting close up. I would like to have also seen the "big picture" - how the quilt was positioned on the table, how you manuvered the bulk of the quilt as you sewed. Maybe we could see this happen in another video?

  5. Hi Leah....thanks again for such an informative and inspirational post. It's nice to see a high profile person (yes, YOU)...admitting they make mistakes! I'm still obsessing over pressing seams open...even though I know the top lies flatter and seams press truer. When you quilt in the ditch with an opened seam do you actually quilt in the seamline where the seam stitches are slightly exposed or do you stitch slightly to one side of the seam?

  6. Rosemary here :-)
    You are amazing. I am far behind you but learning so much with each video and blog entry you make.
    Thank you for all of your encouragement

  7. I am starting to press seams open when several seams meet at a spot - as in dresden plate, lone star, etc. It helps the spots not be so lumpy and I find the size is what it's suppost to be.

    As for QAYG, I've been doing these since 2008 and find it's a great way to get a big quilt quilted. I, too, think it's a trade off as to time, especially my last one(which I will post about tomorrow). For charity quilts, I've now found a QAYG way that give me a 36" square or 36 x 42" quilt in about 4 hours.

    Thanks for the confidence and tips, Leah, to tackle a large quilt on my DSM. I'm right now quilting one 64 x 71 and feeling successful with all you've taught us.

  8. I am new to free motion quilting. Have sewed tons of garments all my life and the last few years have enjoyed piecing quilts. I had always just stitched int he ditch and outline quilted all of my small quilts. I searched on the internet for days watching videos on how to free motion quilt--specifically stippling--and yours is by far the most informative and honest one. I love your relaxed, non-judgemental style. I have since took a yard and a half of fabric and just sandwiched it--and stippled the whole thing!!! It turned out awesome!! I loved doing it and will definitely keep at it. Thanks again for all the help. I did order some supplies from you and they came in the mail today. Yippee!!! I am ready to go again on another quilt.

  9. Thanks for the awesome video, Leah! I liked the tip on how to knot off the end of the thread when the bobbin runs out and to avoid quilting over the area where 4 points meet. Great information!!

  10. Hi Leah,
    I can certainly top your 4-year old about a 40+ year old one! My mother hand pieced a twin size Grandmother's Flower Garden quilt that was intended for my younger sister (when she was a teenager. When the top was done and mom started to hand quilt it, my sister changed her mind and wanted a Biscuit Puff quilt. Mom made her the Biscuit puff quilt. The Grandmother's Flower Garden quilt sat unfinished for years. Several years ago Mom gave that quilt to me to finish. It sat in my UFO pile for close to 10 years. I decided to machine quilt it as she used a poly batting that was a bit too puffy to hand quilt and I knew it would never get quilted if I hand quilted it. So I too did a meandering quilt stitch like you showed on your video only my meandering was closer together. All was going well at first, but then I ended up in a spot where it puckered and I mean really puckered so bad that the fabric had to fold over on itself. Well 1/3 of the quilt was quilted and I was NOT going to rip out everything. So I had to quilt the puckers in. I still have at least 1/3 left to quilt and I feel like this will happen again. I will wash it and hopefully the whole quilt will pucker so much that you won't notice the really puckery area. If I hadn't quilted this quilt it would still be a UFO. How could I have avoided the puckers? I started from the middle of the quilt and quilted out, but then the puckers occurred when I was quilting where 2 areas of quilting came together and that's where the major puckers where that I couldn't flatten it out. I don't know if I was doing something wrong? Sometimes I find moving the quilt around so much when it's a large quilt causes things to shift non matter how much I pin. I wonder if it is better to straight stitch vertically nad horizontally in a few places first before doing free motion? Do you ever do that? Or do you always just free motion only? Sometimes my quilts come out perfectly and other times you'd think I had never quilted before. Makes me wonder what I do right and wrong? If I knew I would always keep those things in mind.
    Love all the help you give on your blog and I really appreciate all your videos. Thanks Leah.

  11. Leah, I've just gone back to what you wrote last week about batting, as I need to buy some - ths project has used all mine! I see that Quilters Dream comes in different thicknesses - which do you use,do you switch between them and if so, how do you decide which is the most apropriate for a particular quilt?
    Thankyou for your answers to my questions this week, especially the info re the open-toed even-feed foot for the 7700: it's on my shopping list for when I come to the States in May!

  12. Thank you for sharing your wealth of knowledge, Leah! You have been such and inspiration! Watching your YouTube videos was just the springboard I needed to build the confidence needed to get started quilting! I have made two pieced quilts so far, and am improving! I am feeling a great deal more comfortable with the stipple, and much more consistent. I am practicing some of the other patterns, but having more fun than success so far.
    Thank you so much for enriching my "me time"!
    I am adding my blogspot link per your constant insistence on your videos! The two pieced quilts can be viewed there.
    God bless you and your family!
    Liz Steele

  13. This is good to know as I am just about to finish Magic Tiles using batiks and am quite excited to do some of your quilting techniques. Up until now I have just done wavey lines - and discovered that it was my favourite part of making a quilt, and not the piecing which I find most everyone else enjoys. Could not understand why people kept talking about sending their quilts to someone with a "long-arm" when this part was the most fun!

    The hard part is trying to decide which beginner designs to choose to work with the batiks. And am very glad to read about contrasting thread as I'll be purchasing that next week.

    As a newbie, I am so glad I found you on the net, you're my new guru.


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