The Free Motion Quilting Project: The Density Question

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Density Question

Today I'm back on the machine after spending a lot of time this month bogged down with computer work.  I'm learning that machine time must happen before computer time, otherwise it just doesn't happen!

I've been working from the center on James's Space Quilt, filling the spaceship, earth, and background with lots of beautiful quilting:

free motion quilting | Leah Day

Yes, it's this looks nice, but is this quilting getting too dense on the surface?  This is supposed to be a soft, cuddly bed quilt designed to be light enough for warm summers or still useful as the top quilt for winter.

Working on it has gotten me thinking about quilting density and I just so happened to receive a question along these lines this morning as well:
My question is about the "stiffness" of the quilt after FMQ.  I meander...and make stitches about 1.5-2 inches apart and never cross lines. But in doing this.. I find that the quilt is so stiff and not "cuddley". I started stippling...and learned to make the stitches farther apart as I mention with meandering, but still...the quilt is so stiff. I use 100% cotton fabrics and usually 100% polyester or sometimes 80/20 poly/cotton batting. It is about 1/2 inch thick and kind of fluffy.
I want my quilts to be soft, and cuddly, and able to wrap up in them..have them be able to wrap around legs while watching tv or just to wrap up as the only blanket used and still have some puffiness to them.  How do I do this? I have tried several kinds of batting, and always the meandering..but still...while it looks nice...the quilts are stiff and not soft. ~ Cheri
Cheri's question is running in tandem with my thoughts - lots of quilting looks nice, but will it FEEL nice when it comes time to wrap up with this quilt?

And this is one of those tricky things about making both bed quilts and art quilts.  What works for one thing doesn't always translate over to the other.

Overall I'd say most of the stiffness issue will be sorted out with washing.

If you're using a cotton batting, chances are it will shrink slightly after washing and soften up the quilt.  The more you wash it, the more the fibers will relax and meld together. No matter what kind of batting, fabric, or thread you use, it will respond and soften with repeated washing.

Right now the Space Quilt is feeling very stiff, particularly in the areas of fusible applique because the fusible material adds stiffness and dramatically changes the hand.  I've found that this can change quite a lot once the quilt is washed a few times and the fusible given a chance to relax or dissolve, depending on the type.

free motion quilting | Leah Day

As for a total solution to quilt stiffness - I'm not sure there is one that also includes lots of quilting texture and design.  There's kind of a simple formula here:

Lots of quilting texture = stiffness, while minimal quilting texture = softness.

Then again, I can't help but wonder at this whole issue about density.  Maybe it isn't an issue at all.

I mean, isn't the hallmark of hand quilting tiny, compact stitches?  Don't hand quilters pride themselves on 20 stitches per inch (or less)?

Are we getting a bit obsessed about quilt density and stiffness when it's actually been the way quilts have always been finished?  That the super soft, cuddly quilts we're after are really a product of both age in antique quilts and the mass-production of soft blankets from Wal Mart?

These questions are a bit off track, but I find myself touching the surface of the Space Quilt and wondering what my grandmother, or great grandmother would have said about it.  Too dense?  Or nice and secure?  Overwhelmed with unnecessary texture?  Or beautiful?

Knowing the simplicity of my grandma, she probably would say something wise and obvious:

If you've made the quilt you want to make, you've done it right.

If it's too stiff, too dense, too loose, too open, too WHATEVER - learn from that, change something, and improve with the next quilt.

I can't say exactly what will make your quilts finish perfectly the way you want them to, but I can say if you're willing to try different things, you will eventually find the right combination of materials, scale, and designs that will create the quilts you want to make.

Do understand there is no WRONG here.  Even a stiff quilt is a quilt that can be used and enjoyed. While it might not be the cuddly masterpiece you were after, texture can still be fascinating for children to touch.

If James's quilt turns out stiff, do you know what I'm going to do?

Wash it as often as I can, occasionally take it outside for picnics in the grass, encourage James to jump on it, wrestle with it, and generally beat the snot out of it. After a year of hard use, if that quilt isn't super soft, then it must have had a steel wool batting in the middle!

Let's go quilt,



  1. I am always working towards finding the right balance between stiffness and secure layers. One of the problems I've had with quilting really loosely to preserve softness is that eventually the piecing started to come apart in the wash because there wasn't enough quilting securing it.

    I also have to agree with your thoughts on cheap products warping people's expectations.

  2. 100% on target!!!! I have learned that if I want the quilt to be soft right "out of the chute" I quilt in larger, spaced loops, meander, whatever, but washing/drying goes a long ways to soften and give that 'loved/cozy' feeling. Silk batting is supposed to be very drape-able as is the new 50/50 cotton/soy batting. I have no experience with either and will continue to try out new ideas as they 'spring' into my brain and try not to obsess over some weird right/wrong concept that's floating out there......yours truly and loving the 'art', Doreen

  3. An interesting 'argument'. My opinion, for what it's worth, is that James will love it if he can 'interact' with it i.e use it in lots of places and have it around him at happy family times such as impromptu garden picnics. You're right, he'll also enjoy the texture he can feel on it as well as the space theme. You've enjoyed making it; he'll enjoy using it. End of. :-)

  4. James's space quilt looks awesome.
    Can't wait to see it all finished.

    I'm still exploring with the quilt density. My last one was 1/4 inch apart and planning to use it as wall hanging.

  5. I quilt my quilts to within an inch of their lives. They would be stiff as boards with most waddings. Quilts do soften over time, but I find I get a softer quilt almost straight away if I use bamboo wadding. But - bamboo wadding is very flat, and some quilters don't like that. You can always experiment with smaller pieces to get an idea of how a wadding-density combination will feel. I am getting a huge collections of cushions, table runners etc made as practice pieces or maquettes, and I don't end up with (so many) big quilts that aren't what I wanted.

  6. I agree that some quilts are too stiff to be cuddly. I've found 3 things that help.
    1.)Use fleece! instead of wadding and backing. kids love it it's way cheaper than wadding and backing and oh so soft.
    2.)Use a polyester thread in the bobbin, like Bottom Line from Superior Threads. The poly keeps it soft and supple.
    3.)Use a curvy line design for the quilting and don't quilt it to death. Loosen the design up and leave a bit of space between the lines. It doesn't need to win shows or last a lifetime,it just needs to keep a kid happy for a couple of years. By the time it comes apart he'll be ready for another quilt.

  7. I think the repeated washings is the trick and feel quilt what the quilt asks for and what you want to do and not worry overmuch about how much/how little quilting.

    Interested in Polyquats comment about bamboo batting. I normally use wool because I love the loft and the lightness but just used Bamboo in my sister's hug quilt. That batting was very similar to wool, really fluffy and remained so even after the first washing. I can't tell you the make as it came off the roll here in Singapore.

  8. I'm Cheri...and thanks Leah for addressing my problem and thanks to those that commented...adding suggestions. I really appreciate it. This one is for my 12 yo GD and it HAS to be soft or she won't use only hope is that since it is with Orca Whales and she LOVES them..she would deal with the stiffness to have the whales..but I still want it to be soft for her to cuddly with. Lot of good suggestions I intend to work with! Thanks everyone!

  9. Martha - is that poly on the bobbin and cotton on the top or poly on both? Cheri

  10. When I know I will be quilting very densely I like to use DMC cotton embroidery thread. I know it's only a 2 ply thread but when the quilting is dense it has held up wonderfully with a very soft feel. I have an 8 year old quilt, stitched with DMC that has held up to daily hard use--NO broken quilting lines.


    I have the same problem but I do try to read the guide in the batting it tells you the LEAST amount of quilting acceptable of the batting.

    I FMQ panels for babies and want them soft so I try to stick a balance with he motifs. I FMQ the background then outline any motifs making them trupunto-ed then using a tacking technique in the detailing the motif it self.

    Since I found I love FMQ I have to be very cautious and avoid over quilting.

    ps .... I bought Leah's book to use as a guide to my FMQing motifs.


  12. This is a fabulous discussion and I love learning from everyone's experiences. I haven't any wisdom to share on this, as I was too busy to do any quilting (FM or standard) when my kids were babies. Back in the day, I just tied the lofty batting in with yarn tufts. The kids loved their fluffy softness and one was even named "Fluffy." Hopefully we'll have grandkids at some point for whom I can sew lovely quilts, so I'm taking in all these wonderful suggestions!

    Leah, I absolutely ADORE the geometric quilting on the body of the spaceship and the cute little astronaut in the window. Just darling!!!

  13. What a great post! I've learned a lot today, from the post, and from the comments. I truly believe that we have become accustomed to the cheap stuff from the bigbox stores, and that what we are making is far superior. Let's just throw it in the wash and soften it up! LOL

  14. We also need to consider density in light of the quilt itself. I was at a quilt show recently where the quilting totally obscured the design/pattern/colours of one of the quilts. The colours were mid to light tones and were lost underneath the quilting.

  15. Great Point. I am new to quilting and I have enjoyed the comments. I'm still at the point of just finishing quilts with pride. Now I will remember and consider density.

  16. Hi again Cheri, I would use Rainbows on top and Bottom Line in the bobbin. They're both polyester from Superior Threads. Your question got me thinking so I wrote a blog post about it today.Here's the link:
    hope it helps

  17. Leah, I do enjoy receiving your emailed newsletters, thanks. It's great to hear other's views, too. Sewing & Quilting means endless learning... I love it! Lisa at (Melbourne, Australia)

  18. I also love lap and bed quilts to be softer. I often will make a matching table runner or wall hanging to show off my art quilting and then keep my quilting more sparce on the bed quilt.

  19. I use Quilter's Dream Green, which only "requires" quilting every 12 inches, and keep a gap of 3-4" when I quilt. They almost always come out soft. For 2-3" they are much more stiff, but repeating use and a few washings works it out.

  20. I took a class with Diane Loomis whose hallmark is dense tight quilting on her home machine. With the weight of the thread and density (1/8 inch apart in places), I wondered about the drape and weight. She uses only wool batting (Hobbs) and silk thread (YLI #100). Her national award winning quilt was soft, supple and not heavy. Wool does mean a little care in washing, but her quilt was totally usable.


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