A Reader Asks: Suggestions for Machine Quilting

I get a lot of emails that ask questions that I don’t always know the helpful answer to and I thought I’d start a new feature called “A Reader Asks”.  I’ll post the question, give my own little answer and then let you, all the real experts, give your answers too.  I know when I have a question I find that some people’s answers don’t fit my need but usually if I put something out here on the blog, someone’s answer will be just the answer that was needed.

This question comes from Donna:
“I wanted to ask you about your beginning years as a quilter.  I see you have an actual quilting machine but what did you do in the beginning?  How did you manage to quilt large quilts without one?  I have a small Brother and have struggled for years with large quilts.  It’s been suggested I quilt on the go and actually tried that once.  It was successful and looked nice but not quite the finish I wanted.

I had a friend suggest I sell my machine for one with a larger opening at the neck.

The main reason I ask is that we will be downsizing in a year to an RV full time – of course on the condition that I can bring my machine and stash. 😉”

My beginning years as a quilter happened in the late 80’s and early 90’s.  Back then I tied my quilts.  Longarm machines weren’t available and even if they were, there was no way I could have afforded them.  This was one of the first quilts I made….

At the time, I made it for Kelli, she was 3.  It was her “big girl quilt” for her “big bed”.  My mom “stitched in the ditch for me.  That was all the quilting we did on it.

Shortly after this quilt was made, my mom died.  I was feeling pretty blue and was pretty depressed.  One of the last times I saw my mom before she passed away, she told me she had a grocery list and “why don’t I run to town and get those while she watched the kids”.  My mom was so smart.  She knew that having the three kids 3 and under was a bit much and I needed some time away.  So I went to town and when I was there I bought a quilting magazine.

In the month or so after she passed, I remembered that quilting magazine and decided I was going to make one of the quilts in it.  I did….this quilt.I was so broke for a background I used an old sheet.  Can you believe these curved fans were my first pieced quilt?   I was a garment sewer before so the curves were no big deal.


I still have it….still not quilted.

After that I took some time off quilting.  Then in the late 90’s I took a quilting class.  We made this….

This was small and I stitched in the ditch.

The quilting bug hit then.  If the quilt was small some stitching in the ditch was what I did…if it was big, I tied it.  I had no other means as I was not at all patient enough to do a large quilt on a domestic machine…I admire people that do…but not me.

…so I took a few quilts to a longarmer….but that was more than I could afford with five children and me a stay at home mom.

So, I couldn’t get the look I wanted so I quit quilting….

The kids all were in school, I started childcare and made enough money so I was back to quilting.  Then I bought my Pfaff Grand Quilter with the next generation frame….  Here’s a picture of Kelli using it.

I quilted about 15 quilts on it and loved it…then the thing just went bad.  I HATED that set up.  I cried ALL THE TIME.  It NEVER worked right.  UGH.  I’d have deadlines and I couldn’t get the thing to work.  I was miserable.  Hubby finally told me that I needed to just buy a new one.

That’s when I bought my APQS Millennium.

It was love at first sight.  Truly, this was the machine I needed.  I don’t have problems with this…NONE!

So Donna…that was how I got to where I am today.  I don’t know that I have suggestions for you.  I didn’t sell my Pfaff Grand Quilter.  It’s the machine I piece with now days.  I LOVE it for piecing.  Kelli loves it for piecing too.  It’s a workhorse of a machine and SUPER speedy.  If I had to machine quilt things on my own and if I didn’t have the space or means to get a longarm, I would have a Pfaff Grand Quilter and use the machine only with no frame.  It has a pretty long throat….

…but to be honest, machine quilting is my LEAST favorite part of quilting.  If I were Donna and I knew of a reliable longarmer who was good, quick and reasonable, I’d take my quilts to her.  I’d hire that part out.  I’ve told Hubby if something ever happened to my long arm, I don’t know that I’d buy one again.  Carla from Longarm Quilting Inspirations is close.  She’s reliable and does good work.

That’s the synopsis of my quilting life and how my finishing of quilt tops has evolved.

So readers…..It’s your turn.  What advice to have for Donna?


12 thoughts on “A Reader Asks: Suggestions for Machine Quilting”

  1. It’s so fun to hear some of the story behind your early quilting experiences!! Since I discovered free-motion quilting about 15 years ago, I’ve had fun experimenting with quilting on my domestic machines.
    Here’s are my suggestions for Donna …
    I’ve never tried a long-arm, but I do have 5 (yes, 5) regular sewing machines. Interestingly, only two of those 5 are good for free-motion quilting. Those two have a button or dial that regulates the presser-foot pressure. This way, I can adjust, so there’s very little drag/pressure while I’m trying to move the quilt under the presser foot during the quilting part.
    To wrangle large quilts, I try to quilt one quadrant at a time – start quilting in the middle of the quilt and work outward.
    A few years ago, I learned about Machingers gloves and Supreme Sliders which have revolutionized my quilting – by giving me better control of the quilt while I quilt … I can more easily guide the quilt, rather than having to grab and pull. (I bought my gloves and slider from Leah Day’s website, but they’re also available other places.)
    Those are my tips … I’ve been able to quilt some pretty big quilts on my machines without a problem. I also love hearing others’ tips and tricks with both domestic and long-arm machines.
    Good luck to you!

  2. I quilt all my quilts on my Janome 8200. Before I got it I did then on smaller domestic sewing machines. I started way back in the 90’s doing stich in the ditch and progressed to free motion when I got a machine that dropped the feed dogs. The gloves are a big help, I got the Fons and Porter ones first then just found gardening gloves that worked. The biggest thing I found with doing the quilting by short-arm machines is the basting. You are moving the quilt around a lot and the basting has to be good. When I was first starting machine quilting my go to reference book was The Complete Book of Machine Quilting by Robbie Fanning. It has a lot of stuff I still use today including the straight line quilting of Ernest B. Haight, a real genius of machine quilting.

  3. Perhaps Donna needs to ask herself which is more important for her; piecing or quilting. If piecing is her love and she struggles with machine quilting, quilting by check may be the way to go. If she loves quilting and wants to improve her skill, a different machine (new or used) may be the answer. Straight(ish) line quilting, tying, and hand quilting are also options if you can only afford to quilt by check for those really special quilts. I pushed a queen quilt thru a domestic with a 9 inch throat. Can’t say it was fun but I got it done and the people that got the quilt thought it was fabulous. Of course, what they knew about quilting could fit in a thimble. And most people will be like that. We all would love to quilt like a pro but in reality, it’s mostly other quilters that would be impressed. And as Angela Walters says, “done is better than perfect”.
    Secondly, if they are living in an RV full time, will they be stationary or traveling. RV parks, churches, etc… have tables to spread out on. Quilt guilds can recommend long armers. Besides, quilters were busy working in covered wagons. There is a lovely book “Quilts of the Oregon Trail” by Mary Bywater Cross I recommend.
    Me, I am a topper. I’ve quilted a few on a domestic but still haven’t taken the time to learn FM. And I have a few that I plan to get quilted by check. Happy Trails.

  4. For several reasons I do my own quilting on my Brother 1500 sewing machine. I don’t have room, nor want to spend the money on a long arm machine. I like to complete my quilts myself. Although I appreciate the beautiful workmanship done by longarmers, I personally prefer a simpler finish … probably meandering/stippling is my favorite. Although there is a belief that “the quilting makes the quilt”, I prefer the emphasis to be in the pattern, the colors and the fabrics used. All that being said, like Jo, the actual quilting is my least favorite part of the process. My Brother 1500 has a large throat space and stitches 1500 stitches per minute (in theory, that is … not sure I’d ever sew that fast, LOL). It does a good job with free motion quilting, has a walking foot, and also stitches nicely for piecing. I believe it’s pretty much identical to the Juki machine. They’re both industrial machines (not computerized) and require very little maintenance. Anyway … just my thoughts! Good luck with your choices, and have fun!

  5. Susan the Farm Quilter

    My first toe-dip into the quilting world was 4 place mats for my mom. I had no clue what I was doing, but I certainly used an entire spool of Double-Duty thread with the piecing and quilting (in the ditch when I didn’t know what it was called). After that, my first four quilts were done by check, then I bought an Innova longarm and fell in love! I piece just to have fun stuff to quilt on! If you don’t hate hand work but think that hand quilting takes forever, try using big stitches like sashiko where each stitch is 1/8-1/4″ long. That would be perfect for sitting in the navigator’s seat in an RV.

  6. I enjoy quilting my own quilts. I quilted three 96″ square quilts on a Bernina with a harp space of 6.5″ and a height of 4.5″. The Supreme Slider and gloves make a big difference, but even more important is to have the bed of the machine level with the table, and to support the quilt so it is not hanging down and dragging. If your machine is on a table, build up the surrounding area to the bed of the machine. In the RV, maybe cardboard boxes cut to the correct height and taped together. Eliminate the drag. Use a topstitching needle, 14 or 16. Use a mostly cotton or 80/20 batt. Cotton sticks to cotton. Do not roll your quilt; that log is murder on your shoulders. Instead, fan fold it to the right, puddle it around the needle area and rearrange as needed, i.e., frequently. you can cut the batt into thirds using gentle curves and mark registration marks. Quilt the center to within a few inches of the cut, then fold the fabric back and sew on one side batt piece by hand, or using a zigzag or a triple stitch zz, matching your marks. Carefully pin or spray baste that third of the quilt together and quilt it. Repeat with the final third.
    Many modern quilts are quilted with straight lines, using a walking foot. They look nice.
    I bought a used 17″ Nolting Fun Quilter and frame because my hands hurt after pin basting the quilt. I have 9″ to quilt in and move the quilt back and forth in the frame to quilt larger blocks. Frame quilting takes practice too and challenges your body as much as domestic machine quilting.

  7. Interesting answers. I agree with Candy about preferring the pattern, colors and fabric being the focus of her quilts. I’ve been making smaller quilts and if i quilt them, it’s usually just a meandering type method. If
    i want to quilt a bed size quilt, I might try Joanne’s suggestion of cutting the batting into thirds and quilting the middle first, then attaching the side batting and then proceed with quilting.
    Thanks to all who replied and to Jo for bringing up question.

  8. You are in an RV ????—quilt by hand or quilt by check !! Or only make small wall hanging/table toppers which you can quilt with no hassles on your sewing machine. I just bought an Artistic Quilter SD-16 “sit down” quilting machine–but then I am in a 970 sq ft house :-)

  9. Some quilt shops allow you to “rent” a quilting machine for a certain amount per hour. They may even have a class on how to use their machine. My sister has done that at a quilt shop in Sparta, Wis – Quilt Corner. http://www.quiltcorner.net/ The machine they have is the Handi-Quilter. Check with your local quilt shop to see if they provide this service.

  10. I agree with Deb Mac. If Donna loves the piecing project, just quilt by check. If she loves the quilting (like I do), then it wouldn’t hurt to invest in a machine with a bigger throat. I don’t know how she will fit it in her RV, but I’m sure if it’s important to her, she will find a way!

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