Tips for Free-Motion Quilting a Larger Quilt

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Xylophone Quilt 88″ x 92″ by Elizabeth Hartman

The photo above shows a queen bed quilt that I free-motion quilted on my home machine. Finishing a large quilt on your home machine is certainly more challenging than finishing a pillow or baby quilt, but it’s totally do-able!

Continue reading this post for some tips on finishing a large quilt at home.

Make a stable quilt sandwich.

With bigger quilts, this step can be almost as challenging as the quilting itself! It’s important though, so do take the time to carefully layer your quilt top, batting, and backing. Make sure that you smooth out any wrinkles and remove any pesky lint or hair.

If you’re pin basting, arrange your pins in a regular, gridded formation. (You’re going to have to stop and take them all out as you work and you don’t want to be surprised by their location!) For free-motion quilting, I like my basting pins to be about 5” – 6” apart.

Xylophone Quilt Back Detail

Gather the right supplies.

Moving a larger quilt around on your machine is likely to put some stress on the needle. Counter this by using a 90/14 Machine Quilting needle, rather than a smaller needle that you might use for piecing.

Make sure you have enough thread to complete your quilt. (How much you need will vary depending on your quilting pattern.) I also like to wind as many bobbins as I think I’ll need before I start quilting.

If you’ve pin basted your quilt, make sure you have a container nearby to collect the pins. I usually put a wooden stool or smaller folding table to my right and slightly behind me and keep all of my supplies and any beverages there, so they won’t get knocked over by the quilt I’m working on.

Xylophone Quilting Detail

Create a plan of attack.

It’s almost always going to be easier to quilt when the bulk of your project is on the left of or behind the machine, rather than on the right of the needle (under the machine arm) or in front of the machine. Because of this, I usually quilt large quilts in quadrants.

Dividing the quilt into quadrants

Here you can see an imaginary quilt divided into 4 quadrants. If I were quilting this quilt, I would start with the lower-right quadrant and work my way around the quilt counter-clockwise.

Quilting Quadrant 1

For Quadrant 1, I start in the lower-right corner and work my way back and forth across the quadrant, ending in the upper-right corner, and filling the entire space with quilting. During this process, the bulk of the quilt (Quadrants 2, 3, and 4) will remain to the left of my needle or behind the machine. Only parts of Quadrant 1 will be under the machine arm.

Quilting Quadrant 2

Before starting to quilt Quadrant 2, I rotate the quilt 90° to the right (so Quadrant 1 is on the left of Quadrant 2).

For Quadrant 2, I start quilting in what is now the lower-left corner of the quadrant – right next to where I stopped quilting Quadrant 1. I then quilt back and forth across Quadrant 2, ending in the upper-right corner and filling the entire space.

Once again, the 3 quadrants that I’m not working on remain to the left of or behind the machine.

Quilting Quadrant 3

Now, I turn the quilt 90° to the right and repeat the same process to quilt Quadrant 3, starting in the lower-left corner and working to the upper-right corner of the quadrant.

Quilting Quadrant 4

I’ll repeat the same process for Quadrant 4 but because, this time, I’m going to be quilting up to the already-quilted edge of Quadrant 1, I’ll pay special attention to the layers of my quilt sandwich, smoothing them as necessary to ensure that there’s no puckering. If I’ve made a good quilt sandwich, this shouldn’t be an issue, but I think it’s always a good idea to keep an eye on this part of the quilting, maybe taking it a little slower than the other parts.

Pull, don’t push.

You may have noticed that my plan of attack has me starting at the bottom and then working my way up to the top of each quadrant. Because free-motion quilting doesn’t make use of the machine’s feed dogs, it’s not necessary to feed your quilt through the machine from front to back, as you would with normal sewing. In fact, I find that it’s much easier to start with the quilt behind my machine and pull it toward me as I work. This also makes it possible for me to see what I’ve just quilted, rather than continually pushing it away from me.

Manage the weight of the quilt.

Quilts, especially large quilts, can be heavy. If you allow your quilt to hang off the back of a table or rest in your lap, the process of moving it around the sewing machine will become considerably more difficult. Free-motion quilting can be much easier if you take these two simple steps:

  1. Position your machine table against a wall or, ideally, in a corner with one wall to the left of the machine. This will help to keep your quilt from falling off the back or side of the table.
  2. As you work, rest the quilt on your arms, chest, and shoulders, rather than letting it pile into your lap. This can be awkward at first, but having the quilt resting on your body will also make it easier to move the quilt.

Get a good grip.

Here’s a photo of how I hold my quilts while I’m quilting them. (If you look closely, you’ll probably notice that I’m holding a finished quilt, but this is exactly how I held this quilt when I was actually quilting it!)

Holding the quilt during quilting

I have my entire left arm under the quilt and I’m grabbing it from underneath with my left hand. This makes moving the quilt much, much easier because whenever I move my left arm, the quilt moves with it. My right hand is grabbing the quilt from the top, on the right of the needle. (Notice how I’m really grabbing the quilt, not gently pushing it around with my fingers.)

My hands are not right near the needle, but I’m holding the quilt so that the quilting area remains flat. Because I have a firm grip on the quilt and am managing its weight so that nothing is hanging off the table or into my lap, I don’t need to have my fingers right up near the needle and can attack somewhat larger areas than I could if I were trying to push the quilt around with my just my fingertips.

As with anything, you may find that other methods work better for you, but I hope this post gives you some ideas about how you can finish a larger quilt on your home machine!

(The Xylophone quilt pattern is included in my new book, Modern Patchwork.)