How-to Succeed at Straight Line Quilting

April 27, 2016By Heather JonesQuilting, Sewing, Tips & Tricks, Tutorial 6 Comments Opinion by Paid Consultant

Straight line quilting is one of my favorite types of quilting of all time. It’s such a great allover pattern that gives a clean, modern feeling to a quilt design, and I especially love dense quilting with lots of lines. I’m excited to share some of my tips for straight line quilting in this tutorial with you. You’ll need a quilt top, a quilt back, your choice of batting (I prefer low-loft cotton batting), rotary cutter and mat, safety pins, blue painters tape, and your machine with a walking foot. I’m using the Brother PQ1500SLPRW which is a dream to sew and quilt with.

Quilt trimmed and squared

To begin, square up the top of the quilt that you will be working on. This is a mini improvisational quilt top that measures about 16 ½” square.

3 detail of blue tape and quilt back

Your quilt backing needs to be a few inches larger on all sides than the quilt top, no matter what size quilt that you are working on. My mini quilt measures 16 ½” square and I’m using a backing that measures 20” square. Lay the quilt back on a flat surface, right side down and use pieces of blue painters tape around the perimeter to hold the edges in place. Using your hands, smooth out any wrinkles or air bubbles that may occur, pull the fabric taut, and secure with pieces of tape. This is the first layer in the quilt sandwich that we need to make, which consists of the quilt back, the batting, and the quilt top.

4 batting on backing

Place the batting on top of the quilt backing, in the center of it. My batting was cut to 19” square for the size of my project, so it’s larger than the quilt top, but smaller than the quilt back. Follow that guide no matter what size of a quilt you are working on; the batting should be a bit larger on all sides as the quilt top, and a bit smaller on all sides as the quilt backing. Use your hand to smooth out any wrinkles or air bubbles as you place the batting down, just as you did with the quilt backing. The cotton batting will cling to the fabric, making it easy to guide any wrinkles out.

5 quilt top on sandwich

Place the quilt top on top of the batting, in the center of it, and right side up. Smooth out any wrinkles with your hands as you set it down.

6 safety pins

Once all three layers are in place, pin baste them together. You can use regular safety pins, but I prefer and recommend special quilter’s pins, which have a slight bend in the part of the pin that pushes through the fabric. This little bend in the metal makes pinning through all three layers much easier.

7 pinning sandwich together

Start basting in the center of the quilt, and smooth your hand across the layers as you place each pin, making sure that the layers stay smooth throughout the process.

8 all pins in sandwich

I am pretty generous with my pinning, and I place a pin about every 2-3 inches across the quilt, no matter the size of it. Once you have pin basted the quilt sandwich, carefully remove the painters tape that is holding down the quilt backing and move the sandwich to the side.

10 test sandwich

Before I begin quilting, I like to take a couple of scraps of the fabrics that I used for the quilt top and backing, and a scrap of the batting I’m using to make a sample swatch sandwich that I use to test my stitching. By testing the stitching on a swatch, I can see if I need to adjust the tension of my sewing machine, the stitch length, etc. Place the three pieces together like you did with the quilt sandwich, with the fabrics on the top and bottom and the batting in the middle. Since this is small and the batting clings to the fabrics, there is no need to pin baste this test swatch sandwich.

11 testing stitches

Take the swatch sandwich to the machine and start sewing, making sure that the machine has a new needle each time you get ready to quilt. As this was the first time that I quilted with the Brother PQ1500SLPRW, I wanted to see how the quilting lines changed with different stitch lengths.

12 lines on test swatch

Sew one line along the swatch at the first setting you want to test. Then, remove the swatch, change the stitch length setting, and sew another line. The swatch can also be used to check that the stitch quality and tension are correct by looking at the stitches on both the front and the back of the test swatch. Make any adjustments to the tension and stitch length that are needed until you are happy with the stitching on the test swatch before you move onto your quilt.

13 test swatch

You can see my lines of quilting with different stitch lengths here. I started with a stitch length of 2 at the far right, the next line of quilting is with a stitch length of 3, then 4, and finally 5 to the left.

14 4 on dial

I liked the look of stitch length 4 the best, so that is what I used for my project.

15 walking foot

In addition to a new needle, I always use a walking foot when I do straight line quilting. It can be done without a walking foot, but in my experience, things go a lot more smoothly with one. The walking foot has built-in feed dogs that help move the top layers of fabric through your machine, while the feed dogs of your machine move the bottom layers through. This helps ensure the layers of fabric and batting don’t shift while you are quilting.

16 first line of quilting

Once you have checked the stitch quality and length on the sample swatch, you are ready to quilt. I always start on the right side of the quilt and make a line of stitching, keeping the walking foot against the edge of the quilt top, and going all the way from the top to the bottom of the quilt.

17 second line of quilting

After the first line of quilting is finished, I use that line as my guide, and place my walking foot alongside the stitches as I quilt my next line.

18 third line of quilting

Keep quilting in this manner, one line at a time, along the entire length of the quilt, using the previous line of quilting as a placement guide for the walking foot. Depending on your machine, this produces lines of quilting that are approximately ¼” apart.

19 stitch past top into batting

As you are quilting, be sure to start the line of stitching just above the quilt top, and be sure to end it just past the end of the quilt top to make sure that the entire top is quilted.

20 remove pins as needed120b remove pins as needed

As you move across the surface of the quilt top, remove the pins as needed, making sure not to hit them with the walking foot. I typically remove each one when I’m about 1” to 1 ½” away.

21 quilting the top

Some people prefer to start straight line quilting in the middle of their project, and work their way out to the side, and then repeat and quilt the other side. However, I’ve always worked on mine how I’ve shown in this tutorial, no matter the size, by starting to quilt on one side and moving along the top all the way to the other side. Because I take great care in basting and preparing my quilt, I have never had fabric shift much by working in this manner, on both large quilts as well as small wall hanging-sized quilts like this one. However, if you are working on a larger quilt, I would recommend using a pair of quilting gloves to help you move the fabric through the machine. The gloves have a rubber coating on the palms that help your hands grip the fabric and maneuver it easier through the machine. They aren’t necessary with something of this size, though.

22 rolling up quilt as you move along the top

As you work along the quilt, roll up the end that you have already quilted to make it easier to pass through the sewing machine. Continue to add rows of stitching until the entire quilt is quilted.

23 front quilted

The dense quilting is so amazing, in my opinion. It gives so much texture to a quilt, and yet it is minimal enough that it doesn’t distract from the design of the quilt, especially when a coordinating thread is used. Here’s the front of the quilt after the quilting was finished.

24 back quilted

And here’s the back. No puckers, just smooth, even stitches, and great texture.

Note: If you want to do straight line quilting, but not as dense as my example, you can mark lines on the quilt front with a marking pen to use as a guide. If this is your choice, I would recommend a chalk marker, hera marker, or a water soluble marker to draw on the quilt front, marking out your lines before you create your quilt sandwich. Alternatively, you can also use painters tape to mark the quilting lines as well.

25 trim off excess batting and backing

Once the quilting is finished, use a straight edge and a ruler to trim off the excess batting and backing fabric. Then you are ready to bind the quilt, and I’ll share my technique of machine binding with you soon!

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