Overcoming quilting anxiety with a test run

After finishing my “digging deeper” quilt top, I felt both excited and nervous about quilting it. I was excited, because I wanted to explore and learn techniques that can heighten and add depth to a quilt design. But I also felt nervous, because I still have very little experience and consequently little intuition for what will work with specific materials and designs. After putting time and thought into the quilt top, I didn’t want to destroy it with bad quilting. 

So I devised a strategy to build up confidence: I quickly made a little mini quilt top from leftover blocks to try out and practice quilting these blocks. The key was to move quickly and not get too attached. It actually worked perfectly and allowed me to enjoy the whole process.

Finished mini with size comparison

I started with some straight-line quilting –– testing out my recently acquired walking foot. My first goal was to stabilize the quilt sandwich (if this term sounds strange, see this post for explanations of some basic quilting terms), so I did some simple “stitch in the ditch” quilting along the borders of the squares in the pieced middle. Because I wanted to have continuous straight lines on the left and right borders, I did not extended the horizontal grid lines all the way out into the border. This might have been a mistake, because the top fabric stretched significantly despite pretty dense basting (you can see several wavy seems in the border area).


Next, I was eager to try out my new free motion quilting foot. I had watched several videos explaining how free motion quilting is supposed to work and it looked easy there. But it is really, really hard! In free motion quilting you are controlling all the movement of the fabric instead of the machine pulling it past the needle. This means you are not only controlling the path along which you sew, but also the stitch length. Imagine you were trying to draw by fixing a felt pen above a piece of paper (such that the tip of the pen touches the surface of the paper) and then move the paper to create a drawing: Everything is supposed to be one long line and if you sit too long in one place, you make a blobby mess (the quilting analogue are “thread nests”). The process reminds me a little of ink painting and it shares the same meditative nature. You need to really focus but not over-think your movements.

In this mini quilt I limited the free motion quilting to the background of the pieced squares. My first attempt was a total mess (see the little corner in the image below). I had to take a couple of deep breath and focus, clearly visualizing a design in my head. It also got significantly easier with practice. Still, I’m not sure I can use this technique with a larger quilt, which is harder to move around (I don’t have an extension table for my machine yet).

Quilting detail

After filling all the “background” in the squares of the pieced center, I outlined the spines with straight line (walking foot) quilting and extended two spines out into the border. Then I quilted the rest of the border with relatively narrow, slightly irregular vertical lines, which are easy to do and still give a nice texture.

The texture resulting from the quilting is quite beautiful (and fun to touch!!), which I think is actually easier to appreciate on the back of the quilt (I used very simple white cotton for the back).

The back of the quilt

To finish the quilt, I used single folded binding, following this great tutorial. I attached the binding on the front with my machine and then closed it up on the back by hand (it’s always nice to do a bit of hand sewing…). On the upper two corners I inserted small “holders” to make hanging the quilt a little easier. To add interest, I inserted a small pieced segment into the binding and positioned it on the bottom edge. This section gave me some trouble during the hand-stitching, because it is rather bulky (It taught me why one should really attach binding strips to each other with with diagonal seams…).

All in all, I’m very happy with this “test run quilt”. Regarding the bigger “digging deeper” quilt project and beyond, these are the things I’ve learned:

  1. Not being too attached to a project helps with being creative and opens you up to try new things.
  2. When mixing different fabric types (like here the quilting cotton and the linen/cotton mix that I used in the border), you need to be super careful to evenly feed the fabric to the machine during quilting, because they can stretch to a different degree.
  3. There are many things to consider when deciding on a quilting design. For example how to stabilize the quilt sandwich to prevent puckering, choosing matching versus non-matching thread for a given fabric or how to limit the amounts of starts and stops in the quilting design.
  4. Free motion quilting is hard, but fun.
  5. If I want to do free motion quilting with larger quilts, I would need an extension table for my machine.

When I return to my larger quilt, I’ll start with a stabilizing grid that spans the whole space and I will go slowly to make sure the top and bottom layers feed evenly during this process, preventing puckering and wavy seams. Probably free motion quilting will have to wait until I have an extension table, but I might try some hand quilting techniques.

2 thoughts on “Overcoming quilting anxiety with a test run

  1. Danice G says:

    It is beautiful. And, the coral (color of the year) is even in there. I also love using the walking foot. ‘Still do free-motion quilting, but the walking foot is equally awesome.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hannah says:

      Thanks so much Danice! The fact that the Pantone color of the year was part of the palette was a total, though fortuitous, accident 😉 I had picked the palette after being inspired by Carolyn Friedlander’s carkai collection over two years ago… To me coral feels really fresh and modern if combined with the right combination of colors!

      I just got a table for my sewing machine, which I think will make the process of quilting (the bulk managing part of it) a whole lot more fun. Unfortunately I have been pretty busy with piecing of a project that needs to be done by the end of this month, so quilting of other projects (and posting here) has been postponed.


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