Why I’m a machine quilter.

Now, even though my Mom and Grandmas and probably even Great-Grandmas were hand quilters, you may wonder why I chose to forge into the 21st century and become a machine quilter. Maybe not, but if you are interested, my story follows.

After I decided to become a quilter, albeit a temporary one, I recall not even thinking about doing it by machine because that just isn’t how it was done, back in the day. Maybe there was a small part of me that wanted to carry on the hand quilting tradition, after all. After deciding that I must complete at least my own and my dad’s quilt, and maybe a couple others, I selected the tools to try my new craft, to try my hand at what would, supposedly, become a future tradition, and an easy task.

Now, I remember well how difficult it was to do my first crochet projects, so I knew there would be a learning curve. I remember the process well. First, I selected a small swatch of fabric I was sure I’d never want to use on any quilt “I” would ever make (red and gray cotton plaid). With one of mom’s between needles in hand, a big embroidery hoop, batting and backing in place, quilting thread properly knotted on the end, wearing one of the myriad thimbles mom had collected over the years on my middle finger, I attempted my first few stitches. This was so much harder than I remember the quilting ladies at the church group made it look, bent over the quilt as I walked in to say “Hello”, and they went on their merry way quilting along, and talking at the same time!

As I sat there, I tried to recall their movements. Surely, I was missing something. Think, Sue, think, how did they do it? For the life of me, all I could remember is them quilting along, knotting, tying off and loading a new needle as if done by some kind of magic, never missing a beat, or even a syllable as they talked, up, down, up, down, perfect little stitches. Hmm, one never to back away from a challenge, I forged on.

After half an hour and having only achieved about 6-8 inches of quilting, and not good quality at that, I set it aside and realized, it would potentially, at this rate, take me a year to complete one quilt, let alone the many potential projects for myself, my dad, and the family. It was then I started searching for a different way.

How did I stumble upon the term “free-motion quilting” – I don’t really remember now. Maybe I was searching YouTube videos on quilting tutorials. I am only certain that I browsed the internet with a passion for learning and found the idea – “Hey, maybe I can do this by machine!”

But, even after watching a couple of YouTube videos on that topic, I still wasn’t convinced I could do either hand or machine quilting. I searched with fervor, machine quilting or free-motion quilting, a rather new term to me; because I was sure that I could never make all the quilts I wanted to make by hand quilting.

It took much more research than I care to admit, and a couple more attempts at hand-quilting, and watching supposed tutorials on free motion quilting, before I found the Free-Motion Quilting Project, Leah Day, on either her web-site, blog, or YouTube. http://freemotionquilting.blogspot.com/

I just have to say that it was her well narrated tutorials, her attitude of “do whatever works for you”, her using polyester embroidery thread instead of cotton, not dropping the feed dogs, and just her general attitude that anyone could quilt on a domestic sewing machine that allowed me the courage to attempt free-motion quilting. Never one to shy away from a certain challenge (did I say that before?), I slapped together a quilt sandwich, purchased a free motion foot, and went to town on my $99 Sears Kenmore sewing machine. Particularly, I remember Leah’s site being helpful because she mentioned the notion that you didn’t have to drop or cover up the feed dogs, and I didn’t know where the drop feed dogs was, or even if I had one, on my Kenmore.

I attempted the basic stippling, and my stiches were rather un-uniform. I skipped stiches, went too fast, went to slow, moved the fabric too little or too much, but after doing about an 18” x 18” piece, I wanted to try another. It was at this junction, when I was changing a bobbin, that I found the drop feed dogs on my machine. Wala! I was in business now! I slapped together another small quilt sandwich from scraps I never thought I would use, and went at it again. This time, I had a bit more confidence; after all, I’d already done one 18” x 18” piece!

I noticed right away that this needle down thing was kind of important, because I didn’t have it. Still, I learned to stop and put the needle down before repositioning my hands on the fabric, even though it was a pain in the you know what. I learned that I needed more space in the throat or harp of the machine almost immediately, even on the 18 x 18 swatches. Having no choice in the matter, as I wasn’t going to purchase a new machine just to figure this free motion stuff out, I trudged on.

After a couple more quilt sandwiches, I was ready to do an actual quilt. Now, I didn’t have anything particular in mind, and I wasn’t going to attempt mine or Dad’s queen-sized quilts first off, but my Mom had in her stash a yard of fabric that was what I thought, a cheater panel. Actually, it was to make pillows or something, but it had four squares with pumpkins on black, I thought, wouldn’t that make a nice lap blanket. I had already learned about lap blankets from Aunt Liz while giving some of Mom’s stuff away, as she took a little 36” x 36” bow tie number to “make into a lap blanket for the nursing home”.

I found some appropriate backing, orange, of course, and made a quilt sandwich with some of the batting Mom had in her stash. I outlined the pumpkins, did stippling on the center parts, slapped on a binding doing everything pretty much wrong. I can’t remember all the details, but let’s just say I should have watched more videos on everything before I attempted anything! In hindsight, I figured, it would make a nice nursing home lap blanket, and those old folks wouldn’t care or wouldn’t be able to see the horrible quilting, binding, or stitching. I was rather proud of myself for having made “a quilt” even if small and I was being charitable to boot!

Autumn lap blanket

Now, I had two quilts to do, but I still didn’t think I was ready for one of those, so I did another lap blanket. This one was also a cheater type panel, with four cats. They had some cross stitching on them, so I took them to my embroidery hoop and decided I would make a lap blanket for Ashley, because she loved kitties. I cross-stitched them in the colors of her current kitties and a couple we had in the past. After doing that, I found a nice piece of old, white, really soft cotton to use for the back, some batting, and made another sandwich.

Kitty lap blanket

This time, I had a probably 100 yards of quilting under my belt, so I was confident I could do a decent job. Even though this lap blanket wasn’t perfect, I learned quite a bit from the first one making this one at least 10 times better. I did a much better job on the quilting and the binding, naturally, of course, watching even more tutorials before I did these finishing touches.

On to my quilt, because I didn’t want to ruin the leaf blocks my Mom had done (for my Dad’s quilt), and it was quite a challenge. My Kenmore has a whole 6” throat space, and this is a queen size quilt. Regardless, once again, I learned a lot, tried out a few things, stitch in the ditch, shadowing, and even drew on some quilt designs with washable markers and stencil templates.

My embroidered quilt

Still not ready to buy a new machine, though I had scoped out a specific one with a 9” throat, I moved on to Dad’s quilt. Also a queen size, this time, I was able to manage better, but I knew, this Kenmore’s days were numbered for free motion quilting, or any quilting over a throw size.


Then, onto my son’s strip quilt, which was all stitch in the ditch, and even being a full size, was beyond the true scope of my Kenmore. However, I was able to complete it, and even add a nice zig zag clef, as it was a musical quilt.

Musical strip quilt

One more quilt top Mom had finished on the Kenmore, also a queen size, and at this time, I was ready to call myself a machine quilter and get something that would make the task much easier. Ah, but that’s a story for another post.

25 Patch

Q-Tip #4 – The rules in quilting – there are no rules and there are no quilting police.

Actually, some would say there are rules, but they are more like “guidelines”, and some with very good reason. After all, if you are making a quilt to last, following certain quilting and care guidelines will add to the longevity of the quilt. While no one is out there to arrest you or put you in quilter’s jail for anything you do differently than you “should” or what is considered “good quilting” or “the normal way” – don’t be afraid to buck the system to do “what works best for you.” Because my machine didn’t like cotton thread and I didn’t know where the feed dogs were, that one phrase truly allowed me the license to become the fairly savvy machine quilter I am today.

So, there you have it – I am a machine quilter because basically I CAN do it! I was able to pick it up fairly quickly or maybe I was just determined to “get it” so I could get on to the true matter at hand – not whether the quilt was quilted by hand or by machine – but finishing quilt tops into actual quilts.

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