The WWQP How-To's

Machine Quilting Basics


For many quilters, machine quilting is a way to quilt those tops that seem to go together faster than they can be hand quilted. For others, machine quilting is a means of self expression. Machine quilting can range from an almost invisible stitch outlining the quilt blocks to a combination of threads and stitches creating a one of a kind work of art and everything in beween.

All machine quilting falls into one of two catagories, machine guided (feeddogs up) or free motion (feeddogs dropped or covered). Machine guided quilting is used for straight and slightly curved lines. Free motion quilting is used for all other patterns such as feathered stars and stippling. But there are no absolute rules. Some quilters like to use free motion quilting for all their patterns including those made with straight lines while other quilters prefer using the even stitches of machine guided quilts for making feathered wreaths and other similar patterns.

With a few special feet, almost any sewing machine can be used for machine quilting. With a little practice, any quilter can master the art of machine quilting.

Equipment and Supplies

Sewing Machines

Any sewing machine can be used for machine quilting, but some machines may require special considerations or adaptations. Almost all of the newer machines will allow the quilter to drop the feed dogs for free motion quilting. Look in the machine manual for the section on darning. With older machines, it may be necessary to cover the feed dogs using either the feeddog cover that comes with the buttonhole or monogramming attachments or by using a piece of thin plastic or cardboard.

Another consideration is the size of the opening between the needle and the motor of the machine. The larger this opening, the easier it will be to manuever a large quilt. When using a very small machines such as the Singer Featherweight, large quilts may have to be quilted in sections then joined.

A final sewing machine consideration is the size if the machine's motor. A small motor is not made to run continuously for long periods of time as is done when free motion quilting. It may be necessary to stop and allow the motor to cool.


The sewing machine needle is the least expensive, but most important part of the sewing machine. The quilter should start each project with a new needle. As soon as the needle starts to show signs of dulling, popping noise, poorly formed stitches, etc, the needle should be changed. Large quilts may require several needles.

Different types of thread require different needles which are engineered to form the proper stitch with the given thread. Machine quilting requires a sharp needle to penetrate the layers of fabric and batting such as the Schmetz quilting needle. The Schmetz quilting needles come in two sizes; 75/11 for thinner batts and 90/14 for heavier batts. For quilting with special threads such as rayon embroidery thread or metallic thread, the quilter should look for needles designed for these special threads. Schmetz makes both embroidery needles with a larger eye for rayon and silk threads and a metallic needle for metallic threads. The quilter can also use Lammertz Metafil needles for quilting with metallics.


There is a large selection of thread available to today's machine quilter. For the best results, always use a high quality thread. Select a thread to match the project being quilted. The care of the final quilt is the best indicator for the type of thread to use. A rayon or metallic thread would be fine for a wall hanging while a baby quilt that will be washed frequently would be better quilted in a 100% cotton thread. A popular thread for machine quilting is monofilament nylon or "invisible" thread. This thread comes in clear for use with white and light colored fabrics and a smoke color for use with all other color fabrics. A cautionary note: monofilament thread can present a choking hazard for babies and young children. 100% cotton would be a better choice for those quilts.

For most machine quilting the bobbin thread used should be 100% cotton. A general rule is to match the thread to the fabric used on the back of the quilt, but all rules are meant to be broken. A thread which is too heavy to use in a machine's needle can be used in the bobbin and the quilt can be quilted from the wrong side. For the best end results, look for a high quality cotton thread with a long staple (fiber) such as Metrosene or Mettler. Do not use thread designed for hand quilting. This thread has a wax coating which aids hand quilting, but can damage the tension discs on a sewing machine.

Tips for Machine Quilting

© Susan E Traudt 1997-1998

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