Learn to quilt with your home sewing machine

One of our in-house pattern designers, Sharla, is a whiz at machine quilting. Many of us bring our personal projects to her for quilting because she does such an amazing job at making her machine quilting look like longarm quilting.

Last year she made the Chubby Chicks quilt (which is no small quilt), and quilted the entire thing on her home machine (no longarm!)…

Chubby Chicks quilt in Cheep Talk

She used a combination of Golden Threads quilting paper, freezer paper shapes, stencils, and free-form quilting. Read on to find out what that means!

Machine Quilting Basics

by Sharla Mansius

Quilting on your home sewing machine can be a little intimidating, but there is great satisfaction (and savings) in finishing a quilt all on your own. As with anything, it just takes practice. PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE. Start with something small, or make a sample quilt sandwich and practice stippling and doing loops. I’ve outlined the basics of machine quilting below.

Making the quilt sandwich
To prepare your quilt for machine quilting, baste the quilt backing, batting and quilt top together. 505 Spray and Fix aerosol works well, especially for small quilts, without having to use pins. It is best if you have a large area with good ventilation (or you can go outside).

For large quilts, I like curved basting pins, and I pin about every four to five inches. Then I like to use my walking foot and stitch in the ditch down each row of blocks both vertically and horizontally, removing pins that might be in the way. This will stabilize the quilt and the pins can then be removed, so the design can be quilted without having the pins in the way. If you don’t want these stitches to be permanent you can use a wash-away thread for this step or baste by hand with a needle and thread. You are now ready to quilt the design.

Use the proper feet
You will need a walking foot and a darning (also called free motion) foot for your sewing machine.

With the walking foot, the quilt sandwich moves through the feed dogs evenly for stitching in the ditch and sewing straight quilting lines, such as a crosshatch design.

The darning foot allows free motion quilting with no need to turn the quilt sandwich. You can go forward, backward, and sideways by simply lowering the feed dogs.

Choosing a design
There are many great machine quilting books available with lots of tips and ideas for designs. Stencils are also a great source for quilting designs. I like to use them for border and block designs. You can also find stencils for quilting an all over design.

Your quilting design is a personal aesthetic choice, but I’ve included the following ideas to get you started. Stippling (an all over meander) can be done as a background filler or as an overall design. I also love to do loops as a background filler.

If your quilt is made up of lots of straight pieces, such as a log cabin, you may want to use a design with curves to soften it. If you have appliqué on your quilt, you can outline it with quilting stitches and then continue the design by echo stitching approximately every ¼” out from the outline stitching.

Marking your design
Some basic marking tools that I find helpful are chalk markers, chalk pouncers, and water soluble pens such. Always test a small area to make sure the markings will remove easily.

I like using white chalk on dark fabric and have found that it comes off easily. One of the drawbacks is you have to mark as you go on larger quilts because it does rub off easily. I also like the Clover White marking pen on dark fabrics, just remember it doesn’t show up instantly as you are marking, it shows up as it dries.

I have found that you have to be careful with colored chalk not to mark too heavily since it can be harder to remove. You can mark directly on the fabric with a chalk pouncer or water soluble marking pens and pencils, or you can trace the design on a tear away paper like Golden Threads quilting paper. With this method you don’t have to mark on your quilt, and you just tear the paper away after quilting. This is a good way to practice free motion quilting and get the feel of it.

Look for stencils where the design can be used for continuous line quilting, or trace a design from a book. The first time I did stippling I used a stencil! You can also trace shapes onto freezer paper, then cut out and iron them to the quilt and sew around the shapes and connect them with loops in between.

A few tips before you begin

  • It’s a good idea to start in the middle of the quilt and work your way out to the edges, especially for larger quilts. If you are doing an overall design on a smaller project, you can start at one side and work your way across.
  • Each time you stop to adjust the position of the quilt, leave the needle in the down position to help hold the quilt in the right spot.
  • Leave enough slack around the portion being stitched so that the quilt doesn’t pull but moves with ease as you guide the quilt with your hands.
  • Using quilting gloves will help you to grip the quilt so it will move smoothly.

As you practice, you will develop your own style and learn what works best for you. So start practicing!


  1. Pam Blaz - May 16, 2011

    Thank you for such great information and wonderful pictures of your beautiful quilting. This makes me want to really try doing my own quilting.

  2. Anne Grinley - May 16, 2011

    thank you, that was great…read all the way thru, now I will also check out the totorial…I’m ganna try it…Anne

  3. Cindy Saffell - May 16, 2011

    Thank-you for this information. I have been wanting to try this, but was so afraid of destroying one of my projects.

  4. Karen - May 16, 2011

    thanks for this information, I am a hand quilter for over 25 years and just recently tried to machine a baby quilt – it turned out pretty good with just straight line stitching but if I want to try anything else I will come back and see your links.

  5. Shaparrish - May 18, 2011

    This is great information. When I first started, I too was afraid of ruining my quilt. But it turned out much better than I expected. A tip I have is to make a quilt to use for this purpose to learn on.

  6. Marilyn - May 18, 2011

    Terrific encouragement! You provided several helpful hints on just where and how to get started. I think my Halloween table runner will be my starting point. After all it is only out for a month and I can explain away any mistakes on it just being a ghostly shape! Thanks

  7. Jeanette - May 18, 2011

    I have wondered about marking pens and pencils. I would like to quilt without using the paper with my design on it. Think I will invest in some marking pens. Thanks

  8. Sandy - May 18, 2011

    I’ve been machine quilting with my Juki machine for a few years now. I love your idea of tracing shapes on freezer paperm ironing them on and sewing around and through them. Never thought of that! Anxious to give it a try. Thanks for the tip.
    I have to reiterate what you said about practice, practice, practice. Like any craft, sport or skill, you DO get better each time. Like time on the skis makes a snow skiier better and better, so does practice on your machine will make you a better and better free motion quilter. I started out with very simple lines, patterns and motifs, but now feel confident to try new patterns, new stencils, etc. without hesitation.

  9. Debbie Berenato Samuelson - May 18, 2011

    Oh how beautiful! This absolutely scares me, which is why I have no finished quilts, except for the one that someone else did for me. I will have to try this, just go for it! I am almost done my son’s green block quilt with your fabrics, have to piece the back and I am going to try it (full size), LOL. Thanks for the tips!

  10. Miriam - May 18, 2011

    Thank you for the inspiration! I have 3 quilt tops right now, and feel overwhelmed at ‘where do I start?’
    Your article has helped me immensly.

  11. Sara Snyder - May 18, 2011

    The information was fantastic, but I wish there was a video to show how this is done. I learn much better by showing than by reading . Thank you for your expertise

  12. Sara Snyder - May 18, 2011

    The information was fantastic, but I wish there was a video to show how this is done. I learn much better by showing than by reading . Thank you for your expertise I have straight stitched quilted before, but would like to see how to curve my stitches.

  13. Alberta Johnson - May 18, 2011

    I am going to try this.

  14. Christina Wilson - May 18, 2011

    Genius!!! I hadn’t thought of using wash-away thread!
    I’ve been practicing free motion quilting (again) on 10″ x 10″ practice sandwiches (have done 8 and have 8 more ready to spray baste.
    You mentioned 505 spray and I agree. I’ve tried “off” brands and they gum up my needle and don’t wash out well.
    The practice also lets me try small quantities of batting to see which ones I like best.
    Thank you again for such an informative, fun and encouraging article.

  15. Pamela deMarrais - May 18, 2011

    Excellent tips! I have done some free form stippling, but I have not been able to manage following a pattern. I need to keep practicing. I just noticed the wash away thread in the fabric store yesterday. What a great invention! Any particular gloves that you recommend?

  16. Linda Cowburn - May 18, 2011

    As with everyone above, thank you thankyou and thank you. This article has given me the courage and the tools to strike out and start machine quilting on my domestic machine. Maybe now I can finish some of these projects that are piling up.

  17. Dyann Cox - May 18, 2011

    Great tips! The wash away thread for basting is a terrific idea. You use so many tools that sound like they really help to make the process easier. I have used some of them but I plan to try more variety, it makes me want to get that quilt quilted. Thank you so much for all of your information. Where can I get the pattern for your February hearts quilt and the march quilt?

  18. Jean Works - May 18, 2011

    Your tips have helped me so much. I could say thank you a million times. I am new to quilting and appreciate any tips that experienced people like yourself are willing to send my way. I especially like the freezer paper suggestion and plan to use it on my project. Wash away thread, I never knew such a thing existed. WOW! Please keep posting the tutorials because I need lots of help.

  19. GJ Schlink - May 19, 2011

    Thanks for the tips on using the home sewing machine (hsm) to quilt. I started quilting with my hsm years ago and was doing okay but thought if I had a quilt frame I could do much better. Well, that has not been the case, for many reasons. Reading your tips has refreshed my thoughts of going back to the hsm. I’ve been making quilts for many years now. After reading this article,it is refreshing to discover that even an experienced quilter (piecer) can learn new ways and be encouraged to return to or revisit a technique because someone shared their love of quilting in articles such as this. Thank you

  20. Fran M - May 19, 2011

    Thank you so much for the information as I have done several small pieces but my problem was being able to get the piece to move smoothly through my machine. I am definitely going to try the gloves. I am also going to try the washable thread. Thank you so much for the information. I am feeling more confident so I guess it is time to get back to work and get my projects finished.
    Thank you

  21. Barbara W - May 19, 2011

    I can’t wait to try the wash away thread!

  22. Becky Rosiere - May 21, 2011

    I, too appreciate your sharing your tips. At 2 cents a square inch, I feel that I cannot afford to have my quilts done by even the semi-professional quilters in our area. This will, hopefully, allow me to finish my UFOs. Thank you. I also like the tips on washable thread, freezer-paper cut-outs, and basting sprays. Great tips and ideas!

  23. Patricia McKenzie - May 22, 2011

    Love the quilting. I am trying to learn to do this as I have a lot of material that was given to me and I want to make lap quilts to give to others but the quilting is so hard. I cannot do the hand quilting as it looks terrible. Maybe one day I’ll learn how.

  24. angela - May 25, 2011

    where can I find the Chubby Chicks quilt pattern shown in the photo above. I need a quilt for my niece and it is so very cute. Thanks Angela

  25. Barbara W - June 15, 2011

    I can’t wait to get a top finished so that I can try these ideas. Thank you for the great tips.

  26. Regina Morga - November 7, 2012

    Thanks for the great tips. I can’t afford a longarm quilting machine, and do not really have the space for one, but I have a great sewing machine that should work well for home quilting. Your quilts are beautiful! You have inspired me to get some quilts done!

  27. Jerusha Fields - April 27, 2016

    This was very helpful. I really like the idea of stitch in the ditch, removing pins, then free motioning. I started quilting my first quilt yesterday. I am having a hard time with managing the weight of the quilt, making sure there is no drag, and moving the bulk under the neck of the machine. Any help you can offer? Thanks in advance!