100 Days – Week of Quilting – Tips for Free-Motion Quilting a Larger Quilt

Xylophone Quilt 88″ x 92″ by Elizabeth Hartman

The photo above shows a queen bed quilt that I free-motion quilted on my home machine. Finishing a large quilt on your home machine is certainly more challenging than finishing a pillow or baby quilt, but it’s totally do-able!

Continue reading this post for some tips on finishing a large quilt at home.

Make a stable quilt sandwich.

With bigger quilts, this step can be almost as challenging as the quilting itself! It’s important though, so do take the time to carefully layer your quilt top, batting, and backing. Make sure that you smooth out any wrinkles and remove any pesky lint or hair.

If you’re pin basting, arrange your pins in a regular, gridded formation. (You’re going to have to stop and take them all out as you work and you don’t want to be surprised by their location!) For free-motion quilting, I like my basting pins to be about 5” – 6” apart.

Xylophone Quilt Back Detail

Gather the right supplies.

Moving a larger quilt around on your machine is likely to put some stress on the needle. Counter this by using a 90/14 Machine Quilting needle, rather than a smaller needle that you might use for piecing.

Make sure you have enough thread to complete your quilt. (How much you need will vary depending on your quilting pattern.) I also like to wind as many bobbins as I think I’ll need before I start quilting.

If you’ve pin basted your quilt, make sure you have a container nearby to collect the pins. I usually put a wooden stool or smaller folding table to my right and slightly behind me and keep all of my supplies and any beverages there, so they won’t get knocked over by the quilt I’m working on.

Xylophone Quilting Detail

Create a plan of attack.

It’s almost always going to be easier to quilt when the bulk of your project is on the left of or behind the machine, rather than on the right of the needle (under the machine arm) or in front of the machine. Because of this, I usually quilt large quilts in quadrants.

Dividing the quilt into quadrants

Here you can see an imaginary quilt divided into 4 quadrants. If I were quilting this quilt, I would start with the lower-right quadrant and work my way around the quilt counter-clockwise.

Quilting Quadrant 1

For Quadrant 1, I start in the lower-right corner and work my way back and forth across the quadrant, ending in the upper-right corner, and filling the entire space with quilting. During this process, the bulk of the quilt (Quadrants 2, 3, and 4) will remain to the left of my needle or behind the machine. Only parts of Quadrant 1 will be under the machine arm.

Quilting Quadrant 2

Before starting to quilt Quadrant 2, I rotate the quilt 90° to the right (so Quadrant 1 is on the left of Quadrant 2).

For Quadrant 2, I start quilting in what is now the lower-left corner of the quadrant – right next to where I stopped quilting Quadrant 1. I then quilt back and forth across Quadrant 2, ending in the upper-right corner and filling the entire space.

Once again, the 3 quadrants that I’m not working on remain to the left of or behind the machine.

Quilting Quadrant 3

Now, I turn the quilt 90° to the right and repeat the same process to quilt Quadrant 3, starting in the lower-left corner and working to the upper-right corner of the quadrant.

Quilting Quadrant 4

I’ll repeat the same process for Quadrant 4 but because, this time, I’m going to be quilting up to the already-quilted edge of Quadrant 1, I’ll pay special attention to the layers of my quilt sandwich, smoothing them as necessary to ensure that there’s no puckering. If I’ve made a good quilt sandwich, this shouldn’t be an issue, but I think it’s always a good idea to keep an eye on this part of the quilting, maybe taking it a little slower than the other parts.

Pull, don’t push.

You may have noticed that my plan of attack has me starting at the bottom and then working my way up to the top of each quadrant. Because free-motion quilting doesn’t make use of the machine’s feed dogs, it’s not necessary to feed your quilt through the machine from front to back, as you would with normal sewing. In fact, I find that it’s much easier to start with the quilt behind my machine and pull it toward me as I work. This also makes it possible for me to see what I’ve just quilted, rather than continually pushing it away from me.

Manage the weight of the quilt.

Quilts, especially large quilts, can be heavy. If you allow your quilt to hang off the back of a table or rest in your lap, the process of moving it around the sewing machine will become considerably more difficult. Free-motion quilting can be much easier if you take these two simple steps:

  1. Position your machine table against a wall or, ideally, in a corner with one wall to the left of the machine. This will help to keep your quilt from falling off the back or side of the table.
  2. As you work, rest the quilt on your arms, chest, and shoulders, rather than letting it pile into your lap. This can be awkward at first, but having the quilt resting on your body will also make it easier to move the quilt.

Get a good grip.

Here’s a photo of how I hold my quilts while I’m quilting them. (If you look closely, you’ll probably notice that I’m holding a finished quilt, but this is exactly how I held this quilt when I was actually quilting it!)

Holding the quilt during quilting

I have my entire left arm under the quilt and I’m grabbing it from underneath with my left hand. This makes moving the quilt much, much easier because whenever I move my left arm, the quilt moves with it. My right hand is grabbing the quilt from the top, on the right of the needle. (Notice how I’m really grabbing the quilt, not gently pushing it around with my fingers.)

My hands are not right near the needle, but I’m holding the quilt so that the quilting area remains flat. Because I have a firm grip on the quilt and am managing its weight so that nothing is hanging off the table or into my lap, I don’t need to have my fingers right up near the needle and can attack somewhat larger areas than I could if I were trying to push the quilt around with my just my fingertips.

As with anything, you may find that other methods work better for you, but I hope this post gives you some ideas about how you can finish a larger quilt on your home machine!

(The Xylophone quilt pattern is included in my new book, Modern Patchwork.)

67 thoughts on “100 Days – Week of Quilting – Tips for Free-Motion Quilting a Larger Quilt

  1. THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU for the great tips to free motion quilting a big quilt!!!! AWESOME quilt :)

  2. Trying to summon the courage to have a go – new to quilting but this is inspirational and makes it look possible – thanks

  3. I found this post to be extremely insightful. I do a lot of fmq (mostly because I have worn out my walking foot and a new one is $50) so everything I’ve made in the past few months has to be fmq. I never thought of starting with the quilt behind the machine and pulling, but that makes total sense to me and I’m going to give it a try with a quilt top I finished yesterday. I usually quilt mine in “swaths” horizontally across the quilt from one end to the other. Thanks for the great post!

  4. I haven’t said this, but I really appreciate all the inspiring, informative posts from these 100 days of quilting series.
    Thank you!

  5. Very interesting, thanks much for sharing your technique. Large quilts are challenging indeed on a home machine. One think I’m curious about, You start at an outside corner of each quadrant, not a corner near the center of the quilt, so the old “start in the center and work towards the edges” don’t seem to be a concern. No issues with wrinkles?
    Lovely quilt, by the way.

    • It depends on what kind of pattern you’re planning but, for an allover pattern, I’ve found that it’s not really necessary to start FMQ in the center of the quilt. As long as you’ve made a good quilt sandwich, there shouldn’t be any issues. (Remember that the darning/quilting foot used for FMQ doesn’t press down like a walking foot. It just kind of hops around on top of the quilt, so spreading/warping isn’t an issue with FMQ like it can be with walking foot quilting.)

  6. Wow, this is an extremely helpful post! Coming just when it’s needed. I too, want to thank all of you who’ve worked so hard on this 100 days of quilting, I have learned so much! Have you all thought about turning this into a book?

  7. Brilliant post! So methodical. Thank you Elizabeth! I’ve been quilting for a number of years and dread or avoid FMQ. You’ve just given me the enouragement I needed to tackle the quilting beast again!

  8. Thank you so much for these excellent tips. I have been putting off quilting a large quilt for almost a year because I thought it would be too difficult. I feel I can mange it now.

  9. Thank you — very helpful. One question, though — How do you manage to take out the pins as you come to them if you have your left arm under the quilt and are holding tight with your right? Many thanks.

    • I have to shift and move the quilt a few times within each quadrant, so it’s not like my arm is trapped under there permanently. I just put it back under each time I’ve cleared a new area of pins and move on to the next part. I don’t take out pins one at a time. Generally, I’ll clear an area of about a square foot, quilt that area, and then move on.

  10. Can’t wait to try holding the quilt this way…wrestling them with my fingertips is about to ruin my poor back. Thank you for the blinding ray of what should be (but totally wasn’t, to me at least) common sense!

  11. Wow, thank you so much for this explanation. I am a beginner and hate the idea of sending a quilt I make go off to a long arm quilter. I have sewn garments for 40 years and love the whole process of beginning to end. I would not feel like I made it, if I did not quilt it myself.

  12. This is a great tutorial, Elizabeth. Very, very helpful for those bigger quilts. You are a huge inspiration!

  13. Thank you for this post! A friend recently asked me to make a queen sized quilt for her and I had pretty much given up on the idea of quilting it myself, but this post makes me want to give it a try!

  14. Great tips, thank you! It’s also going into my file of justifications on why I need a machine with a much bigger throat because I can see how much space you have to work in compared to mine! I think I could get my hand into it like that but it’d be tight!

  15. I love all your great tips ,and will try to follow them on my next undertaking. I am planning on spray basting the quilt, do you object to this method, and would you tell us why if you do? It just seems that putting it on your design wall, and spraying each layer, is so much faster, and would keep the layers together more tightly..maybe I’m wrong..

    • I’m not a fan of spray basting. I don’t think it makes a very sound quilt sandwich and I would rather use pins, which don’t require spraying chemicals and can be used again and again. When I make my sandwiches, I first smooth the top over the batting, trim the batting to size (a little bigger than the top) and roll it into a tube. Then, after I’ve taped my quilt back down to the floor, it’s easy to unroll the batting and top onto the back, making sure that everything is smooth.

  16. Wow – it is like an A-HA moment – brilliant to keep rotating the quilt so that the bulk is on the table. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

  17. Thank you so much for sharing this technique! I’m fairly new to quilting and I’ve been mystified by how easily everyone makes free motion quilting look. I can’t wait to try this out – thank you thank you thank you!!

  18. Great post! Your diagrams and photos were very helpful. Thanks for all the effort you put into this tutorial.

  19. This post has so much great information. One day I would love to make a queen sized quilt for me bed. Now I won’t feel so intimidated by the thought of quilting it on my machine at home. You always share such clear, thoughtful and helpful advice! Thanks so much!

  20. Thank you for these great tips. I am anxious to try it out and hopefully it work well for me too!

  21. Thank you for your great tips! I have 3 twin sized quilts almost ready for quilting and these tips will help me a lot!

  22. thank you so much for the advice. i have 2 large quilts just laying around because i wasn’t sure how to get them quilted i think i will give it a try on my machine….thanks again!

  23. Thank you for sharing your technique. I am encouraged to try this on my next quilt. BTW- which Viking machine are you using?
    Thank you!

    • It’s a Mega Quilter, which is a high-speed straight stitch machine. I don’t think they make it anymore, but it’s the same as a Janome 1600p and similar to Juki TL98Q.

  24. THANK YOU!! I have my first “bigger than a crib quilt” (large twin) ready to machine quilt and I’ve been rolling it and folding in different configurations on and off for weeks (still with no stitching inserted) trying to develop a plan of attack. YOU HAVE SAVED THE DAY. I can totally see how this method will work with my large quilt, and sewing space (against a wall, yay!) Genius.

  25. Thanks for these great tips! I wouldn’t have thought to divide up my quilt this way — I was locked into my notion that I had to start in the middle and go completely up and down. This will be so much easier! :)

  26. This is such a helpful post! I’m about to baste and FMQ my first twin size bed quilt and have been hesitating out of “fear”!!! Silly, I know but now I feel I’m ready to take this on!! Thank you!! BTW, I love the quilt you show here, can’t wait for the new book!

  27. Thanks for explaining your method – there’s some tips in there that I’ll definitely use! I also find that my quilting gloves help a lot.

  28. Thanks so much for the info, I understand it! I’ve been quilting for almost 4 years, and I’m going to attempt free motion for the first time, I’ll use your techinque, this I can try to do.

  29. Another really helpful tool for fmq is the cotton gloves with tiny rubber gripper dots. It allows you to have aslightly lighter grip on the quilt, so less shoulder tension and teeth grinding!

  30. wow….I am just getting ready to do my daughters first king sized quilt. I have done a queen size,but felt a bit daunted by the bigger one. Your instructions make me brave!!!

  31. Thank you for this timely tutorial. I have just finished a queen sized quilt and was wondering how I was going to handle it. It will be a lot easier than I was thinking.

  32. Thank you, very good blog, I have been free motion quilting for 10 years now and have done over 50 quilts, I am a real big fan of fusiable batting. I know it takes longer to iron the 3 layers smooth, than it does to quilt it, but it does stay put. I have quilted 80X80 quilts with it. What is your thoughts on fusiable batting? The only hard part about it is finding a supplier.
    Barb

  33. Thank you for this informative post. I’ve been really working on improving my machine quilting. The quadrant method and working from the outside to the inside seems a little intimidating, but I may give it a try on the next project. Anything that may help! Have a super day!

  34. Thanks for the heads up of quilting on home sewing machine. I have looked for this kind of post not only writing,but showing us the way.
    Cannot wait to quilt my new finished quilt. Will keep checking back for more great tips. Thanks so much again..

  35. Do you know where I might find any advice on cutting a quilt in 4 pieces to quilt it and then re-assembling the quarters. I have made a quilt top that is 120×95 and it’s just too big for me to manage at home on my machine. I am contemplating cutting it and then sewing the four portions back together once quilted but can’t find any advice or examples of this online anywhere?

    Thanks very much
    Norma

    • I would hate to see a beautiful quilt top cut up but, if you’re wanting to do a quilt-as-you-go method, a web search for “quilt as you go” will probably turn up some helpful results.

  36. Great demo, but an aid to increase your grip, such as rubber finger tips, “quilting” or rubber coated assembly gloves will increase your grip significantly and reduce wear and tear on your joints! Add a silicone sheet (made for quilting, or pastry) taped to cover the entire bed of the machine further improves ease of movement.
    I have a “suite” of small folding tables that I put up to increase my quilt holding space around my quilting machine… they come down when i’m done, and are easy to store when not needed… Nice presentation!

    • Thank you for sharing your experience. I personally hate having anything on my hands when I quilt, but it is definitely helpful to some!

  37. I always was told to quilt from the center of the quilt out because the quilt could pucker if you started at an edge. I will tell you I have always had trouble quilting large quilts no matter what. I can pin the quilt to death and I still have shifting most of the time. So frustrating when my top comes out perfect and then the quilting can sometimes destroy it, but I don’t know there’s going to be puckering until sometimes 1/4-1/2 through the quilting process. I have been so frustrated that I gave up large quilts, yet even lap size are a challenge at times. I have tried quilt-as-you-go which is great while the blocks are small, but then trying to piece the long sections together is also where things move and shift. I have even hand basted to avoid this and while it works a bit better, it’s still not perfect. I know practice makes perfect, but how many quilts do I need to ruin first? And all the time and expense is heart breaking. I do manage to have some of my things come out just great though. So I don’t understand what or when I am doing something wrong. If I knew, I would make sure to do or not do certain things to achieve great results each time. It always looks so easy when others show a tutorial. Thanks so much for your great tutorials. I know there isn’t an answer for me, but wondered if others have this same problem or if you started out having problems like this too?

    • Daryl,
      Quilting from the center is the conventional wisdom but, after a LOT of practice and experimenting, I’ve come to the conclusion that it doesn’t necessarily apply if you a) make a good, stable quilt sandwich, and b) free motion quilt. Free-motion quilting doesn’t cause the same kind of shifting that straight line quilting with a walking foot can.

      If your layers are shifting by a noticeable amount and/or puckering, it’s possible that your quilt sandwiches aren’t stable enough. You mention that you’re using a lot of pins, and I think that’s a good idea, but I would definitely recommend that you pin from the center, in a regular gridded arrangement. Using a higher-quality natural-fiber batting that will naturally cling to the fabric will also be helpful. Good luck!

  38. Have just used your handling and directional method and feel that it really works for me. Many thanks for taking the time to make such great instructions.
    Annie

  39. Loved seeing how the Quilt Con quilt came together! I also loved the free motion pattern you picked! I can’t wait to try that on one, too. Aloha.

  40. Just read this, as I’m trying to start “real” quilting vs. stitch-in-the-ditch. For some reason, there are very few machine quilting classes in my area. Thank you so much for the tips, especially the idea of pulling the quilt toward you with free-motion quilting. I probably would have stumbled upon the idea eventually, but I know you saved me months of frustration before I did! LOVE your blog. : )

  41. When I started quilting I was taught to baste on a frame with thread and needle (I’m only in my 40′s!) I was happy to adopt pin basting. Only recently have I adopted spray basting, and I don’t think it is as secure, but it saves so much time I use it for everything but a quilt that would be entered in a show. If you spray baste, you will get more shifting of the backing, so I would work the quadrants from the center out.

  42. Many thanks for this concise and clear tute. I am beginning to get adventuresome with my little Singer. I have one that I started and chickened out of–this may help me go back to it. As said above it’s really hard when the top comes out so perfectly and then it gets messed up in the quilting stage. Major frustration with that in the past !~!

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