Machine Quilting: Your Ticket to Speed Control

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Some time ago, I asked for your tips and questions about machine quilting. I haven’t forgotten that I still owe you the followup on that, but I got a little sidetracked! Well, more like completely derailed! Forgive me?

Sue asked:

I just can’t seem to get the right speed when I machine quilt. I wish I could afford a sewing machine with a stitch regulator but that won’t be for a long time.
How do I ensure the length of the stitches stays consistent?

I know that this is something many quilters struggle with, and it’s not easy by any means. Getting it right is a combination of many things, and it may be worth it to go back to ground zero and begin learning a few things again to get it right. Try the following:

Start with some machine-guided quilting, with a walking foot attachment or dual feed feature on your sewing machine. Set the stitch length for an average length, not too long, not too short. Quilt some straight lines on a practice sandwich that’s about 12″ x 24″, using a medium speed on the machine. As you quilt these lines:

  • Keep your speed consistent. When you stop to reposition your hands on the quilt and then restart, try to continue at the same speed you were going before. Listening to the pitch of the motor will help, as will being aware of the pressure of your foot on the pedal on the floor.
  • Listen to the sounds of the machine. Listen the sounds that the machine makes as it’s making a stitch. Try to identify one particular sound and concentrate on the rhythm of that repetitive sound.
  • Concentrate on how fast your hands are moving as you’re guiding the quilt sandwich through the machine. Remember you’re just guiding, and letting the machine have the speed control.
  • Notice the combination of things happening. When does the quilt sandwich move forward in relation to when the needle is moving up or down? When does it move forward in relation to that one particular sound that you’re listening for when it makes a stitch?
Paisley Pavane detail
Paisley Pavane detail

Try to connect these things all together, and memorize them. You need to develop these skills into habits, so that they are a part of you and you can duplicate them over and over again. The machine is just that, a machine, and everything moves in a synchronized way automatically, but this is what you should try to imitate when you are controlling the speed and movement during free motion quilting.

I’ve always likened machine quilting to driving. When you drive, you don’t think, you just do. If a car or an animal darts out in front of you, you don’t think about putting your foot on the brake, you just do it because it’s a habit and an automatic reaction. Develop your machine quilting skills to this level, and you will see improvement and success.

I also call this “being ONE with your machine.” Knowing how it sounds when it’s running well, knowing exactly how much pressure to put on the pedal to take just one stitch or sew at a certain speed, and being so in tune with your machine that you can tell the moment it runs out of bobbin thread because it sounds different as it sews. Knowing your machine this well is an important part of producing the kind of machine quilting that I know you want. Once you get to know the machine this well, you can match your rhythm to its rhythm and work with it instead of against it. It’s a little be mystical maybe, but you’ll know when you’re “in the zone.”

Once you’ve practiced quilting these straight lines and you are really in tune with your machine, try some free motion quilting. Lower the feed dogs, attach a darning or free motion foot and start with a new practice quilt sandwich. Quilt a few straight lines, top to bottom, just as you did on the other quilt sandwich. Try to run the machine at the same medium speed and move the quilt sandwich at the same rate as it was when the machine was in control, and see if you can make stitches that are consistent in length and about the same size as the machine guided stitching.

Keep quilting at that same medium speed, but throw in some curves and zigzags. Once you’ve got the rhythm, guard it carefully! What I mean is, make sure your environment is conducive to keeping it. Cut out distractions and interruptions if at all possible, because every interruption means you have to get back into the zone and find that rhythm again, and your stitches may be wobbly until you do.

Sample of small background patterns
Sample of small background patterns

Practice free motion quilting at this speed until it feels easy and you don’t have to think about it. It may take a long time! I quilted for years at that one special speed and rhythm, until I needed to learn another for a different technique! Don’t get me wrong, I probably didn’t need to quilt at that one speed for years, I just didn’t know I could do anything else and get the results I wanted, and I hadn’t run into a reason to try until I wanted to quilt small stippling and other background designs where the stitches must be smaller and the machine must go faster or it just doesn’t work.

The point is, once you really own that speed and rhythm and can duplicate it on demand, it becomes much easier to speed up or slow down to do different types of quilting and still keep a consistent stitch length. Try these tips, and let me know how it goes!

Nadine

6 thoughts on “Machine Quilting: Your Ticket to Speed Control

    • Thanks Irene, but I can’t take credit for it, except for the implementation! It’s a JavaScript program called Highslide, and it works in WordPress thanks to a plugin called WP-Highslide.

      All of that is probably more than you really wanted to know, right? ;) Nevertheless, I thought it would be a good time to give credit where it’s due, and it might help someone else find it in the future!

  1. That’s not more than I really wanted to know — it’s great information. It makes perfect sense to get used to what feels right with the easy stuff (walking foot) and then seek to duplicate it when doing free motion.

    Thanks! BTW, the bird looks fantastic!

  2. Wonderful tips! I had just developed my groove on my old Viking when it died. I have just brought a Bernina 830 and have done nothing but play to try and find my groove for the last 2 months… it does take time. I had to chuckle to the listen tip, as you can definitely hear the difference when you are out of the groove…

    Either way, I am no way near where you are with my machine quilting. Love your work and your blog!

    • Hi Renee, and welcome! Congrats on the 830, you lucky thing you! You’ll find your groove, and it will happen all of a sudden and you won’t even notice when it does. It will all just fall into place and will feel like it was always that way. That’s how it was when I switched from my Pfaff to the Bernina 440.

      And what do I always say? Go quilt! Your work gets better every day! Thanks for your kind comments, Renee, and have fun finding your groove with the 830!

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