The insanity of machine quilting

Tulip quilt - folded on table

Are you a quilter, or a Quilter?

quilter (noun): A person who casually makes quilts.  Might also enjoy sewing garments, knitting, and other creative pursuits.  Enjoys the company of other human beings, a furry companion or two, and generally leading a normal and well-balanced life.

Quilter (noun): A person who considers quilting to be serious business.  Tolerates, and perhaps even relishes in, the absolute insanity of machine quilting.  Has the massive upper body strength required to wrestle a quilt into the all-too-tiny opening in the free arm of the machine.  Most importantly, has the mental fortitude to restrain oneself from jumping out the window during a long session of quilting at the machine.

Friends, I am saddened to inform you that I am decidedly NOT a Quilter.

Tulip quilt - detailAfter another long sentence in my “sewing bin” (where unfinished projects are punished for being unmanageable, unenjoyable, or too time-consuming), I found myself digging out my beloved Tulip Quilt for another ill-fated attempt at finally finishing this 11-year-old project.  Yes, this quilt has been in progress for 11 years!  That should say something about my tolerance for quilting (i.e., nearly non-existent).  However, in an effort to finish what I started and give an appreciative nod to my younger, quilt-loving self, I am determined to actually complete this project… eventually.

This weekend I had the pleasure displeasure of another long and arduous meeting between myself, my sewing machine, and this behemoth of a quilt.  It’s not even all that big from a quilting standpoint, but it’s much larger than any garment I’ve made, which makes it feel like an absolute sea of fabric.  A never-ending sea of “I NEED TO BE QUILTED” fabric.  Oh the humanity.

Tulip quilt - machine quilting in progress

If you’ve ever machine quilted a quilt, you know what I’m talking about.  The photo above gives you an idea of all the fabric manipulation involved in this extremely laborious (at least for me) process.  I try to focus on one section of the quilt at a time, rolling up the rest of the fabric so that I can squeeze it through the free arm opening with as little drama as possible.  But oh, the drama that ensues!  The majority of the quilt is located away from the machine in this photo, but rotating all that bulk toward the needle is an exercise in upper arm strength and maintaining one’s sanity.

All kidding aside, my arms and shoulders were legitimately sore after wrestling with this quilt for a few hours yesterday afternoon.  I lost count of the number of grimaces on my face and “help me” looks I longingly gave to my cat.  I wondered aloud to myself how serious Quilters manage to tolerate, and perhaps even enjoy (!) this process.  How do they do it??  What’s their secret?

I've made a huge mistake

One thing I realized yesterday is that my decision to outline each flower, leaf, and bird was a huge mistake.  Originally I thought it would be a simple way to quilt the quilt, not requiring any extra lines to draw or complicated patterns to follow.  What I didn’t anticipate was all the pivoting and associated quilt rotating and arm wrestling that would be involved.  And the curved edges of the leaves and birds… how did I miss that??  Oh, how I wish I had just decided on a simple grid of straight lines.  Too late now, my friends.  Too, too late…

Tulip quilt - close up of needle and walking foot

One beacon of hope in this machine quilting debacle has been my beloved walking foot, pictured above.  It does a fantastic job of keeping all the layers together and, for the most part, avoiding puckers during quilting.  I think I could avoid puckers all together if I had a little more patience and could manage the bulk of the quilt more easily, but alas, I’ll take what I can get at this point!  The walking foot is also great for using as a stitching guide.  I simply line up one of the bars of the foot with the edge of the motif, and the quilting winds up being ~about~ 1/4 inch away.  “Close enough” has been my motto on this project.

Tulip quilt - quilting lines on backAfter yesterday’s quilting session (aka the ultimate test of mental stability?), I managed to complete the outlining around all the flowers and hellaciously round leaves and birds.  Hopefully the above photo gives you an idea of how the quilting is turning out.  You can see a decent amount of quilting on the back of the quilt now, and I’ve been able to remove about half the safety pins that have been basting the quilt sandwich together for several years now (thankfully, without any rusting!).

But alas, there is still more quilting to go.  I haven’t yet decided how I’ll continue, but I think at the very least I’ll need additional quilting inside the tulips, in some of the larger white spaces between the stems, and in the sashing and exterior border.  Do you have any recommendations for quilting patterns?  Perhaps I’ll make some small cardboard templates and trace around them?  Ah, just the thought of quilting around more small objects is increasing the number of gray hairs on my head.

Tulip quilt - wrapped upTo make myself feel better, I’ve been parading around the house with the unfinished quilt wrapped around me, imagining how glorious it will be when this monster of a project is finally completed.  I am absolutely determined to finish this thing, but I wouldn’t hold your breath for any more full-sized quilts showing up on this blog.  Ever.  🙂

Snowy Boston treesIn other news, Boston got slammed with yet another blizzard yesterday.  It was a nice day for huddling in the house with a big sewing project, but the six-foot walls of snow everywhere are starting to get old.  Spring will eventually arrive, right?  RIGHT?!!?!???

So tell me, are you a quilter or a Quilter?  Or do you happily stick to garments and completely avoid the quilting-induced insanity?  🙂

45 thoughts on “The insanity of machine quilting

    • Isn’t it? You’d think a bunch of straight seams would be a piece of cake, but WOW is it a true labor of love (or hate!). Your hedgehog quilt was so cute though, and such a nice gift for a friend. I hope she appreciates all the work that went into it. 🙂

  1. Carolyn, those tulips are a welcome and colorful sign of SPRING!! (I say, as I look out at 30″ of snow on our deck!)
    I guess I have recently become a “quilter”. Presently I’m working on a twin-size quilt, Amanda Murphy’s Soda Pop, and finishedChristmas quilt pattern given to me last year. Over the summer I started Tula Pink’s City Sampler, so I’m thinking about the Quilt-as-you-go method when the time comes!
    My opinion only: Quilting as exercise trumps shoveling snow in below-freezing weather, anytime!

    • Quilt as you go! Oh man, I *totally* should have done that!! The quilting is really the most time-consuming and mind-numbing part. I’ll be looking forward to seeing your finished quilts, and hang in there during this ridiculous winter weather! Shoveling is the new cardio!

  2. I’ve done a couple of small quilts for gifts, but currently have my first and only bed-size quilt in my own Sewing Bin because I can’t face hauling it through the machine again. (Your tale makes me feel slightly better about having started it two years ago and not finished.)

    My mother, however, is a Quilter. She’s always sewn, but once she got me and my next sister out of the house and had a spare room to be the Quilt Room, things stepped up a notch. Quilts for everyone in the family. Quilts for gifts on special occasions. Quilt throws for the sofa. I guess that having two fewer children in the house freed up some time and space, but I have no idea where she gets the energy!

    • Best of luck finishing up your quilt! I think there’s a huge difference between a small quilt (like a wall hanging or crib quilt) and a full-sized bed quilt. The scale is just so much bigger, and the quilting is so much more daunting. I can see myself making more small quilts one day, but this may be my 2nd and last bed quilt!

      How cool to have a serious Quilter for a mom! Does she do all her own quilting? If so, I’m immensely impressed. 🙂

      • As far as I know, yes. She has one of those extension tables for her machine, and has a trick of rolling up the right-hand side really tiny to fit through the free arm. I don’t know if she does the whole thing in one go or quilts en route – I shall have to ask!

  3. Your quilt is lovely so far. If you have all the outlining done, you might consider having a long-arm quilter (professional) do all the fill work. It wouldn’t be cheap, but I expect you’d be very happy with it, and it would probably be done before another 11 years are up! Best of luck to you.

    • Haha, I bet you’re right! I’ve thought about sending it out for professional quilting, but I think I’d like to tackle it myself, despite the agony! It’s been so long in the making that I might as well finish it off with my own hands. It may indeed take another 11 years though. 🙂

  4. I’ve been wanting (theoretically) to do a quilt for ages, but have yet to actually gather any sort of supplies (or mental fortitude). Good luck finishing this one!

    • Thanks Lisa! I think quilting can actually be really fun and creative, provided that you keep it to a small scale. Maybe try a wall hanging or crib quilt and see how you like it. What about a fashion-themed quilt? That would be awesome. 🙂

  5. I am a quilter and I enjoy making quilts but the actual quilting part is my least favorite part. I have tried free motion quilting but it is so hard to maneuver the quilt around and keep everything even. Straight line quilting is easier for me– I can’t even imagine trying to quilt all around those tulips and birds! It really looks great so far. It’s so bright and cheery!

    • Thanks Teri! Your quilts are so beautiful and well made. I’ve never tried free-motion quilting but imagine it’s tricky to master, as you mentioned. I’m really kicking myself for all the outlining I’m doing – what a newbie mistake!

  6. Your quilt is gorgeus, would love to have it but not to make it, it takes such a tremendous amount of work that I would probably have to call myself a quiter if I start to make it. Maybe in the future I might give it a try but deffenetly with a small project. Well done though, it deffenetly requires hard work and patience but the result is very rewarding.

    • Exactly, well said. Making a full-sized quilt is really a huge undertaking, much more than it seems. Hopefully you’re right that the end result will be worth all the effort. I’m looking forward to curling up under my handmade quilt… one day… hopefully before I’m an old lady!

      • I believe that now that you have a clear image of the result and that you have done the most difficult part, it will go faster, I’ve noticed this with my garment constraction, when I’ve done 70% of the work and the result up to that point is satisfying, I get a bit overwhelming of the fact that it is actually turning to something wearable and so I get the courage to continue and actually raise a bit the gear, this happens every single time, probably because of my lack of experience. Plus the fact that you have wrapped it all around you, increases the anticipation of finishing it, isn’t it :)?

  7. Find a place that will finish it for you. It’s like having your dissertation printed at Kinko’s, yes, it’s free at lab, but is your sanity up to wrestling with the copier? The place I know out here does long arm by square footage and is ~$100 for a twin bed quilt…

    • Haha, what a great analogy! (And as a side note, why do printers at universities never work??) I think I’m going to bite the bullet and finish this quilt myself, just because it’s been so long in the making, and in theory I’m fairly close to the end. We’ll see if I regret this decision when I sit down at the machine again. 🙂

  8. Oh man, that is a lot of quilting! On the plus side, you’re going to feel so accomplished and proud when you finish!

    • I hope you’re right! I knew the quilting would be a project, but I had no idea how arduous it would really be. Then again, I learned a few lessons about how to choose a quilting pattern wisely. What do you do for your quilts – do you stick to straight lines?

      • I just stitch in the ditch, nothing fancy like you! Although on my first quilt ever I did some free motion quilting and have been terrified to try it again haha. I just bought fabric for my next quilt and because the pattern is an easy one I’m going to try free motion again. Crossing my fingers that I don’t totally mess it up!

        • Looking forward to seeing it! I really loved your most recent quilt. I’ll be curious to hear how your second attempt at free motion goes. Maybe you’ll convince me to try it!

  9. I am definitely a quilter, I enjoy the (design) process but it’s not a SERIOUS business. I only make small quilts because I can’t deal with maneouvering heavy stuff through my machine. When I am quilting I take many many many small breaks in between so I don’t get too tired. So far I’ve also stuck with relatively simple quilting designs to minimize the amount of turning I have to do.

    Do you know what kind of batting you used? Some battings can be quilted with lines up to 10′ apart and will still be fine, others need more dense quilting. If you used one that doesn’t require very dense quilting, what you’ve been doing so far might actually already be enough.

    • Emmely, I think you’re a much wiser woman than I am. 🙂 Sticking to small quilts and simple quilting designs is the key to maintaining your sanity! I’ve been thinking about the batting question, and I’ll have to inquire at the local shop where I purchased it. I think the batting is fairly solid and can handle less dense quilting, but I’m not sure exactly how much. Thanks for the reminder to figure this out!

  10. Have you ever thought about renting time on a long-arm quilting machine? I don’t know what it would cost, but then you could finish it yourself with considerably less arm pain and in less time. You could email the New England (or is it Boston?) Modern Quilt Guild to ask where you can do that. I went to one of their meetings once and I thought they mentioned a place near Boston. Those machines are so cool. I bet you would actually enjoy it. 🙂 Good luck. I’ve had a quilt “in progress ” since 2008. Every winter I think I’ll dig it out and finish it, but you know how that goes…

    • Lisa, thanks for the tip! I didn’t even know that renting time on a long-arm was possible. I’m definitely going to look into this, as I like the idea of doing all the quilting myself, even if it’s not on my own machine. Good luck finishing your quilt! Sometimes letting a project marinate for a few years renews your enthusiasm for it. Sometimes. 🙂

  11. I feel your pain. Every time I finish one I swear I’m never doing it again. AHahahaha. This is GORGEOUS and I’m so glad you are persevering on it.
    Honestly, you’ve probably done enough quilting on it now. The aim is to hold the layers together without them shifting in wear and it looks like you have stitching every 4-6 inches? I’d hit the inner edge of that green border, trim it and slap some binding on.

    • Haha, thanks for the encouragement to just GET IT DONE! I suspect you’re right that I may have enough quilting at this point, but I want to try to figure out what quilting density is recommended for the batting I chose. The end is near though!

  12. I’m not a quilter, nor a Quilter. I’m a Piecer. I could piece quilt tops til the cows come home. Thing is, after that they have to be sandwiched (hate that process) and then quilted. I tried a couple times to do fancy-pants quilting, but I just don’t have the upper body strength for it, so I always end up just doing straight lines. But once it’s done, it sure is nice to use the quilt! Yours is lovely – hope you find it in you to finish it soon so you can use it!

    • Thanks! I agree – I think I’m a piecer too. I remember really enjoying the process of designing a pattern, picking out fabrics, and cutting and sewing all the little pieces together. But then… UGH. The quilting part is a killer!

  13. I’m signed up for my first Beginning Quilting class, which starts next month, so I have no experience with quilting at all. (And still, your tale of woe hasn’t scared me off — I’m loving your quilt!) But in all the reading I’ve done, it sounds as if sending it out to be quilted or renting time on a long-arm machine might be your best options. I went to the site of one professional quilter, recommended by a respected designer, and it sounds as if a queen-sized quilt might average about $150 or so. I’m not sure what it costs to rent time on a long-arm machine, but that might allow you to say, “I did it myself, 100%.”

    Finally, is hand quilting a possibility? It sounds arduous… but I think you could get it done in less than 11 years, LOL!

    Good luck. Perhaps making this struggle public might be all the peer pressure you need to get it across the finish line. I can’t wait to see the final piece! 🙂

    • Thanks for the encouragement, and best of luck on your quilting adventures! Haha, I’m glad I didn’t scare you off. 🙂 The design and piecing part is actually really fun, I think. I bet you’ll enjoy it.

      As for hand quilting, I hand quilted my first quilt, and it took FOREVER. I’ve contemplated finishing up this one with small bits of hand quilting here and there, but I’m not convinced it’s actually going to happen. Renting time on a long-arm is a great idea – I’m going to see what options are available here in Boston. Thanks for the tip!

  14. I’m definitely a ‘quilter’. I’ve only ever made one quilt. A friend and I made a baby quilt for our expectant friend. Piecing the top was great fun. The quilting was another matter. It was very satisfying to finish it, but oh boy wrangling that thing through the machine was a chore.
    I have some quilt blocks lurking in the corner of a wardrobe somewhere, but I don’t see the making of another quilt in my near future.

    You’re quilt is so bright and cheery. You’re so close to the finish. I think a few short sittings with some ‘happy sewing’ in between my be the trick. You can do it! Go, Carolyn, Go! 🙂

    • Thanks for the encouragement, Vanessa! What a great idea to make a baby quilt for a friend. I’m sure it was such a special gift for her, despite the drama of quilting it! I agree that making another quilt, at least one this large, is probably not going to happen anytime soon, if ever. Some people really thrive with quilting, but sadly I am not one of those people, LOL!

  15. I’m neither but I’d like to try to be a quilter! This is amazing! I have made small things like glasses cases oven gloves, but I think they’re more padded than quilted. Maybe one day………

    • I’d definitely recommend giving it a try, just keep it small! Maybe try a wall hanging or a crib quilt. The process of choosing or designing a pattern, picking out fabrics, and cutting and sewing is actually really fun. The quilting is a chore, but if you keep it small, you’ll be fine. One great thing about quilting (as opposed to sewing garments) is that it’s easy to design your own pattern. It’s all just squares and triangles, no armhole curves to worry about, LOL!

        • I’ve never used a jelly roll, so I have no idea! I guess it depends on the design of your quilt. Jelly rolls are long and thin strips (looks like 2.5 inches wide from a quick Google search), so you’d have to keep your pieces small.

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