There are many reasons why people elect to machine quilt their project. I do it because after 9 years of intensive computer keyboarding, I developed inflammation of the tendons, muscles and nerves in my arms and wrists, leaving me unable to hand quilt. Losing the ability to hand quilt was the final straw and in order to continue with my quiltmaking passion I needed to develop my machine quilting skills.

‘Baroquen Dreams’ machine quilted wholecloth quilt 1999
Machine quilting is still considered by many to be the poor relation of hand quilting. I was provoked into perfecting machine quilting by a memorable incident which happened at an exhibition in London where I was demonstrating. ‘Baroquen Dreams’ was hanging behind me. Two ladies approached from across the floor loudly exclaiming how wonderful it was. When they finally arrived and examined it closely, they dismissed it saying “Oh - it’s machine quilted - I don't like that.”
This comment started me off on a mission to present machine quilting as a more acceptable option, to make people look at it with new eyes and to appreciate that it can look good. In order to do this I needed to strip the technique back to its bare bones, to take away all distractions in order to concentrate on design.
This led to a series of machine quilted wholecloth quilts using original patterns influenced mainly by Baroque designs in decorative architectural features and book illustrations.

Rethinking machine quilting

‘Joining Forces Series - Antique Gold’ (detail) 2000.
Pioneering work in making machine quilting more acceptable was carried out by quiltmakers such as Harriet Hargrave and Barbara Barber, to name only a few. Following in their footsteps came a tidal wave of machine quilted quilts stitched with the now overused ‘vermicelli’ or ‘meander’ stitching, occasionally broken up with continuous line quilting designs and feathers. I wanted to change this trend, to show would-be machinists that there were other options. When thoughtfully used in conjunction with other design elements the ‘vermicelli’ stippling can be effective and not boring.

Left: ‘Baroquen Dreams’ (detail) showing the formal centre panel and border design accentuated by various scales of filler patterns, Right: ‘Baroque-a-Bye-Baby’ (detail) 1999.
There are a number of misconceptions about machine quilting;
  • It does not and cannot compete with hand quilting.
  • It needs to be considered in its own right.
  • It is not the easy option - perfecting stitch length and tension takes a lot of practice.
  • It is relatively quicker - however, instead of quilting being a leisurely armchair occupation, it becomes an intensive activity at the machine.
In order to enjoy machine quilting we need to learn to relax, to learn to breath whilst doing it and to dismiss preconceived ideas which inhibit our performance. It is also necessary to reassess some of the word of mouth rules about machine quilting.
Statements such as -
  • “Don’t cross lines” Where is it written? Yes - ‘vermicelli’ is a pattern which requires you not to cross lines, but there are many other patterns to choose from.
  • “I can't machine quilt that design - it isn’t a continous line” Why not? There is nothing that says you can’t stop, end off and start in a new location. Surely we are saving so much time by machine quilting the project that we can afford to stop and start?

‘Golden Wonder’ - wholecloth quilt, award winner at the National Patchwork Championships in 1999.

Options in Machine quilting

There are various types of machine quilting. I think of them as -
  • basic - functional
  • decorative - formal
  • decorative - flexible
  • and adventurous / atmospheric / expressive.

Joining Forces Series - Both Sides Now (detail) 2000.
These quilts feature an amazing selection of fabrics including
devoré velvet and silk. Many are piece dyed after
they have been pieced and quilted.
Any or all can be used in a quilt in various combinations. They all require different levels of skill. At its most basic, functional machine quilting involves long straight lines, cross hatching, outlining or ditch stitching patchwork blocks. It makes sense to use the walking foot for long straight lines which do not involve turning the quilt. However, as soon as the quilting pattern demands stitching in various directions, necessitating turning the quilt, we need to consider the freedom offered by dropping the feed dogs, attaching a darning or quilting foot and using free machine quilting techniques.
Formal decorative machine quilting involves following marked lines of a design and filling the background with some form of stippling. It allows us to be creative and adventurous when various sources are used as inspiration for the quilting patterns. The other ‘filler’ areas are where we can use exciting, flexible patterning with free machine quilting. Flexible decorative machine quilting involves stitching patterns not marked onto the project, but still using even stitches and thread tensions.
Finally, atmospheric or expressive machine quilting involves using the quilting stitch to create textures and impressions and relies less on the quality of the quilting stitch. It is a close sister of machine embroidery but still more rigid in its use of stitches and tension. This is the area of free machine quilting which allows us to use our creativity to make original patterns, to express ourselves individually and to capture our viewer’s attention by producing something new and interesting. It is the exciting, vibrant side of machine quilting which gives me the most satisfaction.
My objective was accomplished in 1999. Encouraged by hand quilter Sandie Lush, who had won major awards during 1996/ 97 for her wholecloth quilt ‘Moonflower’, I sewed a number of machine quilted wholecloths. Concentrating on formal wholecloth quilts, 1999 was particularly successful. My quilt ‘Golden Wonder’ was awarded Best of Show at the National Patchwork Championships. This was the first time a machine quilted wholecloth had won a major show in Britain. By having both ‘Baroquen Dreams’ and ‘Golden Wonder’ accepted into the Houston Quilt Festival in 1999, I felt that I had achieved what I had set out to do. Finally to have ‘Baroquen Dreams’ win a second for merit quilting was a large dollop of icing on top of the cake!
Sandie and I continue to work together. We plan to work the same quilt design in our individual techniques to see what the effects are.
I am also working hand in hand with Leslie Morgan, combining progressive quilting and dyeing processes to create new and exciting quilts. The latest series is entitled ‘Joining Forces’. The work put into perfecting machine quilting techniques has been worth it. It means that I am now free to bend all the ‘rules’ in order to accommodate any quilting/ stitching projects that interest me. The excitement is ever present because the journey is such an adventurous and scenic one. More power to machine quilting!

First published in Popular Patchwork July/August 2000