City & Guilds

Exactly what samples your tutor will expect to see will differ from course to course depending on the stage that you start machine quilting. If you have not done any block samples you can’t practice quilting them for example. But hopefully these notes will give you some ideas to think about.

Before you start, get everything ready:

Jane Munns quilt Beach Huts uses free machine quilting for the background of each block
Jane Munns quilt Beach Huts uses free machine quilting for the background of each block
  • Clean the machine and make sure it is kept at room temperature. If it has been stored in a cool room the oil can get thick so leave in a warm area for a few hours.
  • Check the needles you are using, a quilting needle is sharper than a universal needle and makes a smaller point. For metallic threads use a metallic or embroidery needle. Use a fine cotton thread 30 or 40 with a size 70 needle. Valdini Variegated Thread is supplied by Monika Carrie (Design) Tel 019755 62783 or from Embroidery Kits.
  • Loosen the top tension if any bottom thread shows. Always work a sample.
  • Fix the layers with safety pins or machine stitch rows with dissolvable thread, if you hand tack the thread can get caught on the machine foot and drag your stitching.
  • Use a walking foot for machine fed quilting if you have one.
  • Think about the look you are trying to achieve, quilting by machine has a different look to hand quilting, making the fabric harder and flatter. Thinner cotton waddings make machine quilting easier and are available in many weights and fabrics, e.g. polyester, cotton, wool or silk. Experiment with samples of as many as you can find. The Cotton Patch sell sample packs of wadding; all cotton, polyester and mixed.
An example of writing with a needle can be seen in Dorothy Stapletonís quilt What Shall we Call it?
An example of writing with a needle can be seen in Dorothy Stapleton’s quilt What Shall we Call it?

Machine Fed Quilting

Use a walking foot if available, start in the middle of your work and work all the lines to the right and then turn over and work all the lines to the left of the centre. Do not go up and down as this can cause diagonal drags to appear.

Think about how you start and stop. One possibility is to start with the stitch length set to 0 and then increasing it over the first 1⁄2in to normal length. Alternatively sew a few stitches on the spot – this can cause a bump of thread if you are not careful – or pull the threads to the back and tie in a knot before threading away into the backing with a needle – beware this can take hours on a big quilt.

  • Stitch in the ditch, seams must be pressed to one side, only machine pieced work.
  • Stitch away from the seam 1⁄4in – think about colour choice. Some people work a slight curve from corner to corner or point to point, try them and see.
  • Straight line grids – use masking tape to keep even.
  • Curved lines but still machine fed.
  • Use a twin needle.
  • Different threads – try threads of threads, use monofilament thread, variegated thread, shiny rayon thread. Note which snaps or frays the most. Coloured threads can be used to add interest to a large plain area of a block.
  • Machine set patterns – if you have a newer machine try some of the pattern stitches. Check the look on the back as you go.
  • Work a narrow zigzag stitch or satin stitch.
  • Use satin stitch to work small ties for tied quilting or use a preset pattern such as heart or snowflake.

Try and do samples that mean something to your current work not just on pieces of calico, how likely are you to be machine quilting plain calico in the future? If you have no blocks then piece some simple nine patches and practice in the ditch sewing on those.

Free machine quilted patterns worked in a grid
Free machine quilted patterns worked in a grid
A sample of doodling with your needle
A sample of doodling with your needle

Free Machine Quilting

Check your machine as before and then take the following steps

  1. Loosen the top tension – you do not want the bobbin thread to show. Make a note of the tension number (if your machine has one) and the thread used. I use different tension settings for monofilament and machine quilting threads.
  2. Drop the feed dogs or cover with masking tape if necessary.
  3. Use a darning foot or no foot. If you use no foot keep checking that the foot lever is down or the tension will not be right on the top and keep your fingers away from the needle. The foot should stop you sewing right through your fingers but it might not!
  4. Place your work in an embroidery hoop and set drum tight, tighten the screw with the flat section of the hoop against the machine bed, or hold tightly in your hands.
  5. Set the stitch length and width to 0.
  6. Use the needle to bring the bottom thread up to the top of your work.
  7. Hold both threads to the back of the work when you start stitching to stop them getting in a tangle.
Sample of stipple stitch using rayon thread and an embroidery foot by Barbara Brooks
Sample of stipple stitch using rayon thread and an embroidery foot by Barbara Brooks


  1. Use the needle as a pencil. Relax, take a deep breath and press your foot so the machine runs fast and move the frame slowly in your hands. Start by working loops of the letter e over and over again, tring not to speed up as you go round the bends. To practice, you could work in an open space but you may find it helpful to work inside a 2in grid, which could be machined on fed sewing before you start or you can draw it on with pencil.
  2. Have some scrap paper and a pencil beside you and work the ideas on paper first – you’re trying to get the brain to use the needle as a pencil!

    Repetition and practice definitely helps. Ideas for patterns are:

    • Cross hatch
    • Scribble
    • Circles
    • Meandering
    • Feathers
    • Shells
    • Leaves

    Look for PATTERNS that occur in nature – animal markings, wood grain, marble, water reflections etc! Try lettering, your signature, or perhaps there are shapes from your mark making exercises or design work that could be translated to stitch

  3. As you become more confident, work without a grid and try to work continuous patterns. Make a note of the threads and machine settings used, especially how the threads behaved.
Filling a shape with different quilting patterns
Filling a shape with different quilting patterns

Using Free Quilting

  • On ‘wholecloth’ quilting, try voiding shapes as well as filling shapes. Think about the density of stitching as well as the contrast between quilted and non-quilted areas.
  • On patchwork, think about filling different areas or imposing an all over pattern.
  • Use a printed fabric for backing and stitch the outlines of the pattern from the back and then quilt in the areas from the front – this works well with large scale furnishing fabrics.
  • Use a free zigzag stitch to create fill patterns.

About City and Guilds

City & Guilds is possibly the best qualification a quilter can obtain. Awards are offered at a range of levels from introductory to advanced and each level will enable you to work on and develop your skills. There are four qualifications at four different levels. Level 1 is a thirty hour course 7722, and has two modules. If you are ready to go beyond the basics, Level 2 courses 7822/7823 are ideal. This certificate consists of two units working across a range of media including patchwork and quilting. The certificate takes 120 hours to complete – usually one class per week for one year. If you’re starting out at Level 3 on courses 7922/7923, you’ll be expected to make more demanding items as well as develop your skills in observation, recording and research. You’ll have the opportunity to explore new techniques and innovative ideas. One design unit and one craft unit must be completed. This normally takes two years part time study to complete. To learn more about the City & Guilds P&Q course, call 020 7294 2800. Alternatively, visit the website City & Guilds

First published in Popular Patchwork Volume 12 Number 2 February 2004