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Real Quilters also Machine Quilt posted: 3/19/2003
by Patricia Littlefield Printable Page
Category: Quilting Method: Machine
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escher I have a confession to make: I love to machine quilt. I know, I know, many quilters turn an unpleasant shade of ecru at the mention of using a sewing machine to quilt their quilts, but not me.

"If a quilt is really special, it should be quilted by hand," I was informed by one of the quilting establishment when I first began quilting. "Hand quilting is so relaxing," they said. O.K., I thought to myself. That must be the way it's supposed to be done. In order for my quilt to be considered first class, it must be quilted by hand, not like those second class machine quilted ones.

So I dutifully bought Betweens needles, learned to remember to use a thimble and practiced the rocking stitch over and over. I kept hearing that pretty soon I would get a natural rhythm going, and my stitches would become smaller and more even as I went along. I worked on place mats and potholders. I practiced on pillow tops, sure that in time my stitches would get shorter and closer together.

It didn't happen. My fingers bled a lot from needle pricks, and the best I could do was about five stitches to the inch, each a different length. I became queasy whenever I imagined having to do this over the surface of an entire quilt. I despaired because I have so many quilts planned in my head, I'd never get to them at this rate, not in three lifetimes. Not only that, I will never be a real quilter because real quilters only quilt by hand.

sashiko tumbling blocks

But on a quilt shop's bookrack one day, I discovered Harriet Hargrave's classic, Heirloom Machine Quilting. I bought it, and it was wonderful. Suddenly I no longer felt like a quilting failure: Harriet said it was all right to quilt by machine.

I searched the stores until I found a chair that was the perfect height for me when seated at my sewing machine. I got a walking foot for my machine and soon was happily stitching in a ditch. After several months, I decided to take the quilt by the top and try stippling. I was very dubious, sure that I could never control the quilt under the needle with a darning foot I'd bought attached, and the feed dogs lowered.

First, I tried wearing the gloves with the nubs on them to help control the movement of the quilt, and they were all right but a drag to have to put on and take off each time I wanted start and stop stitching. Then at a quilt show I discovered the foam-covered paddles, one for each hand that you can use to move the quilt around under the needle. They were fantastic, and so easy to use. I started slowly and experimented, turning and changing directions, trying not to cross nor touch another line of stitches.

Yes, sometimes I jerked the needle and ended up with sharp points and gigantic stitches, but gradually, I got the hang of it. I discovered that if I set the needle to stop down in the fabric, most of the jerkiness disappeared. And strangely enough, I found that if I ran my machine faster, I could control the quilt top better by shifting it more slowly, making deliberate moves, thus regulating the size of my stitches. I soon developed a cadence as I stippled; I felt almost entranced as I moved carefully, curving, twisting, and turning, all the time making swirls and spirals across the quilt. Maybe this was that elusive rhythm that they talked about!

Mariner's Compass

I explored using variegated threads and bought the right kind of needles to use with metallic threads and experimented with both. Along the way, I found Larraine Scouler's book Quilting Back to Front, and discovered another variation of quilting freehand. Jan Mullen's book, Cut Loose Quilts, took me further, and I soon was drawing small figures and motifs as I quilted my tops. Some were indeed unrecognizable - I am not an artist by any stretch of the imagination - but again, practice gave me some confidence, and I graduated to making swirls and circles, stars and curlicues freehand.

Yes, today I am an unabashed machine quilter, unafraid to hold my head up amidst those who are fortunate enough to have the talent and the patience to quilt by hand. No longer do I feel somewhat second class, for Harriet Hargrave maintains that quilting by machine is quilting by hand with an electric needle, and many others are in agreement with her.

2003 Patricia Littlefield

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