Gaining Control: How to Boss Your Machine


Several years ago at my first AQS Quilt Show and Contest awards banquet, the representative for the sponsor of my category mentioned that my quilting “showed so much control.” “Control of what?” I wondered, and filed the comment away for further consideration.

In the years since then I have taught machine quilting techniques to quilters of all skill levels, and the issue of control has become clear to me. One of the basics of machine quilting, control is something often not considered or practiced. Yes it means control of the quilt sandwich, but most of all it means control of the sewing machine. The first thing machine quilters need to learn is how to be boss of their machine.

Machine adjustments
Don’t be afraid of the sewing machine. Those dials, buttons, and computer screens — all are there so you can adjust settings to get the best possible machine performance for your project (Photo 1).


Both upper and lower tension can be adjusted easily to achieve the perfect stitch that will have optimum life in your quilt.

Speed control
Most importantly, as its name suggests, the foot control is to be used to control the speed of the machine for whatever quilting you are doing. As in piecing or garment sewing, different speeds are necessary for different tasks (Photo 2). Getting a tricky intersection correctly aligned and pieced requires the machine operator to slow down and take it stitch by stitch over pinned seams and various thicknesses. But, the high speed that would have meant less control over a dicey seam intersection is no problem on a long, open stretch. For quilters as well as sewers, deciding how fast to go and doing it automatically comes with experience and is key to the control you need to do good work.

When you’re stippling away fast and furiously in an open area and feel you are making even shapes, have consistent stitches, and the stippling is progressing well, then you are in control. However, if you have a feeling that the machine is a runaway train taking you with it, then you must work at breaking down the process of free-motion quilting so you reclaim the driver’s seat. Being in control generates a sense of relaxation that, in turn, fosters increased confidence to do more intricate and beautiful quilting.

Even stitches, good spacing, and an absence of pleats all reflect that you know what you’re doing and are in control. Maintaining that control throughout the quilt is another thing. For example, if you have to stipple into a tiny area of a design, it’s time to slow down a bit so the spacing, stitch length, and consistency of the stippling will be the same as that done in an open area. Hands need to be slowed down as well, so everything will remain consistent when done at this slower speed.

Tip! It’s sometimes helpful to think of imaginary strings connecting your hands on the quilt and your foot on the foot control. If your foot is slowing down that pedal, hands should be slowing down the movement of the quilt. Stitches will then be “in control” and look polished and even, and undetectable from other areas of stippling done at a faster speed.

Presser foot control
There are other settings on the machine to help you feel in control. Dropping the feed dogs helps the quilt sandwich move freely under the needle reducing quilt drag as well as stress on hands and arms. It works better to have generous space under the needle. That way seams can clear the foot as you do free-motion quilting and the quilt can move freely. You may also have a dial or control to adjust the pressure on the foot (Photo 3). Loosen it a bit so the foot has more “float.”

You sacrifice control and quilting ease if you have to tug and pull constantly to move the quilt because you have heeded advice to leave the feed dogs up or because the foot sits too tightly on the quilt. There is no middle ground. Either use the feed dogs as they were designed to be used — to control and move the layers of fabric and make a set stitch length — or make your own stitch length by doing free motion.

Quilting with feed dogs “up” is something like trying to walk the balance beam with someone tugging on one hand, yet many quilters are afraid to give up feed dogs and go it alone, totally free motion. If you want to move the quilt in all directions under the needle without having to turn the quilt, then lower the feed dogs so they won’t fight your hands as they move the quilt. You’ll be the one in control, the one setting stitch length and direction of the quilting by the movement of your hands. You will be boss of your machine.

Grip control
Another way to gain control is to pay attention to holding the quilt “with authority” at all times the machine is running. That sounds simplistic, but over and over I see quilters run the machine and “walk” their hands along as they adjust the quilt to a new position, much like walking hands along the ruler while rotary cutting. Adjusting your hands while the machine is running makes for poor control of the quilt sandwich and results in uneven quilting, stitch length variations, and possibly even sewn in pleats.

Keep the area under the needle taut and smooth with your hands while you are running the machine and your quilting will be even and smooth (Photo 4). If you run out of room for your hands, stop the machine. Adjust your hands, get a good hold on the quilt with just enough tension to keep it smooth and to gently lift and move it, but not so much that you press down and cause jerky movements. Then give the foot control some pressure, and begin quilting again. Many quilters continue to run the machine while lifting and repositioning their hands, then wonder why every so often there is a very bad spot of quilting!

Here’s a helpful hint: After repositioning your hands, slowly resume quilting. You may even want to bring the needle to its highest position and make certain it is exactly over the spot where you stopped before slowly starting to quilt again. This becomes automatic as you become more experienced and cuts down on those noticeable glitches at stop and start points.

Control tips
Pre-washing your backing fabric also allows the quilt to move more smoothly. When I press the backing I use a bit of starch and that also seems to add control.

A flat area surrounding the bed of the machine helps support the quilt. It also cuts down on drag so you’re able to bunch up the quilt and move only one area under the needle for most of the quilting.

Pinning well also “tames” the quilt sandwich. All of these basic things are very important so the quilt is controlled, freeing you to be the creative artist in free-motion quilting.

Sometimes controlling the speed of your machine is a problem and you find you simply cannot ease up on the foot control to allow the machine to run at a comfortable speed. In that case, lowering the machine’s motor speed setting to half speed or lower can help a lot. Doing this slows the machine down so no matter how hard you push on the foot control you do not speed out of control.

Making this adjustment is especially helpful on a machine with a very sensitive foot control, or if you are tired or a beginner having difficulty “keeping up” with the speed of the machine. I have sometimes dialed down the speed control myself, mostly when I’m in a hurry and my tendency is to work too fast to maintain quality or consistent quilting. It is a great control aid.

Coming soon is a home sewing machine by Bernina with a stitch regulator for free-motion quilting. This machine has a motion detector built into the presser foot so it senses when you are moving the quilt and will keep stitches consistent. Quilting on a machine with this feature is entirely different and will require practice for you to become confident and proficient.

Machine-quilting frames that stretch the quilt out while your machine is mounted on a movable device are another option for quilters who want to control the machine’s movement. Do what you need to do to place yourself securely in the driver’s seat for your quilting.

Other possibilities are on the horizon for home machine quilting. But whatever the technology, our continuing challenge is to use our home sewing machines effectively to produce even and artistic quilting. Quilters arise! Take control and become the boss of your machine.