Perfect Your Hand-Quilting Stitch
by Mary Stori
from Threads #93, pp. 49-51
Perfectly rendered hand-quilting stitches have been admired and envied since the beginning of quilt making. Quilters view beautifully hand-stitched quilts with reverence, and often whisper, “Look at those stitches!” Yet, many quilters avoid hand-quilting because they’re unhappy with their results. Skipped or uneven stitches, visible knots, and puckered fabrics are just a few of the potential pitfalls. Others include uneven, “pin-prick” stitches, which catch only a few threads on the back of the quilt and can easily pull out, and large stitches that can snag and break.
When executed correctly, hand-sewn quilt stitches are the same length on both the front and back of the quilt, and the spaces between them are all identical. Ideally, the smaller the stitch, the better; however, evenness and consistency of the stitches are more important than stitch size. And once this method becomes familiar, you will automatically sew smaller stitches.
If you’re dissatisfied with your hand-stitching, follow along for an in-depth look at a hand-quilting method I call the hybrid rocking-stitch. With lots of practice, it produces consistently excellent results.
Fabric, batting, and thread
The right fabric contributes to a well-made stitch. Loosely woven fabrics don’t quilt or wear well, while densely woven fabrics (such as bed sheets) and polyester and cotton/polyester blends are difficult to stitch. For uniform stitches, easy quilting, and durability, choose medium-weave, mid-weight, 100% cotton fabrics.
Batting forms the center of the quilt “sandwich,” and there are many types, from cotton, polyester, silk, and wool to blends. Experiment to find the type that works best for you (see Choosing the right batting).
The best thread to use is one made for quilting; it’s slightly thicker, stronger and longer-wearing than regular sewing thread. Of course, if you’re making a purely decorative quilt, choose any thread you like.
Needles and thimbles
I use a “between” needle for hand-quilting. Its short, thin shaft is easier to direct in and out of the quilt layers than a larger needle. Betweens come in sizes 5 through 12 (larger numbers designate finer needles). Be aware that needle-sizing isn’t standard from company to company. I prefer the size 10 or 11 between quilting needles made by Jean S. Lyle.
A thimble is vital for my hybrid rocking-stitch, because the eye end of the needle is maneuvered with the tip or side of your middle finger. Many different thimbles are available, but only your finger knows which fits you.
A metal thimble provides the best protection. Look for one with deep indentations to hold the needle in place. An open-ended thimble, such as those available from Roxanne Products (see Quilting supplies by mail), accommodates long fingernails, and reduces perspiration, which is often a problem with traditional thimbles. The thimble I prefer, however, is a leather one. A leather thimble grabs the needle better, giving me more control. It’s also a good choice for beginners.
Marking tools and quilt hoops
The most important quality of a marking tool is its removability. To be sure that what you put on comes off, test your marking method every time you use it.
I favor soap slivers, whose marks are completely removable. Be aware, however, that soap-sliver marks aren’t the most precise, they’re difficult to see on light-colored fabrics, and they rub off easily. Use a brand that doesn’t contain cold cream, which makes the soap too crumbly. Store the soap in your freezer to keep it hard, and use an emery board to sharpen its edges.
A hoop or frame maintains proper tension and keeps the quilt layers from shifting and bunching. I prefer a handheld, 11-in. by 17-in. PVC frame for its portability and comfort. It accommodates any size quilt, even king size. I just reposition it as I work.
The quilt motif you select can help determine how smoothly the quilting process goes. Patterns that involve long, straight lines are easy and quick to quilt, but crooked or uneven stitches are more apparent. Except for overly long stitches, such flaws can be camouflaged if you are using designs with short, curved lines.
Balanced stitches are easier to achieve by stitching along the cross-grain or on the bias, because there’s more flexibility in the fabric. Start with a simple pattern, and soon you can tackle more intricate designs.
Basting is essential to keep the grain of the quilt top and backing aligned. If the grain of the two fabrics does not match, quilting will be more difficult, and the fabric is likely to pucker. I use a thin, curved upholstery needle and authentic white basting thread, which is quite thin, breaks easily, and is easy to remove. Using colored thread for basting can cause permanent damage if the dye transfers to the fabric. While some quilters baste with safety pins and quilt basting guns, both leave too much play between quilt layers. Also, safety pins can discolor the fabric, and basting guns may leave holes in the fabric. Baste generously and work in a grid, with stitches no less than 3 in. to 4 in. apart.
The hybrid rocking-stitch
My hybrid version of the traditional rocking stitch is unique and allows you to see what you’re doing all the time. You always stitch toward yourself, rather than sewing from right to left most of the time as in the normal rocking stitch. Securing the quilt quite loosely in the frame allows you to manipulate the fabric into tiny “pleats” as you pick up stitches on the needle. To produce this stitch, follow these steps:
A. Gently pierce the quilt.
1. Wearing a thimble on your middle finger, lightly place the tip of the needle on the quilt top in a vertical position (photo A). Balance the eye-end of the needle on the thimble. Your thumb should be resting on the quilt in front, but slightly off to one side of the needle, and your hand should look like a relaxed, backward C. Place the middle finger of your other hand underneath the quilt to feel for the needle’s point, and manipulate the fabric. This hand may also help hold your hoop. Gently pierce the quilt until you barely feel the tip of the needle on your middle finger. The moment you feel the needle, stop pushing.
2. Use the thimble to lay the needle parallel with the quilt surface. Do not push forward. The eye should face away from your body (photo B). At the same time, push the thumb of your thimble hand down and slightly forward on the fabric, away from you; and push the middle finger of the hand under the quilt up and slightly back, toward you, working together to pinch the fabric into a tiny pleat (photo C). This procedure sets the tip of the needle into the reverse side of the pleat. The bottom finger doesn’t actually push the needle, only the fabric. The length of the needle that travels beneath the quilt back determines stitch length on the back and the space between stitches on the front.
B. Lay the needle parallel with the quilt surface.
C. Pinch the fabric into a tiny pleat.
3. Now, use the thimble finger to push the needle through the fabric pleat. As soon as you see the tip of the needle come through the front of the pleat, stop pushing and return the needle to the full vertical position to begin the next stitch (photo D). Remember, the size of the quilt stitch is equal to amount of the needle exposed, so don’t push the needle too hard as you guide it through the pleat. Repeat these steps, loading several stitches onto the needle before pulling it through the layers (photo E).
D. Return the needle to vertical to begin the next stitch.
E. Repeat these steps, loading several stitches onto the needle before pulling it through the layers.
Keep in mind that only your thimble finger guides the needle, and that the thumb of your thimble hand and middle finger of your bottom hand maneuver the fabric. The needle should always be either vertical (when entering the quilt top) or horizontal (when pushing through the fabric pleat). Proficiency comes with lots of practice. The secret is to understand your materials and perfect the correct hand movements, which, once conquered, will reward you with small, even, beautiful stitches.
Consistent hand-quilting stitches will enhance a quilt's beauty and help it last a lifetime.
A metal thimble provides the best protection.
Mary Ray's hybrid rocking stitch is perfect for hand-quilting because it allows you to see what you are doing all the time.