Thursday, April 6, 2017

Quilting the Sandwich

After posting the article last week about making the quilt sandwich from my travel project, I heard from a few of you asking about ‘big stitch’ quilting.

In my mind, there’s really not much difference between big-stitch quilting, and ‘regular’ quilting. The stitching motion is the same, meaning the needle is inserted at a 90-degree from front to back, and again from back to front. At all times the needle stays on top - not like stitching cards when you were a kid - where your hand keeps switching from the top to the bottom of the project to pull the threads through.

The fabric inside the hoop is given a little bit of slack before the hoop is secured in place to help lift the quilt sandwich to achieve the 90-degree angles on both sides of the section being worked. When I hand quilt, the right hand (with a thimble on my middle finger) does most of the work with the needle, but the left hand does a lot of pushing and positioning of the quilt.

During any given quilting session, my index fingers on both hands get a work out, preferably without drawing any blood in the process.

For big stitch quilting both the needle (usually a size 6 sharp or embroidery needle) and the thread (usually a perle cotton) are bigger. I like this pack of needles from Colonial Needle, because it has a nice variety of needles to choose from.

For hand quilting - big stitch or otherwise, I start in the middle of the project and work outward. Whereas for machine quilting, I start all over the place - as long as I've been diligent with my pin-basting.

In addition, I start several strands of thread at once. You can see all my tails here in the middle of the hoop (red arrows). I’ve just moved my hoop to this spot.

Then I quilt each strand as far as I can go, and it’s time to move the hoop again. See the red arrows have moved, with the stitching progression?

One thing I do that may be somewhat unusual, I don’t knot the threads then bury the knot in the layers. Especially with big stitch quilting, the perle cotton knots can get pretty bulky and I don’t like tugging at them to move them to the batting in-between layer. In theory the holes in the fabric where the knot pops through go away, but I dunno, I just don’t like doing a tug of war with some of these knots after putting in so much work on the quilt top. Plus, all the tugging weakens the thread even before I take my first stitch, IMO!

Instead, I start with a really long strand of thread - like 4 or 5 feet long, find the middle of the thread, insert the needle and make the first stitch and pull through until the thread tail is about half the length, then start stitching in one direction (as a righty - I usually stitch from right to left). Later I’ll come back to that other end and work it in the opposite direction (after flipping the hoop around so I can keep working right to left).

You can see where I started this strand (the red arrow on the right side of the picture). The thread end is waiting there for its turn. The circled bit on the left side is that same strand of thread, after following the stitching along the ditch (between the burgundy and creamy-green prints)

Once the thread is all used up, I try to leave about 3” on the needle, then take a teeny tiny back stitch before weaving the thread back and forth in the batting layer in between the last few quilting stitches. No knots.

You know, I have a question. Sometimes a process like this is hard to describe with photographs. I've been considering enhancing my newsletters with some short video clips, but to be honest, I'm a little chicken to venture into a new (for me) media. Would you like to see more videos in future articles? Let me know what you think!

Happy Stitching!

Joan Ford


  1. To me, your explanation is perfect. No video needed for me. I just want to know why this method is called Big Stitch. Is it because the thread is thicker, or that stitch is longer? If the latter, how many stitches per inch?

    1. Good question. I think it's because everything is bigger. Bigger needle, bigger thread, and bigger stitches. I'm putting in about 5 stitches to the inch on my project, but I've seen big stitch that has fewer stitches than that. And I think it goes a bit faster, too! Thanks for the input, too!

  2. Thank you for the needle recommend. I am still shopping for a favorite. I like your method of burying your thread ends, too.
    I like videos, I enjoy seeing and hearing instructors especially putting a face to the name/voice. I learn best hearing things, reading instructions out loud helps drive it home.

  3. Your descriptions are very good, maybe because I already understand the process. Your techniques often mirror what I have been doing, although I also learn something new. I am also a visual learner, so videos would add to your descriptions. Thanks, Joan.

  4. Your explanations are so clear I don't think a video is necessary, but then I've been hand quilting for many years, too. Thanks for the descriptions, as I've never thought of doing it the way you do -- makes sense once I read it! Never too old to learn something new, huh?

  5. I agree with the other comments; your instructions and pictures are very clear and accurately show your technique.
    What a clever way to hand quilt as at least you complete one section which means that you don't have to return there later; and it means using up all the space within the hoop.
    I really like to patchwork design and the colours-they are very effective at using lots of colours but creating a unity.