Hand quilting is an adventure that I think everyone should try just once–on a baby quilt. The chunky stitches give the quilt such a crafty and homey feel. It’s cheap to get into, all you’ll need is some thread (embroidery floss), a needle, and a hoop. But recently I made a Biscuits and Cookies quilt, whose puffs made the hoop a little small, even on the largest setting. Still, I had seen online that I may not even need a hoop after all, so I decided to give it a go. Here is how I went about hand quilting without a hoop.
Choosing a quilting design
Before we get into the hand quilting, you need to choose a quilting design. As I mentioned in the Free Puff Quilt Pattern: Biscuits and Cookies blog post, I think taking a picture of the quilt and drawing out quilting designs is a great way to determine what would look good with your quilt design.
If you’re newer to quilting, straight line quilting or using simple shapes, like circles, can be an easy way to create good flow throughout your quilt. The density of your quilting doesn’t matter, as long as you’re meeting the requirements written on your batting. I believe most batting packages say your quilting needs to be less than 6″ apart, but make sure to check your packaging.
For my project, I decided to go with a fairly light quilting; I didn’t want to commit to that much hand quilting on a deadline. I also was using some left over thread from my last hand quilting project, and wanted to make sure I wouldn’t run out. Regardless of what you choose, I think drawing the design on the quilt with chalk or disappearing marker can be a big help.
Preparing the thread (floss)
While you can find ‘hand quilting thread’ online, I go the frugal route: embroidery floss. It’s way cheaper, especially when you don’t even know if you’ll like hand quilting, and there are a plethora of colors to choose from at your local JoAnn. It is a little different than the quilting thread as it’s made with 6 strains of ‘floss’ that aren’t wound together, but I have never had any problems with this.
To prepare the thread (floss), I like to cut off a good arms length (though traditional sewing convention says 18″, ugh). Then I will split the floss into two groups of three strands. Pull the floss apart slowly, letting the bottom freely spin, or else you’ll create knots.
Thread your needle with one of the three-stranded threads. I have been using some golden-eyed needles that I got from JoAnn. I don’t remember the brand, but it came with a rubbery grip to help pull the needles through the fabric that has been beyond helpful. Fons and Porter have a similar pack of embroidery needles, but they aren’t the same exact pack that I bought.
I tie the thread to the needle with two knots. I normally like to use one, because then I don’t need to pull out my scissors to remove the thread, but you’ll be doing some heavy duty sewing and I found the thread came off the needle too often with a single knot.
Knotting the thread in the fabric
Unlike with machine quilting, you can’t stitch backwards to lock your threads or pull up a bottom thread to tie off your threads. You need to bury a knot within your quilt sandwich. It’s easy!
First, you’ll also need to knot the free end of the thread. Some hand quilters use a fancy knot they make by wrapping the thread around the needle. I never perfected the trick. I merely tie a simple knot about an inch away from the end of the thread.
To knot the thread in the fabric, you need to first choose where you want your quilting to start. Then insert the needle into the top of quilt sandwich and inch or two away from that spot, only going as deep as the batting, and have the needle come out at your starting location. (The pic below shows starting a new thread once you’ve already starting sewing. The process is the same.) Pull on the thread until the knot pops through the quilt top.
Give your thread a tug. If it doesn’t come out of the fabric, trim the tail of the knot while putting some tension on the tail not (as though your about to pull it back out). When you release the tension on the thread, the tiny knot tail still sticking out of the quilt should be easy to pull into the quilt sandwich by tugging the needle.
If the needle does come all the way out of the fabric when you give it a tug, tie another knot over the other knot you tied in the tail of the thread. This will make it a little harder to pull the knot through the fabric but still doable. To help, make sure you’re holding the fabric taunt so it doesn’t pull.
Hoop-less hand quilting
For me hand quilting without a hoop wasn’t that different than hand quilting with a hoop. To start quilting, I just held the quilt in my lap, with one hand below the quilt and one hand holding the needle above. Then I pushed the needle straight down into the quilt ~3/16″ (a shy 1/4″) from the last stitch, stopping with the needle halfway into the quilt. Use your bottom hand to help support the quilt, but watch out for the needle coming through the fabric!
With the needle still halfway through the quilt, tilt it sideways, so it is pointing in the direction you want to quilt. Push the side of the needle up into the quilt; you’ll be able to see where the tip of the quilt puts pressure through the quilt. Slowly slide the needle back until you see the needle is at the stitch length you desire.
Push the needle up through the quilt, angling the needle to be as vertical as possible. Pull the needle all the way through. Some people like to use a thimble for this, but I have come to prefer a rubber needle grabber, shown above in the picture with the needles I use.
As you can see, where as a hoop would keep things nice and taunt, the quilt sandwich is moving around. I created some stability under the quilt with my fingers, but I thought the flexibility of the quilt helped get through the chunky pieced corners.
The double stitch
Once you’ve gotten the single stitch shown above down, you can move on to a double stitch. A double stitch is where you make two stitches before pulling the needle all the way through the fabric. Start by making a single stitch, but stopping before you pull the needle through the fabric (like I just said).
Then you’re going to make one more stitch. It’s a little hard because the needle is stiffened with the fabric already threaded through it. But lift the needle vertical, pierce the quilt sandwich, drop the needle horizontal, pull it back until it’s at the proper stitch length, and then push it through the quilt sandwich.
This helps make the hand quilting faster, but is not necessary if you’re not comfortable with it.
Getting through thick fabric
If your quilt is heavily pieced, even just as much as a four patch (as seen in the biscuit and cookie quilt), there can be too much fabric to get good hand stitches. In my four patch, I was able to force the needle through, but the stitch lengths got weird–very small on the back and very large on the top.
If this doesn’t bother you, speed ahead. But the simple way of dealing with this is to pull the needle all the way through to the back of the quilt. and then back all the way to the top of the quilt. It can be hard to find the right place to bring the needle up from the back of the quilt, so use with caution. But it is way easier than fighting through a half-dozen layers of fabric.
Knotting off a thread
Continue sewing until you have ~6″ of thread left. Now it’s time to knot off the thread. Tie a normal knot (as you did in the tail). You’ll want the knot to be ~1 stitch length from where the thread is coming out of the quilt. To help get it into the right position, I like to insert my needle into the knot and guide the knot down the thread. This way it won’t knot too early. Pull out the needle when you get it into position.
Then insert the needle into the quilt, only going as deep as the batting, and pull the needle out ~1″-2″ away.
As you did starting the thread, pull the thread until the knot pops through the fabric. You can use your needle to pull back on some of your stitches to make sure the knot is secure. If not, you’ll have to cut the thread off the base of the needle, rethread, and then tie another knot above the first knot. Then try pulling it into the quilt again. It will take more force this time. Make sure you’re holding the fabric taunt to keep it from pulling.
Then you’ll need to pull the thread taunt and trim near the fabric. The thread will retract back into the fabric so you can’t see it.
Finishing Hand Quilting
Add a new thread and continue hand quilting. When you add a new thread, you’ll want to start at the base of a stitch and, essentially, restitch a stitch.
Continue until the quilting is done. And voila! You’ve got a quilted quilt. At first, I was worried about hand quilting without a hoop, but I was ultimately able to use the flexibility of the quilt to my advantage around more heavily pieced parts of the quilt.
While quilting hoops are readily available and quite cheap in places such as JoAnn, they aren’t possible to use on all quilts. And, as I’ve found, aren’t necessary. If you’d like to get into more detailed hand quilting, I could see them being more useful. For a quick, fun, to-be-well-loved quilt, I think hand quilting without a hoop worked out just well. Let me know what you think!