When I decided I wanted to do some hand-quilting on my quilts, I did as I usually do and jumped right in, preferring to learn as I go. I was also lucky enough to have a resource at my local quilt guild who answered what Google couldn’t. I’m compiling all I know here so hopefully it will help some of you too!
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Traditional versus Modern hand-quilting
For this article, I’m going to refer to traditional hand-quilting as the type of hand-quilting you most likely think of if I mention a vintage quilt. These were hand-quilted using 40 or 50 weight thread with very tiny stitches. The sought-after “gold standard” of these tiny stitches being 12 stitches per inch. (Take out your ruler and marvel at how you’d possibly get 12 stitches in a single inch. I’m still baffled.)
(In the picture above, traditional is on the left and modern on the right)
Modern hand-quilting, or “big-stitch” hand-quilting, has come into popularity with many modern quilters. This style includes using perle cotton or other similarly weighted thread and hand-quilting big stitches throughout the quilt.
Not all battings are created equal
There has been some recent talk out on Instagram about hand-quilting troubles. A couple of quilters were saying they had started a hand-quilting project and found that it was extremely tough to quilt through all the layers. They were using massive amounts of strength and were unable to “load” more than one stitch on their needle. The most likely culprit? Their batting.
Battings that contain a scrim are notoriously difficult to hand-quilt through. Scrim is a light layer of woven fabric that acts like a stabilizer to keep the batting together. The benefit of having a batting with scrim is that it allows a larger distance between quilting lines and holds up to the rough handling quilts go through when being fed through a domestic machine or long-arm. So for machine quilting? Battings with scrim are GREAT. However, since our arms don’t have the manpower of our sewing machines, this provides difficulty when hand-quilting.
Instead, look for a cotton batting without a scrim; or use wool, bamboo, or silk battings, which tend to be easier to hand-quilt. These battings have a loftier feel, and because they are much less dense, are easier to quilt through.
I will add a note here to say that when hand-quilting pillows, I DO use Pellon Natural Cotton, because I like the structure it provides to throw pillow covers. But it is much, much harder to quilt through than other battings on the market.
Battings to avoid: cotton battings with scrim, such as Warm & White, Warm & Natural, and Pellon Natural Cotton.
Well, great. But I already started. Is there any hope for me?
If you’ve already started hand-quilting a project that is proving very difficult, my suggestion is to see if you can do a hybrid machine-quilted and hand-quilted approach. For example, you could machine quilt the whole quilt in the ditch and add in some hand-quilting accents that complement the work you’ve already done. Or, if you quilt it enough with the machine that the quilt layers are secure, you could put in some “fake” hand-quilting by only quilting through the top layer and catching part of the batting. You wouldn’t see your hand-quilting stitches on the back, but it would still add some nice texture to the front.
Spray or thread baste?
I exclusively spray baste all of my quilts, and my hand-quilted ones are no exception. I’ve never had trouble or felt that the spray baste hinders my progress on my modern hand-quilting. But because the needles are bigger and the stitches are bigger, this might be the exception to the rule.
I was told by someone who does a lot of traditional hand-quilting that thread basting is preferable as the spray baste can make your top “stiffer” and therefore harder to quilt through. I spray basted the one and only quilt I ever traditionally hand-quilted. I was a far cry away from the gold standard, coming in at a lovely 5 stitches per inch. I’m not sure if thread basting would have made a difference in my number of stitches per inch, but it is definitely something I might try in the future.
If the idea of thread basting your quilt gives you nausea, consider outsourcing the task to your local longarmer.
What thread should I use?
For traditional hand-quilting, seek out 100% cotton thread that is specifically designed for hand-quilting. These threads come coated and feel stiffer than normal thread does. The coating helps the thread to glide through all the layers and keeps it from getting knotted or tangled. If you want to do some traditional hand-quilting without hand-quilting thread, coating your thread in thread conditioner will provide you with similar results.
For modern hand-quilting, there are a variety of options. Most popular are perle cotton threads in size 8 or 12. In thread, the higher the number the thinner the thread. For our example, size 12 thread is thinner than size 8 thread. Valdani, DMC, Wonderfil, and Aurifil all make thread in 12 weight. I’ve only tried Valdani and DMC since I can get both of those locally, and I prefer DMC. I’ve found that the Valdani thread shreds at the spot it sits in the eye of your needle, or from multiple repetitions through the quilt layers. I’ve never had this problem with DMC thread. I’ve also found the DMC to be smoother and to quilt up more evenly. If using Valdani thread, you’ll want to use shorter lengths of thread.
My preferred thread is Aurifil 12 weight. There’s a TON of thread on the spool which means it lasts and lasts. It doesn’t fray like some other kinds I’ve tried and is very durable. You can also use cotton crochet thread, in a size 10, for a similar weight/result to perle cotton and Aurifil.
Should I use a hoop?
I think hoops are a personal preference. I’ve tried using one and I didn’t like how restricted I felt. I prefer to lay my quilt on the floor and quilt it from there. I know some quilters who use a hoop and get very lovely results, and I know some quilters who don’t use a hoop and also get lovely results! There are many types of hoops and quilting frames out there. If possible, I recommend borrowing one from a friend to try it out and see if it is for you before you invest.
By golly, yes, you need a thimble!
I resisted this for a long time. So, so, so long! When I thought of thimbles, I thought of the old metal caps of my grandmother’s generation, and they looked and felt so unnatural to me. At first I wrapped band-aids around my fingers, which work in a pinch. Then I tried Thimble Pads, which are little sticky pieces of leather. These work, but the adhesive doesn’t stay in place so if you’re doing marathon hand-quilting sessions, you’ll find yourself repositioning them often (which is annoying).
I finally invested in a real thimble of my own after doing a lot of research. I absolutely adore my Clover Natural Fit Leather Thimble. The leather is soft and doesn’t feel foreign when trying to hand-quilt. Plus, because there is no designated quilting area on it, you can use it to add protection to your finger no matter how you quilt (for me, that’s the side of my finger). My only complaint about this thimble is that although it comes in three sizes, the small size is still too big on my finger. My suggestion to you would be that if you are in between sizes, size down. Leather stretches and molds to your skin, so after wearing it a few times, your thimble will fit perfectly. Even though mine is a bit big (I have very small baby hands), after I wear it for a while my finger will sweat a little and it helps keep the thimble in place. (Is this TMI?)
And finally, a word about needles
Needles are such a hard subject for me to talk about, because I really wing it in this area. I think that each project and each person is unique, and what needle will feel good to you might not work for your neighbor. I strongly recommend having a variety of needle types and sizes and testing out a few of them to find what you like. My favorite needles for modern hand-quilting are thicker, longer needles. I hate having a needle that bends during a project, and thicker needles are less likely to bend than thinner needles.
For traditional hand-quilting, I was recommended a “Between” needle in size 10. This recommendation came when I was almost done with my project, so although I’ve bought some, I haven’t tried them out yet. They’re quite short and thin, which is supposed to help you achieve those tiny, desired stitches. Once I try them I’ll be sure to give you a report.