How to Succeed at Straight Line Quilting

Straight line quilting: A beginner’s guide

Straight line quilting is one of my favorite types of quilting of all time.

It’s a fantastic all-over pattern that gives a quilt design a clean, modern feel. I especially love dense quilting with lots of lines.

I’m excited to share some of my tips for straight line quilting in this quilting tutorial, so let’s get into it!

What is straight line quilting?

Straight-line quilting is a method of stitching in straight lines when making a quilt, holding the three layers together (the top, the batting, and the backing).

This quilting technique may be straightforward, but it's anything but boring. It allows you to create a virtually endless list of quilt patterns and designs.

As any seasoned quilter knows, straight line quilting is a go-to method for smaller quilt projects, such as potholders, hot pads, placemats, coasters, table runners, fabric baskets, baby quilts, baby bibs, coin pouches, and tote bags.

Straight-line quilting is sometimes referred to as matchstick quilting because of the vertical lines and stick-straight stitches. It is an easy, beginner-friendly method.

Plus, learning this quilting technique will open up a realm of possibilities for your home-sewing machine projects.

Keep reading for a rundown of useful tips and essential tools you need to get started with your next quilt project.

5 straight line quilting tips you need to know

You can use any quilting machine or sewing machine for straight line quilting.

We recommend using your sewing machine's walking foot and the proper needle size, stitching in one direction, and pre-marking your lines if needed.

Then, don’t worry too much about making perfectly straight lines.

Read on for details.

1. Use your sewing machine's walking foot

Instead of using the fastest machine-quilting setting, go slow with your stitches.

The walking foot walks with the feed dogs along the fabric, meaning the quilt top moves at the same speed as the bottom layer. This prevents puckering and bunching while keeping the layers even.

2. Use the right needle size

Many sewing machine projects call for an 80/12 needle. This can work with a quilt project, but the next size up (90/14) is a better choice.

A 90/14 needle will safely stitch through the thick layers without bending or snapping.

3. Stitch in one direction

Whether you're quilting from left to right or creating diagonal lines, be sure to always stitch in the same direction. This means starting on one end and finishing on the other for each line.

4. Pre-mark your lines

If needed, you can use a ruler or yardstick and a hera marker to pre-mark the lines for your straight line quilt pattern. This will help you keep straight when there aren't any seams to follow.

5. Don't worry about perfectly straight lines

Your stitch lines don't have to be perfectly straight—in fact, the slight imperfections are part of the style!

This approach is sometimes called organic straight line quilting or free motion quilting. And if that sounds appealing to you, simply use gentle, slow movements to create slightly wavy lines.

What tools do I need for straight line quilting?

Are you ready to get started? Here are the tools you’ll need for this project:

  • Quilt top
  • Quilt back
  • Your choice of batting (I prefer low-loft cotton batting)
  • Rotary cutter and mat
  • Safety pins
  • Blue painters tape
  • Your machine with a walking foot—I’m using the Brother PQ1500SLPRW, which is a dream to sew and quilt with

How to do straight line quilting

To begin, square up the top of the quilt you will work on. In my example, I’m using a mini-improvisational quilt top that measures about 16 ½” square.

Your quilt backing needs to be a few inches larger on all sides than the quilt top, no matter what size quilt you are working on.

My mini quilt measures 16 ½” square, and I’m using a backing that measures 20” square.

Start to create your “quilt sandwich”

Lay the quilt back on a flat surface, right side down, and use pieces of blue painter's tape around the perimeter to hold the edges in place.

Using your hands, smooth out any wrinkles or air bubbles that may occur, pull the fabric taut, and secure it with pieces of tape.

This is the first layer in the quilt sandwich that we need to make: the quilt back, the batting, and the quilt top.

Incorporate the cotton batting

Place the batting on top of the quilt backing and in the center of it.

My batting was cut to 19” square for the size of my project, so it’s larger than the quilt top but smaller than the quilt back.

Follow that guide no matter what size of quilt you are working on. The batting should be larger on all sides as the quilt top and smaller on all sides as the quilt backing.

As you place the batting down, use your hand to smooth out any wrinkles or air bubbles, just as you did with the quilt backing.

The cotton batting will cling to the fabric, making it easy to guide any wrinkles out.

Place the quilt top on top of the batting, centering it and right-side up. Smooth out any wrinkles with your hands as you set it down.

Pin baste your layers

Once all three layers are in place, pin baste them together.

You can use regular safety pins, but I prefer and recommend special quilter’s pins, which have a slight bend in the part of the pin that pushes through the fabric.

This little bend in the metal makes pinning through all three layers much easier.

Start basting in the center of the quilt, smoothing your hand across the layers as you place each pin. Ensure that the layers stay smooth throughout the process.

I am generous with my pinning, and I place a pin about every 2-3 inches across the quilt, no matter its size.

Once you pin-baste the quilt sandwich, carefully remove the painter's tape that has held down the quilt backing and move the sandwich to the side.

Test your stitching before you start quilting

Before I begin quilting, I like to take a couple of scraps of the fabrics I used for the quilt top and backing and a scrap of the batting I’m using to make a sample swatch sandwich to test my stitching.

By testing the stitching on a swatch, I can see if I need to adjust the tension of my sewing machine, the stitch length, etc.

Place the three pieces together like you did with the quilt sandwich, with the fabrics on the top and bottom and the batting in the middle.

Since this is small and the batting clings to the fabrics, there is no need to pin baste this test swatch sandwich.

Check your stitch length

Take the swatch sandwich to the machine and start sewing. Always ensure the machine has a new needle each time you get ready to quilt.

As this was the first time I quilted with the Brother PQ1500SLPRW, I wanted to see how the quilting lines changed with different stitch lengths.

Sew one line along the swatch at the first setting you want to test. Then, remove the swatch, change the stitch length setting, and sew another line.

You can also use the swatch to check that the stitch quality and tension are correct by looking at the stitches on both the front and the back of the test swatch.

Make any necessary adjustments to the tension and stitch length until you’re happy with the stitching on the test swatch before you move onto your quilt.

Pick your stitch length

You can see my lines of quilting with different stitch lengths here. I started with a stitch length of 2 at the far right. The next line of quilting is with a stitch length of 3, then 4, and finally 5 to the left.

I liked the look of stitch length 4 the best, so I used it for my project.

Don’t forget to use a walking foot

In addition to a new needle, I always use a walking foot when I do straight line quilting.

Yes, you can do this without a walking foot, but things go a lot more smoothly with one.

The walking foot has built-in feed dogs that help move the top layers of fabric through your machine, while the machine's feed dogs move the bottom layers through.

This helps ensure the layers of fabric and batting don’t shift while you are quilting.

You’re ready to quilt!

You are ready to quilt once you check the stitch quality and length on the sample swatch.

I always start on the right side of the quilt and make a line of stitching, keeping the walking foot against the edge of the quilt top and going all the way from the top to the bottom.

After I finish the first line of quilting, I use that line as my guide and place my walking foot alongside the stitches as I quilt my next line.

Keep quilting in this manner, one line at a time, along the entire length of the quilt, using the previous line of quilting as a placement guide for the walking foot.

Depending on your quilting machine, this produces lines of quilting approximately ¼” apart.

As you quilt, start the line of stitching just above the quilt top. Also, you should end it just past the end of the quilt top to make sure that the entire top is quilted.

Don’t forget to remove any pins

As you move across the surface of the quilt top, remove the pins as needed, making sure not to hit them with the walking foot. I typically remove each one when I’m about 1” to 1 ½” away.

When to start straight line quilting

Some people prefer to start straight line quilting in the middle of their project, work their way out to the side, and then repeat and quilt the other side.

However, I’ve always worked how I’ve shown in this tutorial, no matter the size, by starting to quilt on one side and moving along the top to the other.

Because I take great care in basting and preparing my quilt, I have never had fabric shift much by working in this manner. This is true for both large quilts and small, wall hanging-sized quilts like this one.

However, if you are working on a larger quilt, I recommend using a pair of quilting gloves to help you move the fabric through the machine.

The gloves have a rubber coating on the palms that helps your hands grip the fabric and maneuver it easier through the machine.

However, they aren’t necessary for something of this size.

Continue adding rows

As you work along the quilt, roll up the end you have already quilted to make it easier to pass through the sewing machine.

Continue to add rows of stitching until the entire quilt is quilted.

The dense quilting is so amazing. It gives so much texture to a quilt, yet it is minimal enough that it doesn’t distract from the design of the quilt, especially when a coordinating thread is used.

Here’s the front of the quilt after the quilting was finished.

And here’s the back. No puckers, just smooth, even stitches and great texture.

Quick tips for less-dense quilting

If you want to do straight line quilting, but not as dense as my example, you can mark lines on the quilt front with a marking pen to use as a guide.

If this is your choice, I recommend using a chalk marker or a water-soluble marker to draw on the quilt front, marking out your lines before you create your quilt sandwich.

Alternatively, you can use painter's tape to mark the quilting lines as well.

25 trim off excess batting and backing

Your quilt is complete!

Once the quilting is finished, trim off the excess batting and backing fabric with a straightedge and a ruler.

Then, you are ready to bind the quilt. Check out our post on how to bind for some helpful info!

Straight line quilting like a pro

As we’ve explored today, straight line quilting (sometimes called matchstick quilting) is a quilt-making technique that uses straight lines to hold the three layers (also known as a quilt sandwich) together.

You can use this straightforward, beginner-friendly method with tons of designs and quilt projects. From table runners and potholders to baby quilts and bibs, the possibilities are endless.

With the right tools and some basic guidance, you can get started with your next straight line quilting project today.

Just make sure you have a high-quality sewing machine, like one of our quilting and embroidery machines. Then, if you use the proper needle size and lean on your walking foot, you'll be quilting in no time!