Machine Quilting Practice #5: Stippling

We have reached the midpoint of our summer machine quilting practice sessions! So far, we have practiced a straight line grid, the clamshell design, orange peel quilting, and four star motifs. The next four sessions will focus on random free-motion background fills – beginning this week with stippling.

Stipple quilting – or “stippling” – is a continuous, curving line of stitching that never crosses over itself. It is a random, free-motion technique that is not marked on the quilt. The shape of the stitches has been described many ways, including puzzle pieces, vermicelli, coral, or little mittens! But it is also often mentioned that stippling is like handwriting, and everyone’s looks different. This is what mine looks like, drawn on paper. You can download and print this Stippling Worksheet to practice following the lines under your unthreaded sewing machine needle.

Traditionally, true stippling was characterized by 1/8-inch spacing between the lines. We now tend to apply the term to lines spaced as much as 1/4″ to 1/2″ apart, but anything further apart would be considered meander quilting. The true impact of stippling is actually the space between the lines – the channel – rather than the quilted lines themselves. Therefore, it is important to keep the spacing as equal as possible and to avoid crossing over any previous lines of stitching.

For this practice session, you will need one of the quilted Star Motifs from session #4. If you are working on a nine-block sampler quilt, stipple quilt around the star motif in the top left corner. For more information, please read the Instructions for Preparing a Machine Quilting Sampler. Set up your machine for free motion stitching by lowering (or covering) the feed dogs and installing a darning or free motion presser foot.

I learned a great deal about stippling from the book Guide to Machine Quilting by Diane Gaudynski. There are many detailed photos and helpful tips that are sure to help you improve your stitch, but one idea in particular made a huge impact on my stippling. Diane suggests that we start at the bottom and work up and away from ourselves. This way, we can see the lines we have already quilted and avoid crossing over any previous lines of stitching.

Begin in the bottom left corner of the star motif block. Pull up the bobbin thread as described in Beginning and Ending Machine Quilted Stitches and take the first small stitches by moving the quilt slowly under the needle. Continue moving the quilt under the needle and forming the vermicelli stipple stitches.

Remember to keep the quilt in the same orientation as you stitch the motif. Practice moving the quilt under the needle and keeping the spacing between the lines as consistent as possible. Try to make smooth curves and avoid points or straight lines. When you reach the edge of the star motif or the block, stitch right up to the previously quilted line, curve around, and carry on. If you quilt yourself into a dead end, take a few small securing stitches, stop, clip the threads, and start again in a new location.

Continue in this way, working your way around the star motif, until the background is completely covered with stipple quilting. Congratulations! You are now half way through the summer machine quilting sessions. Five down, five to go. Next week: echo quilting.

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