Using a ruler is a great way to quilt smooth straight lines without messing up the “flow” of free motion quilting. If you’ve been wondering how to add ruler work to your domestic machine quilting repertoire, here are a few tips to get started!
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I love mixing free motion quilting and straight lines— it creates great visual contrast and changes up the process. As a general rule, if I want to quilt straight lines on my domestic, I just use (and recommend) a piecing foot or walking foot. The downside to this method, of course, is that you have to turn the quilt every time you need to change the direction of the line. If you’re doing something like straight lines in a border, turning the quilt every few inches quickly becomes a royal pain in the patootie. Enter, the ruler. Ruler work is amazing because it allows you to have the precision of straight lines without breaking the flow of free motion quilting.
When to Use Straight Lines
As I mentioned, I like to mix free motion quilting with more geometric motifs because I think it creates a really cool effect. While I don’t have hard and fast rules about this, or hardly anything with quilting for that matter, I do have some general guidelines for when I’ll opt for straight lines in a heart beat. You could use your walking/piecing foot or a ruler for these, whichever you prefer.
1) Aesthetics- Sometimes I have a larger area that needs to be quilted, but my favorite free motion motifs would be too dense. Or I want to emphasize the geometry of the piecing by echoing or connecting seam lines.
2) Layering- Part of what I love about the quilting stage is the ability to push some areas back and allow others to puff forward. Closely spaced straight lines or switchbacks are a great way to deemphasize the background while also giving it yummy texture
3) Flatness- Borders and other troublesome areas are ideal candidates for straight lines because they are a useful way to “massage” puckers and buckles into submission. Some lines, a quick wash, and trouble areas will basically vanish. It’s like quilting magic.
Notes about Rulers on the Domestic
1) Make sure you have the right equipment. A proper ruler foot (usually round and metal with taller sides) and proper rulers (at least 1/4” thick, NOT rotary rulers) will not only make it easier to quilt with rulers, but it will make it SAFER. It is very, very dangerous to attempt ruler work with a hopping foot or a too-thin ruler because the ruler can end up under the foot, causing the needle to hit the ruler. This can break your machine, or worse, damage the ruler and cause shards of plastic to go flying.
2) Sometimes rulers made for the domestic have a little “knob” to hook your thumb around to help hold on to the ruler. It’s fine to have it and fine not to. Either way, you’ll be pushing down on the ruler and using the ruler as well as your other hand to move the quilt. This will take some elbow grease! I highly, highly recommend making sure your machine is flush to the table or has a quilting table attached. Ruler work will be a lot easier and safer with a flat surface behind your ruler.
3) My same principles about non-perfectionism apply here. This will take practice, so be patient with yourself, and listen to Angela Walters: “Stright-ish is straight enough!” (Can I get an amen??)
Where to Start
As with all quilting motifs, I recommend starting on a practice swatch. I find “ruler assisted switchbacks” to be a great jumping off place, so begin with those. First, draw some 4 or 5 inch “borders” (aka columns) on your practice swatch. Put your ruler foot on your machine, and fill one column with regular free motion switchbacks, seeking to space each pass of the switchbacks about 1 ruler foot away from the previous one (which puts them about a quarter of an inch apart and looks very nice). Make sure you pay attention to your tension during this pass and tweak as you go as needed. The curves of switchbacks are notorious for showing pulls if your tension is just a bit off. Next, fill another column with switch backs, but this time use the ruler along the straight edge to more precisely and evenly space your passes and to hold a nice clean line. This is where you’ll want to experiment— do you prefer your ruler in your right or left hand? Do you prefer to quilt away from yourself? Side to side? Play around with handedness and orientation to find your preferences, then just practice, practice, practice!