custom quilting

Quilting In Layers: Basics of Custom Quilting

Once you’ve made a custom quilting plan, it can be hard to decide how to get started on your quilt. Let’s talk through some basic steps so you can start— and finish— with confidence!

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Quilting In Layers- Basics of Custom Quilting with HollyAnne Knight of String & Story
 

Custom quilting. Two exciting, gorgeous, almost awe-inspiring words. When you’re stitching your first meanders, custom quilting your own (or maybe even others’!) quilts may seem far away. But, honestly, if you’ve taken my Beginner Free Motion Quilting class and done the work to be comfortable with those ten motifs, you’re ready to start custom quilting!

Whether you’re working on your domestic machine or a longarm, there are two key parts to custom quilting: 1) deciding what to quilt where (making a quilting plan) and 2) deciding how to execute the plan, aka what to quilt first, second, and so on! As always, I’m going to share my suggestions based on what I and my friends do, but if something else works better for you, do that!

Note: if knowing what to quilt where or figuring out how the motifs you know fit into the spaces you are quilting is your hangup, check out my How to Make a Quilting Plan class. It will take you through common shapes and quilt layouts to get you started.

 
Quilting In Layers- Basics of Custom Quilting with HollyAnne Knight of String & Story
 

What is Custom Quilting?

When I say “custom quilting,” I am referring to any quilt that has three or more motifs quilted on it. Custom quilting includes motif use and placement that enhances the design of that particular quilt. It often includes quilting across seam lines to emphasize a secondary or overlaid design. The simplest type of custom quilting can be done on a traditional quilt where three motifs are chosen— one for the blocks, one for the sashing, and one for the borders.

 
Quilting In Layers- Basics of Custom Quilting with HollyAnne Knight of String & Story
 

If the simplest custom quilting follows the structural elements of the quilt, more complex custom quilting completely or almost completely ignores seam lines to create an additional, separate, yet complementary layer of design. This more complex approach is what I had in mind for my Star Island quilt. While Star Island is the primary illustration I’m using here, I’ll share other techniques, etc, as applicable.

Also, each of the “layers” I’m talking about here is a complete pass down the quilt. On the longarm, that means I worked top to bottom completely multiple times over, rolling the quilt back and forth. On a domestic, it would mean quilting across or around the quilt multiple times.

 
Quilting In Layers- Basics of Custom Quilting with HollyAnne Knight of String & Story
 

Where to Start: Secure the Quilt

The most common way to do this is to stitch in the ditch around all the blocks.

Full disclosure: I’m still learning the value of taking the time to do this. I can definitely see the difference it makes on my longarm, so I’m learning to slow down. On the domestic, I still have mixed emotions about it because I know so many quilters who struggle to keep their quilt (especially the back) smooth when quilting on their home machines. Thus, my recommendation is usually to start in the center and quilt out toward the edges whenever possible in order to move extra fabric out to the edge. Thus, take this with a grain of salt and if you prefer not to stitch in the ditch, I promise I won’t judge.


Another way to secure the quilt is by creating a large, all over motif which you will then fill in as you continue to quilt. For example, when quilting Star Island, I secured the quilt by first making the large scallop designs from top to bottom on the quilt. (And if you missed it, be sure to check out this video of me stitching those scallops because, yes, I used a pizza pan LOL)

 
Quilting In Layers- Basics of Custom Quilting with HollyAnne Knight of String & Story
 

Next: Quilt Any “Point of Reference” Motifs

This might be the largest or most dominant motif, or, in the case of Star Island, it was the scallop echoes and frond spines that created the shapes for my smaller filler designs. We’re basically working largest to smallest— after the quilt is secure, add motifs that will dominate your quilting plan or cover the most area of your quilt.

If you are quilting a traditional quilt like the one I showed above, be sure to check out this post about quilting efficiently so you can tackle your sashing and blocks in one pass. If you are able to quilt your quilt this way, you’ll be done lickety-split!

 
Quilting In Layers- Basics of Custom Quilting with HollyAnne Knight of String & Story
 

Add Some Fills

These are the details— some paisleys here, pebbles there. Depending on what larger motifs you had, this step will likely take the longest because it is the most intricate. Take your time and embrace the process. Quilt the life into it!

Optional: Borders

If applicable, quilt the borders last. If there’s any sort of wave or extra fabric that eased out of the seams while you were quilting everything else, saving the borders until last will give you a chance to massage them and work that extra fabric so that it lies flat and lovely. My favorite way to quilt super friendly borders is with switchbacks or straight lines (think faux piano keys). This way, if there is so much extra fabric that I need to make a pleat, it’s easily and neatly hidden by stitching right along the edge of the fold as part of the quilting motif.

 
Quilting In Layers- Basics of Custom Quilting with HollyAnne Knight of String & Story
 

The other question I get a lot about custom quilting is about how to avoid a “cardboard” quilt. Two things: 1) Use all natural batting— 100% cotton, 100% wool, cotton-wool, silk, bamboo, etc. Natural fibers are more pliable and keep their softness even when quilted a lot. 2) Use 100% cotton thread like Aurifil. Cotton fabric + cotton thread + natural batting = a soft, squishy quilt. Adding plastics in (poly threads or batts), though, will make your quilt much more stiff.

As you’ve likely figured out, custom quilting takes a lot longer than an all over or edge to edge design. There will be more thread ends to bury, and it will use more thread. If you send a quilt to a longarmer, custom quilting will cost extra. Personally, I think it’s all 100% worth it because I’m allll about the texture and additional layer of design. Whether or not custom quilting ends up being your “thing” or style, try it at least once! It encourages you to look at your quilts a little differently, and it’s lots of fun!

 
Quilting In Layers- Basics of Custom Quilting with HollyAnne Knight of String & Story