I confess, this is not my favorite part of the quiltmaking process. As primarily a free-motion-by-machine quilter, I find there are rarely times when I need to mark a quilt top before I start quilting. (As a matter of fact, I make SURE those times are rare.)However, there are times when only a marked pattern will do; for example, when I want a fairly formal quilted design in a quilt constructed with pieced or appliquéd blocks and plain alternate blocks. Those plain blocks are the perfect place for an intricate design to be repeated consistently in all the blocks.
Since I find the marking process tedious at best, I’ve discovered some ways to “mark without marking.”
If what you want to do is quilt a grid of straight lines (for which you would use a walking foot), masking or painter’s tape is the way to go. Simply lay strips of tape just to the side of where you want your quilting lines and stitch next to (not through!) the tape.
Painter’s tape pulls off your quilt top more easily. If you’re using masking tape, pat it against your clothing before putting in on your quilt. It will pick up a bit of lint, making it less sticky and easier to remove.
Stencils and Chalk
One of my favored marking techniques is to use stencils (commercially or homemade) and chalk. Of course, it is never appropriate (or smart) to mark an entire quilt top with chalk because by the time you have moved the quilt around to do the marking, then manipulated it through the arm of your machine to do the quilting, most of the chalk will have rubbed off before you get a chance to follow the marks.
The solution is to mark one block or small area at a time.
The Quilt Pounce™ by Hancy looks a little like an old fashioned blackboard eraser with a hole in the top (with a stopper) through which you fill it with chalk. It also has a fitted tray to keep the chalk from getting all over your sewing area. (Hint: Store it upside down to prevent the marking side from getting too heavily saturated with chalk.)
Chalk for the pounce comes in yellow, white, and blue and will brush or wash off. Beware the intensity of the colors. I made a quilt for my daughter out of the leftover fabrics from dresses I’d sewn for her as a child and used a white-on-white fabric for the background and border. Lo, these many years later, there is still a hint of the yellow chalk I used to mark the straight quilting lines.
I think part of the problem was the fabric itself. The white that created the design on the surface of the white fabric hung onto that chalk. The chalk would probably have brushed off easily if I had used a plain white fabric.
Three things I could (and should) have done to avoid the problem of lingering chalk lines:
- TESTED the markings on a scrap of the fabric before using it on the quilt (and then used tape instead. This was decades ago and I’ve learned a lot since then).
- “Diluted” the yellow chalk by mixing it half-and-half with white chalk.
- Brushed away the excess chalk as soon as I finished quilting the area.
I bought my pounce chalk a number of years ago and apparently I’m not the only one who thought the intense colors might be problematic. In researching current availability, I discovered they now have a Barely Blue chalk. Nice response to the problem, Hancy.
Chalk, like many tools of our trade, has gone high-tech. Tailor® (June Tailor, Inc.) makes a Quilter’s Stencil Marking Spray and Sullivans USA makes a chalk Marking Spray. Both come in aerosol cans and are designed to spray through the lines of a quilt stencil.
Back in the day when our grandmothers (or maybe our great-grandmothers) were marking quilts, they would use a sliver of soap or a pounce made with a small muslin bag and filled with cinnamon, or so the lore goes. Although I have yet to make a pounce with cinnamon, I’ve tried a sliver of soap, and it works just fine on dark fabrics. And there will certainly be no problem with removing the lines.
Moving as far away as possible from high-tech, I keep an old fashioned box of white chalk with all my other marking tools. Sometimes the simplest technique is the best.
What about those stencils?
There are many, many commercially made stencils available in a variety of sizes and complexities. I have a drawer-full myself. But sometimes what you have on hand is just not what you need. Fear not, there are some easy ways to make your own stencils and an abundance of books of designs to trace for your personal use. Look for “continuous line” quilting designs that keep starting and stopping to a minimum.
Here is how to make and use a paper stencil.
- Trace a design that you want to repeat onto plain (copier) paper.
- Place several sheets of paper under the traced design, securing the layers by stapling them together at the corners.
- Perforate the papers along the traced lines by free-motion stitching over the design without any thread. (The higher the size number of the needle, the larger the holes you’ll get.)
- Remove the staples.
- Position a single stencil on your quilt and pin it in place.
- Brush or gently tap the pounce over the paper. The chalk will go through the holes, creating a dotted line on your quilt to follow.
- Remove the paper and any pins.
- Quilt along the dotted chalk line. (Be sure to put in a new needle!)
When making your paper stencils, use a needle that’s past its prime because going through paper will dull it pretty quickly. It’s also a good idea to keep a few used needles around for this purpose, rather than throwing them away (safely taped to cardboard or in a container when you do dispose of them; no need to risk puncturing yourself when taking out the trash).
This paper comes on rolls and is ideal for intricate designs. Trace the design onto the paper, pin the paper to your sandwiched quilt, and quilt through the paper. When you finish, gently pull your quilt on both biases (the diagonals, against the grain of the fabric weave) to loosen the paper around the stitches and pull the paper off.
Be wary of how you trace the design onto the paper. I used a nice, dark #2 pencil once, only to discover that as I stitched through the paper, bits of the lead (graphite, actually; but you knew that.) transferred onto my quilt. Oops. Again, TEST your marking method before using it on your quilt.
You can use the same copier-paper technique described earlier and make multiple copies from one traced pattern. Instead of quilting though one paper with a traced line, the copies will provide you with a perforated line to follow, which has the advantage of making the paper even easier to tear away after stitching.
Border and/or Alternate Block Fabrics
Never doubt the value of a good fabric design to guide your free-motion quilting. Especially in a border, quilting along the lines of, for example, a floral, foliage, or paisley pattern in the fabric is an easy way to go. No marking required.
You do not have to stitch over the designs exactly or in as much detail as the fabric provides. Even if the designs aren’t continuous, you do not need to stop and start again between motifs. Simply meander from one motif to the next. Once you get going, you may be surprised at the complementary designs you come up with yourself to fill in spots between motifs or where there is less patterning in the fabric.
Your goal is for the density of your quilting to be evenly distributed over the surface of your quilt. Heavy quilting in some areas and sparse quilting elsewhere can distort a quilt and prevent it from lying flat.
I've always been intrigued by the idea of quilting a quilt “upside down.”
- Select a backing fabric with an interesting overall design. As mentioned earlier, I think floral, foliage, and paisley patterns lend themselves especially well to free-motion quilting.
- Prepare your quilt sandwich by layering it with the quilt top face down on the bottom, then the batting, and finally the backing right-side up on top.
- Select the thread you want on the face of your quilt and wind it on your bobbin.
- Free-motion quilt following the backing fabric design.
This technique is a great way to get an overall pattern on your quilt that is completely free of the influence of the quilt top pattern. I’ve always thought this would be a good technique to use on a very geometric quilt top. The curved lines of the fabric pattern would juxtapose nicely with the straight piecing lines.
Sometimes all you need in the way of marking is registration marks—dots or small lines that indicate turning points or curves in the design to guide your quilting. Analyze your design and where it is going to be placed in your block. If it is a pieced block, the piecing itself may provide just the guidance you need and you won’t need to put in registration marks at all.
Other Marking Tools
This marker looks a bit like a fat butter knife. It is a smooth, sharp-edged (but not sharp enough to cut) tool that makes no mark at all. It creates a crease in the fabric that you can follow with your quilting stitches. It works best for straight lines or gentle curves.
These refillable “pens” come in several different styles and chalk colors and I have found that I can always rely on Clover products. (On a completely different subject, have your tried their hand-sewing needle threader? Amazing and worth every penny. I couldn’t live without it.)
This is the tool for those who prefer a mechanical pencil for marking quilting lines. It is refillable and the lead comes in white, pink, and black. The markings are removed by the Sewline eraser. by dabbing with a damp sponge, or by washing.
FriXion Erasable Gel Pen by Pilot
The FriXion marks are removed by (not surprisingly) by friction. However, they are much more easily removed with a hot iron. Just hover a dry, hot iron over the quilt surface (or lightly touch the iron to the surface itself) and the marks will disappear. The FriXion pen comes in eight different colors, so there’s sure to be one that will show up well on whatever fabric you’re making.
I have a refillable wax pencil that came with a variety of color refills, yet with no manufacturer’s name anywhere on the pen, otherwise, I could be more specific. And truthfully, since marking is not my favorite thing, I may have missed some more recent innovations. Check the notions department of your favorite quilt shop.
When using chalk, or really any marker, only mark what you think you’re going to quilt in a given quilting session. Leaving a mark of any kind on for long periods of time can encourage it to hang around long after its usefulness has expired.
But, again, testing the markings on scraps of fabric from your quilt before you mark your quilt top can save you a lot of sorrow later.
A very generous longarm quilter sent me a bottle of Sew Clean™ to remove markings from a quilt. It’s a manual spray, citrus-based spot remover, so you may find it comes in handy for more than just taking out quilt markings.
If you have any questions on marking, or any other quilting issue, you’d like to have answered, just ask them in the Comments section. I look forward to hearing from you.
by Linda Baxter Lasco
Linda's past and present roles in the quilting world include teacher, lecturer, judge, and quilt shop staff member. She also completed stints as program chair for both the Artful Hands Quilt Guild and the Rhododendron Needlers Quilt Guild, in Mansfield and Walpole, Massachusetts, respectively.
Additionally, while working as a senior editor at the American Quilter’s Society for nine years, Lasco edited many books and stand-alone patterns. She also wrote the quilting book, Red, White & Quilted, published in 2014.