Sectional Quilting Tutorial

Sectional Quilting Tutorial

Dividing a quilt top into sections makes it possible to quilt a large top on your domestic sewing machine. This method is similar to assembling “quilt as you go” blocks, without the “as you go” part: piecing is done first, then quilting.

This tutorial shows how I quilted “World Traveler” — an original layout of Bonnie Hunter’s “scrappy trips” method — in several pieces, making it possible to do this large quilt on my home machine.

This 96″x96″ quilt is made from 64 12″ blocks in an 8×8 layout (here you see the front and back; a different fabric was used for the back of each section):

Before tackling “World Traveler,” the largest top I’d quilted was “Kaleidoscope Pop” which is a mere 62″x78″:

Kaleidoscope Pop   Sectional Quilting Tutorial

By the time I’d wrestled that one through my Babylock, I decided future maximum top size would be somewhere short of those dimensions. Then “World Traveler” happened, and I became infected with a crazy desire to quilt it myself. Sectional quilting seemed like the way to go.

Google delivered some options. Most assumed I’d be using sashing and/or be quilting “in the ditch,” neither of which was in my plan. The basic concept seemed doable, though, so I gave it a go and figured a few things out along the way. My approach to sectional quilting worked fine. It’s not quick, and there are lots of steps, but none of the steps are difficult.

The purpose of dividing your top into sections for quilting is not to make the process faster (it’s not), but to make it possible to quilt a large top on a basic home sewing machine.

Here’s what I did. You can do it, too:

Step 1. Decide where to Divide

If you have already sewn all your blocks together, it’s too late to use this method! You’ll either have to rip out a lot of seams, or find some other way to quilt it. Decide on your section divisions BEFORE sewing your blocks together.

I divided my 64 blocks into six sections: two 3×4 block sections on the left and right sides, and two 2×4 block sections in the center. These were labeled (on paper safety-pinned to the upper left corner of each section): L1, L2, C1, C2, R1, R2:

Sectional Quilting Tutorial

Labels are essential! Once you start quilting these, it’s easy to get turned around and not be sure what section is in your hands or which end is the top.

The smaller each section, the easier it is to quilt, and the longer it will take to put the whole quilt together. One reason I went with six sections was to find out how much more work it would be, compared to dividing the quilt into three vertical pieces. The small sections (each baby quilt sized) were easy to handle, but it turned out not to be worth the extra effort created by the additional section seams. If I were doing this again I’d divide into no more than three pieces (left, right, center).

Think about other quilts you’ve worked on, and what size is manageable for you on your machine. Aim for a balance between quilting convenience (more, smaller pieces) and assembly convenience (fewer, larger pieces).

Avoid dividing your quilt right down the middle: you’ll still have to mash half the quilt width under your machine arm to finish up the quilting. When putting my sections together I sewed the L1-L2, C1-C2, and R1-R2 seams first.

Step 2: Sew Your Blocks into Sections

Pretend each section is a separate top and sew the blocks and rows for each section together. Do NOT sew your sections together yet! That happens after quilting.

Step 3: Quilt Each Section

Prepare batting and backing for each section, and baste as desired. Quilt each section any way you want, but DO NOT QUILT ALL THE WAY TO THE EDGE on any side that will be seamed to another section. You can quilt all the way to the edge along the outside edges only. Here’s that same diagram, with “safe-to-quilt” areas shaded in grey:

Sectional Quilting Tutorial

Because this quilt is made from 2″ (finished) squares, I used the first seamline as my guide for where to stop quilting. This turned out to be a nice amount of wiggle room for sewing the sections together.

Here’s a detail of one of my sections edges, with the row at the raw edge left unquilted:

Sectional Quilting Tutorial

May be easier to see on the back:

Sectional Quilting Tutorial

Yes, that horrible thought that just popped into your mind is true: you are going to have to come back, after sewing the sections together, and complete all of those quilting lines.

The good news is that if you do something sane and simple, like a diagonal cross-hatch, that finishing step will be much easier for you than it was for me. I knew this going in, and tried to talk myself into a diagonal cross-hatch, and did it the hard way anyway.
Easy quilting option for “Scrappy Trips” quilts

As you can see from the pics above, “World Traveler” has lots of quilting lines: straight lines, serpentine stitch, and free motion going on. I could not have chosen a worse strategy for sectional quilting, but it’s what the quilt wanted and so that’s what I did. Here’s the easier path you might want to take:

Sectional Quilting Tutorial

Notice how, with this diagonal cross-hatch, you can PIVOT when your quilting line hits that “stop here” seam, and continue on at a 90-degree angle. If you start every section with a line through the diagonal center of each block, your cross-hatch will line up when you put the sections together.
Step 4. Trim

All your quilting done? Every section? Have you cleaned up all the thread ends? Good.  Now, take two neighboring sections and lay them on a table or countertop, lined up the way they will be when sewn together:

Sectional Quilting Tutorial

That extra batting and backing needs to be trimmed away from ONE SIDE only. Use your quilting ruler and rotary cutter and trim up one side, just as if you were squaring up for binding. For a scrappy trips quilt, place the 2.25″ ruler mark on the first seam line for an accurate edge trim:

Sectional Quilting Tutorial

Step 5: Pin and Sew

You’re ready to sew these two neighboring sections together. On the side that has not been trimmed, fold the excess backing and batting out of the way. Now place the raw edges of the top together RIGHT SIDES TOGETHER, with the trimmed section on the bottom. Pin generously along the edge:

Sectional Quilting Tutorial

Make sure that on the TOP (untrimmed) section edge, the batting and backing are folded out of the way. On the BOTTOM (trimmed) edge, you are pinning THROUGH the batting and backing, because the seam will go through them, too.

All set? Carry this over to your machine and sew along that edge with a scant 1/4″ seam, just as if it were a normal seam. You will be sewing through two layers of your pieced top (right sides facing) plus the batting and back of one section. Watch out for all those pins!

I used my walking foot for this step, to help move all those layers evenly, rather than my 1/4″ foot.

Sectional Quilting Tutorial

If your machine has speed control, use it.

SLOW and STEADY is the way to go here. Don’t rush. Hold the weight of the fabric with one hand behind the presser foot, and guide it through the machine. Don’t ask the feed dogs to do all the work.

Step 6: Batting CleanUp

Lay the joined sections back on your table, top down, and make sure the area along the seam is smoothed flat. Finger press the seam flat as best you can. Unfold the batting from the untrimmed side and smooth it over the seam area. Trim with scissors so it is flush with the raw edge of the seam allowance:

Sectional Quilting Tutorial

Baste the trimmed batting to the seam allowance.

Yes, with needle and thread.

Yes, by hand.

Big sloppy stitches are fine here, it doesn’t take long:

Sectional Quilting Tutorial

Probably someone, somewhere has successfully skipped this step, but I didn’t want to take the chance that my batting would shift before being quilted in place (or after, either).

Step 7: Close Up the Back

Take that extra backing that’s been folded out of the way and roll it over until the fold just meets the seamline. Take your quilter’s ruler and a pencil and mark a generous seam allowance: 3/4″ to 1″ from the new fold:

Sectional Quilting Tutorial

Trim the back on the pencil line, then fold under the raw edge and pin in place, covering the seam join:

Sectional Quilting Tutorial

Hand sew closed. This one’s worth taking the time to do neatly. You could sew this down by machine — just inside the edge of the fold — if the bobbin-thread stitching line (which will show up on the FRONT) will blend in with the rest of your quilting. On this quilt it would not have blended in, so I finished this back seam by hand.

Step 8. Finish Quilting

Don’t jump up and down just yet. The two sections of the quilt have been joined, but there’s still a gap in the quilting lines:

Sectional Quilting Tutorial

Go ahead and connect the lines. I started with the walking foot lines: first the serpentine stitch…

Sectional Quilting Tutorial

… then the straight lines.

Then all the FMQ with the darning foot.

With several colors of thread.

It was a lot of work.

There were a lot of thread-ends:

You, on the other hand, will have cleverly decided to use that diagonal cross-hatch. Using your walking foot, you can pivot back and forth all the way down your section seam, connecting the quilting lines on either side with just two passes:

Sectional Quilting Tutorial

Or you could use an all-over free-motion design such as a meander. For a meander, I’d leave a wider area unquilted along the section join, and vary how close the stitching gets to the “stop here” point:

Sectional Quilting Tutorial

Here’s how some of my completed quilting turned out (seen from the back, where it shows up better):

Sectional Quilting Tutorial

Sectional Quilting Tutorial

Sectional Quilting Tutorial

Step 9: Lather, Rinse, Repeat

If you’ve divided your top into more than two sections, go do the other ones!

Or decide it’s nice to know this can be done, but it seems like way too much trouble, and ship your quilt off to your favorite long-arm quilter.

Step 10: Bind and Enjoy!

I machine-finish all my bindings. Besides, this is a big quilt, and it took over 11 yards of binding. That’s a lot to sew down by hand, especially after all the hand-finishing on those section seams. It’s so much quicker and easier to do this:

Sectional Quilting Tutorial

Happy quilting!

Sectional Quilting Tutorial

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