The Creative Dance of Machine Quilting

pokey bolton

machine quilting elin waterston
Swirling machine quilting lines dance around
the fish in this quilt by Elin Waterston.

We art quilters march to a different drummer and dance to our own tune. If we follow rules at all, we see them more as guidelines, jumping off points for improvisation.

No one I know embodies this philosophy more than fiber artist and dancer Elin Waterston. From the beginning of her career, Elin has been making it up as she went along while incorporating some of the tools and guidelines available to art quilters.

Elin typically creates small art quilts with creative free-motion machine quilting designs and simple but compelling imagery.

Though Elin is constantly in motion in both the art and dance studios, she stopped long enough to answer some questions about her inspiration and technique.

Q. How long have you been quilting, and how did you get started?

A. I taught myself to sew as a kid and studied costume design in college and grad school, so I've been sewing most of my life. In 1991, the year my mother died, I started quilting sort of as therapy. Since I'm a self-taught quilter, so some of the techniques I use aren't necessarily typical in the quilting world. 

elin waterston machine quilting
Creative machine quilting expert
Elin Waterston.

Q. How many days/months/years did it take you to feel comfortable free-motion quilting, and why?

A. For whatever reason, I just jumped right in and started free-motion quilting without any idea that I shouldn't feel comfortable immediately! I don't even think I knew that there was any such thing as free-motion quilting, because, as I said, I'm a self-taught quilter. I figured if I wanted to be creative with quilting lines, I had to find a way to do it. That's not to say that my early free-motion quilting was any good. It took lots and lots of hours of practice for it to start looking good. But I think the fact that it didn't occur to me to be afraid and my lack of understanding of what it was to free-motion was beneficial. I had no expectations of perfection or pre-conceived notions of what it should look like. 

Q. How do free-motion stitching and dance overlap?

A. When you dance, especially when you dance without any pre-determined choreography, you feel the music and the rhythm and move your body in a style that's fitting and appropriate to the music. When you free-motion quilt, especially if you're free-styling without a pre-determined quilting design, you move your hands (and therefore the quilting lines) in a style that's fitting and complimentary to the design of your piece. Just as the dance flows naturally in keeping with the music, the quilting design flows naturally in keeping with the overall design of the work. 

Q. Do you ever listen to music while you're stitching?

A. I always listen to music while stitching! Occasionally, I'll play something that fits the mood of the piece I'm quilting, but most of the time I just listen to whatever fits my mood.

Q. What are the most important tools you use to machine quilt?

A. Your machine is obviously your most important tool when machine quilting. I always make sure my machine is clean and set-up correctly, with the appropriate presser foot, needle, and thread, before I start quilting.

machine quilting sample
A sample of Elin's machine
quilting design.

Q. What aspects of art do you bring to planning your stitching design?

A. I came to quilting from the art world, so my art background is always present when I'm working on a project. That's not to say that I sit and think about all the principles of design every time I start quilting. Design principles and color and whatever else comes into play are so ingrained in me that I just work intuitively and all those aspects naturally fall into place. 

Q. What is your best advice to beginning quilters?

A. When first starting out with free-motion quilting, practice on test quilts instead of projects, so you allow yourself the time to get comfortable without the pressure of what the finished product is going to be. And . . . don't take it too seriously! It doesn't need to be perfect. I always say I like the little imperfections because then I see the hand of the artist. 

Elin shares her tips and tricks for designing and stitching free-motion patterns in her new Quilting Arts Workshop video, Creative Machine Quilting. You can preview her design method and download the workshop right now!

P.S. Do you listen to music when you machine quilt? What's your favorite song or style of music? Name that tune below!

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7 thoughts on “The Creative Dance of Machine Quilting

  1. I like to listen to Andre Rieu who does a lot of waltzes but at a faster tempo. It keeps me swirling at the machine and when I need to get up and move for a bit, I swirl around the living room. That makes the dogs crazy!

  2. I listen to podcasts, mostly CBC podcasts.! Because when sewing it is hard to hear the program, I have put an extension onto my ear buds so I can listen while I sew and move around the room. I like Elin’s advice not to get hung up on perfection, as I think this is often a bar to even beginning free motion work. Thanks Elin!

  3. I like to listen to my Sarah Brightman Classics CD, it is very calming to me and helps to keep perspective…….go figure…….I am definitely NOT an opera fan!!!
    Also Handel’s Messiah is calming, to me, too!

  4. I put my iPod on shuffle when I am in my studio so listen to everything: Andrea Bocelli, Great Big Sea, Loreena McKennitt, Billy Joel, Bare Naked Ladies, Josh Groban, Train, Sarah McLachlan, Barry Manilow, Eurythmics and many more … must have music when quilting!

  5. Lately I’ve been listening to Seal’s CD of soul tunes and howling along with him. Reminds me of listening to my LPs on the little record player several decades ago in South Louisiana while sewing away.

  6. I don’t normally listen to music while I quilt. But when I do I like ballads -nothing too fast or I will try to keep time with the music and my stitches get too wild.