How to use stencils for quilting
Today, I’m going to show you how to use stencils for quilting. And if you keep reading, you’ll find a special coupon to do some online shopping….
The quilt top is finished. The layers are basted. It’s time to quilt…
Coming up with a plan for the quilting design can be a challenge. Sometimes it’s a complete mental roadblock when I try to decide on a design. I often fall back on a crosshatch or grid pattern or I just stitch in the ditch. Sometimes it depends on how much time I’m willing to spend on this stage of the process and what (and who) the quilt is for. Here is where stencils can come to the rescue.
Quilting stencils are typically made from lightweight plastic that is slightly opaque. I purchase stencils when I can find them in quilt shops (which is not too often). The good news is I have found a great online resource for stencils at The Stencil Company. They have a great variety of stencils ranging from border designs to quilt block designs to background designs and more. They also carry preprinted wholecloth, paper pantographs and notions.
The Stencil Company has very generously offered a coupon to my readers for 20% off of everything in their store! The coupon code is CRAFTYQUILT and it expires on October 19, 2016. For all of you overseas, they ship internationally as well!
To make things easy, you can find all of the products from the Stencil Company that I used in this blog post here.
I want you to know this is NOT a sponsored blog post. I’m not receiving any compensation from anyone for the things I say or the products I recommend. I reached out to The Stencil Company in preparation for this tutorial. They were very responsive to my inquiry and have been a great resource to me. I hope you check them out and take advantage of the coupon!
Let me show you a small quilt top that I just finished. I actually made it specifically for this blog post. It has an Amish feel to it and lots of open space for quilting. I used solids (Cloud 9 Cirrus solids) so that the quilting would really show up. The size is 24″ square.
Here it is after quilting (and still no binding). What a difference the quilting makes! I used stencils for everything – even the straight lines.
Here are some tips and guidelines when using stencils.
SIZE: I think the most important part of picking out a stencil is choosing the right size stencil for the area you want to quilt. The design should fill the area completely or almost completely.
Let’s take a look at the gold triangles near the center of my quilt. I found the perfect size stencil for this area. It reaches the corners and edges nicely.
For the larger, orange triangle corners, I didn’t have the correct size stencil. This same stencil doesn’t fill up the space adequately.
It’s possible to take a larger block stencil and use half of it for the corner. Here are a few examples of how that might work:
For the center of my quilt, I had a few options. The stencil below was the right size, but I didn’t want the heart theme.
I love clam shells and this stencil was exactly what I was hoping for. It’s the right size, but I knew it would be since I “built” my center block with this stencil in mind. My squares are 2″ just like the spacing of the clam shells. You could use this design with anything, though; it doesn’t have to be pieced or symmetrical.
I’ll show you how I modified this design in a little bit.
A few years ago, I made a sample quilt for a class that I was teaching. I wanted something simple for the border so I used a small cable stencil. It was way too small for the width of the border. I don’t have a “before” picture to show you, but I can tell you that I found a solution. I encased the cable with straight stitching lines on each side, making it look like a border within a border. It worked out well.
This technique could be applied for any area that is too big for the stencil you have. Enclose it with straight stitching lines and it becomes a separate element.
When choosing a border stencil, you may have to adjust the size to fit your border. I don’t have a good example to show you, but I can tell you there will be a repeat in the design that may not match your quilt’s dimensions. A little math is involved here and a little luck, too. You can check out this blog post by Nadine at Fabric Bias for more information.
The border stencil that I chose fit my quilt well enough. Because of the cornerstones in the quilt border, it was easy to make the border pattern fit. I ended the pattern after the diamonds.
Some border stencils have a corner built into them so you can maintain the design all the way around the quilt’s edge.
STRAIGHT LINES OR CONTINUOUS CURVES: Most stencils are geared for continuous line quilting using free motion quilting techniques. Once in a while, you’ll find a stencil design that requires stopping and starting again in a different place. This isn’t such a problem for hand quilters, but for machine quilters it’s something to consider and be aware of. Often, you can create a continuous line by adding in a loop or a curve of your own. The idea is to keep stitching without having to stop and start often.
Maybe you’re not an expert at free motion quilting and you would rather use your walking foot and quilt straight lines. That’s o.k.! There are plenty of grid-based designs. Some cables have soft enough curves that you can use a walking foot easily. That’s exactly what I did with the border stencil design.
MARKING: You can transfer or mark the design onto your quilt top by using any of the following: chalk pencil, water soluble pen, Quilt Pounce, graphite pencil, or a Hera marker. I personally don’t recommend a Frixion pen for marking quilting designs, but I use it often for marking diagonal stitching lines for hst’s and such. You run the risk of a “ghost” line showing up, or the marks come back after it’s been “erased” by the iron due to temperature fluctuations.
The nice thing about stencils is they can be used after the quilt is basted. Some methods of marking a quilt require you to trace the design onto the quilt top with a light box before basting. It’s your choice with stencils.
My number one favorite marking tool is a blue, water soluble pen. I’ve tried many brands and they all work very similarly. I decided to try the pens offered by The Stencil Company and bingo! The Blue Water Erasable Markers are the best I’ve used. I bought the 4-pack and I’m so glad I did. They have a sturdy, long point that fits in the channel of the stencil perfectly. They have a great stream of “ink” and you can see the marks well. They are removed easily with water.
I use a spray bottle filled with water to get rid of the marks from the blue washable pen. Sometimes the marks will come back in a few areas after the quilt has dried. I just wet them again until they disappear. If you’re really heavy-handed with the pen, it can seep into the batting of the quilt. This might require submerging the quilt in water and soaking it for a few minutes to get the marks out. Use towels to remove the excess water and lay the quilt out on a clean sheet and let it dry for a day (or two). It’s always a good idea to test any marking product first on a scrap of fabric to see how it reacts to the material.
You’ll notice that stencils have gaps where you can’t continue the drawing line. You can connect those gaps after you’re done marking. This is sometimes helpful if you’re unfamiliar with the design or new to quilting.
When I need to mark on dark fabric, I like to use a chalk pencil. My favorite is the Bohin Extra-Fine Chalk Pencil. The lines are water soluble and can be washed out or erased with any fabric eraser. I used this pencil for the center clam shells. The lines are a little hard to see at first, but I had no trouble following them while quilting.
Another choice when marking dark fabric is Quilt Pounce (you can find a similar one here). This has a refillable chamber for chalk and you simply swipe the pad over the stencil and it fills in the open channel with chalk. The magic about this chalk is that it erases with an iron! It’s also very quick and easy.
When “erasing” the Miracle Chalk, be careful about where the iron is touching. If you’re using a synthetic batting, make sure the iron doesn’t touch it. Also, if you’ve marked other areas with a blue water erasable pen, don’t iron over those marks. That can set the ink and make it difficult to remove. If you’re using a high-loft batting, that will require extra effort when ironing away the chalk since the stitching really sinks the chalk into the quilt.
Whenever you use a chalk product, it’s a good idea to mark one section at a time. The marks may rub off before you get to them if you mark the whole quilt top at once.
I don’t often use a Hera marker – I couldn’t even find mine! But I chose to give it a try on my straight lines which is where they are most often used. Instead of a Hera marker, I used That Purple Thang and it worked like a charm. Basically, you’re making a crease that you will follow when stitching. I love this straight line grid stencil which I used to guide my lines. It has three different angles marked on it which makes it useful for creating a diamond grid, square grid, etc.
Now comes the hard part – quilting. Not really so hard when you have lines to follow! When you’re quilting a continuous line design, it’s important to be familiar with your stitching path. Some stencils will have a small diagram printed on it with arrows to show you the best path. Practice first on a piece of paper, dry erase board, or on a practice quilt sandwich. You can find more of my tips on free motion quilting here.
For the corner stencil in my example, I started stitching at a “point” in the design. This is a natural starting and stopping point and it will hide the anchoring stitches better than an uninterrupted line. I bring the bobbin thread to the top of my quilt sandwich and hold both thread tails as I start stitching to prevent a thread nest from forming on the back. When I get far enough away from my starting point, I clip my thread tails close to the quilt top. If I were making a competition quilt, I would bury my thread tails in the batting.
If you make a mistake while your stitching, stop sewing and go back to where the mistake first started. Take small stitches to re-anchor and continue sewing. You can remove the bad stitches later.
Our little kitten, Zoe, was the culprit for this particular mistake. She loves visiting me when I’m sewing! It looks like she’s about to have her paw become a permanent part of the design, but I had everything “paws’d” to take the picture!
This particular design is one of those that requires backtracking. In order to have continuous stitches I had to backtrack over the top of every other feather.
If you backtrack well enough, you won’t see it from a galloping horse!
If you take a look at the center of my example where I used the clam shell stencil, you’ll notice that I changed the design. I didn’t like the directional design for this area of the quilt, so I turned the stencil in the other direction and added more lines. This changed it into orange peels which can be turned in any direction and it looks the same.
There was a little bit of traveling involved with this design. I used the seam to travel to the next row of clam shells; it’s similar to backtracking.
Stitching order: I almost always stitch in the ditch on my quilts. It adds stabilization to the quilt and it allows me more flexibility in where to start quilting. It also gives definition to the piecing and structure of the quilt.
Note: I like to spray baste my quilts. It works well for me, and I love that I don’t have pins to work around. You can find a separate tutorial for my method of spray basting here.
I stitched in the ditch along the main seams of this project using a neutral thread (Aurifil 50 wt. color 5021). Sometimes I use invisible monofilament thread for this as well.
Now, I’m able to quilt in the areas I want. Generally, I work my way from the center of the quilt sandwich to the outside edges. I saved the orange sections of this quilt to stitch for the end. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do there and I thought I could make a better decision after the rest of the quilting was done.
I’m glad that I chose straight lines for the orange corner triangles in this quilt. It’s possible to overkill a bit with stencils and I like the tailored look that straight lines can bring to a quilt. As I mentioned earlier, I used a grid guide to mark my lines.
I hope I’ve answered most of your questions about using stencils with your quilts. They are a great way to add some zip to your quilting with ease. Make sure to visit The Stencil Company and take a look around. And remember to take advantage of the coupon code, CRAFTYQUILT!
Have a great day and I’ll see you soon with a tutorial on how to make your own Amish Mini Quilt!
This tutorial was absolutely spot on. Thank you so much. It is going to take practice for my stitching to look very good, but at least I have started and it is really fun!
i have been looking for this tutorials every where, finally found this. it helps me a lot, easy to understand. thanks
I’m kind of a new quilter, but just love it! Can you also just sew after marking the stencils with your walking foot instead of using your free motion foot? I find the free motion foot does not sit well on my fabric, maybe I’m using too thin a batting, not sure, so frustrating! I doubled the batting on a sample and the free motion foot worked much better! I thought I might call a sewing repair store and see if my free motion foot (Brother) had a problem! Any info would help! Thank you, a great tutorial!
Thank you for this great page!
What a wonderful tutorial, thank you so much!!! The explicit pictures are so helpful.
I am a total newbie at quilting and this is extremely helpful! I;m not good enough yet to go totally free-motion (and probably wont be for many years) and this might be a way to improve my skills. Thank you!
Just read ur stencil tutorial, can I use my qniq’ni quilter and do stencil designs
Thanks so much for this tutorial. Definitely helped this newbie who wants to try something other than stitching in the ditch!
One fantastic tutorial. Very well done and even a beginning can understand it. Thanks so much. Love the quilt too and the quilting looks great on it. A job very well done.
I have been TOO inspired by your “page!!!!!” I just HOPE that I get to feeling well enough to get downstairs to my sewing room, to use your invaluable information to FINISH my quilts!!!! (Also just ordered from the Stencil Company!!!!!)
You have made my day!!!!!! I will keep this tutorial FOREVER!!!!!! Thank ye, thank ye, thank ye!!!!!!
Thanks again Julie. I have just placed my order for the stencils, so looking forward to getting them posted to the UK. Very excited! Best wishes, Nik 🙂
Than you very much for the tutorial. I loved it .
What a thorough post! Thanks for all the great details!
This is such a wonderful post, I have always wondered about stencils and this is such a clearly written and photographed how to guild for beginning with stencils. Thank you so much!!
Pretty incredible post, Julie! Well written and you covered all the bases. I know it takes a lot of time and forethought to put such an excellent post together, so thank you! XO
Julie, I don’t know where to begin, but this is such a thorough explanation about stencils. I have bought from this company and they are great. I like using stencils especially with solid fabrics. My question to you is about thread color. I have such a hard time choosing which color to use. I know you used a neutral thread for stitching in the ditch and that is what I use but for each section of the quilt did you continue to use this thread color or did you match the thread color to each section? I have read this tutorial 3 times because there is so much info and also I like to see your new kitty. I forgot you have a new edition to the family. How does your dog get along with Zoe? Zoe looks just like my cat who happens to be on my lap as I write this. I will be looking forward to your Amish pattern and in the meantime I need to shop for a few stencils. Thank you Julie for all this great info!
This is an excellent tutorial. I’m a handquilter who has decided I must learn to do machine quilting to finish at least some of my tops in this lifetime. However, I’m not particularly fond of simple freemotion quilting using stencils is an answer to my prayers
Julie, this is a GREAT tutorial. You’ve made the entire process of quilting seem like something I could tackle. I’ve been so intimidated, I haven’t even wanted to experiment.
Having just purchased a wonderful new Elna machine specifically so I could do my own quilting (sending my tops out for quilting is killing my fabric budget), I’m going to print your tutorial and keep in right next to my fancy new machine. Thanks SO much for all your hard work on this and other tutorials. Extraordinarily helpful.
Thank you very much!
Thanks for a great tutorial. I’m always looking for ways to improve my FMQ.
Terrific post. Thank you.
Thank you for such a thorough and helpful lesson on marking quilts! I think I’ll get some Pounce as a result of you suggestion. Keep ’em coming
Great post! Thanks for for all the information. Your quilt is beautiful!!!
Awesome information! Really like your quilting on this block, a great practice project! Plan to make this with your tutorial. Thanks so much for all your work and making our quilting easier.
These are the best descriptions I’ve ever read! Thank you so much!
Julie: I’m fairly new to your sight, and I am delighted to have found it. Thanks so much of the information. Your photos are clear and the written instructions are easy to follow. Also, links to the websites where I can find the tools are most welcome. Thanks so much.
Julie: I’m fairly new to your sight, and I am delighted to have found it. Thanks so much of the information. Your photos are clear and well framed, and the naritive is easy to follow and understand. I am looking forward to the Amish Mini quilt. Also, links to the websites are most welcome. Thanks so much.
I’ve been anxiously waiting for your post and the information is wonderful. Greatly appreciate the time and effort you put into this excellent tutorial. Thank you for the link to The Stencil Company.
Thanks Julie, very informative and helpful to me. I haven’t been sewing much lately, but this has got me motivated again. I just let “Stuff” get me down sometimes. Shame on me, I’m giving it to God and I’M GOING TO SEW! YEAH!!!!!. This is just what I needed. Thanks again.
Great tutorial, Julie!! I’m a squeamish free-motion quilter. I really love grid quilting…I think my favorite stencil was the last one you showed with the long straight lines and marked angles! I’ll check out The Stencil Company, for sure! Now I’m off to check out your spray basting tutorial…always looking for the best way to do this.
Have a great day! Karen
Wow, how great this tutorial, I have some stencils, but never got to use them, due to the lack of info.
yours is fantastic, thank you very much, love it. can’t wait to give it a go now.
Wow, this is beautiful. I haven’t done much FMQ because I don’t often feel imaginative enough to come up with a design so stenciling looks great. Thank you for the very detailed tutorial and I’m off to purchase some stencils – especially as they ship internationally. Thanks again for continuing to share you creativity with us all. Nik 🙂
thankyou so much for all your advice and the tutorial will now invest in some stencils I am sure they will help to make quilting a pleasure and will be back to check this out again and again.
This must have taken a long time to prepare, brilliant post. Thank you very much. I really would like to make your little quilt, looks lovely with the stencils, love the solids colour choices too. 2″ squares in the middle so I will work out dimensions from there. Thank you very much! Lou in UK
Thank you Julie for an excellent tutorial it must have taken hours of work to put together. I have some stencils that would be perfect to use, never occurred to me before to use them on a quilt, thank you.
Brilliant tutorial and so thorough! Thank you! I’ve been inspired to try the stencils that have been in my stash longer than I care to admit!
Definitely pinning this tute!
Thank you so much for this wonderful tutorial. I quilt with my checkbook or add tops to the stack that need to be quilted. I’m going to give stencils a try! I have a pile of small quilts to practice on.
Thank you for the super helpful post! I really like how you explained your choices of stencils for different areas of the quilt.
Great tutorial! I am a beginning quilter and while my pieceing skills are improving, the quilting portion still seems intimidating!
One question–if you happened to have picked a quilting design that involves a bit of traveling to get from one part to another, how do you keep track so that when you look at the underside of the quilt, you don’t see some parts where blocks are outlined and some aren’t? I know that stitching in the ditch will help, but what if you don’t want the blocks to be outlined but you have instead picked a repeating design that continues across the blocks?
I had a project where I wanted to use a stencil which would be sewn over a patterned fabric. It seemed that using several different types of transfer tools would not let me see the sewing lines. I happened on a video which showed using Golden Threads Quilting Paper to trace the design on. You then pin the paper over the area you want quilted and sew right through it. It works like foundation piecing paper where it gets pulled away along the stitch lines. It’s a bit of a mess with flying pieces of paper around but it did work for me. You can also trace one pattern and assemble layers of papers and using an unthreaded needle you can sew the pattern. This does two things, it lets you practice how you should move the quilt around and it also creates copies of the pattern if you need to stitch more than design.
Thanks for your tips on adapting stencils to fit your desired area.
I found this very helpful, Julie. Many thanks. I’m new to quilting, and didn’t have a clue to how to use stencils. You seem to do a thorough job of explaining. Now I must try it myself.
Thank you for such an amazingly detailed tutorial. I rarely use stencils, preferring to just free motion it but you can’t beat the beautiful precision that you can get with stencils. Orange peels are one of my favorite motifs but it’s not one that you can really master without a stencil.
Great tutorial. I love The Stencil Company as they have such a wonderful collection of designs, all at very reasonable prices. And great customer service with fast deliver too!
Thank you for this wonderful, comprehensive tutorial! For some reason, marking a quilt with stencils seemed intimidating to me. Once I read your tutorial, it didn’t seem quite so intimidating. I’m working n the quilting phase of a t-shirt quilt into which I’ve added some rail fence blocks. Wasn’t sure how to quilt it, other than to stitch in the ditch. Now I have some new ideas! And thanks for the intro to The Stencil Co. I look forward to visiting their site and using the discount.
Thank you Julie,this was very informative. I have always put off trying to use my stencils,now I feel it will be fun.
Thanks from sunny Qualicum Beach on Vancouver Island, British Columbia
You are the most generous quilting teacher. Your tutorial with Stencils has encouraged me to try them; you give details that most of us encounter but you’ve given great hints to keep us from floundering.
Hooray for You Julie & thank you ever so much!
Julie, as always, your tutorials are superb! I will be running off a copy of this lesson (thanks for that feature) and I’m sure I will be referring to this often. This helps me get over my fear of quilting my smaller pieces myself and I can’t wait to try some of your techniques. Thank you!!!
I LOVE THIS lesson. I have ALL the stencils you used. Every time I used these stencils I though I was doing wrong since they were made for hand quilting. But now I will feel real good while using.them.
I wish I could find a good feather stencil that worked but haven’t yet. I’ll go back to Stencil Company and maybe they have one now. Thanks again for a good video.
Thank you Julie for taking the time to post such a fabulous detailed tutorial. I particularly enjoyed your discussion of marking tools.
So much information! Thank you. I like your creative use of stencils, and will have to dig out the few I own and give some thought on how to use them.
What a wonderful, well thought out and detailed tutorial. Thank you.
This post made my day!! I’ve wanted to try stencils and your tutorial has certainly given me courage to give it a try. I will definitely take advantage of the coupon.
Thanks so much for sharing!
Thank you!!!! I will be referring back to this tutorial often!
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