To Bury or Not to Bury?

Do you bury your quilting threads at the beginning and ending of your stitching? Do you know what I mean when I ask you this question?

In Home Decorating and Fashion sewing we generally secure our threads at the beginning of a seam by back-stitching. When we are sewing patchwork we very often don’t secure our beginning and ending stitches at all, confident that our beginning and ending stitches will be secured by the cross-seams of the patchwork as it is sewn together into a whole piece.

The realm of quilting offers us an entirely new ball game! In this realm, the way the back of the piece looks is as important as the way that the front of the piece looks. Quilts are definitely a “reversible” art-form and I want you to take a brief moment to pat yourself on the back for being a creator in such a delightful and unique artform! Quilts are (for the most part) not framed or mounted like a cross-stitch, embroidery or tapestry pieces are. Quilts are very often deeply treasured companions that are enjoyed by their recipients frequently. What the back of your quilt looks like actually does matter a little bit. Most hand-quilters make a tiny knot in the beginning of their thread and pull it to the inside of the quilt sandwich to hide the knot that secures the stitching line. Since hand-quilters are only using one strand of thread as a running-stitch the buried knot makes perfect sense and, really, seems like the only way you could actually secure the quilting thread.

Some machine quilters do the same. I know of three ways to secure a line of quilting stitching when machine quilting, either with a longarm quilting machine or your regular sewing machine. The first is to do as the hand-quilters do: hand-knot and bury the thread tails of all of the starts and stops in the quilting stitching. This, as you can imagine or may even have experienced, is both tedious and time consuming.

The second way that I know of to secure your machine quilting stitches is to begin and end your stitching line with teeny tiny stitches. I usually sew about 1/2″ of stitches that are super small (horrible to remove!) at the beginning and ending of a row of stitching. This is also my preferred method of securing stitches when I have had a thread break or bobbin-change event. I begin anew by backing up the line of stitching by about 1/2″ from where the break happened being sure to remove any frayed thread and pull the stitches back to where they are tidy and it’s a nice place to “hide” a stop or a start. A quick side note regarding starting and stopping. Start and stop your stitching lines in the area of a patchwork seam, if possible. It is a pure gold technique for a beautiful finish! I put my needle down exactly over the previous line of stitching and start out slowly, making the teeny tiny locking stitches stitch right over the top of the 1/2″ of previous stitching and then I am off to the races and back to work, with a fairly inconspicuous thread-break spot. Clip the thread tails when it’s convenient for you. I sometimes clip them right away and sometimes just push them out of my way to be clipped when the entire quilt is finished or I get to them.

The final way that I know of to start and stop a line of quilting stitches is back stitching. I use a pretty even mix of the teeny tiny locking stitches and backstitching. A backstitch is simply executed by sewing in the direction you intend to go for about a 1/2″ then you back up over that line of stitching and then sew forward over the line of stitching, resulting in three layers of thread all interlocking on top of each other.

I don’t make most of my quilts for “Show.” I make them for use. Most of my clients are making quilts that they want to result in a beautiful, useful, long-lasting legacy of their love and creativity, not showpieces to be tucked away behind museum doors. With this in mind, when we are machine quilting a quilt we are using two threads that interlock together into the center of the quilt sandwich. We strive for perfectly balanced thread tension. By its very nature machine quilting is stronger and more durable than hand-quilting, which is just one thread in a running stitch to hold all of the layers of the quilt together. Almost all of the antique quilts that we have that are still intact are the ones that are quilted within an inch of their lives… literally 1/8″ and 1/4″ apart lines of stitching over the entire quilt. The quilting is the bones of the quilt! I’ll write more about that in the future. Since our quilting itself is at least twice as strong as a comparable hand-quilted quilt quilted at the same density I feel that the only true benefit from burying threads in a machine quilting project is minutely aesthetic. If you absolutely need your stops and starts to be invisible, then yes, burying the threads is the way to achieve that. I just question if that truly is the very BEST investment of your time? Your time here is limited. You could take that five hours plus of thread-burying and have an entirely new quilt well on its way to being a beautiful new expression of your creativity and love! Something to show for your investment of the time. I’m a firm believer in doing things the very best way for you, but I also know that questioning our own assumptions about why we are doing things can be an invaluable personal lesson. If you are a growth-minded person, and most quilters who I know ARE, then taking a minute to consider why you are doing the things that you do habitually, without even really thinking about them and make sure that they are actually things that are beneficial for you and that you are consciously choosing IS a valuable time investment. I think there are better ways to invest your precious time than to bury the thread tails on machine quilted quilts. What do you think?

Nichole Wilde
Nichole Wilde

I can best be described as an eccentric stoic creator.

Did you know that I wrote a pattern? When I was Quilting Across America on my Art Bus Adventure I created a really soft and homey star quilt for a dear friend of mine. The people who were following my adventure were so enamored with my creation they encouraged me to write a pattern so that they could make one too, so I did. Introducing: Homespun Stars, available as an immediate download so you can get to sewing right away!

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