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Why Quilts Pucker & How to Stop It

One of the worst scenarios for a quilter is to spend so much time creating a beautiful quilt top and then feel that you ruin it in the quilting stage. We’ve all been there! If you’ve noticed puckering or drag in your quilting before, these tips can help you avoid that drag and create smoother, neater quilting.

Why do quilts pucker?

When your three-layer quilt sandwich doesn’t move under the sewing needle all as one, flat piece, you’ll introduce puckers into the work.

When one layer has more fullness than the other, you may quilt puckers into your work. This often happens on the back of the quilt, where quilting stitches can create tiny pleats or gathers of fabric.

On the top of the quilt you may see drag lines between quilting paths. Quilt drag is a sort of puckered, pulling effect that happens when the top layer of the quilt sandwich is shifting as you quilt along. 

Although puckering and drag can be hard to capture in photographs, you’ll know it when you see it. And you won’t be a bit happy!

How to avoid puckering in quilting

Although every handmade quilt will have charming imperfections, no one wants to sew puckers or quilt drag regularly. These ideas will help you achieve flatter straight line quilting.

1. Don’t over-stretch the backing

When basting your quilt, make sure you don’t stretch the backing fabric beyond taut. If one quilt layer is stretched more than another, they will relax at different rates. Some quilters tend to over-stretch the backing when taping it down for basting.

2. Pin baste very closely

If you’ve been a spray baster, experiment with pin basting instead. Try a very close pin baste, such as a 3″ grid. Thorough basting should greatly improve your quilting, because it means the three layers are less likely to shift around.

3. Work on a large table

It’s important to support the weight of your project while quilting. If allowed, gravity will interfere with even, flat quilting by pulling one or more of the layers in a direction you weren’t expecting. Make sure that any part of the quilt you are not personally holding is able to rest on the table, not fall to the floor. 

4. Use a walking foot attachment

Straight line quilting absolutely requires a walking foot. The walking foot feeds all layers of the quilt sandwich under the needle at an even rate. If your sewing machine has a built-in walking foot, but you are struggling with puckers and drag, try a walking foot attachment. Sometimes an attached walking foot works better than built-in mechanisms

5. Reduce your presser foot pressure

Quilting drag can be caused by too much pressure from the presser foot, which pulls the quilt top along too aggressively. Problems arise any time layers are moving at different rates in the quilt sandwich while quilting. Try reducing your presser foot pressure so that the foot allows the work to maintain its basted integrity

6. Increase stitch length

Generally, use a longer stitch length for quilting as compared to piecing. A too short stitch length can work like excessive presser foot pressure, handling the quilt top too aggressively. A longer stitch length allows a well-basted quilt sandwich to float along as one piece.

7. Quilt slowly

Don’t sew at top speed when straight line quilting. A moderate pace allows the walking foot to work better and lengthens that moment when the presser foot is lifted. Both factors help maintain basting integrity.

Still frustrated with a puckered quilt?

If you’ve tried everything and still face puckering and quilt drag, considering changing your direction of quilting. Some machines always create problems if you quilt your straight lines traveling in the same direction.

Conversely, some machines only make flat, straight line quilting when you do quilt all lines traveling in the same direction! Change up your approach to see if that helps.

If you’re far into your project and unhappy with the quilting, I understand that you don’t want to take out all those stitches. You can camouflage puckering and quilt drag to some extent by adding more quilting. Dense quilting creates such a distinct texture that puckers can blend. Moreover, quilt drag is more apparent when the spaces between stitch lines are large. Fill in those spaces with more quilting to more evenly distribute the fabric.

And last but not least, your woes may be solved by a new sewing machine! Some machines simply aren’t good at straight line quilting. Take a practice quilt sandwich to a sewing machine shop and test out some straight lines. You may be pleasantly surprised!

8 Comments

Renee Boyett

THANK YOU!!!

Do I need to start in the middle of the quilt for straight line quilting as well? I usually quilt by hand, but for smaller projects I’ve tried machine quilting and it ends up looking pulled. Someone told me to switch directions on which way I quilt but the effect just looks messy.

Reply
Rachel Hauser

No, for straight line quilting we start at the edges of the quilt (the excess batting) and quilt across a quilt. We don’t start in the middle, as with free motion quilting. The pulling you are talking about is probably what I’m calling “quilt drag”. Hopefully some of the above tips will help!

Reply
Elsie E Winstead

There are so many approaches to basting and quilting! Experiment until you find what works for you. Different Craftsy classes teach different approaches. You might start with classes by Ann Petersen and Cindy Needham. Their basic classes both cover basting and stabilizing your quilt sandwich, and they use different methods. I’m sure other classes do, too, but I particularly liked these teachers.

Reply
Linda

Would it help to spray baste all 3 layers together?

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Ellen

Please write the next post about how to stop puckering on a longarm. Thank you.

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Robbie Horning

Thank you! I lessened the pressure on my presser foot! After ripping out countless rows of stitches the past few months. You fixed my problem!! You are my hero.

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Carol

Thank you for the great tips. I realized right away that I was taping my backing fabric too tightly. Will follow your tips for next time.

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Pamela S Santos

A new machine….I forgot to lessen the foot pressure….thank you!

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