Learning how to quilt is a whole new experience but no matter how much love and attention to detail you have put into piecing your quilt, how you quilt it can make or break the look of your quilt.  Many quilters find that quilting with stitch in the ditch is a good method to use for several reasons:

  • Stitch in the ditch is the first stage of machine quilting and can lead you on to free motion quilting.
  • Stitch in the ditch can be used to outline particular parts of the design.
  • Stitch in the ditch quilting doesn’t show up too much if you are a beginner quilter.

What exactly is stitch in the ditch quilting?

It is quilting by stitching along the seam line of the pieced quilt blocks.  The sewing obviously then has to be done on the quilt top and the design that you follow will show up on the quilt backing.

The requirements for stitch in the ditch quilting are a walking foot for your sewing machine, quilting gloves and bags of patience.  Before you begin there are a few preparatory steps to take:

  • Decide what colour quilting thread to use:  for stitch in the ditch it is more common to use a colour that will blend rather than stand out, but don’t forget that your quilt backing might be a totally different colour from your quilt top.  It’s okay to have different colour threads for the top and back when quilting quilts.
  • Decide whether you are going to follow every seam line or just outline a larger pattern in the quilt blocks.  You might even wish to outline the quilt blocks only.  Most battings these days will stay in place with quilting stitch lines up to 8″ apart.
  • Check the tension on your sewing machine.  I can’t emphasise this enough.  Even if your machine has auto tension setting, which mine does, you still need to check this.  Make up a couple of practice squares of two layers of fabric plus wadding and sew a line of stitching.  Check the back of your sample.  it’s quite likely that the quilt backing looks too pulled in and slightly puckered.  Adjust the tension and sew some more.  Keep going until you are happy with the look of your stitching both on the quilt top and the quilt backing.
  • Oh, and did I mention that you should check the tension on your machine?

Beginning to quilt with stitch in the ditch

Begin quilting from somewhere near the middle of your quilt, working towards the edge.  Place your sewing machine foot so that the needle will come down on the seam line.  As you sew, try to keep eye on the seam line that you are following as it goes under the machine foot.  It’s very easy to become mesmerised by the motion of the needle itself when quilting quilts.

When you have quilted a few inches, stop the machine and reach round to the trailing end of thread where you began quilting.  Pull gently on the thread so that the bobbin thread starts to pull through to the quilt top.  Using a pin, pull the bobbin thread right through and tie a double knot with the top thread.  Trim the ends.  It’s best to do this at the start of each stitch in the ditch quilting line or you will end up with trailing threads all over the place getting caught in the next line of quilting.

Continue stitching in the ditch until you reach the edge of the quilt.  Finish the stitching, take your quilt out of the machine and tie off the ends of the thread.  Return to the middle of the quilt and begin a new line of stitch in the ditch quilting, again working from the middle towards the edge.

Stitch in the ditch on the front

Stitch in the ditch on the front

Stitch in the ditch on the back

Stitch in the ditch on the back


On the back and front views of this quilted place mat you can see that I used stitch in the ditch quilting around the central star and then also along the diagonals in a cross hatch pattern.


Quilting with stitch in the ditch is a marvellous method of quilting in its own right but it is also a great introduction to machine quilting for the beginner quilter – and a great confidence booster.

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  1. I am new to quilting and am making a quilt for the bed. When it comes to stitch in the ditch – I intend to do it by machine. How do I get to the centre of the quilt in the machine with all the material?

    • Hi Anne. Quilting the middle of the quilt is always the most difficult part. Some quilters roll up the quilt to the right of the needle, but I feel that this makes that section of the quilt a bit rigid. I prefer to bunch up that section of the quilt that section on the right. The important thing is to have a flat section for a few inches around where you are actually quilting and to stop quilting and move the position of your hands frequently. Hope that helps.

  2. Thank you so much. I want this project to be a work of love, not a work of aggravation.

  3. I am new to quilting. Do I leave the edges raw and then put bias tape on them or do I sew it inside out and then turn it? When would I the do the ditch quilting? Before or after turning it?

  4. Ella Wilson says:

    Hello Rose I must be honest and tell you machine quilting frighten me I am almost sick when I think about it, I am so fed up sitting in the ditch I wish I dint have this problem I think it’s because I did try it may time and just made a mess of it and ended up putting all me good work in the bin and then again I have not had any lessons on how to it right I have watched other people dong it and it looks so easy but not for me. I hand quilt I did a tumbler quilt and drew bottles on it and then I hand quilted it then I stitched in the ditch I have just got to put the binding on it now and it’ll be finished. Encl photo love your Bulls eye quilt I may attempt that one when I’m finished doing the sun flower one
    Ella from Islay.xx ps I’ll have to send picture sepretly

    • Hi Ella. Thanks for the photos – the quilting on the tumbler quilt is great. What a pity you’re so worried by free motion quilting. Why not make up some sample patches – they only need to be 12 or 18″ square and then you can try out free motion without having to worry that you’re ruining anything. You can even try it out on paper (without thread) so that you get used to the feeling of moving the fabric. Good luck!

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