Quilting your patchwork can be intimidating. So much time goes into making that beautiful quilt top! Now, how best to quilt it? Straight line quilting is ideal for new quilters, but it's not as easy as choosing a pattern. You also have to decide on the right density or pattern scale for your stripes, grid or other straight line design.
What is density?
Quilting density refers to how close together you make your quilting lines.
If you're quilting simple parallel lines, you might make them 1" apart, 3" apart or only ¼" apart. Quilting less than an 1" apart is generally considered densely quilted. Quilting more than 4" apart could be considered sparsely quilted. Dense vs. sparse quilting is really a subjective designation.
Any straight line quilting pattern can be scaled down to result in denser quilting, or scaled up for sparser quilting.
For example, imagine you're quilting in a diamond grid , with lines crossing at regular intervals. You could quilt lines that cross in 3" intervals, creating a 3" grid. To scale down this pattern, add additional lines at 1½" intervals. Now you have a 1½" quilting grid, twice as dense as the 3" grid.
Choosing the right density for your quilt
So how do quilters decide upon density when straight line quilting? Here are a number of practical factors you should consider.
Comfort of the finished quilt
Quilting density effects on how your finished quilt feels. When you complete a patchwork quilt top, the top is smooth and soft as you run your hand across it. Quilting adds stitch paths that interrupt that smooth expanse. Dense quilting adds much more thread to your quilt top, creating a rougher surface texture.
In addition, dense quilting makes a quilt stiffer. Each stitch path pulls all three quilt layers together tightly, making that area thinner than not-quilted areas. By contrast, areas without quilting feel plush and are able to bend and drape more cozily. Since densely quilted quilts are flatter, they also offer less warmth.
If dense quilting has these drawbacks, why not quilt quite sparsely? Well, the main roll of quilting is to provide durability. Quilting reinforces your patchwork seams, improving quilt longevity with regular wash and wear.
In addition, quilting holds all three layers of the quilt together so that the batting won't bunch and shift. When the quilt wears as one piece, rather than as three shifting layers, your quilt is able to withstand much more use.
Especially when sewing a bed quilt or baby quilt, you'll want to err on the side of medium to dense quilting. That's because you can machine wash and dry a densely quilted bed quilt more frequently. On the other hand, if your quilt is mainly decorative, you have more leeway in quilting density.
Another factor to consider is your batting. Check your batting manufacturer's guidelines on quilting density. The packaging may indicate that lines can be quilted "up to 6" apart" or "up to 10" apart." Take this guidelines seriously! If batting is not properly supported by quilting density, it can shift and bunch inside the quilt, making the quilt unattractive and uncomfortable.
Ideally choose a pattern that is less than the maximum recommended quilting density. If you choose to quilt 4" apart on a batting that can be quilted up to 6" apart, you will extend the life of your quilt.
When quilting your own quilt top, time is also a factor. Small changes in quilting density hugely impact the amount of time it takes to complete this stage of the quilt-making process. The difference between a 3" quilting grid and a 1½" quilting grid may not seem large, but the denser option requires twice the amount of quilting and thus twice the time!
If you're not sure you have enough time or gumption to complete the project, start with a less-dense quilting plan. You can always fill in that straight line pattern with additional quilting lines to increase density, if time allows.
As you gain experience, you'll have a better idea of your preferred quilting density for different types of projects.
I like to heavily quilt bed quilts, but lightly quilt throw quilts, because I want my throw quilts cuddly and my bed quilts to be highly washable. Density is a personal choice. Don't be afraid to try a few extremes as you work out your quilting style.