Stitch in the ditch may sound like an extracurricular activity at Hogwarts, but it’s actually a quilting technique that many patchwork pros love. And for a bunch of great reasons!
What is stitch in the ditch?
Stitch in the ditch means that you quilt by following along with patchwork seam lines. Think of it this way: say you’re doing a patchwork quilt top that’s made of square blocks. To stitch in the ditch you’d stitch along the seams that join those square blocks — aka the “ditch” — thus creating a square quilting grid. If your blocks themselves are pieced, you would also quilt along those internal seam lines.
Another example: The mug rug above uses stitch in the ditch. The quilting lines separating each color have been stitched along the seam.
So why do it?
- It’s quite easy, especially for beginners. You already have seam lines, so that gives you a clear — and usually straight — path to follow. This means you don’t have to mark lines before quilting, which actually saves a step.
- It gives you an automatic design choice. Many quilters struggle to choose a quilting design for their patchwork. Stitch in the ditch delivers a ready-made quilting plan that’s automatically scaled for your project.
- It adds durability. If you’re doing a tiny patchwork quilt, how well the stitching on pieces will hold up to wear-and-tear may be a concern. Stitch in the ditch is like an extra safety feature. Nothing is coming apart!
- It gives your piecing extra visual oopmh. By following the patchwork designs, you’re enhancing and emphasizing the lines and angles of your blocks. It’s also great for when you don’t want your thread color or stitch lines to compete with your patchwork piecing, or when you’ve chosen bold, showy prints that you want to shine!
Wait, where do I stitch?
Where, exactly, do you place that stitch line? There are actually two schools of thought here.
First up: right there, IN the ditch
With this method, you position your needle literally in the ditch created by your patchwork seam. The needle should pass between the patchwork pieces. When you quilt this way, the quilt lines will be nearly invisible from the right side of the work. (The quilting will still compress the batting, creating that quilty, three-dimensional texture.)
NOTE: This style of stitch in the ditch won’t work for seams that have been pressed open. Only when your seams have been pressed to the side can you stitch in the literal ditch and still secure the quilt top to the batting and backing.
Or: right BESIDE the ditch
If you prefer pressed open seams or visible quilting lines, aim your quilting needle just to the side of your patchwork seam. Obviously, once you’ve chosen a side, you should stick with it for a consistent straight line. Not surprisingly, this type of ditch-stitching is called outline quilting.
4 steps to stitch in the ditch
Step 1: Prepare
Got your quilt sandwich basted and ready to go? Not so fast. Attach your walking foot (which is essential for successful stitching in the ditch). Choose a thread color that will blend with the quilt top. Many quilters like to change colors as they go throughout different parts of the work, to keep the effect nice and subtle.
Step 2: Quilt the row seams
First quilt the long seams between blocks. Sew all horizontal row seams; then vertical row seams. To make the seam line easier to track, spread the fabric apart as you sew. Whenever possible, start and stop quilting at the edge of the quilt, as if you were sewing row seams. This gives your quilting added durability.
Step 3: Quilt within the blocks
Next, fill in the blocks with interior stitch in the ditch quilting, as necessary. Start quilting in the center of the quilt, rather than at the edge. For a clean, secure mid-quilt start, be sure to either bring up the bobbin thread and tie it off or use micro stitches. Study your patchwork to find as many continuous paths as possible for your stitch in the ditch quilting. The fewer times you start and stop quilting, the better.
To change quilting directions in the center of the quilt top, always stop with the needle down. Pick up the presser foot, pivot the quilt and drop the presser foot to continue quilting.
Step 4: Relax!
Remember this: there’s no crime in having seams that aren’t ruler-straight or perfectly connecting. Just keep quilting in a smooth movement until you have bridged any gaps that do arise. Chances are, once the quilt is finished, these inconsistencies won’t even be noticeable.