The Ultimate Stitch in the Ditch Quilting Tutorial

What is stitch in the ditch quilting and how to do it right? Follow our ultimate stitch in the ditch tutorial and take your quilting to the next level!

Quilting is one of the final steps in creating a quilt and there are many different ways to do it.

The easiest (but also most expensive) way is to send it out to a longarmer. Then there’s hand quilting, but who’s got time for that (I’ll make time some day, I promise – and when I do, I’ll write about it!).

And then there’s machine quilting. Yup, you can create amazing quilting with your little domestic sewing machine. And honestly, for modern minimalist quilts we love around here, straight line machine quilting designs are the perfect finish!

Of course, even with machine quilting, there are a bunch of different ways to do it. Today, we’re diving into one of the most common ways straight line machine quilting is done – stitch in the ditch quilting.

There’s a lot of reasons why this method is so popular, so I wanted to make sure you’ve got all the tools (literal and metaphorical) needed to do it right! Let’s learn how to stitch in the ditch!

Before we jump in, we have a great article that covers all of the basics of machine quilting. We go over:

  • what is machine quilting,
  • what tools do you need for machine quilting,
  • how to set up your sewing machine for machine quilting,
  • and finally, how to machine quilt.

I recommend you read it along with this stitch in the ditch tutorial as it provides some great basic skills required for stitching in the ditch, as well. Read our Machine Quilting Tutorial for Beginners here.

What is Stitch in the Ditch Quilting?

Stitch in the ditch quilting is a quilting technique used to attach the quilt top to the batting and backing layers while minimizing the visibility of the quilting stitches on the top layer. 

In stitch in the ditch quilting, you sew along the seams of the pieced blocks or other design elements on the quilt top. The stitching is done right in the seam “ditches” or grooves created by the joining of the fabric pieces on the quilt top. This means the layers are secured together without adding too much visual distraction from the quilt top design and piecing.

The stitches are often done using a matching thread color, which helps them blend into the fabric seams. 

So if done correctly, stitch in the ditch seams will barely be visible on the top of the quilt. While on the back, they will create a lovely quilting texture somewhat echoing the quilt top design (depending on where exactly you decide to stitch).

Here is an example I stitched for this tutorial on a leftover block from Barbara’s Fantastic Slides quilt. Front and back.

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Where is the Ditch?

The whole magic of stitching in the ditch happens when you position your needle so the quilting stitch goes right into the ditch. So where is this ditch?

When sewing together two pieces of fabric, the seam naturally forms a ditch between the two pieces. 

This is even more obvious when pressing seam allowances to the side as we did in the example in the picture. (And what we do pretty much every time.) When you do this, you essentially have three layers of fabric (the top layer + two seam allowances) on one side of the seam and one layer of fabric on the other side of the seam. This (tiny) difference in height between the two creates a groove, which is exactly where you want your stitching to be.

Why and When to Stitch in the Ditch?

There are different reasons and situations where you might want to try stitching in the ditch on your quilt. Here are the most common ones.

  1. Emphasis on quilt design: If the main focus of your quilt is the pieced or appliquéd design of the quilt top, stitching in the ditch allows you to secure the layers without drawing attention away from the design itself.
  2. Clean and minimalist look: Stitching in the ditch creates a clean and neat appearance since the quilting stitches are hidden within the seams. If you’re into a minimalist aesthetic, this could be a great option. You know we are all into modern quilts and we very often combine stitching in the ditch with additional quilting lines in between. This creates a nice clean look and also emphasizes the design of the quilt top.
  3. Quilts with Dense Piecing: Quilts that feature dense piecing can become visually overwhelming if heavily quilted. Stitching in the ditch is a way to stabilize the layers without adding too much additional texture.
  4. Time Efficiency: When you’re looking to finish a quilt relatively quickly, stitching in the ditch can be a time-efficient option compared to more elaborate quilting patterns. There’s no need to mark your quilting lines, as you’ll just be following the piecing lines of your pieced top.
  5. Quilting Practice for Beginners: This technique is often recommended for beginners as it helps them practice stitching accuracy and seam-following skills without the added complexity of more intricate quilting designs. I will add, however, that for stitching in the ditch to be beginner-friendly, the piecing must be pretty accurate. So if you’re a beginner I would only recommend stitching in the ditch for very simple patterns (like our simple square patchwork quilt) and/or if you’re piecing seams are matched more or less perfectly.

Stitch in the Ditch Quilting Tutorial

Now that we all know what stitching in the ditch is all about, let’s take a look at how it’s done!

Tools for Stitch in the Ditch Quilting

Stitch in the Ditch is basically just one of the methods of straight line machine quilting. So the tools needed are pretty much the same (minus the marking tools, which you won’t need here). We discuss the tools required for machine quilting in detail in this article on How to machine quilt. But to give you a quick overview, the basic tools required are:

  • Sewing machine
  • Sewing machine needles for quilting
  • Thread (choose a color that matches the fabrics of the quilt top to help blend the stitches in)
  • Walking foot – very important, read all the deets in the article on How to use a walking machine for quilting
  • Quilting gloves (optional, but nice to have) for better grip on the fabric
  • Quilt clips (optional, but nice to have) to keep your rolled quilt sandwich in place when quilting

Special Foot for Stitching in the Ditch

If you plan to stitch in the ditch a lot, you might consider getting a stitch in the ditch foot. It has a special (usually metal) guide attached right in the center, that keeps the ditch nice and open so you can stitch righ in the seamline.

Now there are a few things to keep in mind here. I always say use a walking foot for quilting. If you get a regular stitch in the ditch foot, you won’t be able to attach it to the walking foot, which means you loose all of the advantages of the walking foot. This might not be a problem for quilting very thin and low loft batting, so if that’s what you usually work with, it might work just fine. They sell generic stitch in the ditch machine feet like this one that has pretty good reviews and isn’t very expensive. (Always make sure any accessories you’re buying fit onto your specific sewing machine!)

You CAN also get stitch in the ditch walking feet. They combine the advantages of a ditch foot and a walking foot. But they can get pretty expensive. I haven’t tried one myself, but I am guessing it woks pretty well in feeding the layers evenly AND keeping an accurate stitching line. Here is a Janome stitch in the ditch walking foot  just to give you an idea of what it looks like. It’s basically just like any other walking foot but with the added central guide to guide the seam along the ditch.

I don’t use any of these, so you definitely can stitch in the ditch without them. But it’s always nice to have a new gadget or two, so put these on your list!

How to do Stitch in the Ditch Quilting?

Here is how to stitch in the ditch.

Required Tools:

– Sewing machine
– Sewing machine needles for quilting
– Walking foot
Quilting gloves (optional)
Quilt clips (optional) 

Materials

– Your quilt, prepared for quilting
– Thread (choose a color that matches the fabrics of the quilt top to help blend the stitches in)

Steps to Stitch in the Ditch:

Step 1: Prepare your quilt for quilting

As I’ve mentioned before, when stitching in the ditch you want your piecing to be as accurate as possible (well, when don’t you?). That’s because the piecing lines will serve as guidelines for your quilting stitches. If there’s a lot of seam lines that don’t match up you will inevitably have to sew not-in-the-ditch for an inch or so to get back in the ditch. It’s not the end of the world, but it doesn’t look as pretty.
Another thing to look out for are twisted seams. They happen when the seam allowance is sewn towards different directions at the beginning vs at the end of the seam. The seam allowances twist, which makes it hard to sew a straight seam in the ditch. Again – not the end of the world, but something to keep in mind.
Make sure you baste your quilt well. Check out our basting tutorial for more information.

Step 2: Set up your sewing machine

Attach the walking foot on your sewing machine. Refer to your sewing machine manual or follow our guide on how to install a walking foot.
Set up your stitch length to about 2.6. You can go up to 3.0, but generally when you want your stitches to disappear into the quilt, you want a shorter stitch length.

Step 3: Position the quilt

Here is where all of the magic happens – the positioning of the quilt under the foot (and essentially, needle). You want to place it so the needle goes right into the groove between the two pieced fabrics.

Step 4: Stitch!

Start stitching in the ditch. Just like with all walking foot sewing go slow and steady. I like to hold the quilt on both sides of the stitch, pulling ever so slightly away from the stitch to open the ditch where I’m sewing.

Step 5: Rotate if required

If your piecing design features angles you will need to change the direction of the quilting, as well. Stitch right up to the corner where you want to change direction. Leave the needle inside the corner, lift the presser foot, and rotate the quilt. Reposition the quilt so you’ll continue sewing along the ditch (but in a different direction).

Step 6: Finishing the stitches

If possible, try to plan your quilting edge to edge. This means that the quilting seams begin and end at the edges of the quilt. The stitches will be secured when you attached the binding, so no need to backstitch or anything else. If your stitches end in the middle of the quilt, you’ll need to bury them by hand. (Same goes if your stitches start in the middle of the quilt).

Do as many lines of quilting stitches you like. Depending on the complexity of the quilt top you may want to stitch along ALL the seamlines, or just some of them. 

You can also do a combo of stitch in the ditch and other (not-in-the-ditch) stitches, which is something you’ll see us do all the time. It is totally up to you.

I hope you’ve got all the info now to try your own stitch in the ditch quilting project. If you do, we want to hear all about how it went, so let us know in the comments below!

Happy quilting!

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