Hand and machine quilting in essence are not interchangeable. Although it is possible to make machine quilting resemble hand quilting, each technique has its particular look and its limitations. The look and limitations arise from the very different ways by which the two processes accomplish the quilting.
A hand-stitched line is the most subtle of quilted lines. The process of hand stitching dictates this characteristic: stitch by stitch the hand quilter runs a needle and thread in and out of the layers leaving a delicate, dotted trail. Delicacy of line does not preclude a significant design statement. We respond to hand-quilted antique quilts, modern quilts with well-designed patterns stitched by hand, and innovative quilts that are hand-stitched with original designs. The beauty of hand quilting is the quality of the line itself and the texture created.
On the other hand, the process of machine quilting lays a continuous line of thread on the fabric surface. This line is obvious in a way that a hand-quilted line never will achieve. Machine stitchers, embracing this quality, have exploded the possibilities in the quilted line. We are seeing threads in every texture, color, and material as design elements. Innovative lines, almost like drawing with pencil on paper, are becoming part of the visual design vocabulary on machine-made quilts.
In addition to differences in the effect of the stitched line, some designs are simply easier to accomplish with one method than the other.
For hand quilters, starts and stops are easy. Starts and stops are more problematic on the machine and must be carefully handled. For this reason, machine quilters will want to reduce the number of starts and stops by designing long lines of continuous stitching.
For machine quilters, tiny circles and twists and turns are quickly and easily accomplished using free motion. A hand quilter working with a hoop or a frame either will have to turn hoop or body continuously or learn to quilt wrong-handed and backwards to execute these same designs. The hand quilter will find it easier to design quilting with gentle curves and less frequent changes of direction.
In sum, both hand and machine quilting have their characteristic looks and limitations. As designers of the quilting, we can learn to use these characteristics to our advantage.
Autographed copies, of the now out of print: A Fine Line: Creating the Quilting Design, are available from my web site.