How-to: Unpicking Quilting

Last night I spent a lot of time un-quilting - unpicking the quilting I had done earlier that day. Not because I wasn't happy with the shape of my quilting, (I'm learning to let go a bit in that regard), but because the tension was off. There's a tip worth mentioning: Check your tension! It could save you so much time.

The quilting wasn't bad all over, but there were enough bad places that I didn't feel happy to let it go. So, out came the seam ripper.

Now, I don't like waste, so I try to conserve long lengths of thread wherever I can when I'm unpicking. Here's how I do it with quilting:
  • Turn the quilt over so you're working from the back - I'd much rather damage the back by accident, where I can potentially cover it with a label or even a patch, than poke a hole in the front. 
  • Pull the thread ends to the back (i.e. the side you're working on) - both the top thread and the bobbin thread. (Note that in the photo I had already done some unpicking, so you can't see the end of the top thread.) If your stitching overlaps like mine did, it's important to start from the last stitch you made. 
  • Gently tug on the bobbin thread until a little loop of top thread pulls through.

  • Carefully slide your seam ripper under the little arch formed by the top thread and bobbin thread, let go of the bobbin thread, and use your seam ripper to pull the bobbin thread through the top thread loop. You can use any thin tool really, just as long as it can get into that little arch.

  • Repeat for each stitch, or if your problem was a tension one like mine, you might be able to pull out several stitches at once through the existing 'loops' of top thread. 
  • Every now and then, gently pull the on the top thread and wind it up. I like to use an empty thread spool or bobbin. See photo below. The yellow circle is where the top thread comes through to the back.

You'll also want to trim the bobbin thread now and then as it gets longer, so that pulling it through that little loop remains a quick action.

This method is also great if you run out of bobbin thread or your thread breaks. You can unpick without damaging the thread or your quilt, until your thread tails are long enough to tie off and bury.

One final tip - watch a TV show or movie while you work. I watched The Darling Buds of May while I did my unpicking. I know it well enough to stay focused on what I'm doing and just look up for my favourite parts. It's good to re-focus the eyes now and then, and visual entertainment is a good way to remember to do that.

How do you like to unpick - if 'like' is the right word?! It's surprising just how many ways there are to do many tasks in sewing, unsewing included.

Happy sewing, and may your seam ripper be seldom called upon. ;)

Hope x

P.S. Just for clarity's sake, the pictures do show the back of the quilt - it's a pieced backing. :)


  1. Great tips Hope. I'd never thought about working from the back so that the front isn't accidentally damaged. I like to unsew by breaking the stitches on one side about 1/2" apart and then pulling the intact longer piece from the back. I've never tried pulling through on quilting. I'll give this way a go next time I find myself in that situation. I also have to admit I never thought to save the thread. Very smart of you.

    1. Thanks very much Colleen. I like your method of unsewing too. I tend to use that for shorter lengths of stitching, mainly because picking out the little lengths of thread can make my hand hurt if I do too much. I think some people use a lint roller though, or those nifty seam rippers with the rubber end. How do you pick out the little bits of thread?

      I find the thread I keep comes in handy for bindings, mending, English paper piecing... lots of things. I keep the shorter lengths with my hexagon papers and use them for basting. It sounds like I do a lot of unpicking, doesn't it? But I also keep the short lengths left on bobbins. :)

  2. Thanks for making an unhappy part of quilting feel happy and positive! I had a problem with stitch length with my old machine so I have a very long term project unpicking teeny tiny stitches from a table runner. I can only do it for short spaces of time before my own tension builds 😤

    1. Thank you so much Allison, I'm happy it felt that way. :) Teeny tiny stitches are not so easy to get out - I can see why your tension would build! Good luck getting it done without going crazy. ;)

  3. When I get railroad tracks or loose stitches due to inattentiveness I use a forceps. I cut the bobbin thread at 2-3 inches then grab that thread at the end of the cut span with the forceps and just slip out the entire section of bobbin thread. It goes very quickly this way and I've pulled as much as 8-10 inches when it was very loose.

    1. Yes, that is a nice quick way to do it, and another great way to save thread. I do it myself for seams where possible (minus the forceps), but haven't been able to with quilting as yet. Definitely a great way to keep in mind. :)


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