Today's quilters have so many more resources than quilters of past generations. Rotary cutting techniques, an endless selection of fabrics (made with dyes that don't bleed or change color), a thread to suit every need, plus sewing machines loaded with time-saving (and creativity-enhancing) capabilities, including workings that make it possible to accomplish quality machine quilting.
Machine quilting is one of the most liberating quiltmaking techniques developed in recent years, with a growing number of quilters who use it as their primary quilting method. Many years ago, when machine quilting first became popular, it wasn't unusual to hear quilters debate whether or not their ancestors would have chosen to machine quilt if our current tools had been available. I personally believe quilters then, as today, would have simply chosen the technique they liked best.
Straight Line vs. Free Motion Machine Quilting
Machine quilting methods (the type of machine quilting that's done using a typical sewing machine) fall into two basic categories: straight line and free motion.
Straight Line Machine Quilting:
Straight line machine quilting is best accomplished with a walking foot, often called an even-feed foot. A walking foot is a specialized pressure foot that grips the top of the quilt sandwich, advancing it through the machine at the same rate as the quilt's back, which touches and is moved along by the feed dogs. Moving the quilt sandwich evenly though the machine keeps the layers from shifting apart as the quilt is sewn, which reduces distortion and the pleats that can occur if one layer is out of sync with the others.
Gentle curves are possible with a walking foot, but intricate patterns require free motion machine quilting techniques.
Free Motion Machine Quilting
Machine quilting designs can be every bit as intricate as the designs used for hand quilting, but it does take practice to create them, even when using a sewing machine that includes specialized machine quilting equipment.
The machine's feed dogs are lowered when you use free motion machine quilting techniques, so nothing is in place under the quilt sandwich to guide it along. The quilter is in total control of the motion -- grab the portion of the quilt you are working on and move it as the presser foot bobs up and down (it can be a darning foot or a special foot that resembles the darner, but usually with a larger opening).
The speed of your movements and just how fast you run the machine both work together to determine stitch length.
The demand for sewing machines that make it easier to machine quilt has increased in recent years, so manufacturers have introduced new models to satisfy our sewing wants and needs. Bernina's Stitch Regulator is one feature that helps even beginning machine quilters sew evenly sized free motion stitches. Other sewing machine manufacturers have developed special presser feet to help quilters use their machines, too.
Do keep in mind that, while high-end machines are fantastic, you can machine quilt with just about any sewing machine. Generic walking feet are available for most modern machines, and so are their free motion counterparts (but don't forget that you can learn with a darning foot).
Start by machine quilting a small project, maybe a table runner or baby quilt, just to get a feel for the technique. If it turns out to be something you love, research machines to discover which one might be the best choice for you.