One of the biggest problems that new quilters make is "wavy borders." These can become a real problem when you are quilting your quilt because they just won't lie flat. There is rarely any advice in quilt pattern directions on how to avoid this. If you get wavy borders, you've eased in too much fabric. This problem can be caused if you add your borders by sewing a length of fabric to the side of the quilt and then trimming off the excess. To avoid this, measure the length and width of your quilt from the middle and use this measurement to cut the length of all your borders.
Another common problem is in not knowing how to square up a length of yardage before cutting strips with your rotary cutter. Sally Collins offers a really good demonstration on how to do this in her DVD, Precision Piecing. If you are not squaring up first, your strips will be wonky in the area where the fold is and will become unusable. Worse, if you do use wonky strips, you're finished block sizes will lack precision and that can cause distortion when you try to sew them together. Like making a sauce in French cuisine, there is a point where the chemistry just won't hold things together and you might reach a breaking point where things become unfixable. So the key to machine quilting is starting with a top that has been sewn together with as much precision as possible.
Accurate Quarter Inch Seam Allowances
Getting an accurate 1/4" seam allowance is also a mystery for some people. This accuracy is similar to having the "correct gauge" for knitting. There are two simple ways to go. You can either purchase a quilters foot or you can place tape on the bed of your machine - either approach will give you a sewing guideline for a 1/4" seam allowance. With the quilters foot, your fabric should be flush or even with the outside (rightside) edge of the foot. When working with 1/4" seams, it can be a challenge to keep the fabric from slipping to the left because the stitching motion tends to draw the fabric in inwards. In order to correct for that, you might also need to adjust the foot if your machine comes with a dial that allows you to do that.
If quick and easy isn't for you or you are ready to take on a creative yet rewarding challenge, hand piecing offers the most precision for complex blocks. Jinny Beyer offers the best resource for hand piecing that I've ever come across. Her book is considered the bible and she also offers a demonstration DVD. You can find many free patterns on her website, and I also highly recommend templates sold through Marti Mitchell. For hand applique, I highly recommend the DVD by Piece O' Cake Designs, aka, Becky Goldsmith and Linda Jenkins.
Hiding Your Starts and Stops
Simulating hand quilters by hiding your starts and stops is also something that is not regularly taught and the only book I've ever seen this show up in is Karen McTavish's "Quilt for Show". She shows you how to bring up the bobbin thread on the first stitch, tie it to the top thread, and then using a needle to "pop" the knot through the top to bury it in the middle of the quilt along with the tails. The only other way to secure the thread at your stop and starting points is to let the machine needle go up and down several times in the same spot which causes what Diane Gaudynski calls a "thinking cap" or a small buildup of thread, which isn't a big problem if you only have a few starts and stops, but if you have alot of them, it will detract from the beauty of the finished results. You can also get them if you are free motion quilting and let the needle continue to go up and down in a single place while you pause to decide which way to go next, so its a good idea to let the needle rest in the down position if you need to pause.)