Free Motion Quilting is when layered art meets the sewing world to produce a home quilted creation whether it is a quilt or an artwork. When I was writing this, I thought how I started Free Motion Quilting. I knew early on that I wanted to learn how to free motion quilt or long arm. I loved the idea of designing patterns on top of a quilt top. I also like the idea of movement. I think that is one of the key concepts of free motion quilting is movement.
When I started, I was definitely afraid of free motion quilting. I watched every video that I could find. I got all the equipment and still I delayed. I was afraid of ruining a quilt. I had put all of the hard work into the quilt and I didn’t want to mess it up. And, then circumstances stepped in.
I made this extra-large, double batted king size quilt. However, there were problems. The batting barely covered the quilt top. It was that large. The backing was small. In the end the backing almost didn’t make it.
I had no choice. Besides, I had this little feeling that God was leading me down this free motion path. While starting free motion quilting was a good idea, starting on a King size quilt, was…let us just say, challenging! I started quilting the king quilt by using a walking foot and making long columns of stitches. However, I wanted to do something fancier on the border. The only solution was free motion quilting.
Practicing free motion quilting did not go well for me in the beginning. I have to admit, there were tears. I never thought I would get it. I have a design background from engineering and a love of painting. But, it was hard for me to control my foot and my hands with the machine.
Along the way, I have made a lot of mistakes. I thought I would share some of my experiences and what I have learned.
Videos and Classes:
There are good instructors out there and each one has some good ideas. Ultimately, you have to find your own method.
Equipment and Materials:
I find that not all sewing machines work the same. I know a lot of instructors say they do, but I find some of the machines give more problems. In general, the materials and equipment listed here are a starting point. Some of these items may work for you and some will not. These worked for me.
- Sewing machine capable of free motion quilting. My daughter’s sewing machine does not allow for the feed dogs to be lowered. I actually use the Supreme Slider with the machine, but it still is not the best application for this model of Brother Machine.
I lower the feed dogs for different machines. On my old Viking, I would keep the feed dogs engaged and cover with the slider. On the Juki, I have tried both methods. I am not sure which way I will go yet, however I tend to lower the feed dogs on the Juki.
In general, try the free motion quilting with the feed dogs up and covered or the feed dogs down (covered and uncovered). See which one gives you the best look and performance (less thread breakage, etc.).
- Open Toe (clear recommended) quilting foot (also called darning foot, stippling foot) it looks like a big ‘C’ with the opening toward you. There are closed quilting feet, but it will be harder to see where you are going.
Low-shank Open Toe Darning Foot P60430 – This model works with my Viking and Juki machines. You would want to make sure that the darning foot would be a good fit for your sewing machine model. These can run anywhere from around $5 to $35 depending on your sewing machine’s configuration.
- Slider – I do recommend this. It made the world of difference to me. I have the regular size and it is large enough for most machines. If you have a large extension table, there is a queen size model. You may be able to buy one with a coupon. You could make your own with something very slippery like Teflon, but make sure the back sticks to the sewing machine temporarily. If the slider comes up while you are FMQ, then you may end up sewing it into your quilt.
- Good Thread – I tried using lower cost thread. I thought it was okay, but not the greatest. The thread on the right in the horizontal direction is a cheaper cotton thread. The thread on the left in a vertical direction is the Aurifil. Both threads were sewn the same way with a walking foot using the same settings. I learned that some thread is tightly wound with little lint like Aurifil or Superior threads. I bought some Aurifil thread because I had a coupon, and I noticed a significant difference in strength, clear stitches, and reduced lint. I do quilt with Aurifil 50 wt. thread and Sulky Embroidery thread. There is the thought that the thread should be consistent with the type of fabric. But, the advantage of Embroidery thread is the sparkle factor!
- Gloves – I use white Machinger gloves with rubber at the ends. I started with garden gloves, but the pair had stiff fingers. I found that having flexible rubber ends was really important. You want to feel the fabric below, especially if the backing is doubled over underneath. Some of the garden gloves are a little thick.
- Patience and Grace! A healthy dose of patience and grace is needed while FMQ. You will make mistakes and that is okay. If they are big enough, make friends with Mr. Seam Ripper. Otherwise, these mistakes create character in the quilt.
How do I do Free Motion Quilting
Actually, I started a little differently. I started doodling. I would draw the shapes that I saw in quilts. I made up doodles like the one in the picture of a bird and butterfly. When I was watching videos, I would draw the shapes that people were demonstrating.
- Doodle – Yep! Free license to doodle!
- Doodle in shapes such as tear drops, squares, hearts, and add another layer, this is called echoing. The butterfly’s wings circles are an example of echoing.
In FMQ, some of the thread designs do not cross over each other. So, you want to take your design and figure out a path that will not cross over. You may travel along a line over and over, just not cross it. Also, realize that when you travel over the line, that area will have more thread and will appear with more color, such as in the picture below. The center of the lily is the travel line. Notice at the top of the lily, I did inadvertently cross threads.
Step up to your machine and practice those same designs on scrap fabric or a fat quarter sandwich. It is nicer to start with simple designs, than more complex until you feel more comfortable. Below are some of the steps that I take.
- Set your stitch length to zero using a straight stitch.
- Lower feed dogs and/or cover the feed dogs.
- If your machine will end with the needle in the down position, then set the needle to down.
- Start slowly. Take a couple stitches in the same place.
- Look where you want to go. Plan your shape or movement. Remember you will need to reposition your hands every 2-3 inches depending on the design. Slow down to stop when you need to reposition. This gives you another time to look and plan where to go next.
- Start with a steady movement of your hands. Don’t worry about the design as much as consistency of stitches. If your stitches are small and they are all small, don’t worry. It is hard to have consistent stitches throughout the entire design.
- Along with the steady movement of your hands, make sure that you apply the same pressure on the foot pedal. As you improve, you will actually adjust this for the design. Just like a car, you adjust your foot pedal as you go around a curve. You don’t want ‘eyelashes’ on the back of a curve. If you end up with ‘eyelashes’, slow down as you go around the curve!
- Find a good ending place. You would want to find a place where threads meet or the design is terminated. This allows you to hide your threads a little better.
- Sometimes you will be trapped in a location and you either have to break the design, break thread, or find a way out. In these cases, you can travel along a previous stitch. This is called travelling. It works really well when you can travel in a seam or a border stitch.
- Keep your design consistent. It is easy to have your design get smaller or larger as you continue on your project. As I FMQ the king border, I started quilting larger and larger designs in order to finish the project. It is probably better to have a more even approach to quilting!
- Start with a simple design. This is probably not the time to start with a magnificent feather design. Some suggestions are: vines with leaves, echoing hearts, echoing tear drops, river look, etc. Straight lines or boxing squares are challenging.
There! Don’t you just want to give free motion quilting a try! Now, my feathers look a lot better! Still not perfect, but better!
When you feel more comfortable, try FMQ on an actual quilt. This is where you take the training wheels off. 🙂 I suggest starting with a pattern that is easy for you. Each person is different on what will feel easy or more natural. I feel that free motion quilting is like driving a car. You have to manage the foot pedal, your hands and steer down the road. If you can drive a car, you can free motion quilt. I hope this helps you with your free motion journey! Remember it takes time! Think twice before you get Mr. Seam Ripper. That mistake may be part of your quilt story!
Enjoy and have a wonderful day!