Today I'd planned to share a new design, but upon further reflection, I realized I really want to return to the absolute fundamentals of free motion quilting.
So here's the basics:
Free motion quilting is literally FREE, which means you have total freedom of movement of your quilt on your sewing machine.
This is different from all other ways you normally use your sewing machine. Normally you allow the machine to feed fabric forward using the little teeth called feed dogs that grip and move the fabric evenly.
Now different quilters disengage these feed dogs in different ways. Personally I leave my feed dogs UP and just turn the stitch length to 0. The teeth will still move a bit, but they won't really feed your quilt forward so long as your free motion foot isn't squishing your quilt.
I top the whole thing off with a Supreme Slider, which makes the quilt easier to move over the surface of my machine. Is it absolutely necessary? Nope! It's a tool that makes life easier, but you can certain free motion quilt with your feed dogs up without it.
Other quilters believe in dropping the feed dogs. Some machines have a little button, or knob, or switch for this and some do not. It really just depends on your machine.
So understand that you have some choices when it comes to how you get rid of the feed dog aspect of your machine. I've written in more depth about this choice right here.
So with free motion quilting, you're not using those feed dogs because you don't necessarily want to feed the fabric only forward and backward, you'll want to be able to move your quilt in every direction you can think of.
Because of this, all the normal rules that apply to your machine, stitch length, speed, and tension are pretty much thrown out the window.
It is no longer your machine that dictates the stitch, but you.
So let's break the stitch down:
A stitch is made by the needle dropping into the machine and coming back up again, then dropping back down. The size of your stitch is determined by how much your quilt moves while the needle is up.
If your quilt moves a long distance, and it takes a long time for your needle to move up and down, then your stitches will be very big.
Giant stitches aren't terrible, though my usual test is if you can catch a toe in them, you might want to rip them out and try it again. Catching your toes in your quilt in the middle of the night isn't fun!
If your quilt doesn't move and it takes a very short time for your needle to rise and fall (if you're stitching super fast) you will stitch in the same place repeatedly. If you do this too many times, you will create a knot on the back of your quilt.
Again, knots aren't anything to be afraid of, though if you stitch in the same place you'll usually end up breaking thread eventually which can be annoying.
But somewhere between taking giant stitches and taking tiny stitches, there is a happy medium stitch that looks great and secures your quilt. The trick is just finding it!
So there are really two parts to this process:
The movement of your quilt - operated by your hands
The speed of the sewing machine - operated by your foot
So no wonder free motion quilting is challenging! How many people can play the piano the first time they sit down at it - playing the keys with both hands while pumping the pedals with their feet? How many people can sit down at a drum set and instantly synchronize the movement of all their limbs on each drum? They can't!
These things require skill, and to gain these skills requires practice. It's really as simple as that.
I certainly wasn't able to free motion quilt very well when I started. I can remember clenching up as soon as my hands hit the quilt. How do I move this thing around again? How fast should I go?
The most difficult thing I found was remembering where to go and how to move the quilt to keep the design flowing. The problem there is simply not having the design memorized and you can easily work on that by doodling designs at the table when you're eating breakfast. The more you draw something, the better you will understand and remember those movements on your quilt.
The other thing I struggled with was getting my speed right. I would always start very slowly, but my stitches would be HUGE, then I'd speed up and they'd get smaller, but eventually my hands would speed up too and the stitches would get big again.
Eventually I found it was the noise of the machine that was throwing me off. You hear that loud noise and think "I must move faster" and move your hands even faster, then the machine needs to go faster, and then it ends up getting so fast you lose control.
There is a happy medium between the speed and movement of your hands. It's definitely there. You just might have to stumble through a few quilts to find it!
So when you get started free motion quilting for the first time, chances are it will feel pretty weird. Remember, you're using the machine in a totally different way than you've ever used it before!
And usually when you try something new, it's very easy to get judgmental about what you see happening.
Try not to do that.
Because I'll be honest - you will see ugly things come out of your machine. You will see bad looking stitches. You will see huge toe catchers and gob-knots and all manner of thread nests.
This sounds terrifying, but this is NORMAL.
This is why for the first few weeks of our quilt along, I'd advise you to try free motion on a plain fabric sandwich, or at least not on your prized applique quilt you've taken the last 4 winters to hand stitch together.
The more time you took to get the quilt together, the more you will agonize about every messed up stitch, and the less fun you will have.
And that is really the point, right? FUN! This can actually be FUN!
Yes, when you let go of your death grip on the quilt and release your shoulders from up around your ears and relax your chest enough to breathe, it can actually be fun to free motion quilt!
So here's a collection of tips I've put together to make your first week of the quilt along a bit less terrifying and hopefully a lot more fun:
1. Drink and Quilt - a little booze in your system always makes free motion quilting easier, or the bad stitches harder to see, not sure which!The most important thing: don't be hard on yourself. There's really no point to it. Are you really going to get better stitches after beating yourself up? Nope. Just make it a fun time and as soon as things get too stressful, take a break.
2. No Seam Rippers - If you're going to rip out every missed stitch, you're not going to get very far baby! Make it a seam ripper free zone and work to get experience, not perfection.
3. Groovy Music - Everyone has a set of songs that just make you want to dance. Listen to these tunes while you're free motion quilting and you'll find it much harder to get tense and stressed out.
I'm going to shut up and go quilt now!