The Free Motion Quilting Project: Question Thursday #5

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Question Thursday #5

Wednesdays and Thursdays are really stacking up to be my favorite days of the week. It's like a present, clicking on each linked up blog and seeing your progress in the quilt along!

This week there seems to be a lot of agonizing over tiny imperfections.

While I wish I could tell you that I never, ever do this, you'd know I was lying. We ALL agonize over a wiggly line that's supposed to be straight or visible knots on the backs of our quilts. It's easy to assume that everyone in the world will see these issues too.

But at some point you're going to have to give yourself a break.

Please understand that issues happen, even to people who have been free motion quilting for years. Really the only difference between a beginner and an advanced quilter is the ability to HIDE mistakes better! I've heard about tricks ranging from quilting with invisible thread to using a sharpie permanent marker on the back to "color out" tension issues!

And keep in mind what happens when you wash a quilt - it gets kinda wrinkly and wobbly - which naturally hides small issues perfectly.

So this week try to let go, if you can, your need for absolute perfection. Aim to do your best, and accept what comes now and what will improve over time.

Now with that pep talk out of the way, let's answer some questions about free motion quilting!

First let's answer three questions posted by Malini at My Quilting Journey:

I don't have the option to lower the feed-dogs on my sewing machine. Its a very basic Brother XL2600i. Before I saw your video on basic FMQ, I was trying to lower the feed-dogs on my sewing machine. Luckily your video said I need to use stitch length settings to ZERO.
For Straight line FMQ can I keep my stitch length to different than ZERO? Are there any consequences??

Here's the deal: it's your machine and you know it much better than I do.

When it comes to having the feed dogs up or down, it's really entirely dependent on what works best for the machine. For some machines, it really works best with feed dogs down, but for many others, it's better to leave those little teeth up and set the stitch length to 0.

As for straight line free motion quilting, this really shouldn't be significantly different from regular free motion quilting. I don't differentiate between the two because I'll often stitch some straight lines, then fill in some stippling, then go back to straight lines.

Fiddling with stitch length or the feed dogs constantly shouldn't be necessary. Once you find what works, stick with it.

And to answer the second question, no, I don't think there would be any bad consequences to playing with this, I just doubt you're going to see any changes in how easy or hard stitching on a line is. Raising the stitch length up or down really shouldn't effect your ability to stitch better or worse on a line.

Next question from Malini:
I seem to do well when I start quilting. but then half way through I can't seem to control my speed. Either I go slow or fast which prevents me from having beautiful curves.

How can I work on this? Is your answer going to be Practice...Practice...Practice??
Well...yes, I probably will say practice, but I might also suggest 2 shots of tequila and a little lime makes all of this much easier!

The fact that the process is getting HARDER as you get into it is telling though. It means you're either really clenching up and micromanaging everything in the beginning, or you're loosening up so much by the halfway point that you're basically on cloud 9.

Work on consistency.

This isn't a dirty word. It might mean that you need to only play with free motion quilting for 30 minutes at a time. When things go wild, it might be a sign that it's time to take a break.

When you're learning something new, and many quilters described this as trying to pat your head and rub your tummy at the same time, your brain and body can only take so much intense focus and concentration. Work for 30 minutes, then stop and cut fabric for a bit, then come back to it.

The point here is no one learns free motion quilting in a day.

And to further that point - no one learns piecing, applique, basting, needlepoint, knitting, crochet, weaving or dyeing in a day either! Give yourself the gift of time and patience and you will be rewarded with beautiful stitches.

One last question from Malini -

I tried another quilt sandwich where I used variegated thread and began to have tension problems. As soon as I changed the thread my stitches aren't pretty anymore on the top. Why?'s hard to say exactly why switching to this different thread immediately caused issues. It could be that this new thread was slightly thicker and required a tension adjustment. You might have also dinged your needle as you switched thread and you need to change needles. Really it could be a lot of different things!

Personally, I think this is yet another vote for the idea of finding a thread that works and sticking with it.

I have zero patience to continually fiddle with my tension, my needles, or my machine in order to use every thread in the world for free motion quilting. The fact is, your stitch quality really will change depending on whether you're stitching with a thread your machine likes or hates.

It saves so many headaches to simply pick a particular thread, buy it in every color under the sun, and use it exclusively for all your free motion quilting.

As for variegated thread, it's good to understand that they're all not made equally. I'm fond of both Isacord varigated and YLI Variations.

I have also used many cotton variegated threads, and this might sound crazy - but I could swear that they're different thicknesses depending on what color is running through the machine. Either that or my machine became possessed whenever it ran through the color green.

The next question is from Anne at Anne's Threads:

Are some projects, eg when the blocks have several seams coming together, which are still better done with the walking foot?

Absolutely! There are many situations when you have multiple seamlines, multiple thicknesses of batting and fabric when it makes much better sense to use your walking foot.

The point of this stitching on a line exercise was to prove that you CAN free motion quilt in a straight line and that MOST of the time, this will be easier, faster, and much less complicated than using a walking foot.

But remember - it's YOUR quilt and it's YOU that will be quilting it! Practice both methods so when you get a quilt ready to go you can easily pick a technique that works best for your particular project.

The next question is from Danielle:

Please look at the photos below. the first one (the front side)of pebbling has little knots. Could this be the result of thread?

Photo from Danielle's My Quilting Journey

I can see the little knots and these look to me like the result of two things:

1. Stitching too many times in one place.
2. Thread is slightly thick.

Truthfully the blue thread looks like it's thin enough for the job, but if you're pausing as you create the circle and travel stitch, even 1-2 extra stitches in a single place will result in a little knot.

Try stitching this pebbling again and listen to your machine as you travel stitch. Do you hear a slight POCK POCK POCK noise as you travel over those circles? This is a sound I associate with the threads building up too thickly and causing your needle to work harder than it should. Either move faster or slow your machine speed down so you don't put quite so many stitches in those areas.

We will cover travel stitching in much more detail this year, so even if you haven't mastered it right this second, I will have many more tips and tricks coming your way in a few months.

Now for Anne's second question:
The next photo is on the back up close of the flower. Were the flower meets the little 2 leaves there is a big blob of thread build up. Is this normal, acceptable, how it's supposed to look.
If I were to enter a quilt in a show and I had areas like this, would I get a big thumbs down?

Photo from Danielle's My Quilting Journey

This is a great question Danielle! Of course, not everyone wants to enter quilt shows, but it's still fun to be able to create a winning quilt.

When it comes to this kind of thing - thread building up on the front or back where lines of quilting combine, connect, or travel over one another - run your hand along the stitching. Can you FEEL the knots?

From what I understand (and please remember I am NOT a quilt judge), judges will run their hands over a quilt to feel for knots, then look to see how noticeable they are. Mostly this is looking for thread breaks and whether a quilter is hiding her loose threads properly or not.

From the look of these knots, just like the knots in your pebbling, they're being created with only 1-2 extra stitches piling up on one another.

Try stitching another flower shape, but when you hit the central tear drop shape, STOP.

Just stop with the needle in the down position. Take a second to breathe. THEN start stitching again in another direction.

The thread is building up because you're hitting that point, but your brain isn't changing direction fast enough and you're stitching a few times in place as your brain catches up.

As for a thumbs down on this issue - it really depends on the judge, the contest, and the category you entered.

My first win was with a quilt that had a huge burn mark in the center and the judges didn't mention it a bit. The second time it showed, it was strongly criticized. You really never know what you're going to get, so the best thing to do is just keep making quilts and entering them and see what happens.

Now we have time for one more question from Shelly Tiefenthaler in the comments of yesterday's Quilt Along #5 Stippling in Blocks:

If you weren't teaching with this quilt what color thread would you use for the stipple in the blocks?

The white shows up for the video but in reality what would you choose when the blocks are two different colors like that? Blue? Red? Black again?

Great question Shelly! Thread color is a hard thing to pick for most quilters, and it's understandable why. On the one hand, you want your blocks to show off the piecing, but on the other hand if you're bothering to quilt them at all, chances are you also want to get some credit for the quilting as well.

But the truth is - this is entirely dependent on your personal opinion.

free motion quilting | Leah DayWhat color would YOU have quilted this block?

EVERYONE - Please leave your opinion for the thread color in the comments below!

I bet that every single person that shares an opinion is going to have a different idea for what looks best!

Personally, if this quilt wasn't being quilted on video I might have filled the blocks with a light red or light blue thread. I like the idea of quilting over colors with different colored threads because it makes my stitching stand out in those areas.

Notice this is just my OPINION. You will likely have a different opinion. That's okay!

The best thing you can do is look at your quilt, pick a thread color that works for you, and then shut up and go quilt it.

Don't agonize over this decision! Don't lose sleep over it, and don't let it be the only reason why a quilt top is a UFO and left un-quilted for 5 years. It's just THREAD!

Whew! I think that covers enough questions for today. I'm seriously needing to shut up and quilt!

Leah Day


  1. I think I would use black or green, roughly for the same reasons. Borders are meant to tie a block together IMHO, so the thread color that matches the borders would aid in that process.

  2. I probably would use black thread to quilt the block. The colors are medium to dark, so black would not contrast too much. I think this would show off the piecing more. And, I always have black, so I would not have to go out and buy thread for sure :)

  3. Great post Leah - I'm learning so much. Thankyou. I'm definitely back to the walking foot and a tough vintage machine for the quilt that broke my needle! But I found learning to FMQ in a line very useful and I'm sure I'll be doing it on less bulky tops. Thread colours: if I wanted to show off the quilting I think I might go for red thread on the blue and vice versa, though that would mean more stops and starts. Or a red/blue variegated? I was asking about thread colour on a discusson board last week, as I wanted to do all-over quilting on a top which includes lots of colours, graduating from pale to dark across the quilt. In that situation, the consensus was for a neutral, so I've bought a taupe. Will be interesting to see how it works out.

  4. Leah - I am so grateful for your generous spirit and all of the time you put into your blog and this project! (I wonder if I"m worth the trouble!) I haven't progressed beyond the "drawing shapes" stage because of time constraints and other projects working, but I plan to - and I feel more confident every time I read your blog!

    I would quilt that block in black..... or dark green!


  5. I REALLY enjoy question day! Of course, we all have similar questions as we go through each stage of learning so it's so valuable to get the answers to them all! Thanks, Leah...for taking the time to type all that information out for us and for your thoughtful and insightful answers. I also think we are being too hard on ourselves because I think those sample photos look great!

  6. I'm thinking a light gray/green thread. ~Jeanne

  7. Lots of wonderful info here as usual,thanks! I probably would have quilted the inside of the star in black.

  8. thread color: hard to say...If it were just stippling in the star I would take the center color (because I like the look of it better on my monitor....I might choose the red if I were seeing it in person. hah!) If I were doing the central motif and then stippling I think I would go with black to better highlight the "fancy." k.

  9. I'm a chicken about my quilting right now, so I would use matching thread in each area of the block so it didn't show too much (In case I screw it up.)

  10. I know I am sweating the small stuff, haha, but I love how perfection looks!I looked at that little blob of thread again, and decided it didn't look so bad. But I still didn't like the knots. Thanks for your infinite wisdom! As for thread, I would probably use red, or a veriegated blue, red , green combo, if I could find it.

  11. Great post! I think I'd go with red. The red points already pop quite a bit. Don't quite know what I'm trying to say, but they don't need more attention with a different color thread, plus the red in the big square could be used to do all sorts of big designs. 2nd choice, maybe purple, as it'd go well with both colors....

  12. Hi Leah,
    I especially appreciate the explanation and suggestions you give re. the knot buildup in the 2nd submitted (flower) photo. I've had similar results at times and wondered why my brain needed to pause. Figuring it was a weakness of mine, I'd begun to incorporate said knots as 'textural design elements' :)
    As for the quilting thread colors, I'd choose something bright to show up against the darker fabric.

  13. Thank you so much Leah for answering all my questions. Its really helpful. I finally resolved my issue with the thread. It turns out that the fabric I was using was thick and the quilting needling couldn't handle it. I changed from 90/14 quilting needle to 100/16 universal needle. Its a smooth sail again :-).

    Since, I'm new its going to a while before I can get really good at this.

    Regarding thread I would probably use same color thread or a thread that complements my quilt blocks.

  14. I think I would use blue so that it looks like a puddle all over the block?

  15. Leah, thank you so much for this series! I am loving reading about FMQ, the nitty gritty details. Lots of learning to be done here.

    As I was reading the question about the fast/slow problem, I can relate. I find that happens to me as well, however I think that my machine actually gets stuck on 'fast'. It is an older Genie from the 70s, and it seems to get heated up (the foot pedal actually feels superhot on my foot) and then goes from super slow to super fast with barely a movement on the pedal.

    I just learned to go with the flow and become an 'Extreme Quilter' :D

    (I was spoiled at Christmas and my husband got me a new machine, so I doubt I will have to deal with my Genie quirks as much anymore however.)

    1. Hi Wendy. I was reading your problem with the pedal. I have a vintage singer built in the 60's. I too was having this problem. After sewing for not to long, the pedal would heat up so bad, it would almost burn my foot and give off a funky burning smell. Also, my pedal was sticking. The problem sounds identical right? So I opened up the pedal. (just a few screws to take out) I put sewing machine oil on the metal moving parts. Voila, problem solved! Even though you got a new machine, it may be handi to have 2!


  17. I love 'S' comment about 'textural design elements'! I would probably use blue in the centre and the black and leave the red bits to pop up by themselves or maybe just an outline in red around the red pieces.

  18. Hi Leah,

    I am so enjoying your Quilt Along and learning so much from others questions.

  19. Call be crazy but I would go grey...thread that is.
    Thank you Leah for all that you are doing for free motion quilting, this has changed my quilting for ever... For the better of course.

  20. Thanks for your site!

    I would be conservative and just use a medium grey.

  21. If I were as good a quilter as I'd like to be, I'd pick a light periwinkle blue-- to show off the stitches, and put flowers in the middle of the stars.

    If I were doing it now, I'd pick a black 60 wt. thread and quilt it loosely, or possibly in the ditch.

  22. Is it possible to quilt an entire quilt in see-through nylon thread? Or is it to weak?

  23. I would use a blue similar to the center of the block. Blue on blue would be subtle, while blue on orange (opposites on the color wheel) would pop. I think the blue on black would be a great but subtle combination and blue on the green would be complimentary.

  24. I would use red as well. It contrasts nicely with the blue, black and green and also blends with the red.
    earlier I aske a question about using a rayon embroidery thread for FMQ. I was having trouble with the bobbin thread breaking all the time, no matter how much I fiddled with the bottom tension. Glad to announce. I mastered the blighter and have finished quilting my log cabin quilt in beautiful variegated rayon embroidery thread with a wonderful spiral design. The trick was to go "not too fast or too slow". once I found the Goldilocks speed and when I diddn't totally fill my bobbin it went like a dream.

  25. Thanks for your wonderful informative blog. I find that I tire more quickly with FMQ so I give myself no more than an hour at a time for the best quality stitches. I would probably use a dark grey on the whole quilt NOW..What I would use later when I am more secure..??

  26. I know you work in applique...

    I am just learning and am practicing on panels... some areas are really small detailed... I am trying to follow the look of the panel but can not always make it look good as there is not room for a motif such as yours. I do not like stippling myself.

    What other options do I have??? Suggestions appreciated.



  27. You would be surprised at how good a neutral gold looks when you have several different colors in the piecing. My "go-to" thread is Military Gold by Fil-tech. I always use a Topstitch needle, usually 90, with FMQ. Another hint: When choosing a thread color, pull out a "gob" and lay it on the top, rather than just a single strand--it will give you a much more accurate picture of what the quilting will look like.


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