The Free Motion Quilting Project: Skipping Stitches

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Skipping Stitches

Last night I received a really good question by email:

My name is C. and I am having trouble with the stitches in free motion quilting.

I have been trying to do the free motion for quite awhile now and I can start it off great but sometimes I will have a "missed stitch". Just a couple here and there.

When I put my regular presser foot for general sewing I will not
have that problem, only during free motion. I was wanting to know if you knew how I could fix this, what I am doing wrong etc. Any kind of help would be greatly appreciated.

Thank You

I decided to share this email and my response with everyone because this is such a common problem.

In fact, back in the spring 2009 I was ready to chuck my Juki out the window because it continually skipped stitches and was about to drive me crazy!

It took me 3 months to figure out the problem, but I've never forgotten how annoying or frustrating this problems can be. Skipped stitches look bad, they're noticeable, and oftentimes the thread will build up so much it will break.

So to figure out why my machine was skipping, I started testing many different possible culprits against one another until I figured out what was going wrong.

Eventually I realized that there are 3 reasons you could be skipping stitches:

1. Bad needle

2. Bad thread

3. Tension Issues

Let's go through these and I'll explain how you can tell if they're causing the proble
m or not.

skipped stitches free motion quiltingBad needle - If you haven't changed your needle out in awhile, try that first.

When I was a kid I don't think the needle in our singer was changed once in 7 years! Now I change
needles about once a week, depending on how much quilting I'm doing.

I quilt with a Universal 80/12 needle. A lot of quilters swear by embroidery needles or microtex needles in smaller sizes like 70/12.

When I use these needles I get
skipped stitches, so I guess it really just depends on your machine! Buy several different types of needles and play with them to see which your
machine likes to free motion with the best.

Bad thread
- Certain thread seem to skip far more than others. I've had to
give away 3 spools of Mettler Silk finish because my machine hates that thread! Try changing thread colors and see if it's the thread spool itself. Yes, thread can go bad!

Next, try changing brands. I love Isacord polyester thread
because it never, and I mean never, skips on me.

Tension Issues - Now if neither changing the needle or changing the thread works, then it may be a tension issue with your machine.

Since most quilters only get the skipped stitches when free
motion quilting, I assume
that the only thing that's changing when you free motion is your feed dogs position.

Manufacturer's concentrate on making machines very balanced with even
tension while the feed dogs are engaged, but when the feed dogs are off this balance can go out the wazoo.

You may need to play with your tension quite a bit. Yes, those dials were made for a reason, and they can be turned when needed!

Pin up a chart to the wall and write down your tension for regular sewing, walking foot quilting, and then free motion quilting so you'll feel comfortable adjusting your tension as needed.

skipped stitches free motion quiltingNext, look at your bobbin casing. If you have a Bernina, you will have an extra hole you can thread to increase the tension on your bobbin.

If you don't have the extra hole, try using Little Genie
Magic Bobbin washers. These really helped my bobbins feed much more smoothly.

If nothing seems to work, stop lowering your feed dogs.

Yep, I did just say that. Stop lowering your feed dogs and instead just cover
them with either an index card or a Supreme Slider.

I often free motion quilt with the f
eed dogs up and really it's no problem so long as your tables are flush and you're not fighting your quilt.

There's a very rooted idea in the quilting world that you can only free motion with the feed dogs down. In truth, it really doesn't matter.

So long as you have a good grip on your quilt, you're not even going to feel those little moving teeth under your quilt. In fact, I often forget to turn my feed dogs off until I'm halfway through a quilt!

The only time having your feed dogs up will matter is if you're using a foot that squishes your quilt onto the machine bed, but most darning feet don't do that.

So long as your darning foot is just hovering over the top of your quilt, you should be able to free motion to your hearts content with raised feed dogs. Give it a try and see how it works for you!

Let's go quilt!

Leah Day


  1. Can I ask a dumb question? What exactly is a skipped stitch?

    1. When 1 stich looks like 2.
      That is what i call a skipped stitch... all stitches are the same size, then comes a giant one!

  2. Another likely cause of a skipped stitch that occurs with free-motion quilting is actually needle deflection - the needle is getting pulled too far away from the hook, so the hook comes by the needle and can't grab the upper thread to make the stitch. Switching to a larger needle can help - the thinner the needle, the more flexible it is. Or there are specialty needles now made of harder metals with differences in the way the groove is formed, so that the needle is less likely to bend away from the hook. You can also stitch more slowly - or loosen thread tension - but you must still keep the two threads in balance so you'd be changing both the upper and lower tension. A spare bobbin case that you can feel free to adjust the tension can be a help there.

  3. One other thing to consider with skipped stitches, in my experience, is your hand position -- if your hands are too far away from the needle area the quilt can "lift" slightly when the needle is raising each stitch. This lifting can cause the stitch to not form correctly... More frequently the problem I have is the needle, the thread or the tension, but I've learned to check hand position too :-)

  4. Thank-You!! I will learn to machine quilt, I will learn to machine quilt, I will learn to machine quilt...........

    my new mantra!! I just found you the other day and WOW!!! Thank you for this!!!!

  5. These are all great comments, and to answer you question Jo, a skipped stitch is where your needle goes down, but for some reason it doesn't connect correctly with the bobbin thread.

    Instead of pulling up a stitch, the top thread just puddles around the needle, eventually catching, but the stitch it makes is usually long and unsightly.

    Rccq and Quiltpixie both have great ideas for skipped stitches as well and Brenda, you will definitely learn how to machine quilt.

    Now let's go quilt!


  6. I just found your blog and I have to say I am VERY excited. You are doing the kind of quilting that interests me most, but that I have not had the courage to do. I love your work and will continue to follow. Thanks! Lane

  7. I often forget to lower the feed dogs, and Pam Holland teaches not to lower them too. Certainly helps, as do all the other points made by you and in the comments.
    Even though I have been told most of what you tell us here, I am getting some very important reminders. Thank you.
    Judy B

  8. For Machine Quilting I often use a vintage (1920) Singer 15 Class Machine in a treadle cabinet - her feed dogs don't drop and I don't bother trying to cover the feed dogs - I just set my stitch length at 0 and the dogs just go up and down... they don't try to pull the fabric back.

    I have also found that a variegated thread can cause havoc with my stitching. I had a spool of very light to very dark blue and really had to tweek both the thread and bobbin tensions to find a happy medium. What I discovered is that the darkest blue was heavier due to the extra dye.

    Enjoying your Blog - Nice!

  9. Howdy - Thanks for mentioning that! I always forget to change my stitch length, but that can really make a big difference!

    That's really weird about that thread too. Crazy how the smallest things can make the biggest difference.

    Let's go quilt!


  10. I'm very glad with this story but I don't understand one thing, sorry: what are Feed dogs, my english is not that good. Is it a handle on the machine?
    I hope you can tell me this, it will explain a lot for me?


  11. It can also be the foot pressure. Don't ask how I know (grin)

  12. Hi Anne - Feed dogs are the little teeth on your machine that move back and forth and feed your fabric.

    On most machines you can turn these off, meaning you lower them out of your way. This can cause problems for your stitch tension, so an alternative is to turn your stitch length to 0.

    Hope that helps!


  13. I love this -thank you so much for posting! Ihave just bought a new fmq foot and bobbin holder and am determined to practise now -your expertise and imagination are so helpful!!!
    Hanneke, North Yorks, UK

  14. Hi,

    This just happened to me today! I couldn't figure it out -- so afraid that my Bernina was headed for the shop. The manual was no help so I looked in the manual of one of my other machines and it suggested that the needle was loose or bent. I tightened it. No dice. Well, it couldn't be bent --it was a brand new Schmetz, right out of the pack I bought last week. But I switched to another needle anyway. Surprise! It had been the new needle! Who would have thought?

  15. I've been looking at the new quilting patterns each day and now decided to look at many of your other pages. Your work and writing is wonderful.

    I was having issues with skipped stitches, especially when I was trying to sating stitch, and naturally, I needed to get that project done on a deadline. But the machine needed to go into the shop and there were three issues, the guy said: The timing was off, there was a piece of thread caught in the upper works (I can't get at that, but he can) and there was a build up of invisible gunk on the "hook" (doesn't look like a hook on my machine) that he said was from using fusibles in the past. So when all else fails, take the machine to the doctor.

  16. WOW - can I say I LOVE YOU.... I have learned so much from you in 15 minutes on this site... what a treasure you are to share so much of yourself and your talent with us....
    So many questions answered.... thank you thank you thank you...

  17. Hello Leah! I found you about a week ago and visit your site many times EACH DAY!! Your tutorials are incredible. You're such a sweetie to share your expertise with us. Thank you so much!!! I'm practicing, practicing, PRACTICING!!!

  18. Oh my! This is just what I needed today!!! Thank you so much! I was just about ready to quit quilting!

  19. 2012 and your answers googled up to my question - changed needle, adjusted tension and no more skipped stitches on this project. Thank you!

  20. When I am quilting, my machine is skipping a whole bunch of stitches. Like for a whole inch or a bit more.

    1. This can happen for a lot of reasons. Try running through the different things in this article first. Also check your foot height, the direction you're quilting in, and the thread / needle combo. There can be lots of different reasons why your stitches are skipping.

  21. Thank you very much for the tips. I had this problem and I managed to solve it after this post.

  22. I am trying to free motion quilt and discovered that it is my thread spool, it is double sized gutterman, so I got a thread stand, but as the machine pulls the thread every once in a while there is a ton of tension, then bam, the thread gets unwound and there is very little tension and then I get skipped stitches, so I need to figure out how to have the spool feed better, it is too big to fit on the machine. Once it is used up I will be using big cones of thread and the stand.

    1. It sounds like the thread is getting caught on the plastic of the spool and pulled tight, then dropping as it releases. My best advice would be to wind this spool onto bobbins and stitch it that way or just chuck it in the trash and get a spool of thread that feeds easier. Life is too short to get constant thread headaches!


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