The Free Motion Quilting Project: If you don't like it...Break It!

Friday, February 11, 2011

If you don't like it...Break It!

While teaching in Myrtle Beach two weeks ago, I opened class by offering something pretty weird:
"If you'd like me to break your foot just let me know!"

I got some pretty weird looks from that, especially because I was walking around in just socks for most of the class. But eventually students found I wasn't referring to their actual foot, but their free motion quilting foot (also called a Darning foot).

Here's a video I shot last year of me breaking a cheap generic foot. It's always better to do this on another foot rather than the expensive one that came with your machine!

You see, most darning feet are pretty badly designed. I've only experienced two feet fresh out of the box that could work for free motion quilting without being modified in some way.

One was Bernina's Open Toe Darning Foot. I'm not sure why, but I'm having a really hard time finding that foot online and I wonder if they've discontinued it due to the BSR foot? Anyone know?

The other foot that has worked perfect straight out of the box is the darning foot supplied with the Janome Horizon. I absolutely LOVE that foot!

You can pick between an open toe, closed toe, or this wide base foot. Even better, you can adjust the pressure of the foot on your quilt top on the actual foot by fiddling with the little spring thingy on the side. That's just plain awesome!

But most darning feet aren't this smart or well designed. Most look something like this:

This is a generic darning foot I carry in the quilt shop, and straight out of the box, this little guy has some issues.

free motion quilting | Leah DayFirst off he has this long bar jutting out on the top that hits your needle bar every time your needle goes up. This causes the foot to raise up slightly and, when stitching at high speed, makes an awful racket (think machine gun fire).

The design flaw is pretty simple: rather than create some sort of adjustable mechanism, the foot is designed to sit too low on your machine. If it didn't have the needle bar thingy, the foot would be squishing your quilt so bad you wouldn't be able to move it.

So when you stitch with the needle bar in tact, you're not actually getting a totally free range of movement. Every time the needle bar lifts the foot you can move, but as soon as the needle comes down, you've just squashed your quilt again!

Lift, squish, lift, squish isn't a very smooth way of free motion quilting. You need to be able to move and slide your quilt around freely no matter what position the needle is in.

The great news is, the fix is very simple: break that bar off your foot.

Once you break that bar off (or just bend it back with needle nose pliers), your needle bar will no longer hit anything and a peaceful hum, rather than rapid gunfire, will fill your sewing room while you quilt.

But there is a problem! The foot will now be sitting at it's lowest position - the squish position! If placed on your machine in this state, your quilt will be impossible to move underneath it.

So solution #2 is to place either a rubber band or elastic ponytail holder over the top part of the foot, adjusting the height of the foot so that the base skims over the surface of your quilt.

free motion quilting | Leah DayYou can adjust how high the foot is by adding or subtracting loops from the top of the foot. I find that the average foot needs 3 loops lifting the base around 1/4." Start with that amount, and if it's too low (still squishing your quilt) add another loop and lift the base a bit more.

And if it's too high (things feel a bit out of control and your thread is prone to break when the foot is too high) take a loop away to drop the base a bit.

You will have extra rubber band or ponytail elastic left so just wind that around the top part to get it out of the way:

free motion quilting | Leah DayWhile this isn't the most elegant fix to your free motion foot, it does WORK and that's what matters.

But there is one other thing that's wrong with this foot:

free motion quilting | Leah Day
The base is a solid oval shape. Yes, it is made from a clear plastic, but that doesn't change the fact that it's nearly impossible to see through.

I prefer an open toe for free motion quilting, especially if I'm travel stitching because you can't stitch perfectly on top of a line you can't see!

To fix this part all you need to do is take some jewelry clippers and clip open the base. Because this can result in some sharp edges, I then take a nail file and sand down the rough edges of the foot.

Viola! An Open Toe Darning Foot, perfectly adjusted for your machine!

free motion quilting | Leah DaySo if you find yourself struggling to move your quilt smoothly and freely, or if you find that travel stitching is virtually impossible because you can't see anything around your needle, you know what to do:

Go break your foot!

That's it for this Feature Friday!

Let's go quilt,

Leah Day


  1. Brilliant! I have so many machine quilting students ask me what they can do when their foot obscures the design they are making. Now I finally have an answer. I already refer all my stuidents to your blog. Now I can send them to your YouTube too! Thanks!

  2. This tutorial is awesome! Ive got the exact same foot that I was going to try for quilting, but it didnt quite sit right, I will definately try these modifications to get it to cooprate with my machine

  3. I have the metal foot and the clear foot for my Bernina. I don't notice the hopping you talk about. There is no wire at the top to put a rubber band on. I also like the Leather foot that was recommended in a class I took at my Bernina store.

  4. Ha! I did the same thing on my old machine last year. It was just in the way! ; )

    great minds! : )

    ~Monika in Canada

  5. Been wanting an open toe quilting foot! This would be an economical fix.

  6. You are so right about the Janome Horizon foot. I love it too. I use my Horizon on my Inspira frame as well as on the tabletop, and being able to see is essential.

  7. I did that many years ago to my Bernina metal darning foot, but I used my husband's table grinder. He thought I was silly, but I was just making my tools work better for me. Then Bernina eventually listened to their customers and came out with a new foot in a form of a "C" just like mine--great quilters all think alike :) Leah--you're doing a great job! I'm proud of all your accomplishments!

  8. I have that exact foot and kept thinking that if only it had a horseshoe shap vs. a full circle, I would be SO MUCH HAPPIER. It never occured to me to break it! Oh happy Day! Thanks Leah!!

  9. I did this a few weeks ago and posted about it.

  10. I took your advice and broke my darning foot's offensive, irritating, inefficient bar off and Voila! I can FMQ now. It was like a jumping jack before and noisy. Not anymore, thanks to you.

    I put you on my stash slashing blog because of your great tutorials and the courage you planted in me.

  11. Awesome tutorial, love it. I'm getting those jewerly pliers out today to alter my foot!

  12. Now I am sure that you are an "out of the box" thinker. Fabulous solution.

  13. You won't believe this, but Wednesday nigh I posted on my blog problems that I had quilting a tee shirt quilt. I always knew the foot dragged a bit, but it was an annoyance, not a problem until I started this quilt. Because it is much thicker than the pieces I usually quilt, the backing bunched up terribly. I just finished 3 hours of ripping out 1 hours worth of quilting. This post might just be the answer! Thank you! Chris

  14. Hi, Leah,
    Have you seen the needles that already have a small spring and tiny base - for free motion quilting? I can send you a link to see what I am talking about.

    I just picked up a couple to try out. but I am wondering if you have tried them.
    - ellen

  15. Yea! I have been really struggling in my "practice" FMQ for exactly these reasons. I've done table runners etc trying to practice and better my technique, but that stupid bar kept making the fabric jump! I had thought about trying to break it off, but it seemed a little extreme when I wasn't sure if it would work at all without it... Now I have broken it off and used the elastic band to set the height perfectly. I've been sewing all morning and what a difference! Thank you!

  16. Speaking of modifications, what can we do to get the Theraglove and the Machingers companies to talk with each other?
    I have carpal tunnel syndrome and the cuffs of the Machiners are just not enough support. So I tried wearing the Theraglove overtop of the Machingers. Eureka! Perfection. Great gripability and supreme support in one. But, man, they 'ain't' pretty. Do you have any contacts? What do you think?

  17. Teresa - Hmm...that's interesting! Unfortunately I don't have any contacts with either company, but that shouldn't stop you! Write to both companies, send them some photos, and let them know there is demand in this area. You never know what can happen!


    Leah Day

  18. Thank you Leah. My foot works great now. Im off to quilt, By By

  19. So I tried this on my Juki's free motion foot and it is skipping stitches now and the thread is tearing. I tried bending the bar back into place best I could and it is a little better but still some skips that weren't there before when I freemotioned. Could it just be that I set the foot up too high?

  20. Rebecca - Yes, it is possible to set the foot too high. Try lowering it down by a loop of the rubber band and see if that helps.

  21. Thank you so much. I was about to give up on free motion quilting and I had only just begun. I could tell the foot was pressing down too heavy on the quilting surface and tried not lowering the foot which left a nice tangled mess. Have just tried the hair band trick and it worked. So happy... now for some practice. PS have covered my machine bed with baking parchment which seems to do the trick. Anything else you might suggest?

    1. Oh, and I can also see where I am going now, happy with this solution!

  22. Oh my goodness, this totally works!! This is my first attempt at quilting and I made a fat quarter practice sandwich to practice my free motion technique. I had a Singer metal darning foot that I spent $28 on, and I also had one of these generic $3.50 free motion feet, and both of them seemed to be sitting down too tightly on the fabric and squishing it, and this did not allow me to move the fabric freely. I was ending up with all these ugly sharp angles in my loops and meanders because my quilt movements were so jerky. So I decided to try breaking the cheap foot. I followed the steps in the video, only I used a trash bag twist tie instead of a hair band, and it worked like a charm! I can now freehand much more smoothly without all the jerky, stop-and-start movements of the fabric. I feel like MacGuyver! :) Thank you so much for this awesome recommentation!


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