The Free Motion Quilting Project: To Drop or Not Drop - That is the Question...

Sunday, May 22, 2011

To Drop or Not Drop - That is the Question...

I just received a great question from a quilter via email:
"I have been sewing for years but as far as the free motion quilting I am a beginner. I just watched the video on how you use the Janome sewing machine. I really am interested in learning more about the "not dropping the feed dogs" comment. I purchased a babylock and love it, but I followed the instructions and drop the feed dogs when free motion quilting and it's really annoying that the tension is so persnickety. but if I could avoid that I think I would be in heaven."
I liked this question a lot because it reminded me of something important today - too often I assume that if I say something one time, you've all heard it and it's old news.

free motion quilting | Leah DayI need a monthly reminder that new, beginning free motion quilters are finding this project for the first time every single day, and that saying something once is never enough!

So here's a lesson I teach at every workshop, usually have to say multiple times at every lecture, and should learn to repeat weekly here on the project:

I don't drop my feed dogs.

I don't drop them when I'm free motion quilting. I don't drop them when I'm piecing. I don't drop them when I applique. I don't drop them here or there. I don't drop them anywhere! I don't drop them in a box. I don't drop them with a fox....

Er...Okay I ran off on a tangent there with Dr. Seuss, but you get my point!

Now here's why:

When I started free motion quilting, yes, I dropped my feed dogs loyally. That is what I'd been taught, and that is what I'd learned in countless books on the subject. For free motion quilting the ultimate, absolute rule #1 is always to drop those little teeth down inside your machine.

But what happens if you forget? What if you get so excited to quilt your next quilt, you simply forget to drop the feed dogs before getting started?

Will the Quilt Police suddenly ring your front doorbell, demanding you to stop free motion quilting immediately? Will the sky blacken with clouds of quilting doom? Will your quilt sit up and yell at you, "NO! Drop those feed dogs first!"

Nope, none of the above. The truth is, the feed dog rule has been a bit overblown.

Because every single book mentions it, and most teachers teach it, quilter's have come to believe that unless a machine has the capability of dropping those dogs, it can't free motion quilt.

And worse, many quilter's believe, if you don't drop your feed dogs, you cannot quilt your own quilts.

But this isn't even logical! It's a rule we've heard and swallowed blindly, without stopping to see if it actually applied to our specific machines!

The ONLY reason to EVER drop your feed dogs
is to stop them from feeding your quilt forward.

But does your quilt actually feed forward with the feed dogs up? Try it and see.

If it feeds a lot, put your stitch length to 0. This basically turns the feed dogs off because they're not feeding anything anywhere. They're just moving up and down!

If you don't feel any feeding or pulling forward from the feed dogs, why do anything about them? They're not hurting anything by being up. If it's not broke, don't fix it!

If you do feel a slight tug, why not just cover those feed dogs instead? It achieves the exact same purpose, and when covered with a Supreme Slider, your quilt will glide and move so much easier over the surface of your machine bed.

Personally, I've found the only times a machine needs the feed dogs dropped due to the quilt feeding forward, it's not the machine, the feed dogs, or the quilt that is the real problem. It's the free motion quilting foot.

I've said it a million times, but I'll say it again: most darning feet are not well designed. They literally squish the quilt flat to the surface of the machine bed, making it almost impossible to move the quilt freely in free motion.

Click here to learn about modifying your foot so it works better for free motion quilting.

I'll be sharing a video soon showing you how I modified the generic darning foot I'm using on the Janome HD-1000. Straight out of the package, the foot worked terribly, but with a rubber band and a little elbow grease, the foot works perfectly now.

So the dropping of feed dogs continues, not because the quilt is really getting fed forward by the feed dogs, but because the darning foot is squashing the quilt so badly. Ultimately it's always the feed dogs that get blamed for the quilt not moving smoothly.

But here's the catch - most machines don't react positively to dropped feed dogs. Suddenly tension goes finicky, thread nests on the back of the quilt become far more common, and the stress level of the quilter in question soars.

Who can blame you for getting frustrated? Your wonderful machine that has so far been a loyal and trusted friend has just thrown up ugly stitches on the surface of your quilt.

Many try free motion quilting, but throw in the towel after just a few minutes because they can't achieve a decent looking stitch with the feed dogs down.

Worst still - the blame for the bad stitches is usually put on the machine. My personal opinion is this: if a machine can piece beautifully, it can absolutely free motion quilt beautifully too.

The biggest question should always be: IS THIS EVEN NECESSARY?

Seriously, do a test! Free motion quilt with the feed dogs up, then free motion quilt with the feed dogs down. See for yourself which one works better for your specific machine.

Blindly following rules will never get you anywhere.

So test! Try modifying your darning foot, try quilting with the feed dogs covered instead of dropped, try quilting with a variety of different threads and needles.

But more than anything else: DON'T GIVE UP! Don't stop trying just because things don't work immediately. You really CAN quilt your own quilts in free motion, but only if you take the time to test and find what works and doesn't work for you.

Whew! That was quite a soapbox for a sunny Sunday afternoon! I'm headed into the studio to finish up that baby quilt in the photo above.

Let's go quilt,



  1. Glad you feel better... maybe you should make a t-shirt!


    Maddie, who does not drop her dogs either and is considered a local heratic because of it :)

    p.s. I think your CAPTCHA is flirting with is says..kissmaw

  2. i am SO excited to try FMQ with my feed dogs up... i've got a really nice machine but have never liked the results i've had using FMQ, so i usually stick to straight lines using my walking foot. thanks for expanding on this!

  3. My machine doesn't have the capability to drop the feed dogs, but came with a cover for the feed dogs. The quilt wouldn't move AT ALL when I put that cover on, so I don't drop (or cover) my feed dogs at all ever.

  4. I found a huge difference when I started to FMQ with the dogs up. More control, better stitches, less cursing!!

  5. Leah, great post as always! One challenge for you:

    Get with the industry and design a better free motion quilting foot!

    You've discussed why the current popular quilting foot is bad and creates problems and you've written about how you've broken your feet several times. What about manufacturing something better to begin with?

    Thanks for making the past two years of my quilting better. Sorry to have slipped out of touch with you in the last year, but you're so popular and amazing, you surely didn't notice. Take care Leah, - Darla

  6. Very interesting! I've never thought to question....can't wait to give it a shot.

  7. I have free motioned with the feed dogs up and the feed dogs down and I haven't noticed anything different on my Bernina 1630. My Janome has a plate the covers up the feed dogs so it doesn't make a difference. I think whatever works is a great idea! Thanks Leah and have a great week!

  8. I broke my teeth on FMQ'ing on an old Husqvarna with a plate that went over the feed dogs. That little plate used to jump up and down like crazy. Personally, I do a better job with the dogs down these days on my Bernina than I ever did 10 years ago on that Husky! Each to their own, but you gotta find what works for you and your machine. They are all different.

  9. I FMQing the other day and toward the end of the quilt top the thread started getting caught inside the plastic circle area. I didn't notice before, but there was a notch in there and so the thread is getting caught on this "notch." Is that like that when you purchase these feet? Mine is for a Janome machine.

  10. Another terrific blog post... When I first started FMQing, I put the feed dogs down. I found so many tension issues that I thought I would have to buy a higher quality machine to even try it. But one day I forgot to put the feed dogs down and suddenly everything fell into place and worked amazingly. I even like the feel of the pull and tension against the fabric. It reminds me to keep moving. Now, I do have to clean my machine a little more carefully and thoroughly each time after I FMQ. There is a lot of dust and fuzz that kicks up with FMQ. But I would probably clean the machine like that anyway to optimize function. Thanks for reminding us to break the rules occasionally and do what works, rather than what has always been done. I thought I was the only one that FMQ with my feed dogs up!

  11. Enhorabuena por tu blog, es fantastico , he aprendido mucho en el ,gracias

  12. Love this post! I never, never drop feed dogs!

  13. I saw you mention somewhere earlier about not dropping the feed dogs so I gave it a go - my quilting prior to this had looked awful at the back. But now, I'm in another world. Not dropping the feed dogs has saved my life! Or my quilting at least. No longer am I wondering if I'm going to have to unpick everything I've done because of the apparent tension issues. Thankyou, thankyou, thankyou for the beset quilting tip I've ever received!!!!!

  14. WOW. I just tried FMQ a few weeks ago, and didn't realize until JUST NOW that I forgot to put my feed dogs down!! I tried FMQ one other time (several years ago) with the feed dogs down, and got terrible results. This time around, with feed dogs accidentally left up, it worked great. I wonder if that's what made the difference. What a revelation!! (It cracks me up that I didn't even realize it until reading your post.)

  15. You probably know this and may have mentioned it at one time or another.
    You can set your stitch length to zero with the feed dogs up and you are more or less cancelling the forward motion of the feed dogs!
    One problem solved.
    I have at times forgotton to lower the feed dogs and sucessfully quilted a whole quilt that way.

  16. You can set your stitch length to zero which will cancel the forward motion of the feed dogs and lessen the problem of the pull of the feed dogs.
    I have forgotten to lower the feed dogs when FMQing and sucessfully finished a quilt before I realized it.

  17. I DON'T drop any more and have NO problems - it is in fact easier and better for FMQ - more control and less tendency to speed therefore avoiding bobbin drag/loops

  18. LOVE this! I don't know why I never thought of it myself - after all, I'm not a beginner and I'm supposed to know what I'm doing!

    Thank you for repeating yourself. You've switched on that lightbulb over my head ;-)

  19. I have had two pieces of advice that have served me well. One has been with me since I was a teen and I don't know where I heard it.
    If it is illegal, illict or imorral don't do it.
    It has served as good "rules" for our family.
    Another from a wise councillor we went to with our kids.
    It was make a few basic rules (see our families above.... ) and don't hurt others. All the rest are guidelines.....
    So when you see the "rule" quilt with your feeddogs down remember the above words... and know that it is just a guideline.... lol
    Thanks again for all the work, effort and information you do and give on others behalf.
    I am enjoying the dvd and book I bought from you and I am using it as a "guideline" to do my machine quilting.....

  20. What Pat B said--definitely drop your stitch length to 0.0 so you don't get any forward motion! (Why scuff up your backing--or your Supreme Slider--if you don't need to?) Actually, I'm pretty sure Leah did cover this in a previous posting.

  21. I'm another stitch-length-zero practitioner. In fact, I recently discovered I don't even need the supreme slider any more. Feed dogs up + stitch length zero = happy free motion quilter.

  22. I'm not opposed. I just don't understand why. If my stitch length is 0 then why should it matter if the feed dogs are up or down? What is the mechanical reason why it should make a difference in the stitch?

  23. This post really surprised me as this is my first visit to this site. I saw the free-motion "meander" stitch as it is sometimes called on another site and so i just tried to duplicate it. I have never read a book on free-motion quilting and so I have never heard of the rule to always drop the feed dogs, so I never have. I have a cheap ($110) Brother sewing machine which was packaged and geared towards quilters so it did come with the funky attachment which i think is supposed to be for free-motion quilting (sadly though a new machine it did not come with a manual). Thank goodness i haven't dropped my dogs yet, although even with dogs up there can be issues overall it works out great!

  24. For the past several months I quilted using straight stitches only. Then at this past Thanksgiving I went to a local quilt shop to get a darning/FMQ foot. My machine is a HuskyStar 224 that I have had for 8 years with never any problems.

    Anyway, the lady told me to ALWAYS drop my feed dogs so I did. I went to quilt a throw quilt for my twin using basic loops. I HATED QUILTING THAT THING BECAUSE THE TENSION WAS ALL WRONG AND I HAD SO MANY EYELASHES ON THE BACK. The lady at the quilting shop told me to adjust my tension to 2. Mine goes up to 8. So tonight when I was looking at your new FMQ video on YouTube it directly me back to your blog, which I already follow. I was reading the new posts about the FMQ-a-long and underneath one of the posts where it has "You Might Also Like...." I saw "To Drop or Not Drop". So here I am. I read the post a couple of times and decided to try this new method. I set my top tension to 5, tried some leaves, got eyelashes on the back. Set to 6, was better but still was not happy with it. Then tried 7 and really like how the stitches look on the front and the back. Having the feed dogs UP really help with the tension and stitch regulating I find. I think this is really going to make me LOVE FMQ!

    I am doing your FMQ-a-long, a FMQ challenge for January and a year long FMQ challenge because I am set out to really getting this down.

    I like the look of long arm quilting but can't afford the machine. Plus I don't like dense quilting so FMQ suits me best.

    Phew, sorry for the long comment.


    I have your button on my right sidebar!

  25. I've heard people mention leaving feed dogs up, and I'm sure I even heard you mention it before on this very website; however, another reason to mention the basics every now and then is that there is just a heck of a lot of information to keep in mind. You're the coach, Leah, and the coach always needs to keep drilling the basics! : )

    Really, thanks for your site--it's wonderful. I have recently been struggling with tension issues since going to a 40 weight thread. Thread was doing fine on the test piece, then breaking on the actual quilt. So frustrating! After reading this post, I'm going to go try FMQ with the feed dogs up (and with my Queen Supreme slider, which my hubby dutifully got for me for Christmas from your shop!).

    Thanks again for your tutorials--they are wonderful!

  26. I've just five minutes ago opened the box of my new Janome open toe embroidery foot (it actually says darning foot on the packet but never mind). I've never free quilted in my life but seen it enough. I checked with Janome the correct foot for my machine and I'm about to try it. I'm a clever girl and got the foot attached to the post and then read on the instructions on the box to 'drop the feed dogs or attach a darning plate'. I looked in the manual and there's nothing there about feeddog dropping, so I have no idea how to do it. Then of course, as default setting, I checked the big G and found this site instantly and what a bloomin relief. I don't have to drop feeddogs!! I'm nervously going off to try it for the first time; making note to change tensions or stitch length if the machine plays up. I'm not sure I fancy having to try rubber bands and elbow grease but I suppose that's better than buying a new machine which is what I was about to to. Sounds as if it doesn't matter though which fancy machine you have, they still haven't got the free motion quilting right which is odd with what is essentially a very basic operating machine in these high tech times.

    Anyway, enough rambling, I'm off to experiment; wish me luck! :-)

  27. I just did it without feeddog dropping and I've lived to tell the tale. What fun!! I just posted on Facebook that it's like riding downhill on a bike with your feet off the pedals, so much fun and so 'freeing'. I just went all over the place; didn't follow any pattern but even after seconds of doing it, I was trying to do little droplet shapes :-) Fun and games, here I come!! Thanks so much Leah

  28. I have a Pfaff Quilter's Edition that makes an awful mess if I quilt with the feed dogs down - my friend has a similar machine and she told me to leave 'em up, so I do and it does a great job... I also have a Brother 1200 and it does just as good a job with the dogs up or down, but it's much easier to move the quilt if they're down... particularly with a flannel backing. We just need to experiment a bit, and pay attention...

  29. Your post has opened up a whole new realm of stitching for me! I wanted to make quilted Christmas stockings for my grandchildren using printed panels, but got in a dreadful mess when I dropped the dogs, but I worried that I would damage my machine if I left them up. I've now just finished the first stocking! It may not be perfect and I still have to go slowly but I'm so pleased with the results. I'm looking forward to doing lots more quilting. Thank you so much.

  30. With slider on the machine bed, will the feed dogs damage the slider?

  31. Don't Drop the Dogs! I agree, great T shirt slogan. Goes right along with one of my favorite books, Don't Shoot the Dog! (by Karen Pryor). After trying to do a sample of FMQ tonight, I was ready to shoot my machine, and I am so glad I found your blog! I love dogs, why would I not want to keep them while I quilt? Of course, as a Professional Dog Trainer, I should have known Dogs Are My Friend! Dogs are my FMQ Friends! (wonder what response that TShirt would get?!

    Thanks for the great advice, and encouragement... I am looking forward to doing FMQ again! This time with my feed dogs and my dog who knew I was quite frustrated earlier... Bless his heart, it's like he was trying to send me a hint!

  32. Hello there. I've been sewing off and on for about 25 years. I recently decided to try FMQ. I have a Singer Sew Mate 5400, which runs beautifully as long as it's kept in good condition.
    First FMQ went horribly, horribly wrong. :(
    I tried all the tips I've found. I finally have it to a place where it's ALMOST working right. My feed dogs don't drop anyway, so that's not even an issue fot me. But my machine doesn't let me take stitch length to zero. It only goes down to 0.8 and that's it. When going forward, FMQ looks good (for a newb) but if i change direction even a little, I get no stitch. Please advise. I'm getting frustrated and don't know what to do. TY

    1. Thanks for writing in about this issue! It's really common to have issues when quilting for the first time. What you described is really interesting - when you change directions your machine skips stitches? The top thread stops connecting with the bobbin thread?

      How puffy is your batting? Are you changing directions rapidly or slowly? Also what type of thread are you using? same thread in the top and bobbin of your machine? All of these things really do play a role in how your machine handles free motion quilting.

    2. Thanks! This article helps. I thought I have to resort to buying a different sewing machine than what I have now.

  33. Thank you for the information my janome jubilee 85 is a great machine but when I try free motion embroidery the tension goes haywire. I always put the feed dogs down guess what I'm trying tomorrow, yep fed dogs up xxxx

  34. I have tried to FMQ on my Janome New Home Myxcel 23, an old machine. I did not drop the feed dogs, which is fine be cause I have the slider, the foot needs to be tinkered with. But the tension is driving me crazy. Its either too tight at the bobbin (drop in bobbin) or the top tension is tool loose the machine has been serviced several times. Piecing is fine no tension problems. I'm not sure what to do next.
    Thank you


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