The Free Motion Quilting Project: 5 Tips on Travel Stitching

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

5 Tips on Travel Stitching

I've been doing a lot of lurking on quilt forums lately and reading many interesting things. In one thread, many quilters expressed the feeling that they just aren't good at traveling.
No, this doesn't mean they don't like to fly to new places!

Traveling, or Travel Stitching, is a free motion quilting technique where you quilt right on top of a previous line of stitching.
This technique is used to help you move around a quilt block - literally travel - from one area to another without breaking thread.

Apparently this is one of the major reasons why designs from this project can be intimidating - most of my designs involve too much traveling!

Of course, I can completely understand this because when I first started quilting, I couldn't travel stitch AT ALL.

In fact, I actually thought it was against the rules to stitch on top of stitching!
It's easy to think this because Stippling, the #1, most popular quilting desi
gn has the rule: DON'T cross your lines, DON'T stitch on top of stitching!
free motion quilting | Leah DayFor me it took finding Karen McTavish and being introduced to her stitch called McTavishing before I finally began to realize that traveling was not only allowed, it was downright necessary in order to create certain patterns and designs in free motion.

So how do you master this fundamental technique? How do you get so good at it you can travel stitch in your sleep and designs like Escalator Spiral will no longer look intimidating?

Here's Five Tips on Traveling to get you started:
free motion quilting | Leah Day. Vision is Everything - If you can't see your needle and where it is entering your quilt, you really can't see what you're doing or if the needle is hitting the stitching line or not. It's almost impossible to travel stitch properly if you can't see what you're doing.
You can either try to find an open toe foot for your machine, or you can get a plastic foot and break it open yourself.

It's also important to rotate and reposition your quilt so you can SEE what you're doing as you move the quilt. My rule is: If the angle doesn't feel right, shift that quilt!

2. Accept Mistakes, They Happen! - When I first started McTavishing, I'd stop and rip out stitches every time I stitched off the line while travel stitching.

Rather than stopping and ripping, you can actually gain more experience by just continuing to quilt, but working harder to figure out what causes you to stitch off the line, and then correct it.

In essence - ripping out the bad stitches will only ever make you good at ripping! Keep quilting in order to get good at travel stitching!

3. Stop and THINK - When you travel stitch, at any time you can stop stitching with the needle in the down position and think about where you're stitching next.

This is very helpful because often we feel like we have to stitch, stitch, stitch and there's no safe place to stop while free motion quilting!

Traveling areas always hide starts and stops well because of the extra layer of thread. It's always a good place to stop and reposition the quilt so it's moving at an angle that feels natural for you.

free motion quilting | Leah Day4. Focus on Designs that Hit - There's a big difference between Heart Ripples and Frog Eggs (other than the fact that they look totally different).

In Heart Ripples, you form the heart, then hit the points top and bottom to build up thread slightly. Aiming to hit that point is a great first step to travel stitching
free motion quilting | Leah DayFrog Eggs, however, requires hitting and traveling to connect the clusters of circles together. This requires more precision than just hitting the line and bouncing off of it.

Here's a few more designs that will help you practice hitting a specific point:

Wandering Clover, Sashiko Shell, Boomerang, Super Daisy, Heart Confetti, Broken Glass, and Venn Diagram.

5. Practice Stitching On the Line - Mark a quilting design (a stencil motif, a filler design, your name, etc) on fabric, or pick a fabric that has an interconnecting print, then quilt it stitching right on top of the line.

Years before I started the free motion project, I would mark designs out of Karen McTavish's Secrets of Elemental Quilting, onto fabric and stitch following the line. I was terrible at it at first, it felt clunky and weird, and I had hardly any control over what my stitches did.

But slowly, block after block, I got better at stitching on the line. This form of stitching is a great skill builder for traveling, and absolutely essential for quilting around motifs like this Scrollwork Heart:

free motion quilting | Leah Day
See how much I traveled along the edges of this motif to fill it with Double Pebble?

free motion quilting | Leah Day

Traveling is one of two absolutely fundamental techniques to free motion quilting. Being able to hit, then stitch right on top of a previous line of stitching is a skill, and one you can easily build by jumping in with both feet and starting to quilt your own quilts today!

Next week I'll share Tips on Echoing, the second most important technique for free motion quilting.

If you can master both Traveling and Echoing, you should be able to free motion quilt any design you want!

Let's go Quilt,

Leah Day


  1. Thanks for a great, informative post!

  2. Can't wait for your tips on echoing. I tried to keep my lines even today but it was a real mess. Looking forward to hearing how the pros do it :-)

  3. This is a fabulous post! So many people think they can't cross the lines of their stitching! Thanks for this!

  4. Great tips on traveling! I also think that practice makes perfect!

  5. Leah, this whole blog project is just awesome!!! And I hope you will stick to your guns and keep taking time off whenever you feel you need it. (I say this PARTLY out of selfishness, because I don't want you to get too tired to keep it going, lol!)

  6. This is definitely something I'm struggling with. I need to SLOW down. I'm stitching too fast, at a frenzied pace and that's causing me problems. I've got a baby quilt that I've marked my lines on, usually I just free motion it. This will be a great exercise in slowing down, hitting the lines accurately and attempting to maintain a consistent stitch length. Of course, I haven't made life any easier and am using a contrasting variegated thread. I need to step out of my comfort zone!

    I really appreciate these words of yours:

    In essence - ripping out the bad stitches will only ever make you good at ripping! Keep quilting in order to get good at travel stitching


  7. I like yor work, it is beautiful.I need to do some interesting

  8. I could never do stippling. I always backed myself into a corner, and hated it. I learned to thread paint on appliques applied to garmets before I tried quilting. The precise 1/4 seam was the hardest for me. I had fun trying a lot of your designs on squares assembled into a baby quilt. Lot of mistakes, but not seem by the recipient. I told myself "I don't do ripping" as I stitched several placemats. No one sees the mistakes expecially when plates cover them. A fun way to practice and have a finished useable project instead of quilted scraps. Even those become coasters. I am looking forward to trying harder designs. Keep up your great inspirational designs. your site is the first I look at on my computer every day.

  9. I will admit it - I totally suck at travel stitching. But you've given me the inspiration to keep on trying! Thanks, Leah!


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