The Free Motion Quilting Project: Memorizing Quilting Designs

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Memorizing Quilting Designs

Yesterday I posted some tips on free motion quilting and broke down the basics of forming a stitch.

Today let's talk about memorizing designs.

This is super important because the truth is there's no All Inclusive Master Way to fill a quilt with any filler design. There isn't some magic bullet or golden rule. You just stitch the design on the quilt and make it fit into the space you want it to go. There are certainly methods to make it easier which we'll be exploring a lot this year, but there's no ONE way.

And often the hardest thing about beginning is knowing where to begin, how to move, and how to keep the design flowing across your quilt in a steady way.

So how do you know what to stitch next in a design? How are quilters able to "see" and plan for what to quilt next?

To explain this we need to talk about something slightly unrelated to quilting: Letters!

The fact is, all free motion designs are quilted exactly the same way you write your name.

I'm not saying you're going to literally write "Debra" "Barbara" or "Sally", though if you wanted to that would be a really interesting way to quilt a quilt.

What I mean instead is each design can be memorized the same way you've memorized how to write letters.

Take a look at this image:
free motion quilting | Leah DayThis is "quilting" written in cursive. Way back in 3rd grade I learned how to write each letter and connect them together. Each letter is created by forming that specific shape, but it's also governed by a simple set of RULES as well.

For example, the letter Q has a rule that you start with an O shape, then swirl around and down with a little loopy tail, then branch out for the next letter.

If you started with a L shape, that wouldn't work. The letter wouldn't look right and no one would be able to recognize that it was the letter Q.

So there's a basic set of RULES behind each letter of the alphabet.

No matter which alphabet you're using, you always have to make your letters fit roughly a similar size and shape, otherwise no one will be able to recognize and read what you're writing.

Those that deviate too far have sloppy handwriting. They don't follow the rules closely enough for their letters easily recognizable, much to the frustration of everyone else!

But there's a further lesson with letters - how they connect is also governed by more rules!

How the Q connects with the letter U has a specific rule. You can't just wiggle off randomly, you have to connect the letters in a specific way, again because if you deviate too far, no one will be able to understand what you're writing.

So what do all these rules have to do with free motion quilting?

The point I'm trying to make here is simple:

1. Letters are governed by lots of simple rules.

2. You learned these rules a long time ago and memorized them.

3. Once memorized, you can write those letters anywhere without THINKING too hard about it.

free motion quilting | Leah DayTake a minute to write the word "quilting" down on a piece of paper. Did you need to stop and think for a minute about how the letters L, T, and I are formed or connect together?

Nope. You just wrote the word, right?

You just WROTE IT. You didn't stop to think about it. You didn't have to pause and make sure the Q was facing in the right direction, you didn't have to question how much space to put between each letter. You just wrote it.

Now write "quilting" BIG.

Now write "quilting" small.

What changes? How do you know how to write it big? How do you know how to write it small?

All the rules stay the same, but somehow you're able to expand each line, draw out and extend each letter so the word becomes big. Similarly you're able to shrink each letter down and fit it into a tiny space too.

Did you have to think about the word any more writing it big or small?

No. You just wrote it!

If you can do this with letters and writing, you can do this the EXACT SAME WAY with free motion quilting!

Right now if you're just starting out, you don't have any designs memorized. You're basically back in 3rd grade just learning how to form the letters A, B, and C in cursive.

Do you remember what you did to learn those letters the first time?

You practiced drawing the same letter over and over and over again. You practiced in rows, within big lines on paper.

free motion quilting | Leah DayYou practiced until your little hand hurt. You practiced each letter for 1 week until you had all the letters of your alphabet down, and while learning how to form them, you were also learning how to put them together.

And you can learn ANY free motion design the same way!

Each week we're going to focus on a design and I'm going to break the RULES of the design down with simple steps for you to practice, exactly like you practiced writing the letter "A" first in 3rd grade.

Get a notebook with wide lines and keep it at your kitchen table to practice drawing designs. The more you draw and make those movements with a pencil, the more your brain will remember those shapes and angles when you're quilting a real quilt.

And please don't tell me you can't draw and therefore can't practice this way. This isn't drawing, it's WRITING!

If you can sign your name, you can write a free motion design and practice it on paper.

Remember - letters and free motion designs really are just wiggly lines. They just happen to be special wiggles governed by rules that make them readable or make them fit into xyz design.

The trick is getting to the point where you don't think about forming the design anymore. You don't have to stop and consider "should I wiggle twice here or should I go down and back up?" You just stitch it.

When you get to this point you'll no longer have to worry so much about forming the design, and will be able to focus more on moving your quilt with your hands and controlling the speed of your machine with your foot.

So I hope this makes sense and you'll spend some time writing "quilting" today to see what I mean. See you tomorrow when we learn the basics of Stippling!

Okay, I'm going to shut up and quilt now!

Leah Day


  1. I like the way you explained fmq in this post. It leaves us with no excuses to not try. I'm dyslexic and so have trouble figuring which way to loop some letters at times (still-at 53) especially when tired or sick. It is worse with printing than cursive, though.
    There is usually some portion of a newspaper on the kitchen table and I often use it to doodle on. My mom was a phone doodler and her grocery lists were at times very artful, lol. I find it easiest to doodle in the empty margins, but think that doodling over the printed area helps when it comes to quilting over print fabrics.
    Off to play now...

  2. This post just gave me one great idea. You are wonderful. Thanks a million.

  3. Thank you soo much for this very simple explanation. I never thought that quilting letters can be this simple. The quilting class i took, made quilting letters sound so complicated.

  4. Hi Leah,
    You are so smart, and I cannot wait!
    I've done a lot of FMQ but never thought of it this way before. Your approach is very logical :)
    Wide-ruled notebook, here I come!

  5. Oh this is soooooo good!
    I am so looking forward to this whole series of Quilting how to....

  6. I really like the info and new direction you are moving to. The scribble pad is a great tool and I have 2 filled with practice drawing, one just learning to do swirls! Looking forward to the Wed. sessions. Thanks.

  7. Leah, guess what I just came home with? My new Horizon!!! I'm extra excited to practice my fmq now! just thought I'd let you know! thanks for everything!
    - angie

  8. Thats brilliant Leah, never would have thought of it like that. And youre right, it is just like writing! Now if I had even partually legible handwriting I'd be in business! Think I need that 3rd grade practice book! Thanks!

  9. Thank you Leah! Your posts are always so helpful - I'll get a notebook and will play along!

    I'm still working on doing your beginning designs - can't believe how comfortable I'm getting with doing FMQ and I don't even do it every day!


  10. Leah this is great! I am very excited about learning to FMQ. What you said sounds great, imlove how you explained it. Time to practice today's homework!

  11. I'm looking forward to this quilt along, problem is Wednesdays the kids are home but I've got Thursdays semi free and time differences are handy :)
    I'm going to be putting your explications onto FMQing on my frame so will be loading up a practice sandwich tomorrow and going to do some writing tonight...where did I put the paper

  12. What an amazingly logical analogy!! Do they still make those 1st grade tablets? I'm going hunting for one (or something like it) tomorrow. You are a genius. I know only one other person who is as brilliantly left-brained AND right-brained as you are. Together, you gals could rule the world!!!

  13. EXCELLENT!!!!! Thanks for taking us by the hand so it's doable!

  14. What amazing timing - my goal for 2012 is to become comfortable with and to enjoy FMQ. Thanks for taking this on.

  15. Leah you are the reason wht I am now a Jamone owner and nowdo mt own FMQ'ing. love ya!!

  16. I love this thought process! Thank you.

  17. wow Leah, I have been watching you do designs since about # 120 or so, but I really like the way you are heading your talents!
    I have a long arm and how I can see how i can make application with it.

    I think that for some of us the process takes long to learn, like debbie m said. and how you have explained it, the light bulb just came on! Keep it up and I look forward to what you have next!

  18. Well "SNAP"! Just what I needed to help me with my FMQ. Brilliant! Thanks

  19. I just stumbled onto your blog late in December. Read about the new project with postings on Wednesdays, so checked in today. Interestingly, last year I made a table runner for my daughter using fruit and veggie prints. I'm very comfortable with free-motion quilting as I've been doing it for about 10 years now, but always trying to think up new designs (your blog will help with that in the future). Anyway, I sat down to finish the runner and decided to quilt it with sayings...some familiar to my daughter, but all related to fruits and veggies. One, which we've used a lot is from Anne of Green Gables, her favorite childhood book: "the apple doesn't fall far from the tree". She LOVES it. Sits and eats her breakfast and reads her table runner. Always starts her day with a smile. I had great fun thinking of sayings and quilting this project and thought your're readers might like the idea. Much thanks for a wonderful, informative blog!

  20. This is a great explanation Leah. I've been practicing a couple of designs for a while trying to get to a point where I was happy to take it onto a quilt and now I have. I'm finishing my son's quilt with some free motion around a large appliqued dragon and its going well. You do get into the swing of it and my only problems relate to my thread which once I've finished this quilt I will never use again! That and its really hot here in Australia at the moment so I'm getting too sweaty being surrounded by a quilt, lights, machine and wearing gloves!

  21. You've made it so simple.Thank you.I just had an "aha" moment.

  22. Leah, I have a question. When practicing with pen & paper, should my hand be resting on the paper, and I'm mainly using my fingers? I'm thinking it might be better to use my whole hand to form the lines. Any thoughts?

  23. Great explanation! You are a really good teacher!!!!

    You made me see that FMQ can't be so difficult, it only needs paractise.
    Thanks so much

  24. I'll need to practise writing cursive again ... my writing tends to look like mountain peaks with valleys in between {giggle}

  25. Great post!! You are so right!

    When I'm practicing/trying to memorize a quilting design, I use a dry-erase board to draw it over and over again first. It gets it into my hands and head, so I can quilt it more automatic, like writing.

  26. Is this a bad time to mention in grade 5 I was asked to start printing again and stop 'writing' as no one could read it? I am a constant doodler thought. :)


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