The Free Motion Quilting Project: Quilt Along #4 - Quilting on a Line

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Quilt Along #4 - Quilting on a Line

Is it really Wednesday again already? That means it's time for another Free Motion Quilt Along lesson!

Last week I promised we would work on something other than Stippling and I didn't lie - this week we're focusing on stitching on a line in free motion.

So let's watch the video and learn many different ways to master this skill:

Stitching on a line is a super essential skill to free motion quilting. It's right up there with travel stitching and echoing as in the top 3 most fundamental free motion quilting skills to master.

Why is it so important to be able to quilt on a line?

It's super important because one day you're going to want to stitch in the ditch or quilt around the edges of an applique to draw more attention and focus to these shapes. You might also find a stencil design and fall so madly in love with it, you'll want to stitch it on ever quilt you ever make.

Or you might find a gorgeous fabric that can make a pretty quilt all by itself. You'll mostly likely want to quilt that awesome fabric by following the lines on the print rather than quilting all over the design.

As you can see there are a lot of different places this skill is used and almost all involve quilting REAL quilts.

Of course, it is possible to quilt a real quilt without ever stitching on a line or stitching in the ditch. This is All Over Quilting where you cover a quilt with one single design on a large scale.

All Over Quilting is fast, efficient, and certainly gets the quilts done, but not everyone is satisfied with this method of quilting.

If you spent 3 days piecing special quilt blocks, don't you want them quilted in a way that enhances their overall design and shape? Don't you want to get credit for your hand work? Of course you do!

Not everyone wants to cover their quilts with wall to wall quilting which is why we need to know how to stitch on a line, or in the ditch, so our quilts can be quilted with designs that ADD to the piecing or applique design.

Of course, this involves quilting a real quilt, which can be tricky to film on video, and even more tricky for you to follow along with.

So far I've been demonstrating my lessons on practice quilt sandwiches created with plain black fabric so you can clearly see what I'm doing in the video. For this particular lesson, I've demonstrated on stripped fabric, printed fabric, plain black fabric, and a "real" cheater cloth quilt (more on that quilt below).

It's entirely up to you what you want to practice this lesson on, but I would advise at least trying to quilt on the line of stripped fabric and a fairly simple print.

If you want to baste a small quilt top for this lesson, go for it! The more you practice this technique, the better you will get at it so it really doesn't matter what you choose to practice on.

Now let's learn some tips on quilting on a line:

Stitching on a line 101

Tip 1 - SLOW DOWN! Stitching on a line requires more concentration and focus than stitching random wiggly Stippling shapes. The best way to learn is by slowing down and running your machine slower so you can move your hands slower too. Once your brain catches up and you feel more comfortable, then start slowly increasing your speed.

No matter how comfortable you get, stitching on a line will always be slightly slower than stitching free hand.

Tip 2 - Don't Rip. Don't you dare pick up that seam ripper if you stitch off a line! Keep stitching and learn how to correct the mistake you made in another area of the quilt.

Ripping will only ever increase your skill at ripping, and I've never seen awards for "Best Seam Ripped Quilt" at a quilt show though it would be an interesting category to judge.

Tip 3 - Use your hands. Your hands can do more than just move your quilt around on the machine. Your hands are useful guides if you learn how to position them properly.

When you're stitching straight lines, keep your hands parallel to the needle. If you can, use the index finger of your right hand as a guide to keep the line straight. I show this technique a bit better in this older video right here.

Tip 4 - MOVE the quilt. If you start stitching off the line a lot and can't seem to get back on it consistently, take a good look at the quilt. Is it positioned in an awkward angle where you can't see where you're supposed to quilt next? Rotate it!

Look at where your stitching - is this angle and movement difficult or easy for you to maneuver? Rotate, reposition, squish, fold, curl - do whatever you need to do in order to make that section of the quilt easier to quilt.

Of course, you're not always going to have the opportunity or ability to rotate the quilt for every single angle you quilt. Sometimes it's just not practical to continually move the quilt around that much.

So also spend time stitching in some odd angles. Stitch straight lines from left to right and from right to left. This will probably feel a bit like writing with your non-dominate hand - a little awkward, but not unbearable. The more you do it, the better you will get at working with many angles AND staying on the line at the same time.

Now let's talk about the quilt I'm working on in the video:

free motion quilting | Leah DayNow I'll be honest - this isn't a REAL quilt. This is a cheater cloth quilt I designed and had printed at You can purchase this 1 yard quilt in green or blue right here.

Here's a quick disclaimer about these prints: Keep in mind that the dyes in Spoonflower fabric is more delicate than traditionally printed fabric. I've personally found a lot of fading with these prints, and I'm being honest about it here because I don't want you to be surprised when it happens.

Instead of throwing these quilts in the washer, instead soak them in the bathtub and don't use detergent. Also don't prewash your fabric when you get it - just add a border and baste it so it's ready to be quilted.

I'm designing these prints mostly for my use to teach and show you how to quilt something that at least LOOKS like a real quilt because I don't always have time to piece a quilt AND quilt it in one week. For this reason, the cheater cloth I'm designing has to be very dark, which means the fading is even worse.

Just keep this in mind if you purchase these Spoonflower cheater quilts - they will be great to practice with, but probably not the best hard wearing quilts.
Now let's talk about quilting this quilt in free motion:

free motion quilting | Leah DayI could easily quilt all over this quilt with large scale stippling, filling the quilts in rows as we learned in Quilt Along #2.

But if you had pieced all of those Sawtooth Stars, wouldn't you want to get credit for them?

So I don't want to quilt all over the stars and ignore all those piecing lines. I'd like to draw attention to them and make sure they stand out in the finished quilt. To do this, the first step is to stitch each star in the ditch.

But here's another point - you don't have to stitch EVERYTHING in the ditch.

If you choose to pay attention to the piecing design that doesn't mean you have to stitch every single seam you pieced in the ditch. This is not only overwhelming, but also a big waste of time.

Take a look at your quilt and decide the major elements you want to focus on. Only stitch the outlines of those particular shapes and ignore all the others.

For my sawtooth star, I've decided to stitch only the star shape in the ditch. This means I'm ignoring the center square shape and the outer square shape (the edges of the individual block). The lines I quilted are in white below:

free motion quilting | Leah DayYou can always decide which lines you want to quilt and which you want to ignore. The lines you ignore can then be quilted over with any free motion filler design.

So this is the way I stitched each star of my practice quilt in the ditch. Below I've numbered the blocks in the order I quilted them - always working from the center of the quilt to the outer edges.

free motion quilting | Leah DayI also quilted in the ditch between the green sashing and black border. I now have three distinct areas to quilt in: within the stars, within the sashing, and within the border.

Each of these areas can now be quilted with different filler designs to finish the quilt, or if the batting was rated high enough, I could even bind this quilt as is and call it done.

Now you may be wondering - why in the world are we doing this in free motion?

Can't we just do this with a walking foot?

Yes, you're absolutely right to wonder about this. A walking foot can easily stitch straight and slightly curvy lines with no problem, and because it slowly moves the fabric forward, it's much easier to stay right on a line.

But here's the major limitation of walking foot: it's not free motion.

A walking foot can ONLY quilt straight and slightly curvy lines. You can't stipple with it, you can't make free form designs, and it's unbearably, mindlessly SLOW!

Not only does it move slowly over your quilt, it also forces you to continually shift and rotate your quilt so the seam you're stitching is always straight down from the foot. That means to stitch 1 single sawtooth star block in the ditch, you will have to shift and reposition your quilt 16 times!

In free motion, you'd be able to stitch in the ditch, then fill the space with a design, and only rotate the quilt if you really need to. You'd also have the opportunity to wiggle over to the next star and fill it as well, all without breaking thread once.

This saves SO much time, and keeps the quilt flowing and moving, making it easier to finish!

The ability to quilt on a line in free motion is a major TIME SAVER. It's faster, and once you master it, it will also be easier.

So that's it for this week! I hope you'll take some time this week to play with stitching on a line and in the ditch. Just remember it doesn't have to be perfect and the more you practice this technique, the better you will get at it.

Now let's link up and share your progress from last week's Quilt Along #3 - Playing with Scale:

Instructions for Linking Up Your Blog:

1. Write your blog post. Publish it on your blog.

2. Copy the link of the specific blog post. This is not just the link to your blog itself (, but the link to the specific post:

3. Click the blue link up button above and paste your link into the box.

Keep in mind that you're posting your progress from LAST week on THIS week's post. This way you have time to watch the lesson, play with the ideas, then post your progress to the next quilt along. I hope that makes sense!

As always, any questions you have, please post them in the comments below or on your blog and I'll answer 5 tomorrow on Question Thursday.

Time for me to shut up and quilt,

Leah Day


  1. Thank you for your tutorials !! I am learning sooooo much and having a great time!!! I do have one question....what do you put on the ends of your pins??? I really need these :)

  2. Thank you for these quilt along lessons. I love them. I wish I had time to participate. I have been quilting and FMQ, but I have several projects I am working on and very little time outside of home life and career :( Thanks also for inspiring me to start a blog. I try to find time during my lunch hour to write something. Although, I think no one is reading it except for me! But I find it useful so that I can analyze myself :)

  3. I have a question. I am stippling a quilt that has a lot of piecing. It is a mystery quilt that I made with Bonnie Hunter of Quiltville. Is there any secret to stippling or machine quilting in general when there are LOTS of seams. Thanks! ~Jeanne in IL

  4. Thanks Leah,
    the video is a great tutorial, I can´t wait to try FMQ on the line.
    Liebe Grüße

  5. This lesson on following lines is perfect timing. I have a quilt I plan to use straight lines on and had assumed I would use the walking foot, even though I knew it would require lots of turning.
    Now I will practice following lines (especially straight ones) and then do it free-motion.
    I like anything that is quicker.
    Thank you so much for this series.

  6. Hi Leah

    Thanks for another fantastic post and video. You are amazing. I have a question. I noticed in this video, when you paused in your quilting, that in one part the needle stopped in the up position and in another part it stopped in the down position. Do you have a preference and is it different based on quilting a straight line as opposed to a curved line?

  7. Hi Leah,
    I have spent many hours over the last few months since I found your website devouring everthing you have written and watching all your videos. Now that you have this new quilt-along I'm actually trying these things. I'm enjoying it very much!

    My question is where do you look when stitching? When stitching a normal straight line I tend to look about half an inch ahead of the needle. But when the line curls around and to the side and behind the needle I tend to lose the line and start looking right at the needle. Then I hesitate and wobble as I search for where I'm going.

    Any advice?

    Thanks for everything - Brenda

  8. I noticed that on the striped fabric you changed direction with the needle up (pivoting the fabric), but on the cheater cloth you left the needle down.

    Do you notice a difference in stitch quality when you start with needle up vs needle down? Would you share your reasons for doing one over the other?

  9. Love your new style: quilt along Wednesday and question Thursday. I've noticed that you are using a new type of pin set-up to baste your quilts. It looks very efficient, but also looks as though it might not stay in place as long as conventional safety pins. Do the pins get dull and/or permanently bent with repeated use? In any case, I would like to try them, but not sure if this is a product on the market or something you have come up with on your own. Please enlighten me.

  10. ciao Leah!
    più volte guardo il tuo blog per i tuoi preziosi consigli oltre ai video ben chiari e molto significativi.ora mi chiedo come fai, quando si tratta di quilt enormi, a trapuntare??? perchè nei tuoi video vedo sempre quadrati piccoli di stoffa facilmente manipolabili e controllabili.
    ma un quilt di dimesioni enormi come si fa a lavorare pezzo per pezzo???sarei curiosa di avedere un video in proposito.Grazie

  11. HI Leah....senior moment here--I couldn't remember if I hit "publish" or if I'm repeating my question just ignore. Do you use a smaller stitch length in piecing when you know you'll be pressing the seams open? I've always been one of those who presses to the dark side when possible and remember being cautioned long ago by seasoned quilters that quilting in the ditch in a seam that's been pressed open will weaken said seam. But, if it works for you I'm all for it and ready to've not steered us wrong yet! I really enjoy these's a great mid-week inspiration and while I haven't posted any pics yet on my blog I will before too long. The old INV just won't allow it yet!

  12. Free-motion straight lines?! I didn't know that was allowed! :D

    Thank you for this've just saved me loads of time and thread. I'm off to find that video about cheater needles...

  13. Kupton52 - I always piece at a smaller stitch length in general - somewhere around 1.5 to 1.75 depending on the machine.

    While I've heard this issue before - stitching in the ditch with open seams will break the stitching - I've never actually seen it in my quilts.

    Just try it both ways and see what works best for you!



  14. Thanks for your comfortable way of teaching. I have been practicing and find that I stay stress free with all my little bobbles because of your excellent stress free method.

  15. Thank you so much for these great tutorials!!!!

  16. thanks for more great tips. I am learning a lot.

  17. Hey Leah,
    I've following your project and using your first book for some time now, I just ordered the d/l version of book 2 this past week. I really love your new format with the quilt along, you are so right, it seems so natural and honestly I think you are enjoying yourself as much as we are! I hope so. I WAS THRILLED TO FIND YOU IN MY LATEST ISSUE OF QN - KUDOS LEAH. I do have a question for you. I am getting ready to start to FMQ my first queen size quilt, the largest one yet. I had planned to just FMQ a nice stipple, but someone suggested that I do some straight line stitching, in the ditch around some blocks, or whatever just for stability. I didn't really want to do that. I am sandwiched using Fusiboo a product I like and I am also pinned with the long pins like you use, and then pregnant safety pins around the border. What's your take? THANKS FOR ALL

  18. Leah: I just love the way your mind works!! I love the cloth that you had printed at spoonflower for practicing FMQing. Such an innovative way of getting what you want and need for your teaching!!
    But, I would like to ask that you call it something besides "cheater" cloth, and the reason I ask it here in public rather than in private is because everyone that uses preprinted quilt panels, that calls them "cheater" quilts needs to hear this too. When we get used to calling them this we tend to throw this name around casually knowing full well what it means among those of us quilters who are "in the know" And then when we humble quilters give one of these sometimes very beautiful "cheater" quilts to someone as a gift, the "out of the know" recipient of such quilt gushes over such beauty as the humble quilter replies "Oh, it's just a 'cheater' quilt!" The recipient not knowing what that means somehow feels like the quilt is cheapened and must be not so nice or as special. I've watched the light go out of a child's eye as Grandma said just that in front of her friends not wanting to sound boastful in front of her friends while the child was wondering why he was getting cheated.

    I've been training my guild members to call them pre printed panels which we use a lot in our charity endeavors and I proud to say that I hardly ever hear anyone say "cheater" quilts anymore.

  19. Dear Leah,
    you are doing such a fantastic job of teaching free motion! Great to watch every one!
    I have two questions: 1) what are the little marshmallows you put on the ends of the pins? 2) will you put out a collection of all the free motions patterns from the 365 project? I would love that!
    All the best,
    Catarina in Stockholm

  20. This video was so helpful! Thank you for this. Even doing long-ish curvy lines, such as for Pebbles in a Stream, has been hard for me, and I have been resorting to the walking foot - which takes about 80 times as long! My problem has been that I joggle the line whenever I move my hands. I never noticed before that you stop the machine whenever you move your hands more than just a tad. D'oh!! I finally saw that in this video. I can't wait to start practicing longer lines, stopping when move my hands, and see if I can leave the walking foot behind.


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