The Free Motion Quilting Project: Understanding Free Motion Quilting

Monday, January 2, 2012

Understanding Free Motion Quilting

Ah! The start of a new year always puts me in a great mood! The idea of starting over, beginning again is very appealing, especially since it coincides with starting this new Quilt Along project.

Today I'd planned to share a new design, but upon further reflection, I realized I really want to return to the absolute fundamentals of free motion quilting.

So here's the basics:

Free motion quilting is literally FREE, which means you have total freedom of movement of your quilt on your sewing machine.

free motion quilting | Leah DayThis is different from all other ways you normally use your sewing machine. Normally you allow the machine to feed fabric forward using the little teeth called feed dogs that grip and move the fabric evenly.

Now different quilters disengage these feed dogs in different ways. Personally I leave my feed dogs UP and just turn the stitch length to 0. The teeth will still move a bit, but they won't really feed your quilt forward so long as your free motion foot isn't squishing your quilt.

I top the whole thing off with a Supreme Slider, which makes the quilt easier to move over the surface of my machine. Is it absolutely necessary? Nope! It's a tool that makes life easier, but you can certain free motion quilt with your feed dogs up without it.

Other quilters believe in dropping the feed dogs. Some machines have a little button, or knob, or switch for this and some do not. It really just depends on your machine.

So understand that you have some choices when it comes to how you get rid of the feed dog aspect of your machine. I've written in more depth about this choice right here.

So with free motion quilting, you're not using those feed dogs because you don't necessarily want to feed the fabric only forward and backward, you'll want to be able to move your quilt in every direction you can think of.

Because of this, all the normal rules that apply to your machine, stitch length, speed, and tension are pretty much thrown out the window.

It is no longer your machine that dictates the stitch, but you.

So let's break the stitch down:

A stitch is made by the needle dropping into the machine and coming back up again, then dropping back down. The size of your stitch is determined by how much your quilt moves while the needle is up.
If your quilt moves a long distance, and it takes a long time for your needle to move up and down, then your stitches will be very big.

Giant stitches aren't terrible, though my usual test is if you can catch a toe in them, you might want to rip them out and try it again. Catching your toes in your quilt in the middle of the night isn't fun!

If your quilt doesn't move and it takes a very short time for your needle to rise and fall (if you're stitching super fast) you will stitch in the same place repeatedly. If you do this too many times, you will create a knot on the back of your quilt.

Again, knots aren't anything to be afraid of, though if you stitch in the same place you'll usually end up breaking thread eventually which can be annoying.

But somewhere between taking giant stitches and taking tiny stitches, there is a happy medium stitch that looks great and secures your quilt. The trick is just finding it!

So there are really two parts to this process:

The movement of your quilt - operated by your hands

The speed of the sewing machine - operated by your foot
So no wonder free motion quilting is challenging! How many people can play the piano the first time they sit down at it - playing the keys with both hands while pumping the pedals with their feet? How many people can sit down at a drum set and instantly synchronize the movement of all their limbs on each drum? They can't!

These things require skill, and to gain these skills requires practice. It's really as simple as that.

I certainly wasn't able to free motion quilt very well when I started. I can remember clenching up as soon as my hands hit the quilt. How do I move this thing around again? How fast should I go?

The most difficult thing I found was remembering where to go and how to move the quilt to keep the design flowing. The problem there is simply not having the design memorized and you can easily work on that by doodling designs at the table when you're eating breakfast. The more you draw something, the better you will understand and remember those movements on your quilt.

The other thing I struggled with was getting my speed right. I would always start very slowly, but my stitches would be HUGE, then I'd speed up and they'd get smaller, but eventually my hands would speed up too and the stitches would get big again.

Eventually I found it was the noise of the machine that was throwing me off. You hear that loud noise and think "I must move faster" and move your hands even faster, then the machine needs to go faster, and then it ends up getting so fast you lose control.

There is a happy medium between the speed and movement of your hands. It's definitely there. You just might have to stumble through a few quilts to find it!

So when you get started free motion quilting for the first time, chances are it will feel pretty weird. Remember, you're using the machine in a totally different way than you've ever used it before!

And usually when you try something new, it's very easy to get judgmental about what you see happening.

Try not to do that.

Because I'll be honest - you will see ugly things come out of your machine. You will see bad looking stitches. You will see huge toe catchers and gob-knots and all manner of thread nests.

This sounds terrifying, but this is NORMAL.

This is why for the first few weeks of our quilt along, I'd advise you to try free motion on a plain fabric sandwich, or at least not on your prized applique quilt you've taken the last 4 winters to hand stitch together.

The more time you took to get the quilt together, the more you will agonize about every messed up stitch, and the less fun you will have.

And that is really the point, right? FUN! This can actually be FUN!

Yes, when you let go of your death grip on the quilt and release your shoulders from up around your ears and relax your chest enough to breathe, it can actually be fun to free motion quilt!

So here's a collection of tips I've put together to make your first week of the quilt along a bit less terrifying and hopefully a lot more fun:
1. Drink and Quilt - a little booze in your system always makes free motion quilting easier, or the bad stitches harder to see, not sure which!

2. No Seam Rippers - If you're going to rip out every missed stitch, you're not going to get very far baby! Make it a seam ripper free zone and work to get experience, not perfection.

3. Groovy Music - Everyone has a set of songs that just make you want to dance. Listen to these tunes while you're free motion quilting and you'll find it much harder to get tense and stressed out.
The most important thing: don't be hard on yourself. There's really no point to it. Are you really going to get better stitches after beating yourself up? Nope. Just make it a fun time and as soon as things get too stressful, take a break.

I'm going to shut up and go quilt now!



  1. Love your final 3 points! Now I know what to do with some of that estate sale fabric that my mom gave me - make practice quilts. And I found by accident a few months ago, that some Rolling Stones tunes on Pandora helped me get a good FMQ rhythm going.

  2. Hi Leah,
    thanks for the time you took to whrite this interessting posting!
    And by the way, your blogscreen is gorgeus, absolutly unique and made by you!
    Liebe Grüße
    Bente - Germany

  3. Great information - Thanks! I'm just beginning to do free motion quilting and have a good share of toe-catchers and knots to prove it. More practice is in order!

  4. Hi thanks for the refresher. I have followed you since early in your project and have learned a lot. Best advice is to practice and play. I have made a lot of potholders and other small projects before getting the courage to tackle large quilts. I have to admit that I am addicted to stippling. It works for me. This year I will try to move out of my safe zone. Thanks again.

  5. Just have to say you are an amazing woman! Thanks for so many inspiring, encouraging posts. I don't know about the booze, but when I'm on my migraine medicine, my quilting at least looks better :) Thanks for sharing so much of yourself every day.

  6. Thanks for the encouragement.

  7. I'm totally with you, Leah! A glass of wine or a good beer while quilting makes for better work or lower stress.

  8. Looks like the year is off to a good start Leah. I'm off to get my drink! jk. It is so true that learning to relax helps. Sew on!

  9. My goal of 2012 is to learn FMQ! I just ordered my feet and I'm collecting supplies- thank you for all the wonderful posts!

  10. Wow, I just did a bit of FMQ with a glass of wine and my feed dogs UP, and what a difference it made! Not dropping the feed dogs has made so many of my tension problems go away. Thanks for the tips!

    The problem I'm having now is that the thread from the top is only catching the thread from the bobbin about 50% of the time and I'm having to go back over and over. Hopefully with more practice I'll figure out what to do about that.

  11. One of my New Year's resolutions is to learn/do more machine quilting, especially FREE MOTION. This was a great post full of good info - thank you for taking the time to do so. I've bookmarked your blog and will continue to learn!

  12. Hi Leah,

    This is going to be fun :)

    ~ Jae

  13. Thank you Leah for the informative post. It's really going to help when I take myself too seriously. I'm practicing the FMQ each day and I'm finding that my shoulders are finally disengaging from my ears, even if it is slowly.

  14. I have not yet taken the FMQ jump yet. I have to say thank you!! This was a great post! I did have to laugh at the Drink and Quilt however!! Thanks for the laugh on that one!!

  15. Thank you so much for doing these back to basics posts. I've dabbled very little with FMQ and have poor results to show for it. But with your instructions and encouragement I hope to be at least half proficient.

    I have a Brother machine that has a speed slider. I can disengage my foot pedal and only press a button to start sewing. It will go at the speed that you have set on the slider. So my question is if I can figure out a good balance of speed on the slider then I could only focus on my hand movements, won't that be half the battle won?

  16. Kupton52says: Oh man! I should have read this post before I started on Wednesday's quiltalong! :)

  17. Thanks for the advise, I'm having such fun reading you...!

  18. I believe you have nailed the basics! Your description and explanation of what and can happen is spot on. Your entire blog de-mystifies the fear of free motion quilting! Well done Leah!! Kind regards, Dianne

  19. This is going to be a fun FM Quilt Along! I'm enjoying your writing style, straight forward and almost like it's a friend sitting next to me telling me how something works. I'm a little late starting, but sure I'm going to enjoy it! Thanks for taking the time to do this.

  20. I just have to agree with everything above. I’ve started my journey, and your words are encouraging.


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