The Free Motion Quilting Project: Blueprint to Mastery

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Blueprint to Mastery

Time and Negativity.

These seem to be two big factors that constantly work against us when quilting: finding the time to quilt, and finding the break in the negativity that might be limiting the experience.

This weekend I received two great questions that have stayed on my mind. The first was from Mike Pearson:
I have been following along, but I have not been doing any free motion quilting :( I do have a question. I know practice is important, but I often find myself getting really good at FMQ while I am doing it, but then I start another project (mostly piecing) so that when it is time to FMQ again, I feel like I lost some of my improvement. Unfortunately, with my career (the one that pays for supplies for projects), I do not get to sew everyday. So, this can be a long time between FMQ. I do feel like I'm getting better, but it's taking a long time. Do you have any suggestions for this problem?
This is a great point because free motion quilting really is a totally different skill to learn in comparison to piecing and applique.

free motion quilting | Leah DayWith piecing and applique you can work on small projects - a single block at a time is common - and the stress of messing the project up isn't huge. If you mess up a block bad enough you just throw it away and cut a bit more fabric!

I also hazard the opinion that the skills required to piece and applique are easier to learn simply because you're using the machine in the typical way: feeding the fabric forward like the machine is supposed to work, so it's generally easier and decent looking stitches can be found within a block or two of trial and error.

Practicing free motion quilting can be more challenging because you might feel the need to have a finished project: a quilt or block to work on. As we all know, this isn't a requirement - a solid piece of fabric works great for practice and is an excellent way to build skills without stress.

Even if you don't put that kind of pressure on yourself, it's good to understand that free motion is a very different skill.

We're using the machine in a truly different way, not using the feed dogs, not allowing the machine to do the work, relying completely on our hands and foot to find a balance of speed and movement that produces great stitches.

It takes time and practice to find that perfect balance of speed and movement. Once you gain this control, free motion will be just like riding a bicycle and you'll be able to pick it up anytime, anywhere, and on any machine.

But until you GET that balance logged into your mind and body, you really need to practice free motion quilting daily.

Otherwise you may find, as Mike described, a frustrating cycle of building and losing skill. As you quilt a large quilt, you will definitely see your skills improve, but if you stop for several weeks to piece or applique, those skills you built may get rusty.

And this brings me to the second question I've thought about a lot this weekend. This one is from Catherine Smith on Facebook:
I read you blog and I'm so excited about going to quilt and then it happens..."why quilt, it won't turn out right? You always make a mistake." So Leah, how do I get over that negative thought?
I so get where you're coming from Catherine! You've taken the time to piece or applique a project, it's all together and looking terrific, but...

What if I mess it up? What if I stitch something and it all goes wrong? What if I fail?

What if all that time and effort piecing this quilt goes right down the drain?

What if I mess this up so badly I can't even give it to someone I love? What if I'm embarrassed?

Do you struggle with these thoughts?

Guess what? I DO TOO!

Even now, even after stitching out over 400 designs, even after blogging weekly about quilting for more than two years, even after making countless videos, even after winning at quilt shows, I STILL FEEL FEAR ABOUT FREE MOTION QUILTING!

What the heck do you think this quilt was about?!

free motion quilting | Leah DayIf you let it, fear will lock you into place quite easily. You've put time, effort, money, passion, and love into a project, and fear will drive you to fold it all up and stick it on a shelf, never to be finished and enjoyed.

Or you can choose another route. You can choose to stomp out this fear, to face it head on and walk INTO it rather than let it tear you down.

After all - this is just a QUILT! It's just fabric and thread! Are you really scared of a big ball of cotton?!

The fact is: No quilt can ever be ruined if you work at it with effort and attention.

But the more I think about it, the more I think we need a blueprint for dealing with both Mike and Catherine's issues.

We need to find a way to work at free motion quilting steadily enough so that skills are built without being lost, which will in turn eliminate fear which thrives in the abstract. Chances are you won't fear a task if you do it every day, and see yourself getting better at it weekly.

So here's the blueprint for Mastering Free Motion Quilting:

Cut a stack of 10 - 15 inch squares of fabric and batting and layer and baste them so they're completely ready to go. Start with a stack of 10 squares just to get started.

Every day for the next 10 days, pick up a square and quilt it. Stick with simple things: straight lines, wiggly lines, different shapes of stippling, and then branch out to other designs when you get bored.

Don't worry about it. Don't fret. Don't stress out. Don't pass go. Don't collect $200.

Don't try to make it something it's not. This will not be a quilt unless you WANT it to be a quilt. I give you permission to throw away these squares (or send them to me) after you've quilted them.

Just sit down, quilt the square, then go do something else. If you're in the middle of a piecing project - go piece! You're just taking the time to put in a bit of practice before getting back to your main project.

It may only be 10 - 20 minutes, but this little bit of practice can do a lot. It keeps you moving in free motion, keeps the "flow" going so you'll quickly find the magic balance between the movement of your hands and foot.

You think you don't have 10 minutes, but I challenge you to find it.

A good quilting friend Susan Brubaker Knapp makes gorgeous art quilts, but frankly admits that she has to make them around her family and busy schedule. 15 minutes might not seem like much, but she uses every minutes she gets in her studio to get one step closer to finishing a project.

This process can be made easier if you happen to have two sewing machines. Use one machine for your current project, and keep the other always set up for quilting with your tools in place ready to go. This will save you time getting started so all you have to do is sit down and turn on the machine.

If you really want to get the hang of free motion and you feel your skills yo-yoing like a bad diet, this is a great blueprint for gaining a solid base with free motion quilting.

Quilt your 10 squares and see how you feel. Can you do this for 10 more days? Do you feel your skills increasing? Do you feel more comfortable every time you sit down to work?

And as you feel more comfortable, is it easier for you to tell those fearful thoughts to take a hike?

I think I know what the answers will be, but it's up to you to try this idea out and let me know what you think!

Time to shut up and go quilt!



  1. You are so right. I always have long spaces of time between my FMQ sessions. AND I fear messing up my project. I have started with your FMQ challenge but have fallen by the way side on my practice sessions because I'm piecing a project. BUT starting today I will make some small sandwiches....and begin each day with 10 minutes of FMQ practice....what a great idea!!

  2. Bravo! Awesome post! (running into my studio to make quilt sandwiches).

  3. This post has been very helpful. I'm exactly like both people who posted questions. Now I'm off to make some small sandwiches and make 10 to 15 minutes per day to practice!!

  4. This is a terrific, and encouraging, post! Thank you... I suffer from all of those fears mentioned, and then some, I need to spend more time and chase away that negativity, for good!

  5. Thanks for this encouragement and wisdom, Leah. I finally have a machine just for FMQ, and I was doing 10-15 minutes a day. It really helped. Then I ran out of sandwiches--didn't get more made, and it has been too many days without. It makes a difference. Got to get more sandwiches made!!

  6. I agree, agree, agree. And here's my take on it: if you don't risk failing, you also don't risk succeeding. I learned this the hard way, after a car accident. If you don't take the risk that you might fall, you also deny yourself the possibility of ever walking again. So: maintain the illusion of safety and never go anywhere again, or own the risk & have a life? Or, to extend it to FMQ, maintain the illusion of perfection by never taking the risk of making mistakes, or throw yourself into it and have the absolute fun of creating something you love? I remind myself of this choice every day - doesn't banish the negative thoughts, but it does help me feel like I get to make the choice to control them.

    And for the little sandwiches - which I do, because they're fun - if you stack two of them & put a quick binding on them, they make great potholders. And none of my friends or family has dissed the stitching, because - hey - free potholder!

  7. I had a problem with these things too but when I Spring Cleaned my sewing space I came across my box of orphan blocks. Inspiration struck! Each one of those mismatched blocks was just waiting to become a quilted potholder/hotpad. I found some matching fabrics for the backs and basted them all up, each day I quilt one and then sew the binding on while watching TV in the evening. Every quilter has blocks lurking in the corners of their studio and every kitchen needs more potholders, plus even if the quilting turns out bad they are still functional and you'll end up staining and burning them anyways. Plus they make great gifts!

  8. I struggle with these same issues. And my to-be-quilted pile just continues to grow. I really love the idea of having those practice sandwiches ready to go and just taking a little time each day to practice. I have no doubt it will do wonders for my quilting and my confidence.

    Thanks for all you do, Leah!

  9. Leah -
    I find your posts so inspirational! Perhaps you have a 2nd career as an inspirational speaker? :)

    Seriously - most days when I read your posts - I immediately want to go out and dive in to some more FMQ. Right now's 4AM so I'm going to go back to bed first - but in a few hours.....well, you know where I'll be.

    And Mary S.....what a great idea for orphan blocks!

  10. Thank you for sharing my question :) I knew something was up when my blog started getting hits! :) Anyway, you've opened my eyes to the "like riding a bike part." That's what I'm missing. It doesn't feel like riding a bike yet. I know it will someday. I'm getting there. Thanks for sharing, this was a great read ... enlightening and motivational.

  11. I think addressing these issues is so necessary. I tend to be a bit fearless with my FMQ because my desire to be good is stronger then my fear of failure. I have realized that nothing in life comes easy and unless you practice with reckless abandon and work at it with all your heart you won't ever get where you want to be. You didn't learn to drive overnight, you didn't learn to walk in a day, learning to speak took a few years- and learning to quilt will be the same. Without being willing to fail you definitely won't succeed. I say to all who fear brush your shoulders off get focused and do it. Think of failures and successes as benchmarks of the journey you are on- and love them equally, for the lessons you've learned and the improvement you see.

  12. Thanks..this may be just what I need to get over my fears and frustrations and quilt already!

  13. I think the ideal is to quilt everyday, but this is very challenging to do. My tendency is to make quilts occasionally or sporadically, so very often there will be weeks or even months between times I can quilt. But I do not feel like I lose the skills I gain - yes they get rusty, but it is like riding a bike. Because my focus is scrap quilts - the more different fabric the better, I make WAY more blocks than I need to give me tons of options for the main quilt. After I determine what blocks I will be using for the big quilt, I assemble the remaining blocks into quilts that will work to use as pet quilts, typically 18x24 - some a little bigger, some smaller. These are my warm up quilts. I tried using 10 inch squares, but they just aren't large enough for me to feel like I am really warming up. The pet quilts are big enough to test out designs, warm up, and get back to where i was skill wise the last time i FMQ'd. I try to have enough of them to quilt on before I quilt on the big one for each session - so like I may have 5-10 of the pet quilts to use for the process of quilting the larger one. I follow thru with the little one - I bind and wash 'em and then donate to the many animal shelters we have in my area. The shelters REALLY appreciate them and this process totally helps me beat back that negativity because i *know* the end user cares not a feather for how they look, only that they are warm and soft. Knowing that helps me ignore that negative voice and get into that meditative flow that makes FMQ an addiction! ;-)

  14. Hi, Leah. I absolutely endorse the suggestion of a piecing machine and a quilting machine, both set up all the time. I can go from one to the other and get as much practice time as I need without feeling like I have to finish one thing before I can start something else. Lane

  15. What a great post!!! The questions were great....what alot of us are thinking, I'm sure...but your answers were so well thought out and spot on. It's so refreshing to receive encouragement, inspiration and information. Learning a whole new skill set at my age is kind of scary. I'm often so tempted to say "I'll just stick to hand-quilting or concentrate on making quilt tops"...but I KNOW if I want to finish all my tops they are going to have to be machine quilted...and I want to be the one to do it. Fear of failure isn't something I've gotten seems to be worse now than when I was younger. It's as though I think I should have no excuse for not doing this well...right now! Thanks again for all you do. You may never know the full extent of the difference you've made in our lives....but I hope you will. Blessings...

  16. I am going to take this challenge love the idea Thanks to this blog I think I'm ready

  17. TRhanks for your encougagement I truly believe i am ready for this challenge. What a great way to go about losing the fear.

  18. Such good advice, Leah. I too used to have that fear of just going ahead. That is until i have been following you for the last yearish. It is surprising how many struggle with that eh! Holding people back from the joys of creating. I am by no means perfect at FMQ but I love it! For me that beats any perfection I could attain.
    Thanks again for all that you share with us!!!

  19. Fear is a definite deterrent to forging ahead, but your blue print is the perfect remedy. I know. I've been there; done that. Besides, the sandwiches that I have practiced on make wonderful mats for the SPCA or other animal kennels. Do you really think that a dog or cat care about how it looks? Okay, off the soap box and onto my machine.

  20. League you're so right. Right now my life is extremely busy with the baby and my part-time job which pays for my quilting supplies ;).
    But since I started to follow your QA, I make it a point to FMQ any free time I get.
    That has really helped me improve my FMQ skills.
    Thanks again for the QAs and encouragement.

  21. Right on target as usual! Thank you Leah! You are helping so many of us get over our Finish-our-projects Block.

  22. Leah, Sorry I had left you the message from mobile earlier and looks like it spell corrected your name from Leah to League.

    Sorry about that.

  23. Leaving negativity behind is a good thing to do for any part of your life where you tend to dwell negatively. Those feelings aren't physically or emotionally good for you, either.

    Prayer and practice help me considerably.....

  24. Great post! You are right - with my quiltalong, my skills, repertoire and confidence have improved but it has taken both discipline and courage! Practice is the key!

  25. Leah,
    Your designs have opened up my free motion world. Thank you, thank you. Make more. The fact there are so many designs to practice with, I will never stipple again. I think of free motion as drawing with a needle.
    I save all my scraps and sew them down on very stiff interfacing whenever I have few moments. Spray starch keeps them in place while I sew them. Then I practice free motion designs over them in black thread. I just keep adding pieces. Or I start a new piece. When I think I have added as much as I want, I rotary cut the piece into small pieces, zig-zagging the edges and use them as small hangings, greeting cards, etc. I do also use the quilt sandwiches. Sometimes I paint over them with acrylic paints and there is some interesting textures that I can use in other artwork, but I am practicing free motion.
    I believe in the two machine thing. I have one set up for free motion and one for regular sewing- both old Singer slant needles I got on ebay- just the best sewing!

  26. Leah,
    Please give a recommendation for jumping in now. I'd like to develop those free motion skills, but have only had a chance now to start following your challenge. What past must-do exercises would you make sure I accomplish before just tackling the most current one?


  27. Hi Peg - Personally I'd say just jump right in and start quilting! You don't have to do anything in any particular order - just QUILT - that's the only way to get good at this.

    Don't obsess about what you start with, just get some fabric together and start practicing every day. Join us with the quilt along and start quilting each week and sharing your progress and questions. More than anything else, have fun!



  28. You have made some excellent points and great suggestions. When I get ready to start a project, I make the sandwiches out of similar fabric and the identical batting. I'll try different threads until I find the one I want. When I finish our house clean up, I'll have my Brother machine set up only for quilting and the Viking set up for piecing and embroidering so I can move back and forth.

    Keep up the great work encouraging and inspiring us

  29. I finally have something to do with all of the cotton remnants I have inherited or bought on a whim. I can use them up AND improve my FMQ skills at the same time. Who knows, maybe I'll end up with a wild art/crazy quilt at the end!

  30. One crazy reason I have holding me back from practicing more is all that fabric I'm "wasting". Weird??


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