The Free Motion Quilting Project: Question Thursday #16

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Question Thursday #16

It's time for Question Thursday, the day where your questions get answered and hopefully sets you on the right track for free motion quilting.

First off, reading through everyone's posts about Sharp Stippling, it seems my advice to "not hesitate on the points" has caused you all to feel that you must zoom through this design without stopping.

So please go back and ignore my advice!

Instead, stitch a wiggly line, then stop with your needle in the down position.  THINK about where you want to go next.  Then wiggle off in that direction, creating a point in the place you just left.

Many quilters experienced a difficulty visualizing the design, and a definite increase in getting lost within the texture.  Go back to Week 1: let's wiggle and take a look at all those simple rows of repeating shapes.

Do the exact same thing with sharp stippling, only this time instead of stitching curves, stitch points at the ends of every wiggly shape like this:

free motion quilting | Leah Day
Simply stitch rows of the exact same shapes until you feel comfortable forming the flames.  If you need to, switch back and forth between Stippling and Sharp Stippling until you feel comfortable with both designs.

Only after some practice with rows, try combining the shapes together until you find a complex, interlocking pattern to the design.

Definitely play with Sharp Stippling over the next few weeks and see if that helps to get a feel for the design.  Towards the end of May, we'll link up to share progress through the break and decided whether to spend a bit more time on this design or move on to more Sisters of Stippling.

Now let's move on with questions from you!

The first question comes from Donna Rae via email:

Can you free motion quilt without a foot?
Full question: One day I started practicing free motion quilting and finished a place mat and thought how well I did and how easy it had seemed. Then I noticed that I had forgotten to put my Quilting foot on. So it turned out I was quilting with the needle, no foot, feed dogs down. So I put the foot on and practiced some more and found it harder. It was so much easier without a foot at all. Why do we even have to use a foot! I saw a video with quilting/embroidery (not an embroidery machine) with no foot but using a hoop. I can send you the link if you like. But I would like your thoughts on quilting without a foot at all. Is it rough on the machine or needles?
As you've already found, Donna, yes, you most certainly can free motion quilt without a foot on your machine.

For free motion quilting, we're moving the quilt in all directions and controlling the stitch by the speed of the machine and the movement of our hands.  The foot in this situation is not really a necessary element in the equation, and in some cases, can make quilting much harder.

Most free motion (darning) feet are designed badly.  Even the generic free motion feet I sell in the quilt shop are terribly designed, but I show you how to modify them to make them work better.  The only two feet I've ever purchased and liked straight out of the package is the Bernina Open Toe Darning Foot and the QBH foot that came with my Janome Horizon 7700.

But is it a good idea to take the foot off completely?

Personally I say if it works for your machine and your quilting style, try it, BUT be warned that this is quite dangerous.

Without a foot, you're far more likely to get a finger caught by the needle.  You just won't be able to see the danger area as clearly and this could cause quite a painful puncture.

Also keep in mind that a free motion foot does offer stability and a guide when quilting on a small scale.  Remember how I microstippled the wholecloth quilt with my index finger rubbing up against the foot?  You won't have a guide like this if you take the foot off completely.

Now let's turn to a question about stitch quality from Pat at Color Me Quilty:

 Why did my stitch quality change suddenly with a new design?

Full question: Does the design you are stitching affect the machine's tension or stitch quality? I stitched the sharp stipple first with very little machine problems. I started stitching the square spirals and I kept getting birds nests, skipped stitches, loopy stitches, etc. Same thread, same needle (the needle was new before I started stitching the sharp stipples), same tension setting.

Here's a photo from Pat's blog to illustrate her problem:

 Ah, Pat, you've found something interesting here!  This is not the DESIGN that your machine didn't like, it was the ANGLE you stitched it in.

Allow me to explain: When Pat switched from Sharp Stippling to these spirals, she didn't change any features of her machine, but her machine suddenly started skipping.

But notice that the skips are happening in specific places.  If you look closely at the picture above, the skips happen mostly within the lines running parallel with the gray and pink fabric.

So why did this happen?

Chances are, these stitches were made when Pat stitched AWAY from herself, meaning the quilt was moving toward her, similar to the direction if you hit reverse on the machine when piecing. 

This might sound weird, but machines can be finicky.  Remember that by free motion quilting in all directions, you're using the machine in a way that it's not truly designed for.  It may simply not like to stitch in one particular direction.

I'm kind of surprised that this question hasn't come up before as it's something I struggled with quite a lot back when I owned the Juki TL98QE.  That machine refused to stitch backwards for any length of time.  I could maybe weedle 3-5 stitches in that direction, but any more and the thread would skip, then break.

It was beyond annoying.  In order to avoid that direction, I had to rotate my quilts far more often.  However, this has given me a good attitude about rotating and repositioning quilts.  You simply have to do what you have to do in order to get the darn thing quilted!

Also understand that this is a pretty common problem for most machines.  Because the feed dogs are up and still engaged, the machine still thinks it's feeding fabric forward.

When you stitch backwards, you're making the thread feed weirdly for the direction it thinks it's going in.  Dropping the feed dogs won't help this situation at all, though hitting the "reverse" button on your machine may help.  I've never tried that because my reverse is a button and I don't want to take my hands off the quilt to use it.

And no, sadly, this isn't a situation that simply buying a new machine will fix.  Even my Janome Horizon has some issues with stitching backwards, and this weekend it began showing signs of not liking long stretches of straight lines running from right to left.

The best thing you can do is get to know your machine really well.  Know what angles it stitches in best, and try to accommodate it as much as possible.  Fighting it will just result in thread breaks and frustration.

Next we have a question from Becky at The Thompsons:

Is there something I can do to prevent this thread from coming loose and unraveling all of my top stitching?  Am I overly concerned?

Yes, no matter where your threads break, you really should follow the same procedure every time:

1. Pick out the threads a bit.  Because this quilt was quilted with sharp stippling, the points provide a perfect place to hide the thread start and stop.  It's also a good idea to pick back so you have thread tails at least 1 inch long to hide.

When being a super perfectionist, I'll pick back to the tiniest stitch because that will be the most secure and the least likely to become unraveled.

To pick, don't use a seam ripper.  Use the end of a cheater needle or something similar to gently pull the stitches loose.  To get the bobbin thread to the top of the quilt, just give the top thread a tug and it should come up as a loop.

2. Tie a knot.  Just a simple overhand knot will do.  This just ties the two loose threads together so they're less likely to come unraveled.

3. Insert a cheater needle into the middle layer of the quilt, run it in for about 1 inch, then come out the top.  Flip the quilt over to the back to make sure the needle is right in the middle, batting layer of the quilt.

4. Pop the threads in the cheater needle, then pull the needle through the quilt.  The threads should slide right into the middle layer of the quilt, then you can clip off the ends.

5. Start stitching again exactly 1 stitch before the place you ended, then take a second stitch right where the threads were hidden. Now start stitching your design like normal.  The threads are now as secure as possible, but you'll need to repeat all those steps again for the 2 new loose threads that just started this new line of stitching.

For a visual guide to this whole thread hiding technique, watch this video:

Now the next question is from June at Quilt Quest:

 How do I control my thread spool?
Full question: My thread keeps jumping up and then I have to stop and pull it out and put it back on the machine.  That seems to solve having extra loops or shredding or breaking.  I'm wondering if there is something I could buy that would hold the thread spool and weight down the top of the spool but some how let the thread feed evenly too?  Or is this a user-error on my part for the way I'm sewing?
free motion quilting | Leah DayNo, this isn't an error on your part, but a pretty annoying problem with a fairly easy fix.

First off, a spool stand like this will really help with this type of issue.  It will pull off the thread and feed it evenly into the machine.

If you still have problems, take a look at all the gizmos and tools your machine came with.  Chances are you will find a little disc-like plastic tool with a hole in it.  This is designed to slide over the top of the spool to hold it down so it the spool doesn't jump and spin like you described:

Next we have two questions from Karin at The Quilt Yarn:

How do I get the rhythm of a design?

Really this is just down to practice and patience.  The more time you spend doing anything, the more comfortable you will be with it.

Try the rows of simple Sharp Stippling outlined above.  Print out that image and spend some time tracing it.  Anywhere you want the design to change, play with changing it, but keep the same logical format for the row.

Now switch back to regular stippling.  Does this design feel more natural to you?  Why?  Is it because you know where you're going and how you're moving?

Switch back and forth between stippling and sharp stippling until the new design begins to feel more comfortable.  The more you stitch it and experiment with it, the better this design will feel and flow through your hands and onto the quilt.

Karin's next question:

I am thinking of doing all these practice samples on solid fabric (of which I got stacks) and then later on stitching them together using the Quilt-as-you-go method. Would I just mark myself a square on my fabric and just stitch within that or stitch all over my sample and cut it to size later (wouldn't that become undone then?) when attaching the sashing?

Personally I like to mark a square so I know exactly how much I need to quilt and I don't go overboard filling areas that are just going to get whacked off later.  You don't get extra credit for quilting that ends up in the trash!

But even if you do end up cutting through some quilting lines, this should not come unraveled in the finished quilt.

Remember that when connecting quilted pieces together, you're stitching through the edges of the quilt pieces.  If you're very nervous about it, use a very small stitch length (1.5mm) and this will catch all those quilted threads and lock them in place.

Also remember that the cut stitching will extend 1/4 into the bound area and be fully stabilized there.  Unless you actively take a needle or seam ripper and PICK at the stitches, they will not come unraveled from the finished quilt.

Whew!  Lots of questions this week and I hope these answers help get you back on track.  Spend some more time playing with Sharp Stippling, and maybe Zippling this week, and ask any questions that you have about these designs.

Time to shut up, eat some lunch, then go quilt!



  1. Leah- Can you explain how to make a full size wholecloth quilt?

    Do you need to buy special wide fabric, or are there seams across the quilt?

    Thanks :)

  2. Great questions! (And thanks for re-posting the 'thread hiding video'! Another solution for June, if she can't find the spool cap that came with her machine (and I have a loose one on my old Singer) is to just use a small elastic band wound around the spool holder). I acutally used one of my daughters really small 'silly bands' - works great!

    1. Wow Just noticed this extra tip for me! I still sometimes have thread problems, so will get elastic bands ready for the next time! Can't email you but thanking you here - 6 years later...

  3. Though I am not following the specific project assignments and linking up, I do read each post and learn so much as I practice the principles I learned in classes. You answer so many of my questions. Thanks for sharing your time and experience.

  4. Love your whole series and thanks for answering these great questions!!

    Scrapendipity Designs

  5. If the thread spool is a regular sized spool (not a large dressmaker size as pictured on holder) the thread could be just catching the small slit that holds the thread tail when purchased. This will cause the spool to jump and, depending how completely the thread is caught, may even break the thread. The disk that comes with most machines will alleviate this situation nicely. In response to the other statement of not using any foot to FMQ, even a darning foot will exert downward pressure on the fabric (at least it will keep the fabric from lifting) and the stitches will "lock" properly. Without some type of downward pressure (either specialty foot or your fingers/hands-eek!) the bobbin/top threads don't mesh properly resulting in skipped/malformed stitches. I speak from personal experience on both these topics!!-}

  6. I would strongly caution against quilting without a foot. I tried that before and sewed through my left index finger - TWICE!! It hurt!!

    I had to pull thread out of the tip of my finger - not a pretty site!!

  7. My thread sometimes "jumps" like this too - my solution is to just put the thread on the other way. "flip it around." That usually resolves it.
    Jessim: If you had seams across the quilt it "technically" could be considered a PIECED quilt (instead of a whole cloth quilt.) BUT, I think now-a-days the wholecloth takes on a new meaning. (all-over 1-color quilt with lots of fancy quilting.) BUT, if I were going to be making a large wholecloth quilt I would definitely buy some Xtra wide quilt (backing) fabric for the job! ;c) Fabric comes in approx 43" 60" 90" & 108" wide.

  8. Thanks!! I'll try that out tomorrow. :)

  9. Aha! Perhaps my skipped stitches are due to an angle my machine doesn't like. I will definitely note in which direction I'm going when this happens in the future, thanks!

  10. Primarily a free machine embroiderer, yes you can stitch without a foot, and sometimes I do, but never ever when tired or in a hurry. Two reasons for using a foot, 1) safety and 2) it reminds to engage the pressure bar.
    Spool jumping - no spend remedy - place the thread in a jam jar or saucer behind the machine, and/or create an extra place to thread through near to the spool, by taping a darning needle to the machine.
    Sometimes threads seem to be wound on the reel too tight, or a whole layer will slide down the spool. Wind it onto a bobbin (then wind it from that bobbin to another in order to get it to flow in the same direction as it would from a spool). Likely to work better but of course need to keep an eye on it running out!

  11. For the previous comment about the thread maybe getting caught on the thread tail catcher... I bought some thread once and the spool was all jagged on the ends, a quick once over with a nail file took the jags out. I love the idea of placing the spool in a jar and using the darning needle. Wow the things we will do to get the job done lol.

  12. I was wondering about not using a foot as well and the only thing I could think of was the potential injuries as a reason to keep using the foot. I have not been sewing long enough to know of any technical reasons not to. Now that I know that it can be done I am going to try using wire or paperclips as a visual to not get too close to the needle. I have one of those machines that is incompatible with the generic foot. I'll post a pic on my page if it works out.

  13. Glad to see the issue of directional quilting! It's true going towards yourself and also to the left seem to cause more problems. Could be that the thread from the bobbin is being asked to go at an angle it doesn't like.
    Quilting with a foot: Even one that just skims the surface is better at keeping the fabric in contact with the throat plate...skipped stitches come from no contact.
    There is a thing called a darning needle that has a needle inside a spring. That's what we used before there were better quilting feet and the darning foot got in the way! ...not sure who is selling those now.

  14. Hi I am getting a lot of long stitches when I sew fast. Any ideas?

  15. Help! I have a Husqvarna Viking designer which works well most times, however when I try to FMQ I find I can't move backwards without the threads catching and stopping me. I have put it in free motion, the dog feeds are lowered, I changed my presser foot to the free motion foot, new needle, good thread, what am I missing?

    1. Some machines just don't like to free motion quilt easily. Take your machine back to piecing and run through a scrap of fabric to make sure your stitches look good. Now just change your foot to your darning foot - don't change ANYTHING else. Yes, you can quilt like this. If it works, try changing your stitch length to zero, then try changing your thread.

      Eventually you will find one thing you can't change because that problem returns. Essentially - some issue is causing your machine to do this and you just have to hunt for it.

      It's also good to know that many machines don't like to stitch backwards. The best test is to stitch back and forth straight lines to check if your machine will gag or not.


Help us create more quilting tutorials! Check out our quilt shop at