The Free Motion Quilting Project: How to Start and Stop Quilting

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

How to Start and Stop Quilting

We're off to a great start this week quilting Wiggly U shapes in our four patch blocks. Super thank you to everyone who commented with support for Josh's first free motion quilting video. You guys are such an awesome group to make videos for!

So now that we've started free motion quilting I've been getting a lot of questions here, on YouTube, and on the Facebook group about starting and stopping quilting.

Specifically - how do we secure our threads as we start quilting and as we end the line so our quilting stitches don't come out?

Here's the way I do this:

1. Start quilting by pulling the bobbin thread up to the top of the quilt. Using the handwheel on the right of your machine, rotate towards yourself to drop the needle down, then keep rotating until it comes ALL the way up and is even starting to dip back down again. This ensures the top thread has made a full rotation through the bobbin case and has caught the bobbin thread.

(Alternative - if you have a needle up / down button, just hit that button 2 times to drop the needle and bring it up)

Now give the top thread a tug and a loop should pop up - that is the bobbin thread. Give that loop a tug and tuck both threads under your darning foot so they are out of your way.

I showed this in our first video on Wiggly U shapes, so watch that video again and closely pay attention to everything I do BEFORE I started quilting.

Note: This set of steps sounds very simple and I can certainly fly through these steps because I have done them thousands of times. Josh has fits with it every time, so if you struggle with it too, don't worry, it takes some practice to get the hang of bringing the bobbin thread up!

Why do you need to do this?

If you leave your bobbin thread on the bottom, where you can't see it, there's a very good chance you will stitch through it as you quilt the block and it will become embedded in the stitching. Short answer - it looks terrible!

So bringing the bobbin thread up ensures there's no nasty surprises left for us on the back of the quilt, and tucking both threads under the foot makes it far less likely they will be sucked into the machine or become unthreaded as we get started.

2. Start quilting - Don't build up thread. Don't stitch in place. Don't backstitch. Don't overlock. Don't pass go. Don't collect $200.

Just start quilting!

Why? Because if you do any of those things, you will end up with a very noticeable glob of thread on the top and back of your quilt. You can not only see it, you can feel it too - it will be a hard lump sitting on the surface.

Many quilters have been taught to build up thread this way to "secure" the thread and clip off the thread tails immediately after. Personally, I don't think this is secure because with wear and washing those knots come out and the thread will start unraveling.

So don't build up thread, just start quilting and we will return to those thread tails after the block is complete.

3. Stop quilting - Just STOP. Don't build up thread. Don't stitch in place. Don't backstitch. Don't get the idea!

We don't build up thread at the end for the same reason we don't build up thread at the beginning.

When you finish a line of quilting just stop, rotate your handwheel to bring your needle all the way up, lift your foot, and pull the block off your machine.

NOW cut your threads leaving thread tails at least 4 - 6 inches long. You will have a single thread on the top of your quilt and a single thread on the back. Give one of these threads a tug (doesn't matter which side) to bring up a loop, which will be the other thread. Pull both to one side.

4. Tie, bury, and clip - You should now have your starting 2 threads and your ending 2 threads together on one side of the quilt.

Watch this video to see how this works step by step:

Click here to check out the Hide Your Threads Kit which comes with a pack of cheater needles and a pin place to keep them handy next to your machine!

free motion quilting | Leah Day
To recap: Tie 2 threads together in a knot about 1/8" from the surface of the quilt, then grab a cheater needle (or regular big hole needle if you don't have a cheater), pop the threads into the eye, run the needle through the middle layer of the quilt about 1-2 inches.

Pull the needle through, give the threads a tug and the knot should pop down into the middle layer of the quilt. Clip off the tails where the needle came out of the quilt.

Repeat these steps with the 2 ending threads. When you have a situation where 4 threads come together in one spot, tie off 2 at a time rather than all 4 together. (4 threads tends to make a huge knot that doesn't bury easily).

Is this the ONLY way to do this?!

No! As with all things in quilting, there are hundreds of ways to start and stop quilting and deal with the loose threads that result. I hear a lot of whining (sorry, no better word for it!) about this method because it's a bit time consuming and tedious.

However, this is the only method use, so it's the only method I teach! I personally find it to be far faster, easier, and less frustrating than the build-a-glob-and-clip method. I figure if I take the time to put these quilting lines in the quilt, I want to make sure they are secure and will stay put and not come unraveled eventually with wear.

The method you use to deal with your thread tails is entirely up to you, so I'd suggest trying a lot of different methods from different teachers and find what works best for you!

Let's go quilt,

Leah Day


  1. Leah
    Thank you, thank you, thank you!
    You answered my question perfectly and I will be checking out the videos as soon as I can to back up what I have now learnt about starting and stopping.
    Your site and response to questions is second to none!

  2. I have to get out of the habit of using my thread cut button. I have gotten so spoiled with it, but I WILL do it! I've wanted to learn to FMQ for so long. Thanks for the tips and also for ALL your answers. I know we must be like children and you are so good to us!

  3. A pair of tweezers is a handy tool to use to grab those bobbin threads once you pull them up to the top. I am really enjoying the tips and videos posted by Josh...keep up the good work!

  4. Great advice! I'm going to try this on my next start and stop.

  5. I'm still working at improving my FMQ, but over the last few years, after being told to "lock the stitches, "backstitch", "just clip the threads", one teacher said to knot and bury the threads. What a game changer!! My quilting looks so much better and I've been asked "Where are your stops and starts?" That made me feel good! I must be doing something right!

  6. One of the great things about you, Leah, as a teacher is that you aren't a "died in the wool, do things my way" type of teacher. It is very refreshing!

    I love that you teach how you do it but you leave room for other techniques rather than insisting your way is the only or best way.

    Great job and even though I'm an experienced quilter and have done FMQ with you regularly (along with other FMQ teachers) I am getting great value out of your current program.

  7. Thanks Leah - I really need to start doing this. My globs are unsightly :(

  8. Wife is using a Bernina 880 and has small knots in some stitches, what could be the issue?

    1. That sounds like hesitation knots to me Dave. When she stops moving her hands, she needs to stop pressing on the foot pedal. Even one or two stitches in place will cause a tiny knot to form. It takes awhile to sync your hand and foot together really closely, but will come with practice.


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