The Free Motion Quilting Project: All the Different Facets of Free Motion Quilting

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

All the Different Facets of Free Motion Quilting

Over the weekend Patricia H. posted this very interesting question to our Building Blocks OFF Topic Facebook Group:
So, I've always thought of freemotion quilting as a design you had in your mind that you just quilted, or maybe you sketched it a few times first, is it still freemotion quilting if you mark it out like we are with Leah's blocks? What do you think?
free motion quilting | Leah Day
What is free motion quilting?
This was a great question that sparked a lot of conversation with quilters around the world. I realized immediately that this is one confusing point - what IS free motion quilting?

Some people define free motion as quilting without marked lines. Some mentioned using or not using the feed dogs, or using or not using a darning foot.

I found this instantly intriguing because I assign different names to so many techniques, though I consider it all to be Free Motion Quilting.

So here's my response, and some examples from quilts I've designed for added clarity:

Definition for Free Motion Quilting - moving the quilt under the needle (or the machine in the case of longarms) freely in all directions. You can use feed dogs up or down - so long as you're quilting with a darning / free motion foot, that is free motion quilting.

So it doesn't matter if the design is marked, not marked, a stencil design, or something you make up as you stitch, the important point is YOU are moving in all directions and controlling the size stitches yourself with the movement of your hands.

The feed dogs are involved because in order to move freely in all directions, you need to make sure the quilt isn't being forced to feed straight forward through the machine. However, this doesn't necessarily mean you HAVE to drop your feed dogs. You can also cover them, or leave them up and set your stitch length to the lowest setting.

free motion quilting | Leah DayYou do need to use a special foot to free motion quilt called a darning foot which is designed to hover over the quilt. Again the purpose is freedom of movement. You can't move from left to right if the presser foot is squishing the quilt against the feed dogs and forcing it to move only forward and backward.

So free motion quilting is free movement in all directions, stitched with a darning foot, but with multiple options for the feed dogs depending on your machine.

Now for the more interesting sub-definitions!

free motion quilting | Leah Day
No marks = free HAND quilting
Free HAND quilting - These are designs that are memorized and quilted without marking. No marks means the design is unique to you, though the steps you take to make it remain the same - like signatures! Two Leah's will sign their name totally differently.

Free hand designs made up the bulk of the designs on the Free Motion Quilting Project. Simple rules make up the bulk of these designs, which you can memorize through practice, and then apply to any area of your quilt.
free motion quilting | Leah Day
Assisted Marking
A few feathers were marked to make
the whole design easier to stitch!
Assisted Marking - This is my own term for marking SOME lines on the fabric, like a few reference lines to keep a grid straight, or a single circle to make sure it's really a circular shape.

I use assisted marking when I need a set of shapes, like circles, to stack together nicely. I could mark every circle, or I could just mark the two lines on the outsides of the circles and use those lines as a reference guide. The circles won't be perfect, but at least they will fit within the space I wanted them to.
Marked Design quilting - The entire design is preplanned and usually marked using a lightbox or stencil. Mark the design, then quilt on the line.

The Building Blocks Quilt has 42 full size quilting guides that you can either use as inspiration and drawing practice, or you could use to mark all the blocks in the quilt.

free motion quilting | Leah Day
Marked lines, but still definitely free motion quilting!
 It's important to understand that just because you're marking the designs, that doesn't mean you aren't free motion quilting. It just means that you're taking an extra, slightly time consuming step to ensure the design finishes perfectly in that area of your quilt.

It's also good to understand that you can mix and match ALL of these types of quilting. They are all still Free Motion Quilting - you haven't changed feet after all!

Case in point - Duchess Reigns has marked designs in the form of the goddess design in the center, the borders, the outlines of the overlapping feathers.

free motion quilting | Leah Day

Free hand quilting in the filler designs in the background. No marking, just stitching the designs from memory and within the available space.

AND assisted marking with the feathers - they were not preplanned, but marked occasionally as needed on the quilt itself so they would look asymmetrical.

Does this make sense??? It's probably overly complicated to have so many different terms and definitions, but it's better to be clear than confused.

Ultimately the definitions really don't matter so long as you're and able to stitch the design you wish to stitch in your quilts. Understand that you can mark all the lines, some of the lines, or none of the lines - whatever works for you and makes this process the easiest on your machine.

Let's go quilt!



  1. definition of FMQ is anytime the quilter is controling the quilting movement and the machine is not controling the movement.

  2. Hello Leah and Josh,
    I'm french and I read your blog every day.
    Prehaps a day, you'll come in France for the European quilt at Ste Marie aux Mines ?
    That will be wonderfull.

    1. Maybe one day Dominique! Right now we're focusing on teaching everyone and anyone online, which is the best way to reach the widest range of people. One day we might do a massive tour and hit all the fun events and expos. That would be fun!

  3. Are you still working on Duchess Reigns? That is one beautiful quilt.

    1. Technically no...It's not that I don't want to, it's that she's just not much of a priority these days. I do intend to get back to her eventually, but there's just SO much quilting left to do and it's SO time consuming.

      Okay, I'll stop whining and go look at my schedule and see where I can squeeze her in this summer!

    2. Aww that's too bad :( I hope she is finished one day. But the nice thing about fabric and thread is that it will wait.

      While you always say microquilting gives us more bang for the buck to practice- it sure does take a long time to fill a whole quilt!


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