Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Free Motion Quilting: Tips for Beginners

A little while ago, a friend of mine asked me, "What five pointers would you give someone wanting to plunge into free-motion quilting on their domestic machine?"

I don't usually like to categorize information like this into an arbitrary number of points, but I think it worked well in this case, because it made me stop and think about it in terms of steps, rather than ramble on for a half hour.

This is what I told her, with more information in parentheses:

1. Make yourself some ten by ten quilt sandwiches to practice on. You'll need to play with your tension a bit. (Grab a layer cake you're not crazy about, or even a fat quarter bundle if you want a bigger piece to practice with.  Make a quilt sandwich with batting in the middle.  Stitch some circles, zigzags, or flowers.  Then turn the piece over.  How does the back look?  If you've got looping bobbin threads you'll need to adjust your tension and try again.  You'll essentially just make a bunch of mini whole-cloth quilts for practice.)

2. Don't stress out about the equipment you have. You don't need machingers or a slip mat and you don't need a fancy machine. You just need a darning foot and the ability to lower your feed dogs.  (Darning feet come open-toed or closed toed, and are sometimes called free-motion quilting feet - if I'm mistaken and they are two different feet, they are similar and will both work.  Amazon reviews are a great source of information for whether a foot will work on your machine.)

3. Find a few designs that work for you and don't worry about not being good at the others. Sometimes the simplest things look the best.  (Maybe you thought you wanted a meandering stipple or a chain of daisies but you just aren't good at it!  That's okay!  Check out for literally hundreds of designs.  Pinterest is another great resource.  You can even try doodling in a sketchbook first to get some ideas.)

4.  Your machine should be moving as fast as your hands. If you move the quilt too quickly you will have loose bobbin threads and long stitches. If you move too slowly your design will look shaky. This takes practice.  (This is vague and hard to explain - It's like when you're trying to make your handwriting look really nice, but you go too slowly and it looks shaky.  Does that make sense?  You need a good pace to make it look fluid and free-moving.)

5.  Matching thread hides a multitude of errors.  (White feathers on white fabric will frequently look flawless, but white feathers on black fabric have to actually BE flawless.  On a multi-colored quilt I like to use white thread because it will usually blend into most colors.  I also ALWAYS match the bobbin thread to the top thread, because almost nobody's tension is perfect enough to never see the darker thread poking through to the other side.)

My biggest tip:  Don't be scared.  It's just fabric and the quilt police will not come knock on your door to tell you did it wrong.  Just try, and then you'll know if you can do it.    

I also recommend spending hours on YouTube watching other people quilt on their machines.  Watch their motions, listen to their recommendations, and then do what you want, armed with the collective knowledge of all the experts.

Post by Jackie:
Jackie is a stay at home mom and military wife. She currently lives in Northern Minnesota but has lived many places including Germany and Hawaii. She loves all things quilty, fabric-related, and nerdy. Visit her on instagram.


  1. Hahaha - the quilt police! Love that ;) I've been meaning to try free motion quilting for some time now, but it always feels so daunting. Thank you for sharing these easy to follow tips! And yes the shaky handwriting reference completely makes sense! Happy quilting!

  2. Thanks Jackie, I've dabbled with free motion, but never actually built up the courage to try for a whole quilt... I also think of frames and complicated gadgets that I need, but I should take your advice and just go for it!

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  4. Fantastic succinct way to encourage beginners!

  5. Fantastic succinct way to encourage beginners!