Design and Technical Considerations for Free Motion Quilting

Author: Sarah Ann Smith

Getting Ready For Free Motion Quilting

So you’ve spent lots of time and money on your fabric and putting together a beautiful quilt top. Now you want to quilt it…but what to do? The quilt pattern has the ever-fearsome “Quilt as Desired.” Well, how do you know what you want or how to do it? You’ve got both technical and design considerations here, so I’ll talk about both, along with some troubleshooting tips (don’t worry, you can fortify yourself with chocolate!).

Design Considerations:

This is usually the most challenging part for most quilters. The first two questions to ask yourself are

  1. What is your skill level? Are you a total beginner, expert, or (like most of us) somewhere in between?

    Pick a design that you will be able to manage. I often tell my students that toddlers don’t run marathons (though a tired young mum might think otherwise!). You need to challenge yourself, but be reasonable, too. If this is the first quilt you’ve ever quilted, I hope it isn’t a king-sized quilt with an intricate overall design. Instead, try a lap or wall quilt for your first attempt so you can learn to manage the bulk of the quilt in the machine (much easier with the fantastic 6600 and 7700s!). And try a design that you can quilt with the built-in AccuFeed (or walking foot) or a relatively simple free-motion design. (Note: my next blog for Janome-America will talk about the actual quilting, this is just the getting-ready part!).

  2. How much time do you have or want to devote to quilting this project? Is this to be a showstopper entry with which you hope to win a prize? Or is it a quilt you hope your new niece or nephew or child/grandchild will use constantly and love until it is shreds? Or somewhere in between?

    The showstopper quilt will require a lot of time and skill. The lap quilt for the sofa or a to-be-used-and-loved quilt for a child can have quilting that ranges from just enough to keep it quilted and useable to nearly-showstopper. Decide how much time you want and have to spend quilting. Even those of us who enter shows sometimes want an easier, quicker quilt. As well, remember that really intense quilting (which I usually favor for my art quilts which are frequently stitched 1/8” apart) makes a quilt stiff; stiff is not comfy or snuggly, and it doesn’t drape well in a quilted garment.

    Once you’ve answer those questions, look at other quilts and at design books. What style of quilting do you like? Traditional with wreaths and feathers and cross-hatching? Contemporary with geometric patterns? Or contemporary with nature-inspired motifs? Or quick and easy all-over designs? Make some notes and make your own designs to mark on your quilts or purchase one of the bazillion books available for home or longarm quilters (designs for the latter can be frequently used or adapted for home-machine / sit-down machine quilting).

    Then, ask a third question:

  3. Are the fabrics I have used in my quilt solid or nearly-solid, so that the quilting will show up? Or are they busy prints where the stitching line really won’t show up much at all?

    If you are new to machine quilting, busy print fabrics will disguise any wobbles and bobbles as you master machine quilting because the stitching line really doesn’t show up a lot against the print. But the stitching will REALLY show up a lot on solid and nearly-solid fabrics. This is why in the 19th century a whitework quilt was considered the pinnacle of a young women’s quilting, and was made to show off her skill.

    If you are new to quilting and your quilt top is made with both plain and busy fabrics, think about perhaps using the walking foot in the plain areas (picking a design suitable to being stitched with the walking foot, things with straight lines or gentle curves) and then practicing and improving your free-motion skills in the busy-print areas. The same tip applies to backing fabric… a busy print will disguise any “learning moments” (a.k.a. wobbles!).

    If you are more skilled, you may want to select plain or nearly-plain fabrics to highlight the designs you can now quilt. Don’t spend a lot of time quilting a technically demanding, high-skill-level motif on a busy fabric…it won’t show! (Ask me how I know this…sigh!)


Technical Considerations: 

  1. The first question to ask is how will the quilt be used? If it is to be a wall or art quilt, you can pretty much select any thread you want, because there really won’t be any wear and tear on the quilt. If you are making a quilt that will be used (a little or a lot), you’ll want to stay away from more fragile threads and use something that will stand up to washing, pets and children.

    I am proud to say our older son’s “big boy” quilt made when he graduated to a bed at age 2 or thereabouts is now “formerly quilted.” He loved that quilt to bits; it was a trampoline (jumping on the bed—ahem!), a fort, a flag, a cape, a comfort when ill, and warm in winter. Our younger son’s quilt was also a doggie and cat tote in addition to the uses for our older son’s quilt. It is still mostly quilted, but is well-loved and much-washed!

  2. Your next step is to choose your thread. I like to unspool a length of thread and drizzle it over the top of the quilt to see how it looks. Don’t try to imagine how the thread looks, actually LOOK at it! What looks good wound on a spool doesn’t always look so great in a thin line. The yucky ones put back in the drawer, the “possibles” set aside for your practice sandwich.

  3. Once you have chosen a thread, you need to choose a needle that is the correct size and type to suit your thread. It really isn’t a good idea to go hiking on a rocky slope in high heels…they are just the wrong shoe! And it isn’t a good idea to wear shoes that are too large or too tight…you’ll get blisters. Same thing with needles! You need a needle that is suited to both the type and size of thread. There is a ton of information on this in my book, but this is the heart of quilting!

    There are three basic kinds of needles: sharps (Quilting, Embroidery, Topstitch, Metallic, Jeans), ballpoint (for use on t-shirt and other knit fabrics), and the universal (halfway between the sharps and ballpoints). For everything other than t-shirt quilts, you want to use a sharp needle for quilting. The question is which one? There are so many out there now!

    A “Quilting” needle is, in my opinion, somewhat mis-named. I think it should be called a “Piecing” needle. They are great for sewing together patches, but because the eye of the needle is among the smallest and the groove down the front is smaller, it can cause more friction, and therefore fraying, of your thread!

    My “go to” needle for the quilting I do, which uses a 40-wt. polyester thread on top and a 60-wt. fine polyester in the bobbin, is the Topstitch size 14/90, which has a larger eye and deeper groove (to better protect the thread) than a Quilting 14/90. For quilting with fine threads, I would consider a Microtex 10 or 12 depending on which thread, or even a size 8 for a 100-wt silk or a clear monofilament.

  4. Now you are ready to test-drive your threads. Make a practice quilt sandwich that uses the same fabrics for the top and back as your quilt. This doesn’t need to be fancy…just slap some fabric onto batting, also a scrap of what you are using inside your quilt. Test out the “possibles” threads and decide which one (or in my case, many) you want to use. You can also fine-tune tension at this time. If something isn’t quite right, you don’t have to pick it out like you would if you were doing this on the real quilt! Just make a note on the settings pinned to that area, then change your settings (one thing at a time) and try again. When tension is perfect, you’re ready to move to the real quilt. (Note: there’s also a long section on learning how to test and adjust your tension in my book, ThreadWork Unraveled.)

    Some quilters find Janome’s blue-arrow bobbin case just the thing. The pre-set factory tension is different (slightly tighter) than the usual red-arrow bobbin case. Depending on your thread and how you quilt (your actual movements and designs) you may or may not need this case. I find that having the red-arrow set for piecing and regular sewing and the blue-arrow to use for quilting or to adjust when doing bobbin-threadwork is perfect for me.

  5. Fill extra bobbins now! This way you don’t have to stop in the middle of a quilting session to re-wind!

  6. Speaking of bobbins…. You do NOT need to use the same thread in the needle and bobbin when you are quilting. I use a finer thread in the bobbin because it gets me more inches of thread on each bobbin and because it sinks in and disappears into the backing fabric better.

    However, you don’t want to go to extremes. Thread ranges from very heavy (12-wt) to very fine (100-wt). I use a 40-wt shiny polyester in the top with a 60-wt smooth poly in the bobbin. Most piecing thread and garment sewing thread is 50-wt. So I only go a couple sizes smaller on the thread in the bobbin. I would not try to use a 12-wt heavy jean-stitch in the top with an ultrafine 100-wt silk in the bobbin; that is just asking too much of your machine. It would also not necessarily be a good choice in terms of usability and strength!

  7. Set up your quilting space. You want a large flat surface that extends from the needle area.

    The best thing you can do is use the extension table included with your machine or have a dedicated table where the machine sits down into the table, flush with the surface of the table. I do the latter and have set the recessed shelf so that I can use my clear extension table (without the legs attached) for my 7700 instead of an insert. Perfect!

    Having a large flat surface will make it far easier for you to move the quilt (that’s the next blogpost) when you actually begin quilting.
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