Free Motion Quilting Technique

Author: Sarah Ann Smith

Free Motion Quilting Tips and Techniques

This is Part 2 in a series of three articles by Sarah Ann Smith. Please click here for Part 1.

Part 3 will be posted soon! OK, so you’ve gotten all the “getting ready to quilt” stuff done. You have your quilt top, you’ve basted the quilt well, you’ve chosen your thread, selected the correct needle. Now make a practice sandwich to fine tune tension (if needed), check how the thread looks on the quilt when stitched, and for warm-ups. Now it’s time to take a big breath, exhale, relax your shoulders and begin. Almost.

Sit properly: Please sit down at your sewing machine. Put your feet on the floor. Place your hands on the surface of the machine, where the quilt will be. When you put your hands on the machine, did that raise your shoulders? If so, put a pillow on the chair (or raise it up if your chair is adjustable) until your upper arms are parallel with your torso and your forearms are at right angles to the upper arm and flat on the machine surface. If raising the chair seat causes your feet to not reach the floor, find a box or unused exercise step to place in front of you. Put the foot pedal on that, too. You want your thighs to be fully supported and your lower legs, from the knee down, to be at right angles to your thighs, with feet flat on whatever (box/step/floor). If your body isn’t comfortable and in a healthy posture, you’ll be thinking “Ow” not “where is my next stitch going.”

Next: clean the surface of your extension table and working table. You know how fingerprints leave smudge marks on glasses? The smudges come from the oils in our skin (even dry skin!). These oils also end up on the table tops. Your quilt will slide more smoothly if you clean first. Spray a cloth or paper towel (away from the machine) and clean the surfaces. If you spray baste, please follow the instructions on the can; failure to do so can lead to sticky residue seeping through the backing fabric which will also make it harder for you to move the quilt. Eliminate this “issue” by cleaning and proper basting.

Finally, make sure your bobbin has plenty of thread.

Running out too soon is aggravating! And another next: Practice-Play! if you are a beginner, give yourself permission to BE a beginner! Do not expect that you will be able to create prizewinning quilting on your first, or even your fifth, quilt. To excel at anything takes practice, including quilting. So give yourself permission to learn and practice and play. With every quilt you will improve.

Now, take your quilt to the sewing machine. You want ALL of the quilt to be supported, with none of it hanging off the sides of the table or the back edge of the table. If you are using the sewing machine with extension table on top of another table (for example the dining room table, which is how I sewed for eons), have the quilt on the acrilyc extension and dining table, but not dripping over the edges of the dining table. If you have a small table or desk, you can place an ironing board adjusted to the same height, a bookcase, boxes or other items to create a temporary but larger surface.

Why you wonder? Gravity! Even a small corner of the quilt over the edge will cause the quilt to pull. Sewing machine needles are actually flexible, and if the pull happens as the needle is headed down into the throatplate, it is all too easy to bend the needle just enough to cause it to slam into the plate and break. NOT good. Prevent accidents like this by removing the pull of gravity!

I use what I call the “Puddle” or “Hills and Valleys” method of quilting. I generally also work from the center of a quilt, especially a large one, out to the edges. I will slide the quilt under the presser foot, then smoosh (a technical term) the quilt until there is a valley or puddle…a flat, low spot… around the presser foot and needle. The rest of the quilt is gathered up into hills around the valley. This eliminates drag. You only have to quilt and move the valley, not the entire (heavy!) quilt. When you have quilted across the valley, stop! Re-arrange the quilt to form a new valley, and continue.

So you ask, what about when I need to start with the quilt in my lap to quilt, for example, a border from one edge to the other. Answer: learn to drape the quilt on the table. Take as little as possible onto your lap or in front of the machine. If possible with your set-up, push the machine an inch or two further away from you (or move your chair back) so you can perch more of the quilt on the surface. Again, the idea is to minimize or eliminate the effects of gravity!

A useful tool: there are a bazillion things to use / try for moving the quilt more easily when machine quilting. My personal favorite are Machingers gloves. They are breathable, inexpensive, and give my arthritic hands a great grip for moving the quilt. They lessen the strain on my hands, and I can rethread a needle or bobbin case while wearing them.

Before your first stitch, pull the bobbin thread to the top of the quilt and hold to the side. Whether your use the many-small-stitches in one spot method to lock your threads, or if you hand-knot and bury the tails, you want the bobbin thread on top so you don’t create a snarl on the bottom of the quilt.

Begin quilting. If you have a marked design, follow it. If not, think about your fill pattern or background design. Plan your route for quilting to minimize starts and stops, and don’t quilt yourself into a corner. Just like you don’t mop yourself into a corner in the kitchen, plan where you will begin and how you want to get to the end. One trick I teach is to have your design on a piece of paper. Tuck it inside a plastic page protector or gallon-sized plastic bag. Using a washable marker, trace the design. Wipe the marks off and repeat. By marking this design ahead of time, your hands learn the motions, and your hands and brain get in sync to create the design. When you move to thread and quilt, creating the design will be easier!

For large designs, for example if you are outlining a large floral motif on a border, use your finger to trace the path you want to take. You’ll find that fabric has pattern repeats, so figure out how to get back to (to continue the example) the same stem of the same flower, then more-or-less repeat this path as you quilt the border.

If you are using both the AccuFeed (or walking foot) and free-motion quilting foot, you may find that your perfect setting for thread tension with one isn’t quite right for the other. This is common, and has to do with the odd directions we move the quilt while free-motion quilting. This is where your practice sandwich comes in handy; when you switch from, say, AccuFeed to FMQ, grab the practice piece first. FMQ a bit on that and make sure you don’t need to fine-tune the tension.

Don’t quilt faster than your guardian angel can move your fingers!

So many new quilters think they have to quilt at top speed. NOT! Yes, there are times when your stitches will be better formed on some designs if your needle moves faster. Other times, there are not! Let’s take a step back to the beginning of free-motion quilting:

The length of the stitch is a function of the speed of the needle and the speed of your hands. If your needle is moving slowly and your hands move quickly, you will create a long stitch. If on the other hand your needle is moving very quickly and your hands are slow, you’ll get short stitches (sometimes on top of each other). Like Golidlocks, you want things to be just right, a pleasing harmony of needle speed and hand speed. This harmony will be different for each quilter. Just practice-play until you get a speed that feels “just right” for you.

Of course, in the beginning that feels like trying to pat your head while rubbing your tummy while wrestling an elephant. There are just too many things to think about at once when you are a beginner. You can make your life easier by setting the needle speed to something other than top speed. Use the speed setting on your machine to slow down a bit or a lot depending on what you are comfortable doing! When the slider is set to slower, then you can push the foot pedal all the way down and you still won’t sew at top speed. Then all you need to do (! All?!!!) is think about the speed of your hands.

Consistent speed and eyelashes: The next thing to think about is (sigh) keeping one’s speed consistent. This will help you get even (consistent) stitches. One of the most common mistakes beginners make is, without realizing it, they speed up their hands when going around curves. This will cause the bobbin thread to pull the top thread to the bottom side, creating the dreaded “eyelashes” or laddering. The solution is to slow down on the curves. It is like when (no one has ever done this, right?) taking the off-ramp on the highway a smidge too fast; you feel the car pull at the rear. The same principle is what causes the pulling on curves. Slow down and these issues will reduce and eventually disappear with practice.

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