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Free Motion Quilting

Fun with Free Motion

Once you have grown tired of stitch in the ditch, and straight line quilting, grab a bit of fabric and let your quilting diva loose! Free motion quilting is the way to create truly unique designs to compliment your finished quilt and make it stand out from the crowd.

Free-motion quilting is beautiful for fancy quilting patterns, with decorative possibilities limited only by your imagination. The basic premise is that if you can draw a design on a piece of paper without lifting your pencil off the surface – then you can use it as a free-motion design.

Free-motion machine quilting requires some practice to master, but there are three main tips for getting a great result:

Prepare, Practice and Relax

Prepare your machine

To do free-motion quilting, you need a special foot called a free-motion or darning foot. This type of foot has a rounded toe that travels just above the surface of the fabric. The most suitable ones have an open toe so that you can clearly see what you are doing. If you have a plastic one with a closed toe, you can cut a section at the front out with some snippers (whilst paying attention to the safety fairy!)

Next you need to deal with those pesky feed dogs which will try to pull your fabric through your machine in a straight line – which you don’t want to do! There are two ways you can do this;

1.  Drop your feed dogs according to the instructions in your manual. If you can’t do this, your machine may have a cover plate which will slide over and prevent them engaging with your fabric. If you find that you get tension issues with the feed dogs down, then you could try option 2.

2.  The other option is to leave your feed dogs up (horror of horrors!) but set your stitch length to 0. This stops the feed dogs dragging your fabric in a direction you don’t want to go, but can help with those obstinate tension issues,

Thread – this is a personal choice and every free-motion quilter will give you a different suggestion as to the threads you should use. I use threads types according to the effect that I want – but I always ensure that the same quality thread is loaded on the top and in the bobbin of my machine. This helps with tension and improves the quality of stitching.

Quilting gloves are a great help with manoeuvring your fabric in all directions and will save your shoulders from aching as you frantically grip your fabric!

Now here’s the boring bit – it really helps to stabilise your quilt before you let your quilt diva loose all over your blocks. Free-motion is not compatible with the trusty walking foot and so your layers can move once you get started leading to unsightly puckering (and nobody wants a puckered bottom)! The trick to avoid this is to get that walking foot out and stitch in the ditch as much as you can, so that once you start a-swirling, everything will stay happily where it should!


Even the most experienced free-motion quilters practice!  Before starting a session I always spend about 10 minutes ‘playing’ with some scrappy quilt sandwiches (which I make out of scraps to assuage the guilt!). This gives my muscles the chance to relax, and my machine the opportunity to warm up! The last thing you want to do is rush in and find your tension is terrible because unpicking free-motion quilting is a nightmare!

For the novice, practice is essential to get smooth, even results. The first thing to master is smoothness of line. If you can get lovely smooth curves into your stipple stitch, you are already half way there. Problems with jerky curves can be caused by moving the fabric too fast (resulting in big straight stitches) or moving it too slowly (giving you tense tight little ones). As you practice your curves, you will find that your stitch length begins to equalise and your work will look much better. Just quilt what you like – try searching Google for free motion designs (Leah Day has a huge section that you can practice) and once you have mastered a few, change them a bit and make them your own!

And then…Relax

Tension in your body is as bad for your quilting as uneven tension is for your machine. So relax and enjoy it! Remember that you are not looking for perfection! If you were, you would send your project to a long arm quilter and it would come back quilted immaculately. What you want to achieve is something individual, and something fun! The person looking at your finished quilt is going to be marvelling at those butterflies you quilted into that baby quilt, or the hearts and flowers you stitched into that wedding quilt – not how mathematically reliable your stitch length is! So quilt and have fun – perhaps you can hide cheeky little pictorial jokes in your quilt that only you know is there. Just remember that you are creating something individual and unique – and that has to be worth a little practice!

Sarah Payne

Sarah will be teaches FMQ at Bee Crafty,