What’s the secret to free-motion machine quilting?


Is there a secret to free-motion machine quilting for stippling or random designs? How can I keep the machine going at a constant speed?

– A Quilter’s Review reader

Unfortunately there is no secret or short cut to free-motion quilting. The best way to perfect your technique is simply to practice, practice, practice.

We suggest making a bunch of fabric sandwiches, with batting, about 10×10 or 15×15. Mark some quilting patterns on half of them, and use the rest for stipple quilting, which you don’t need to mark.

Practice on these pieces at least 10 minutes a day and in about a month, we guarantee your quilting will be much improved.

Keeping your machine at a constant speed won’t even be a thought in your head. It will be automatic, just like driving a car.

Comments and tips sent in from other readers:

Barbara D. writes:

I love to free-motion quilt! It’s become my favourite way to quilt, mostly because there has been so much disagreement about how to do it that I just had to try it for myself.

Here are some tips:

Don’t worry about stitch length or width — it doesn’t matter! You create the stitch length with how fast or slow you move the fabric under the needle, so don’t push and pull the fabric. Just steer it.

If your quilting machine has a speed control, use mid-speed if your stitches aren’t coming out even. If you have no speed control, put a book (not a quilting one!) under the pedal to stop it at the fastest speed you are comfortable with.

The faster the speed, the smoother and easier it is to stitch. Remember trying driving maneuvers in your car and finding it easier and smoother to make a lane change going fast on the highway than it was going slow in the parking lot? Same thing applies here.

Breathe. I can’t emphasize that enough! My free-motion went from scribbles to stars when I began to talk to someone while I sewed. Breathe! And keep your shoulders loose or your work will reflect your tension.

Use good quality thread so it doesn’t keep breaking. Don’t try to learn on metallics, but if you insist, at least use a metallics needle.

In this method you are allowed to cross your previous stitch lines, so don’t worry about changes in direction or getting stuck in a corner. Play!

Never, ever, turn your fabric while you are stitching. You make direction changes and shapes by dancing your fabric under the needle, not by swinging your fabric around.

Always use a sandwich. You can’t free-motion quilt without a stabilizer of some sort.

Use variegated thread for a spectacular look on a wall hanging quilt.

Work with the design already on the fabric to practice. Sew around the leaves and vine stems on the printed material you already have. Practice on pre-printed fabric to learn to follow curves and lines.

Stop with the needle in the down position so momentum doesn’t shoot you across the fabric when you stop.

Don’t beat yourself the first couple of years you try this. You can always re-stitch heavily over an area you are unhappy with.

Breathe! Have fun!

Sharon H. writes:

I made a breakthrough in free-motion quilting after I attended a demonstration in which the teacher “forgot” to lower her feed dogs. She admitted that she occasionally forgot but that there was enough room under the darning foot to allow the free-motion.

I tried it at home and discovered that the click of the feed dogs moving gave me an audible cue to move my fabric along in any direction I chose. Setting the stitch length to a longer length gave me a longer pause between audible cues and my stitches were longer and vice versa.

This appears to have no ill effects on my Bernina machine. I haven’t tried it on a machine that requires a cover plate for the feed dogs. My free-motion quilting improved immensely with this method.

Heather F. writes:

I totally agree with Sharon H. I forgot to lower my feed dogs one day (I have a Janome) and it was just magical how my free-motion quilting improved instantly.

Kathy H. writes:

I took a class from a great teacher, Kathy White, who suggested that we practice machine quilting (and warm up for projects) using 25″ x 22″ quilt sandwiches that could then be given to charity as doll quilts. I thought that was a brilliant idea!

4 thoughts on “What’s the secret to free-motion machine quilting?”

  1. I just set my stitch length to zero so the feed dogs don’t move on my Janome. It stitches beautifully!


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