Free-Motion Quilting

If you’ve been one of the readers that has told me you’re afraid of free-motion quilting this post is for you!  I, too used to be afraid, but am no longer!  This is me quilting on a small quilt sandwich (2 layers of fabric with batting in between).


Excuse the Michael Jackson look.  Although my sewing area is surprisingly clean, I can’t find my other quilting glove!

If you’ve never done this before, here are some simple steps to get you going.  There are a ton of words here, but if you’d like to print off the instructions, I’ve put them on a handy dandy PDF file  for you to print off an take with you to the sewing machine.

  • Make a mini quilt sandwich ~ 10” x 10” using scrap pieces of fabric and batting:  Layer batting between 2 pieces of pressed fabric.  Spread top and bottom fabrics out flat with hands.  Pin if necessary to keep layers in place.
  • Attach a darning foot to your machine.
  •  Set presser foot pressure to zero.
  •  Lower the feed dogs (consult your machine’s manual on how to do this if necessary).
  •  Put on quilting gloves, if available (rubber gloves are a good substitute).
  •  Starting in the center, make one stitch, ending with needle up.  Using the top thread, pull the bobbin thread all the way up through the top of the quilt (a pin may be helpful in pulling up the bobbin thread).  Stitch in place over the ends of the thread for 3 stitches.  Snip thread tails.
  •  Place both hands on fabric with thumbs pointing toward each other forming a three-sided box around the needle.  Remember that the quilt sandwich should not rotate.  It will simply glide up, down, side to side and diagonally.
  •  Start sewing, moving your quilt sandwich left, right, up and down.  Practice diagonals and loops.  Practice writing your name or drawing stars.
  •  Practice meandering stitches as shown above.  Note:  The diagram above is meant only to be a guide.  Meandering stitches are meant to be random.
  •  Listen to the rhythm of the machine and try to move your fabric at a consistent speed.  Pay attention to your stitches.  Are they longer than you’d like?  Try decreasing the stitch length by moving the fabric more slowly.  Are they shorter than you’d like?  Try moving the fabric more quickly under the machine, increasing the stitch length.   As you become more used to stitching this way, you’ll find your rhythm and refine your technique.
  • Pay attention to your posture.  It’s easy to hunch over in concentration but quilting this way for any length of time can strain your back and neck.
  •  Consider winding up several bobbins before free-motion quilting an entire quilt.  Free-motion quilting uses a lot of thread and having several bobbins filled prevents the sewer from having to stop to refill a fresh bobbin.

I have to admit that  my sewing machine has a special stitch regulator that makes free-motion quilting (FMQ) much less intimidating.  But when I wrote the Tree and Bird Baby Quilt pattern, I turned that feature off and learned to do it without the stitch regulator so I could write the instructions I’m giving to you now.  I can honestly say that it isn’t much harder and am not using the stitch regulator in the video above.

Seasoned quilters, feel free to add your 2 cents, keeping in mind that there will be variations based on preferences.

New to FMQ?  Feel free to ask anything that I forgot to cover!

21 thoughts on “Free-Motion Quilting

    • I hope you can drop your feed dogs! I think older machines usually have the feature because this is what is done for darning socks and other things. Have fun!

  1. OOoooooooo!! I really want to try that, but I’ve always been too intimidated. I was going to make some potholders–maybe I’ll give it a whirl on those!

    • Potholders would be perfect! Little things are a great thing to start on when quilting. I don’t do anything larger than a baby quilt for this very reason. Man handling large quilts on a regular machine make me break into a sweat. My heart pounds and my arms eventually hurt. No fun! But a potholder? Perfect. Have fun!

  2. Thank you for this post – so helpful!
    I tried FMQ last night at my sewing class and the machine kind of “ran away” with the fabric. But as you say, practice makes perfect eventually.

    • You know, the stitch regulator on my machine is a high-tech, computer controlled device and that has run away with the sewing on more than one occasion. It’s sort of scary! It really gets quite easy with practice, practice, practice. Happy quilting!

  3. I agree. I have found that the smaller quilts, table, and quilting gloves to be the best things I do. I have found that the bigger the quilt the harder it is to free motion quilt because of the drag. When you are first starting out play with a 12×12 piece. Then when you move up to larger pieces use a large table behind your machine so it doesn’t pull the fabric. They also make these nifty gloves (Machingers) that help you hang onto the fabric.

    • You are so right! I don’t think I’ll ever do anything larger than a baby quilt this way. The table idea was helpful when I was quilting my kid’s twin-sized quilts, but still, my arms got a good workout.

  4. I have found for me (I’ve only done a few quilts, so I’m sooo far from an expert) that when I did a larger quilt (still only lap sized), I would focus on a quilt block at a time. I wouldn’t stay completely on the block b/c then it’d look too planned. Then I rolled up the fabric around/behind/in front to help with bulk of the quilt and movement.

    • Oh goodness, yes – rolling the part of the quilt that isn’t being quilted is a must. For some reason I like going over the borders on the quilt blocks frequently – I love the way it blends all the different fabrics together.

  5. Thanks for this tutorial. Something I am just trying out. Couldn’t quite get it…duh…don’t think I ever read to make presser foot to 0…I know I should have figured that out but I’m totally new to this. I can lower my feed dogs but don’t have a darning foot. I did buy a quilting foot but don’t want to invest a lot of money in this machine because I would like to move up to a better one.

    • You know, I don’t think you have to have a darning foot. Any presser foot that has an “open toe” will work, since the needle needs a little bit of space around it as you go. Have fun with this! It just took a few practice sessions for me to feel comfortable doing this on a quilt.

  6. I remember my mother covering her feed dogs with a piece of tape. I’m in the process of learning free motion. I couldn’t figure out why my stitches are so small, thanks to you, I now know that I’m not moving my quilt fast enough. Thank you for taking the time to make such helpful tutorials!!

  7. Thanks a lot for this tutorial, I think I could began after reading your tips
    I speak a little english but I could understand
    I want to try this technic so beautiful

  8. Pingback: In a Pear Tree Advent Calendar Holiday Sew-Along ~ Part 2 « Sew,Mama,Sew! Blog

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