Improve Your Free-Motion Filler Technique

I confess: sometimes I get so caught up in the "art" I forget about the "quilting."

Let me explain. An idea for an art quilt forms in my mind based on, say, a favorite TV show such as (still–and forever) Tony Soprano. Or, a new line of gorgeous fabrics hits my desk and I have to do something with those luscious colors and witty patterns. Or, I get obsessed with a new surface design technique and suddenly all I can think about in my studio is Thermofax® printing or soy wax batik. 

I plan my design, play with fabric combinations, and happily churn out a pile of screen prints and batiks. Only then do I think about how I'm going to free-motion stitch the final quilt.

And yet, the design I make with free-motion stitching can make or break the quilt. Sure, a basic vermicelli or vine pattern will always do. But the right design, done well, can enhance the entire piece of art by highlighting the shapes in the fabric or surface design or by mimicking the motif or theme of the art quilt (think a wave pattern on an aquatic-themed quilt).

Not every art quilt lends itself to a lot of all-over machine stitching, but the best quilters I know (Kathy York immediately comes to mind as an example) always take the free-motion stitching pattern into consideration.

One person who continually thinks about new and unusual free-motion stitch designs is Leah Day. Leah explores machine stitch motifs on her popular blog, "365 Days of Free Motion Quilting Filler Designs."

Nearly every day, Leah posts a new stitching pattern and a video tutorial that guides readers through the process of creating the design. Leah created nine original free-motion filler designs exclusively for Quilting Arts in Stitches and discussed her inspirations and advice for free-motion work with Quilting Arts Editorial Assistant Pippa Eccles. Here's an excerpt of their interview:

PE: What are some of the inspirations for your designs?

LD: Inspiration really is everywhere, but for free-motion quilting designs, I'm always looking for new textures or combinations of shapes and symbols. Just the other day, I saw a handbag with designs that were a combination of heart shapes and spirals. How simple is that? Hearts and spirals! But together they form a terrific design that would look great on a quilt.

I really like looking at magazines like Better Homes & Gardens because everything in these magazines has a texture. Food, plants, and even the advertisements can be inspiring.

PE: What do you think is the most difficult aspect of free-motion quilting for most individuals? Do you have any advice for them?

LD: Really the hardest part is getting over the beginning period of ugly stitching and bad tension. We're used to our machines producing pretty awesome looking stitches, so then we drop or cover our feed dogs and suddenly all our wonderful stitch quality goes out the window, it can be a little scary!

Getting past this point really comes down to practice. Practice will teach you how to adjust your tension. Practice will teach you how to control the speed of your foot pedal. And practice will teach you how to move your hands with your foot and find that happy balance in free-motion stitching.

For practice, I really recommend pulling a good full- or queen-sized quilt out of your closet to practice on. Most of us have quilt tops waiting to be quilted. Pick one and let it bear the brunt of your learning experience.

I promise that by the end of free-motion quilting the quilt top, you will have a better understanding of how to position your hands and body, and how control your speed.

You can read more of this interview and get all nine of Leah's free-motion stitch motif videos by downloading Quilting Arts In Stitches. Your quilts will be the better for it!

P.S. Want more free-motion stitching advice? Download our free eBook, Free Motion Quilting: How to Make a Quilt-67 Machine Stitching Tips and Motifs.

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Free-Motion Quilting, Machine Stitching, Quilting Daily Blog