Free-Motion Quilting: Sewing Machine Setup

The first time I ever tried my hand at free-motion quilting I had no idea what I was doing. While channeling my inner Rosie the Riveter, I naively sat down to my machine with a stack of small quilt sandwiches and a belief that I could do this. Unfortunately, after struggling to set up my machine, many thread nests, some swearing, and zero free-motion quilting done I set my project aside.

Obviously, I’m a big believer in a “can do” attitude and the notion that I have the power to solve sewing problems as they arise, but sometimes it pays to take a step back and do a little research before plunging into something new. There are so many resources when it comes to free-motion quilting—everything from magazine articles and books to videos and courses. In my case, this simple tutorial by Eric Drexler on how to set up the machine from Sulky Presents: Fearless Free-Motion Stitching for Beginners would have saved a ton of time and frustration.

Free Motion banner quilted by Eric Drexler

Set up the Machine for Free-Motion Quilting

1. Use a clean, well-tuned, zig-zag (or even a straight-stitch) sewing machine.

2. Lower or cover your feed dogs. If you do not have a way to drop the feed dogs or cover them, tape an index card over them.

3. Remove the presser foot and screw; place them in the attachment box. Attach the appropriate darning or quilting foot on the machine. A spring-loaded, free-motion foot is the preferred foot to use on most machines. (An open-toe, spring-loaded free-motion foot is even better.)

OPTIONAL: For better stitch quality, attach the straight stitch throat plate if you have one.

4. Insert a new 14/90 Topstitch or 14/90 Metallic Needle and center needle position.

5. Give your machine a love-pat (bringing your presser foot down) if it does not do this automatically for you. If your presser foot is not down, the tension is not engaged, and you will have a bird’s nest under your fabric.

6. The stitch length is now controlled entirely by a combination of how fast you run the machine and how fast you move the fabric. Some machines have a stitch regulator that actually keeps your free-motion stitches evenly spaced.

Beginner Quilt Sampler by Eric Drexler

7. Select the slowest speed, or one notch faster. Steady machine speed and steady movement of the fabric are essential to successful, even quilting.

8. Select a straight stitch for quilting or thread sketching. You will not want the bobbin thread to ever show on the quilt top. To prevent this from happening the same type and color thread in the bobbin as in the needle. You may need to slightly lower your top tension. If you have never pieced or quilted before, this Beginner Quilt Sampler featured in this course is a wonderful way to learn.

Eric Drexler demonstrates everything a novice free-motion quilter needs to know to start stitching with confidence. Not a beginner? Join Eric to learn more intricate techniques in his online course Sulky Presents: Fearless Free-Motion Stitching 2: Beyond the Basics. Or better yet, check out the course collection to get both courses at a steal of a deal.

Whatever you do, learn from my mistakes on this one and set yourself up for success.

Happy quilting!

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