Free-Motion Machine Quilting
Free-motion quilting is more than just a way to hold the pieces of your quilt together. Stitching lines, swirls, and motifs onto your quilt can add dimension, depth, meaning, and interest.
You can use free-motion quilting to accent parts of a quilt or as an overall texture. And you can change the look of the stitches simply by changing the color of the thread.
You can use free-motion machine quilting to write words on your quilt or to sketch an image. Just think of the needle and thread as you pencil and the quilt as your paper.
But you’ve heard the old adage about drawing, right? Practice makes perfect! The same goes for machine quilting. It takes time, patience, and commitment to get those stitches smooth and even, and your motifs to look impeccable.
Free-Motion Machine Quilting Basics
An overview of machine quilting supplies and stitches
Shop Machine Quilting
You don’t need a top-of-the-line machine to do free-motion quilting. The only thing necessary is a lockstitch machine (a sewing machine that has a top and bottom thread), and either a hoop or a darning foot, which is used to stabilize your stitching. A wider range of possibilities is opened up to quilters with machines that have a built-in zigzag stitch.
To begin, you need to either “drop” or “quiet” your feed dogs, so that you, not the machine, are guiding your fabric. Many machines have a switch or button that allows you to easily drop the feed dogs. If your machine does not, it may have a special plate designed to cover the feed dogs. You may need to check your manual. If you cannot drop or cover the feed dogs, simply move the stitch length to zero – this basically stops the feed dogs from moving.
For free-motion quilting, the best needle is typically a topstitching needle. It has a sharp point that ensures a straight drawing line (unlike a universal needle, which has a ball point, causing it to wheedle its way into the fabric and never create a straight line), and a large eye, that helps to reduce thread breakage as well as making it easier to thread.
A darning foot provides the ideal surface support for free-motion techniques, and the one made specifically for your machine is your best bet.
Even if you can’t find a darning foot, you can free-motion quilt with a machine quilting frame or hoop to stabilize your surface. My favorite hoops are designed for machine embroidery, made of hardwood, and have a screw on the side that you can tighten with a screwdriver.
A quilt sandwich is already stabilized due to the batting, but if you intend to use your zigzag stitch, you may want to stabilize it further with either interfacing or stabilizers. A stabilizer is made to be removed once you are finished stitching.
The three basic types are:
Drawing: Drawing free-motion is a bit like drawing by moving your paper while someone else holds the pencil. While it seems a bit awkward at first, it’s a wonderful way to sketch.
Stippling: While stippling quilting originally referred to a very specific machine quilting pattern, it has come to mean any free-motion fill-in stitch.
Signatures: Free-motion is one of the best machine quilting techniques for signing your name. It takes practice, but you can sign your name right into the piece!
Source: Defining the Line: Free-motion Embroidery Skills by Ellen Anne Eddy, Adapted from Quilting Arts Magazine, Summer 2002
Free-Motion Machine Quilting Tips
1. Don’t be afraid to adjust your bobbin tension. You can check to see if the tension is right by placing the loaded bobbin case in your hand and lifting the thread. The case should lift but if you give the thread a little jerk it should come back down to your hand. Use the tiny screw driver that came with your machine to turn the screw a quarter turn at a time until it is adjusted to whatever thread you are using.
2. Practice on a charity quilt. Throw together a bunch of scraps or pull out that quilt you started 10 years ago and can’t stand the sight of any more. There is someone in a nursing home right now that will greatly appreciate a nice warm lap quilt.
3. Have a small fabric and batting sandwich by your machine at all times to use as a warm-up and testing cloth. Use it every time you begin to quilt to test your thread tension and to get into the flow of movements that you will be using for your quilt.
4. Doodle on paper as often as you can. Set your pen down and don’t pick it up until the page is filled with a single line of pseudo-stitching. It is a great way to get your mind in gear for machine quilting and to come up with new designs.
5. Pause the quilt’s movement, but not the needle whenever you change direction. Corners and other directional changes are where tension problems often show up. Just slow down and pause for a heartbeat before you head off in the next direction. The close stitches will relieve some of your tension difficulties.
Source: Using Stitch as a Design Element by Lyric Kinard, Quilting Arts in Stitches Vol. II, 2011
Machine Quilting Stitch Tension Tips (Or, What to Do When Stitches Go Bad)
Stitches can go bad, and tension is usually the culprit, though not always. Sometimes there is a problem with the needle, the thread, or even lax quilting machine maintenance. Here are some trouble-shooting tips that can help ease your tension.
- Regardless of what the instruction books recommend for your machine say, you will almost certainly have to adjust your tension for free-motion machine quilting.
- It is impossible to say exactly what tension you should use, as it is dependent on the thickness of the thread, the needles you are using, the thickness and density of the batting you are using, and the backing fabric.
- It is best to keep a small sampler piece of the materials you are working with so that you can check that the tension is right for the materials you are working with.
- If you are having problems with the top of your work, such as threads breaking or stitches skipping, first check your needle; you may need to change it.
- If you have changed the needle and the problem continues, there is usually something going on with your bobbin. Give it a good cleaning and then rethread it, making sure that your bobbin is properly wound.
- If there are problems underneath your work such as tension or bunching of threads, it usually means there is a problem with the top of your machine. Rethread the top of your machine completely. With free-motion machine quilting it is possible for the threads to slip out of the tension plates, and tension is needed to make good stitches.
Source: The Liveliness of the Stitch by Dijanne Cevaal, Quilting Arts in Stitches Vol. IV, 2011
How to Pull Up the Bobbin Thread
You’ll be in the zone, moving your latest creation under the needle in a steady rhythm until . . . the thread breaks; you notice the stitches are skipping; or a little tug tells you there is a problem underneath the fabric, like an unsightly nest of bobbin thread. In this video, Pokey Bolton shows you how to pull up the bobbin thread to avoid these issues and keep on stitching.