Finding Inspiration for Free-Motion Quilting Designs

When it comes to free-motion quilting, I’m a creature of habit. I have four or five different motifs that I can easily pull out of my “toolbox” at any given moment. Meander, anyone? I’ve got it covered. But sometimes coming up with an interesting, elegant, and connected design for a more modern quilt is hard for me. That’s when I turn to my friend and Quilting Arts TV host Susan Brubaker Knapp for advice. Her original free-motion motifs incorporate contemporary imagery and quirky designs. Best of all, they are fun and easy to replicate.

Take a look at her designs and see if you can’t help yourself: these are too much fun. In addition, Susan shares her top tips for getting the best results from your equipment. Here’s an overview of tips and notions she uses frequently in her work.

Focus on Modern Motifs

by Susan Brubaker Knapp

In brainstorming to create original free-motion quilting motifs, I get the best results when I think within one narrow category at a time.

Drawing of Susan's turbine free-motionquilting motif.
Drawing of Susan’s turbine quilting motif.

For example, within the “modern” motifs category, I focus on things like science, medicine, space, and technology. If you are not familiar with the imagery, it can be helpful to do an online image search. In searching “technology,” the results might be circuit boards, gears, keyboards, screens, turbines, fiber optics software, computers, and remote controls. Even if you don’t work in a high-tech field, you will recognize these images as great jumping-off points for designing your own free-motion quilting motifs.

Try choosing your own narrow category, searching for images, and creating your own original free-motion motifs.

Free-Motion Quilting Notions to Try

Of course with needle, thread, and your machine you do have everything needed to free-motion quilt. But certain notions make the process easier. These are some of my favorites— and why I love them.

Zero-friction machine bed. To reduce drag, the Supreme Slider™ is key to free-motion quilting larger pieces. This Teflon® sheet sits on the machine bed, allowing fabric to move more smoothly as you free-motion stitch. When you don’t have to work as hard to move the fabric, you can relax and focus on your stitch quality.

Quilting gloves. When I work on bigger quilts, I find that quilting gloves do help. I like Grabaroos®, purple gloves that help grip the fabric. They have little nubs on the fingertips, are very comfortable, and don’t make my hands hot in the summer. I also like it that they are form fitting (not baggy or bulky). If you aren’t comfortable wearing gloves, Lickity Grip® might be the product for you. Put this greaseless substance on your fingertips to help you grip and control the fabric.

Drawing of Susan's worm holes free-motion quilting motif.
Drawing of Susan’s worm holes quilting motif.

Hoop accessory. Quilting is a contact sport with your hands as a hoop. They hold the quilt sandwich down so the backing, batting, and quilt top don’t shift. Make sure your hands are pressing down slightly, and that they are fairly close to the needle. If your hands are too far away from the needle, you will lose some control. If you have weak hands, or issues like arthritis or tremors, try a tool that applies some pressure so your hands don’t have to do all the work. Award-winning quilter Sharon Schamber’s Quilt Halo is a weighted hoop that sits on top of your quilt top and gives you more control over your stitching.

Bobbin washers. Starts, stops, and changes of direction can be tricky. If you have to stop (and you do have to stop sometimes to reposition your hands), think about the most strategic place to stop, where it will show the least. Little Magic Bobbin Genies are Teflon® circles that fit inside your bobbin case and help the bobbin thread move more smoothly when you slam on the brakes or change direction. This helps reduce those ugly nests of thread that sometimes show up on the back of your work.

Free-motion machine feet. If you’ve only tried the quilting foot that came with your machine, you may not be using the best foot for the way you quilt. Go back to your machine dealer, and ask to try every foot designed for free-motion quilting, stitching, darning, and embroidery. Some feet have mechanisms on them that block your view more than others. You may prefer a plastic, see-through foot—or you may like a large, open, metal circle or horseshoe shape. I’ve had students borrow my foot, or a neighbor’s, and get much better results right away. (Sometimes it really isn’t you. It is the equipment!)

And of course, the most important tip of all—practice, practice, practice…

Explore more advice from Susan Brubaker Knapp as she shares her expert tips for free-motion quilting and check out her machine quilting articles in the compilation eBook Creative Machine Quilting: Finding Inspiration for Free-motion Designs. More of a visual learner? No problem! Watch and learn from Susan as she shares her love of designing, practicing, and creating unique quilting motifs in her video 52 Free-Motion Quilting Motifs and Fillers.

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