This is a simple overview of free-motion quilting on a home machine. For a post detailing my process for managing the size and weight of a larger quilt during quilting, please refer to my post on the Modern Quilt Guild blog.
I prepare my machine as follows:
Fit machine with darning/free-motion foot.
Set stitch length to zero.
Lower or cover feed dogs (depending on the machine).
Fit machine with a brand new needle. I prefer 90/14 Machine Quilting needles. Free-motion quilting puts a lot of stress on your needle, so using a stronger one is a good idea.
For this quilt, I used cotton thread in a light warm tan to match the natural Essex cotton/linen I used for the sashing.
Because free-motion quilting takes so much thread, I like to fill a number of extra bobbins before I start. I always use the same thread and bobbin color. It's more forgiving of slight irregularities in tension (i.e. you won't see little dots of the back color on the front and vise versa).
I prefer to use a quality 100% cotton thread like Aurifil 50 wt for both piecing and quilting.
Better threads tend to do well in most machines, but sometimes machines are finicky. If you're having trouble with a certain kind of thread (even if it's "a good brand") I recommend trying something else to see if your machine likes it better.
Be sure to avoid any thread labeled as "hand quilting thread." This thread has a waxy coating that will not play well with your machine!
Here's another example of a quilt where I matched the thread to the sashing used. I'm showing several examples of this because I think it's a good strategy for choosing thread color, since it keeps the graphic areas of negative space on your quilt looking sharp.
Here's an example of white thread used over bright colors. Because the sashing and areas of most of the prints are white, the thread actually blends pretty well with the brights.
All of the quilts show in this post are quilted in a simple, continuous-line curved meandering pattern, which I think is a good technique for those who are new to free-motion quilting.
You may also find it helpful to start by drawing your quilting design on a piece of paper. One of the biggest challenges for new quilters is figuring out "where to go next" during quilting. Practicing filling in an entire sheet of paper with your quilting design can be a good way to alleviate that concern.
Once you've figured out what kind of pattern you'd like to use for quilting, you may want to practice on a "mini quilt sandwich" before moving on to your quilt. My mini sandwich is about twelve inches square. If you're not sure about your thread color choice, making a patchwork mini sandwich with your scraps can be a good way to audition different threads.
Because your feed dogs are lowered, the only thing moving the fabric will be your hands. I described the process earlier as being like drawing. The twist is that, with free-motion quilting, you move the quilt/paper instead of the needle/pen.
Begin by manually lowering your needle, pulling the bobbin thread to the top. Holding the tails of your thread and bobbin, make several stitches in the same place, creating a "knot" of sorts. Move the quilt sandwich, stitching in your chosen pattern just an inch or so away from where you started. Pause, making sure your needle is in the down position, and trim the loose threads.
Continue stitching, filling in your quilt sandwich in your chosen pattern. You'll notice that your hands are not only in control of the shape of your stitches but also in their length. If you move too slowly, your stitches will be too small and tight but, if you move too quickly, your stitches will be too long and loose. Part of the reason for practicing on a mini sandwich like this is to get a feel for the right balance between pressure on your presser foot and the speed with which you move the sandwich.
I've seen the suggestion that you should do free-motion quilting "as fast as you can." While I do find that working more quickly than slowly results in a good even stitch and nice curves, I think it's important to keep your speed in check. If you start going too fast, your stitches can easily get out of control. I suggest practicing on mini sandwiches until you've figured out a rhythm that works for you.
Once you're ready to work on your quilt, take a little time to prepare your quilting area. You want to make sure that the weight of your
This is a pretty low-tech diagram but, hopefully, you can get some idea from it the order in which I do my quilting. I find that, with anything larger than a baby quilt, the center is the most difficult part to quilt. As such, I try to work in a circle around the center. I find that the trick is to quilt in even swaths across the top. If I don't make an effort to keep quilting in an even-ish swath, it's much easier to end up with little unquilted nooks and crannies that are difficult to get back to without either stitching over already quilted areas.
Start quilting the same way you did on your mini sandwich -- by making a few stitches in the same place, quilting for a couple of inches and pausing (with the needle down) to trim the loose threads.
Continue quilting, turning your sandwich over periodically to make sure your stitches look good on both sides. (You don't want to finish half the quilt before you realize that you have a problem!)
Many people assume that all quilting problems are tension-related, but that's not always the case. While you do want to make sure that you have balanced tension, other problems like mis-threading the machine, putting the bobbin in wrong, using a dull needle, or using a low-quality thread might also be affecting your stitch quality.
If you have a hard time identifying tension problems, I recommend taking a peek at your machine's manual. Most of them come with instructive diagrams showing what different kinds of tension problems look like.
If you do have a problem, take a deep breath, take your sandwich off the machine and pick them out before moving on.
You can see in this photo how I've rolled/bunched the quilt on either side of the area that I'm quilting.
It may take some time to get a feel for moving a larger quilt around. I prefer to work without anything interfering with my hands, but many quilters find it helpful to wear gloves designed for this purpose.
I often find it easier to control the sandwich when I have one hand on top and one underneath. However, this is definitely an instance where you'll need to figure out what works best for you and go with it.
Unlike with regular sewing, where fabric is pulled away from you as it works its way through the machine, I prefer to start at the bottom and pull my sandwich toward me as I quilt. I find it easier to see what I'm doing if I start at the bottom and work my way to the top, as shown in the above photo.
Note: I stepped away from the machine to snap that photo. If I were in the photo, you would see the part of the quilt resting on my chest, rather than hanging down in front of the machine! You can read more about that here.
As you're quilting, be sure that you're removing your basting pins before you get too close. I keep a little bowl nearby to collect these as I work.
Depending on the strength of your table, you may find that free-motion quilting causes a lot of vibration and/or movement of items on top of the table. If you have anything, especially a beverage, in your work area, you might consider placing them on a different nearby surface before they march right off the edge of the table!
If you're doing an allover pattern, you will probably run out of bobbin thread several times during quilting. When that happens, take your sandwich off the machine and trim loose threads.
Replace the bobbin and return your sandwich to its former position. Place your needle in the down position within a couple of stitches, but not right at the end, of where your bobbin ran out.
As when you started, make a couple of stitches in place to secure and then quilt an inch or two away. Stop, with your needle in the down position, trim threads and move on with your quilting.
There are finer finishing techniques that can be used to make knots at the beginning and end of quilting lines, but I've found that machine-made knots like these hold up just fine on utilitarian quilts.
Be prepared for free-motion quilting to be physically strenuous. It can take a surprising amount of work to shift your sandwich around. If you get tired or frustrated with it, walk away for a few hours. There's no reason you need to finish your quilting all at once.
Once you're finished with your quilting, square up the edges of your quilt using a ruler and rotary cutter. I do this by draping the quilt across my cutting table and shifting it a few feet at a time until I've squared all the way up each side.
Don't be discouraged if your first attempt isn't perfect. Free-motion quilting on a standard machine can be tricky and it will probably take a few projects before your stitching looks exactly how you want it to!
Another thing to keep in mind is that, while you will have been staring at your quilting stitches for hours, the recipient of your quilt is less likely to pay them any attention. I find that, when I'm upset with the way a project looks, walking away from it for a day or two is usually the best policy.