Christa’s Top Tips for Free Motion Quilting on a Domestic Machine

I love to encourage and support the art of machine quilting so I thought I’d share some of my favorite tips when it comes to quilting on a domestic machine.

Find as much work-surface area as possible. A drop-in table is an excellent investment if you are considering quilting your own quilts. I would even venture to say that the table is even more important than the machine! I bought mine from a dealer over 15 years ago who is now out of business. However, you can convert a sturdy table by cutting out a large enough hole and attaching a holding tray. Be sure to search online for a plethora of tutorials and blog posts about DIY’ers who’ve done it themselves. :-)

Sewing Table

Sewing table with drop-down platform

The table originally came with an insert that was cut to fit my older Bernina. However, when I upgraded to my new machine, I didn’t worry about cutting a new insert. I was able to lower the drop-down part of my table and level it so that the machine’s extension table covered most of the hole. Problem solved.

Table Support

Add extra tables for more support.

If you need to sew on the surface of your table, try to spread out as much as you can. Put tables behind your machine and to the left to give you more surface area in which to work. Get as large of an extension table for your machine as you can. I keep a portable TV tray on hand that I use to add more surface area to the front of my table, just to the left of where I sit. The key is to prevent too much of the weight of the quilt from dragging. Less drag makes for prettier stitches.

Be slippery and grippy when it comes to free-motion quilting. Starch the backing of your quilts before you baste them. (Heck, starch all of your fabrics while working if you can!) This helps reduce friction on the back of your quilt. Also, use a silicon quilting sheet such as a Supreme Slider to keep things slick on the bed of the machine. Use quilting gloves such as Machingers to give you a good grip while quilting.

Slippery and grippy tools.

Slippery and grippy tools.

Tip: only use a silicon quilting sheet while free-motion quilting. Do not use it while stitching with your walking foot as you will quilt right through it. I speak from experience here.

Use your hands as a “hoop” while quilting and only work on what’s in the “hoop”. When you start to quilt away from the hoop, stop (with your needle down in the quilt), reposition your hands, and form a new hoop. Be sure to remove pins before you get too close!

Hand-Hoop

Use your hands as a hoop.

Use a thin thread that blends. This is my most important piece of advice. It’s amazing how many mistakes can disappear when you see the texture of the quilting rather than the thread itself. My favorite go-to thread? Aurifil 50 weight cotton. It comes in a rainbow of colors and I have zero tension issues when I use it.

Blending Thread

Can you tell which shade of turquoise will blend better?

I also like to use the same color thread in the top and bobbin whenever possible. This helps hides unbalanced stitching and prevents “pokies” (dots of thread showing through from the other side). You can help hide thread color changes on the back of your quilt by using a busy print on the back. (Using busy prints on the front can help hide machine quilting mistakes, too!)

Matching Threads

Matching Threads

Blending Thread

Blending Thread


Depending on my quilt design and time allotted, I will either switch colors of thread for each different color of fabric, or I will use a neutral colored tan or grey over multiple colored fabrics. Again, a thin thread is the key for blending.

Change needles often; clean and oil your machine regularly. Be very good at giving your machine the TLC that it needs. Many times when your machine sounds loud or it’s skipping stitches, you need a new needle or a bit of oil. A good rule of thumb is to change out your needle about every 8 hours of sewing time. (One of the reasons I time my quilt alongs is so I will know when to change my needles.) Consult your machine’s manual on how often and where to oil and de-lint your machine.

I prefer to use sharp, topstitch or quilting needles when quilting and like to choose the smallest needle size that will accommodate my thread. You want a nice sharp needle that will pierce the fabric and will not pull up any batting to the surface or leave holes for batting to poke through. Use specialty needles for specialty threads and save the “universal” needles for regular piecing.Superior Needles

Draw, then sketch, then stitch. Draw your design with pencil on paper first to practice your muscle memory and train your brain to recognize the pattern of movement for a particular design. Draw, or doodle every day for best results. Keeping a quilting journal just for drawing is a great way to develop designs and practice your “quilt handwriting.”

Diagrams

Practice Drawing Designs

Next, “sketch” your quilting on a practice sandwich using two pieces of fabric with a scrap of batting in between. Use the same fabrics, batting and thread that you will use on your quilt. This will help your hands get a feel for how to move the quilt and form the stitches. It can also help you practice getting into and out of tight spaces.

Machine Sketching

Machine sketch on a practice quilt sandwich.

Adjust your tension as needed to form uniform stitches. I usually have to lower my top tension while free-motion quilting. Consult your machine manual on how to affect your tension. Do not be afraid to adjust the bobbin tension if needed.

Sketching on practice pieces may take a little time until you are happy with the results, and that’s perfectly okay. If you practice a little “daily quilt exercise”, before you know it, you’ll be able to stitch a marathon-length of beautiful quilting stitches!

Quilting the Negative Space

Final design on the real quilt

Finally, stitch on your actual quilt once you are happy with your thread tension, color choices, and quilting design. I find that a little pre-planning goes a long way. By following the above steps before I get to the actual quilt, there are no surprises and I can enjoy the zen-like relaxation that I get from a session of machine quilting.

When in doubt, add more quilting. You know the advice that says to add more of a certain fabric if it stands out too much? The same thing applies to quilting. One or two lines of quilting will stand out if they don’t look “perfect”. However, by the time you quilt the entire surface of your quilt, mistakes seem to blend in and all you are left with is gorgeous texture.

Staight Quilting

Lots of quilting helps hide imperfections in this quilt!

If you haven’t quite got the knack of free-motion quilting, there are quite a few textures you can stitch with your walking foot, too. Try stitching straight lines by following the edge of your foot or a piece of tape, organic lines that don’t have to be straight, or wavy lines by slightly moving your quilt from side to side as you stitch. Don’t forget the decorative stitches on your machine either. Play around with lengths and widths for an infinite variety of designs!

Take breaks between quilting sessions. I’ve found that I can only quilt comfortably for about 2 hours at a time. If I need to cram a lot of quilting into one day, I’ll start early in the morning with a 2 hour session, then take a break until after lunch for another session. Sometimes I’ll even come back later at night when the kids are in bed for another round of quilting if I’m on a deadline. Through experience, I’ve learned that I need to plan out my quilting over several days for more successful results. Remember – you can’t rush art!

Good quilting posture.

Practice good quilting posture.

Speaking of being comfortable, try to keep your arms bent at a 90 degree angle while quilting (and sewing), with your feet resting comfortably on the ground. Since I’m short and my legs dangle, that means raising my adjustable sewing chair as high as it goes and putting a book or two under my non-quilting foot for support.

Remember to have fun and enjoy the learning process. Just as you learned to crawl before you could walk, and you had to practice your handwriting before you could learn cursive, free-motion quilting is also a learned skill that takes time to develop. I truly believe that anyone can achieve beautiful results if they are willing to put in the time, patience and practice. Your efforts will be rewarded, I promise. :-)

Christa Quilts

Christa quilts… and you can, too!

Above all, enjoy the learning process. Be proud of what you are trying to achieve. I will be here to cheer you on!

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44 Responses to Christa’s Top Tips for Free Motion Quilting on a Domestic Machine

  1. Pingback: Research Later | Idyllic Needle

  2. Trish says:

    Thank you for the awesome info! I just started FMQing on my new Bernina 750 and so far have worked on table runners and a couple of 50 x 50 lap quilts. Unfortunately I have to sew on my dining room table and it was a struggle. My shoulders got sore very quickly. After reading your post I realized that I’m probably sitting too low for the hight of the table plus the height of the machine. I can’t do the drop down thing so will have to find a way to extend the surface around my machine to get it even so there isn’t as much drag and probably sit on a couple of phone books! Would never have known that if I hadn’t found your post so thank you again!

  3. Gillian says:

    Thanks so much Christa!
    I have a question for you regarding where on the quilt to start. The last quilt I did, I started by using a walking foot to quilt an anchor line vertically down the middle and another one across, creating a cross. The problem was these two lines were the only ones that seemed to ‘creep’, creating a wiggly edge. I was thinking after maybe it’s better to work from the middle out? But I didn’t know how you’d do that if you were quilting edge to edge in a grid like I did.
    Oh, I did use spray basting plus pins, so the creep wasn’t due to the fabrics not being anchored.
    What is your advice here?
    Thanks!!
    Gillian

    • Christa says:

      I agree with working from the middle out. I find I get better results by quilting all of the horizontal or vertical lines first and then going the other way.
      Good luck with it!

  4. What size needle do you use with Aurifil 50 wt? Somewhere else said they use a 12 universal, but I like to buy quilting needles.

    • Christa says:

      I use a size 80/12 sharp, topstitch or quilting needle for machine quilting. I save the universal needles for piecing. They are not really sharp enough for good quilting.

  5. Kathryn Knox says:

    Love your tutorial. I will refer to it often, I’m new to quilting. Silly question…how many stitches per inch do you set your machine to for FMQ? And also with a walking foot?

    • Christa says:

      Not a silly question at all! For free motion quilting, I keep the stitch length set to zero because I am manually deciding how long to stitch them. I try for even consistency in length, though that’s not always the case.

      For the walking foot I will crank it up to 3 or 3.5. Sometimes there will be friction on the quilt which can reduce the lengths so this helps compensate.

  6. 8machines says:

    I did close stitching on my grandsons quilt, like your chevron, and while it was pretty and well done, it was not soft. I am sorry I spent the sewing time and that I didn’t use a flannel backing. It is too many stitches. Pouf would have been wonderful. Other quilters do quilt with heavy stitching and I imagine its a good idea for showing a quilt, but it’s not for cuddling.

    • Christa says:

      A lot of time it depends on the batting. I like to use a wool batting because it gives me a lot of poof without being too stiff. If I want extra warmth – I’ll use two battings, cotton and wool.

      You are right, though – flannel on the back makes for a super snuggly quilt!

  7. caroll drudy says:

    I was going through my computer today and looking at all your emails, which I save and wanted to tell you how much I enjoy your blog. It is so full of helpful information and I particularly have been enjoying your skill builder series. Thank you so much! And keep up the good work!

  8. Marie says:

    Fabulous post…..many thanks for the very helpful tip and advice!!

  9. Irene S says:

    Thanks for your great tips, I just have to get the rhythm.

  10. Wens says:

    This is really so helpful, I can only straight line quilt on my old machine for now, but I’m looking forward to getting a new machine hopefully soon and I’ll be referring back to this page for sure. Thanks for taking the time to explain things so nicely.

  11. claudia w says:

    Great tips Christa! I am going to bookmark this page so I can refer back to it often. You are truly helpful and inspiring!

  12. dezertsuz says:

    Thanks! There was some excellent advice on a couple of things I hadn’t considered. I appreciate it. Sticking to lines and walking foot, for the moment. =)

  13. Rosalee says:

    You are such an encourager Christa! I’m still a beginner, but I am seeing some progress. Thanks for all your tips, techniques, everything!!

  14. Nita says:

    Fabulous tips…thank you! I will be buying a new domestic machine soon and want to try fmq. Your tips will be helpful as I set up my new sewing room. ;)

  15. Christa, You are so incredibly generous with sharing your tips and knowledge. I love it! I have been quilting for over 25 years, and yet am always learning to new ways to enjoy this wonderful world of quilting. Thank you so much for making it easier and more enjoyable for all of us!

  16. Michele Valdez says:

    Thank you so much Christa! I’m almost done with my very first quilt (your jolly jelly roll quilt along!) And believe it or not, my husband is the one who quilted it for me…so I guess I should say “our first quilt”. We decided we make a great team…I love the piece work and he loves the quilting! I will definitely have him read today post….you gave some excellent suggestions!

    P.S. I’ll be sure to post pictures, as soon as I finish the hand binding. :o)

  17. barbara corbitt says:

    I am in awe of your wonderful quilting skills!! It looks like a work of art. Such a great job.

  18. Thank you for posting this, Christa! I’ll be pinning this for sure, and I need to get busy doodling! : P

  19. Lea says:

    Christa, thank you. You have great info here. I have never tried FMQ but will someday. I haven’t done much machine quilting at all. Have practiced on mug rugs, a small flip and stitch doggie quilt and a quilt as you go quilt for my husband. Soon I will be machine quilting my first ever quilt, a small quilt (straight stitching) for my grandnephew. Thanks again for this info, I’m saving it.

  20. Kathleen says:

    Thanks for all the good advice. Still in practice mode and just doing straight line quilting.

  21. Yvonne says:

    Is have resisted quilting myself up until now. Your tutorial was very encouraging and just might be enough to get me to give it a try. Thanks, Christa.

  22. Ellie says:

    Beautiful quilting!!

  23. Jayne says:

    Thank you for these great tips! One day I swear I’m going to tackle FMQ on a big project!

  24. Fabulous tutorial…Thank you so much for all fo the tips.

  25. Debbie Miner says:

    Inspiring…thank you!

  26. Wonderful tips, Christa. Thanks for sharing… and for the encouraging words!

  27. Kay says:

    Perfect advice for a beginner. Thanks so much. I always dread quilting but this should help.

  28. Wendy Rubbo says:

    Thanks, Christa. I’m still working up the courage to try FMQ. Your helpful advice and encouragement spur me on. Just lucked into a Bernina workhorse, so it may happen sooner than later!

  29. Lis Ostiguy says:

    Christa

    Why the starch? Doesn’t it gun up the machine?
    I like to do everything on my quilts. With your tutorials I am getting a little more adventurous. BTW I got Quilty as soon as it was at the store. Beautiful quilt! Congrats!

    • Christa says:

      Starch is wonderful! It keeps things slick and I’ve never had any problems with it gumming up the machine. I’m glad I’m helping you be more adventurous. Isn’t it fun??

  30. Karen Miller says:

    Awesome tips Christa… Thanks for writing them up with such detail. Karen

  31. Wanda says:

    Great tips Christa! I teach FMQ and will be sending my ladies to your posting for more information! It will be a great resource for them! Thank you!!

  32. Nancy M says:

    Thanks!

  33. Vera says:

    Thank you for sharing your tips.

  34. Kathleen says:

    Thank you Christa for the sensible step by step advice on quilting

  35. Vicki says:

    Thank you Christa! I am so in the middle of this learning stage. I have 3 quilts that I am trying to get quilted. Rhythm is where I have a hard time. Practice make you so-so!

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