Techniques and Tools – Intro to Free-Motion Quilting

Welcome to Technique Tutorial Tuesday. This is a long post so sit back, relax, and read awhile!

Today I will be presenting an introduction to Free-Motion Quilting (FMQ for short). I will cover topics such as thread selection and tools needed for successful quilting, as well as starting and stopping and the density of your quilting.

I quilt all of my quilts on a Bernina machine that’s almost 20 years old. If I can do it, so can you! I hope you will give FMQ a try because I think it’s the most fun part of making a quilt!

Machingers Quilting GlovesSupreme SliderTopstitch NeedlesThread

For starters, here are my 3 favorite tools for quilting:

  1. Machingers quilting gloves help grip the quilt while quilting which in turn reduces stress and tension on your shoulders. They are machine washable and breathe well.
  2. A Supreme Slider helps for two reasons: it allows your quilt to glide smoothly under the bed of the machine. It also acts as a cover for your feed-dogs so you can still have FMQ success even if you are unable to drop them.
  3. Superior Titanium Coated Topstitch needles come in several sizes according to the weight of your thread. They have a larger eye which makes them much easier to thread. They also have a longer needle shaft which helps prevent thread breaks. I use a new needle at the start of each quilt and change them about every 8-10 hours of quilting.

FMQ FootFor FMQ, you also need to use a darning foot or free-motion foot made specifically to fit your machine.

Speaking from experience, it’s best to get this straight from the dealer. The best type of foot has an “open toe” so you can see where you are stitching.

Thoughts on Thread and Tension

I love lots of quilting on my quilts but I want the quilting to show, not the thread. In order to do this, I try to blend my threads as much as possible on my quilt. I have a rainbow of colors and I don’t mind switching thread colors or weights when needed, even in the same quilt.

Auditioning Thread Choices

Auditioning Thread Choices

Quilted Thread

Light Grey for Background, Colors for Blocks

To decide on the correct thread color for a quilt, I will audition several choices and see which one “disappears”Β  most into the quilt. I test the thread out on a practice piece first,Β  to check the tension and to see how well the thread blends or stands out. Here are more tips:

  • With a thinner thread like silk or 60 weight polyester, your stitches will blend more, even if the thread does not exactly match the fabric. You can use neutrals to quilt over lots of different colors. If you want your stitches to show, use a heavier 30-40 weight cotton or polyester. A medium 50 weight cotton is a great choice for beginners because it is very forgiving and can cover a lot of area quickly without looking too “thready”.
  • Some of my favorite brands that I use are Superior Threads (in cotton, polyester or silk), Isacord (polyester), or Aurifil (cotton). Unfortunately, I have not had good results with invisible threads so I stay away from them as much as possible!
  • Use the same color thread in the top and bobbin. You don’t have to use the same weight. You can use a heavier weight on top and a lighter weight in the bobbin, or they can be from the same spool. No matter how well I balance my tension, little thread “pokies” still show through if the thread colors are vastly different.
  • If you can’t match your thread exactly to your fabric, opt for a darker thread color rather than a lighter color. A darker color will blend more; lighter colors stand out.
  • Use a “busy” backing for the lining of your quilt. This will easily hide any less than perfect tension issues or quilting mistakes. A busy back also hides lots of different thread color changes. Save the solid backings for when you want to “show off” your precise quilting, or if “thread play” is a part of your intended design.
  • To balance your tension, do not be afraid to change your bobbin tension as well as your top tension. Superior Threads has a great visual on how to balance your tension:
Thread Tension

Click to Enlarge

Starting, Stopping and Smooshing

When beginning a session of free-motion quilting, I like to use this phrase: needle down – foot down, needle up – foot up to bring the bobbin thread up through the top of the quilt. Be sure that your feed-dogs are disengaged, or covered with your stitch length set to zero.

Catch Bobbin Thread

Ending Thread

Hold both thread tails lightly with your hand, then take a few tiny stitches in place to lock your threads. When you come to the end of a quilting session, you will need to end with a few small stitches, then pull up a loop of bobbin. You can either clip the threads close to the surface, or make a knot by hand and “pop” it through to the batting.

When quilting a larger quilt, I use my hands as a hoop and quilt in oneΒ  small area at a time.

Hoop Your HandsYou will want to quilt your quilts enough so that the batting will not fall apart during washing. How much more dense you quilt is a matter of personal preference. I personally think that quilts look best when all areas are quilted, but this does take some time to do.

When the bulk of a quilt gets too much to handle, I simply move and “smoosh” it out of the way. If it’s been basted properly, all of the tugging, pulling and scrunching of the quilt will not cause any problems.

Smoosh and Scrunch

Smoosh and Scrunch

Practice, Practice, Practice!

It cannot be stressed enough: you need to practice a lot to get really good at FMQ. Make several practice sandwiches by inserting a piece of batting between two scrap pieces of fabric. It will take some time to find a rhythm that you are comfortable with. It took me a good solid year of FMQ to get to where I was happy with it.

Scrap 1

Scrap 1

Operate your foot pedal at a speed that keeps you in control of your hands and do not move your hands faster than the speed of your machine. Here’s a good rule of thumb (or foot!): if you are making tiny stitches, you need to slow down the speed of your foot pedal and increase the speed of your hands moving the practice sandwich around under the machine.

Scrap 2

Scrap 2

If your stitches are too big, you need to slow your hands down and and speed up your foot. Practice different combinations of speed between your hands and feet until it feels right. Your stitch movements should not be jerky, they should be nice and smooth.

“Handwriting Practice”

Handwriting PracticeIf you can draw it, you can quilt it! Think of your needle as an electric pen writing on a quilted canvas.

You have to practice your handwriting to know where your hand is moving on the paper. The same thing applies to FMQ with needle and thread.

You need to build muscle memory and hand eye-coordination.

The best way to do this is to draw, draw, draw. Take some time and sketch out some doodles like I did. I can sit for hours sketching out pages full of quilting designs!

Straight Line QuiltingSerpentine QuiltingThese are just a few of my favorite tips when it comes to free-motion quilting.

But do not overlook the possibilities of quilting with your walking foot, too.

Straight-line quilting can add lots of texture, especially when quilted closely together.

You can also add interesting designs by playing around with decorative stitches, too. The quilt below was quilted entirely with a serpentine stitch and my walking foot.

My final words are to have fun with it and don’t stress too much. Stick with it and you will see improvement over time, I promise!

48 thoughts on “Techniques and Tools – Intro to Free-Motion Quilting

  1. Carmen says:

    Hi Christa-You don’t say where you start your quilting, but it doesn’t seem to be in the center and working your way out, which is what all the books/magazines say to do. Does it really matter where you start? I admire your quilting, me, I’ve FMQ several quilts but have to say that it’s not easy and they’re certainly not even close to being as good as yours. I’ve tried all different kinds of ways to try to avoid wrestling with the quilt and have decided that one of these days I’ll have a long arm and although my actual quilting may not be any better, at least I won’t have to wrestle with the quilt. LOL I enjoy all your tutorials and thanks for sharing your experiences.

    • Christa says:

      I have found that it doesn’t really matter where you start quilting, as long as the quilt is well-basted.
      You are right – dealing with the bulk is probably the hardest part of machine quilting. Having a large table for support and a little extra room to the right of the needle helps πŸ™‚

      • Susan says:

        I love your tips on FMQ. I am a beginner quilter and been doodling on paper and made some quilt sandwiches to practice on. I know I have to practice, practice, practice. It feels awkward and I am hoping it will get better everytime I try. I have 2 quilt tops to quilt but I am a little apprehensive. I guess worrying about messing the quilt tops up keeps me from trying but I am going to conquer this task.

      • Tanya Terbrock says:


  2. Graziela Pinheiro says:

    Hi Christa! I am a real beginner and loved your tutorial! When you are working on a big piece, do you quilt it all the way left to right or back and forth (like in vertical lines)? Thanks for your help!
    Graziela Pinheiro

  3. Christine Sherman says:

    Thanks for this. i just had my first two questions answered. The one thing I’m worried about is any stopping and re starting and having the thread come undone in time. Gosh I hope I can figure this out, I want to master this so bad! I practiced on a small piece and it looks awesome. Then I took an old smaller quilt to practice and it was a disaster lol. Thanks for sharing!

    • Christa says:

      Yay for lots and lots of practice πŸ™‚ I do try to make as few starts as stops as possible. When starting and ending I stitch a series of very tiny stitches that are nearly impossible to pull out. Sometimes I will also bury my threads, depending on the mood. If I run out of thread while quilting, I’ll simply stitch over about an inch before it ran out and keep on going.

      With thin threads, the backtracking is not an issue.

  4. Nikkie Colvill says:

    Hi Christa, I’ve love your blog, the helpful advice on FMQ. I’ve been learning to do this for a year or so and I’m coming across the same problem with both of my machines, I’m wondering if you can help. I’ll be fmq’ing fine then all of a sudden my machine with start missing stitches. I’ve changed needles, checked tension, re-threaded the machine, but I’m simply at a loss as to what to do. If I stop quilting and I’m back to normal sewing it’s fine, and then I can quilt again. Any ideas?
    Kind regards

    • Christa says:

      Can you time yourself and see how long you sew before this happens? The general advice it to change your needle about every 6-8 hours and that can go by quickly.

      If that’s not the problem, then perhaps it needs to be serviced because it sounds like it may not be holding the tension.

      Also, I would try out a few different threads to see if perhaps that’s the problem. I used to sew quilt with a cheaper cotton thread and when I switched to Aurifil a lot of my tension problems seemed to disappear.

      • Nikkie Colvill says:

        Hi Christa, tnx so much for your reply, will give wots suggestions a go. I do change my needles about every 6hrs or so and my machines are having a service on Monday, so fingers crossed I can solve my problems.
        Tnx again, happy quilting nikkie

  5. Jeanie says:

    Hello! I have been searching for a FMQ tutorial for quite a while now and I must say that yours is the BEST!! I really appreciated that you addressed tension issues and your preferred supplies. Well done! πŸ‘. Speaking of supplies I am looking for the “supreme slider ” and have had no luck on the Internet. Any ideas? I have a 1990’s Kenmore that won’t release the feed dogs so I feel at a loss. Can you give me some direction? Thanks, Jeanie

  6. Patti says:

    Thank you for such a Great Tutorial, i am learning every day and need LOTS of practice!! i plan on checking back often to read more. πŸ™‚

  7. Deirdre says:

    Thank you! I haven’t done much FMQ and I am kind of reluctant to try it again but you made it look like fun so I am going to give it a go. Thanks for being a great ambassador for FMQ!

  8. Elna says:

    Great information for the beginners like me! Terribly afraid to do the doodling because I l am like a few others that have a problem with the drawings. But I do plan of practicing…and practicing!

  9. Margaret A (grammamaggie) says:

    This post is a great resource! I have stuck with straight line quilting for fear of ruining a project with uneven FMQ stitches. I tried it (only once) on a scrap quilt sandwich and was unhappy and completely discouraged with my lack of coordination and all over the place stitch length. Your instructions and tips give me the courage to try again and to realize that patience and practice are probably the key. I need an in-home tutor πŸ˜€

    • Christa says:

      Thanks Margaret! There’s a really wonderful machine quilting class on Craftsy right now called Design It – Quilt it with Cindy Needham. I bought it as a Christmas present to myself and absolutely loved the class. I highly recommend it because it’s like the in-home tutor you requested πŸ™‚

  10. 8machines says:

    I seem to use straight lines more than anything. Now with your help, I will doodle and learn more movement. I need to quilt my Christa Quilt Along. It’s all sandwiched and pinned and ready for quilting. Just trying to decide what to do. Thank you for your help. I plan to reread this a couple of times.

    • Christa says:

      I will be quilting the Sea of Squares quilt with straight lines and will show that demo next week. However, the large blocks in the middle are a great space to use a stencil and draw something really cool to quilt!

  11. Ginny says:

    A very good Tutorial, and i really liked the thread selection process. Now I just wish I could draw. Excited to see how my FMQ will improve. Practice, practice. Thank’s

  12. thecraftyfarmer says:

    Thanks for a great tutorial! I especially appreciated the part about thread tension. Always an issue on my machine and sometimes tricky to figure out how to correct. I am going to print the chart and keep it handy!

  13. leanne says:

    Thanks Christa – I’ve just finished the groove quilt from Alyssa’s totally groovy quilt-along and I really want to quilt it myself – just need to get some courage ! and I might have to rethink the plan to use solids on the back as well ! wonderful tutorial

  14. Heather says:

    Thank you so much for taking the time to provide these very good instructions. I’ve just been building my nerve to get started and this helps immensely even though I did take a very basic class. Between the class and you, I’m feeling bolder.

  15. Angela says:

    Thanks so much for all of the great info, Christa. I am a new quilter and have started trying FMQ’ing, and I love it. I too think it is the most fun part of quilting. It inspires me to finish piecing the quilt, cause I can’t wait to quilt it.

  16. Denise says:

    Thank you Christa! Even though I’ve done a little FMQ before, I’ve learned a lot. These instructions are very helpful, especially in the areas of thread selection and stitching speed.

  17. Tracy says:

    Great information. Thank you. Enough to get me started but not so much that I want to throw in the towel before i even start. I am going to do some practicing this afternoon. πŸ™‚

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s