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!
For starters, here are my 3 favorite tools for quilting:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
For 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.
To decide on the correct thread color for a quilt, I will audition several choices and see which one “disappears” most into the quilt. I test the thread out on a practice piece first, 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:
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.
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 one small area at a time.
You 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.
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.
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.
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.
If 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!
These 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!