Free motion embroidery and quilting is often described as ‘drawing with your sewing machine’. Instead of your sewing machine looking after the length and direction of stitching, when you ‘free-motion’ you are completely in control of how and where your machine sews.
Free motion quilting frees you up to stitch interesting, creative patterns without having to continually turn your quilt through your sewing machine. This article explains how to get set up for free motion quilting – see here for advice on starting to sew.
Choosing threads and needles
Machine quilters have a wide range of threads to choose from. To begin with, you need to select the type of thread you wish to work with – that is, what the thread is made from. Most threads used for free motion quilting are either cotton, polyester or rayon. Polyester and rayon tend to be high sheen threads whereas cottons are more matt in appearance. Each material has advantages and drawbacks and different threads will be suitable for different quilts. Check thread manufacturers’ websites for details of their thread ranges and their different properties.
After selecting the type of thread you wish to use, you will then need to select the weight of thread, which is indicated by a number (usually on the reel) – the higher the number, the finer the thread. When first starting free motion quilting it is a good idea to use a thread which is not too thick. I like to quilt with a 40 weight polyester or rayon, or a 50 weight 2ply cotton.
Finally, you can choose your colour. You may want to contrast your threads with your fabrics for high visability or choose a matching shade for a more subtle look. It is also worth considering variegated (multi-coloured) threads which can add interest to your quilting and tend to be quite forgiving of any little wobbles in your stitching!
Once you have selected your top thread you need a bobbin thread to go with it. I use a bobbin fill – this is a fine thread which is designed and manufactured to go in your bobbin and can be used with a range of different top threads.
It is a good idea to put a new needle in your machine before you start quilting. This should correspond with the thread you have chosen – ask what needles are recommended when you buy your thread.
Machine set up
Your machine should be clean and ‘de-fluffed’ before you start. If you don’t know how to do this, there should be details in your instruction book.
Once your machine is clean then you need to attach your free-machine quilting foot (also known as an embroidery or darning foot). Sometimes these are included when you buy your machine or you may need to purchase one separately – your machine sales rep should be able to advise you as it needs to be the right foot for the make and model of machine.
You will normally need to unscrew and remove the whole of the regular foot from your machine then add the darning foot and secure in place. See this guide to help you attach your free motion foot.
The next step is to drop the feed dogs – these are the metal teeth which normally guide fabric through the machine. The switch to do this is usually on the side or around the back of the machine – again, check your instruction manual. There is often a bit of a ‘clunk’ when you drop the feed dogs, don’t worry, this is normal. After you have done your free motion quilting you need to remember to put your feed dogs back up, otherwise when you go back to regular sewing, your fabric will not move through the machine. When you put your feed dogs back up you need to turn your balance wheel until they come up through the stitch plate.
Set the stitch length to zero (or as low as it will go) – you are going to be in charge of the stitch length!
Check if you have an automatic needle down position. On my machine this is the button with two triangles on. Not all machines have this feature but it is very useful for free motion work if available.
Optional – adjust the speed setting on your machine. It is tempting to go really fast when free-motion quilting but slowing down a bit will give you more control. I like to limit my speed to about two-thirds of regular sewing.