Free Motion Quilting

By Angela Mitchell

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You've been hard at work making a quilt. Fabrics have been chosen, cut, pieced together, and a quilt sandwich has been made. Now it is time to sew all of those layers together. In other words, it is time to quilt! When quilting on a home sewing machine, you basically have two options: you can use a walking foot to quilt straight or curved lines, or you can free motion quilt. Let's look at free motion quilting today.

free motion quilt example

Photo via Fussycut


In free motion quilting, the quilt sandwich is manually fed by hand through the sewing machine and underneath the needle. The feed dogs, which are the grippy teeth underneath the needle that move the fabric through the machine, are lowered, causing them to no longer push the fabric through the machine. This allows the quilt to be moved freely in all directions while quilting! Many quilters like to compare this type of quilting to drawing on paper with a pencil. Just imagine that your needle is a stationary pencil, and to draw you have to move your paper (or quilt) beneath it. That is free motioning quilting!


Free motion quilting is truly a form of art. There are many designs to choose from, or you can use your imagination and fill your quilt with your own ideas and images. One of the most common forms of free motion quilting is meandering. This is a continuous line of stitching that is very curvy or wavy. It is very fluid and puzzle-like. The quilted lines of meandering do not cross each other, and some would say this makes it harder to execute. Loops and zig zags are examples of beginner friendly designs; swirls, pebbles, and feathers are for the more advanced quilter.

Some people like to stencil their designs onto their quilts before they start free motion quilting. This works well for someone who is not yet confident in their own freehand ability. It also works wonderfully for a quilter who is looking for a more advanced design that comes from a stencil. This is still considered to be free motion quilting although the design is transferred and followed because the feed dogs are lowered and the quilter is controlling the movement of the quilt.


To free motion quilt, the only extra tool that you need to have for your machine is a darning or embroidery foot. This foot is necessary because it hovers over the quilt sandwich rather than pressing down tightly against against it. The extra space allows the fabric to slide easily through the machine.

darning foot


Before you start free motion quilting on your home sewing machine, there are a few things you need to do first.

  1. Lower the feed dogs on the machine. Remember, in free motion quilting, you are in charge of moving the quilt under the needle, not the feed dogs. There is usually a switch or a button that allows you do this. Check out your sewing manual if you cannot locate it! Some machines do not have this capability, but there should be a plate that will cover the feed dogs.
  2. Set the stitch length to zero. Since you are doing the guiding, you will also be determining the stitch length. Smooth, equal stitches are the goal.
  3. Attach a darning or embroidery foot.
free motion quilting

Photo via Fussycut

A Basic Overview

Once your quilt has been basted, your design has been chosen, and your sewing machine has been prepped, it is time to start quilting! Here is a general overview of how I like to free motion quilt.

- Starting in one corner, lower your needle into the quilt. Pull up the bobbin thread by manually turning the wheel while gently pulling on the end of the upper thread. Carefully pull the bobbin thread above the quilt and tie the upper and lower thread into a knot close to the fabric. Later on, you can thread these strands through a needle and sink your knot! If you don't like sinking knots, you can stitch in place several times to create a knot, and then trim the excess thread later on.

- Begin to move the quilt sandwich with your hands, stitching the chosen design that you have practiced. The goal is to sew nice, even stitches. Always move your quilt with steady, smooth motions. Speed plays a very important role here! Your stitches will be more consistent if you sew at a slightly faster pace.

practice free motion quilting

- Continue filling the quilt with your design. Some quilters like to work from one corner diagonally across the quilt to the other corner, while others like to work on one quadrant at a time. There are many ways to move across the quilt while free motion quilting! Experiment and see what works best for you.

- Once your quilting is done, sink your knots and/or trim your excess thread. Now your quilt is ready to be squared up for binding!

What is the key to successful free motion quilting? Plenty of practice! Once you decide on a design, practice drawing it on paper until you feel comfortable. Make a bunch of mini quilt sandwiches from scrap fabrics and batting, and try your hand at quilting. Finding your perfect speed and stitch length takes time. You will make mistakes, but the more your practice, the smoother your quilting will become. Before you know it, you will be ready to attack your first quilt!

Are you ready to dive into the world of free motion quilting? Craftsy has some classes for you! Free Motion Quilting a Sampler by Leah Day will turn you into a confident free motion quilter with her step by step demonstrations, generous tips, and samples. If you are ready to advance your quilting skills, check out Angela Walters' classes: Machine Quilting Negative Space and Free Motion Quilting with Feathers.

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