Ask an Expert: Free-Motion Quilting Answers with Leah Day

In Ask An Expert this week, we share advice from expert Leah Day, in response to popular questions asked by our community members within our Facebook Quilting Club. If you have a question you’d like to see answered be sure to submit it here– whether you’re interested in knitting, quilting, photography, cake decorating, cooking, art or more– and tune in every week to see if it’s been answered.

Now, onto this week’s fascinating questions and answers from Bluprint instructor of Free Motion Fillers, Vol. 2, Leah Day!

Leah Day Quilting at the Bluprint Studio

My comment is really just one born of frustration: I have spent the last two days with tension troubles (in every sense of the word-ha!), and I can’t seem to get it right!

I have done EVERYTHING I know how to do, everything the book says, rethreaded until my fingers are raw, replaced the needle, changed the threads, both up and down, tried it all, changed all the numbers.

Leah Day: It sounds like you need a strong shot of tequila and a break from free motion! Trust me, I definitely remember those days and how hard they are. Best advice – take your machine back to piecing and see if it will piece 2 pieces of fabric together with tension balanced. If it will do that, then switch just your foot to free motion. Don’t change anything else. See what happens. Let me know if your tension improves! If you can’t piece at all and the tension is messed up even for piecing, it’s time to get your machine serviced. Break downs happen so don’t continue to beat your head against a wall!

If your machine has specialty stitches try doing several of them. By accident I was doing several of them and when I went back to straight stitching the tension was perfect. No clue! Might not work next time but worth a try.

When I do specialty stitches my machine does not like the “thread”, I have to use Aurifil, for regular stitching and fmq my polyester is ok, but never on specialty stitches, doesn’t matter what you do to the tension, try just a change of thread maybe.

Quilting Club: We’d love to know where you get your inspiration for your quilts and quilting motifs!

Leah Day: Really anything can be an inspiration. I just recently saw a design while mixing bread dough – both the swirling way the dough was shaped and the long striggy bits hanging to mixer handle. When I see something like that I quickly doodle it on something to grab the idea behind the design, then sometime later I try to quilt it. Not everything can be quilted without marking, but most designs can, the trick is just figuring out how to make all the lines connect and work in some logical way.

I have trouble keeping pinmoors to stay on the pins. Is there is certain kind of pin you prefer that they stay in better?

Leah Day I use Clover flower head pins. Yes, they sometimes do pop off, especially when moving the quilt around quickly. Also make sure the pinmoors are really well seated to start with and nicely stuck to the ends of the pins.

How long will it take for someone to do the free motion quilting and be good at it?

Leah Day: How long does it take to play a song on the piano? This is a muscular activity that’s very very similar to playing an instrument with 2 hands, so understand that the length of time to comfort-ability and then mastery is about the same. A few months of steady practice will definitely pay off so start quilting every day right now!

Quilting Club: One of our community members has had trouble trying to use nylon thread with her machine – it causes a tension issue. Do you have any suggestions for either successfully using nylon thread or selecting a cotton thread that will blend well in a colorful quilt?

Leah Day: I’d take a look at how that nylon thread feeds off the spool. If you don’t have one now, maybe consider investing in a spool stand so your thread will feed off the top and into the machine from a higher angle. This often fixes most tension issues and repeat thread breaks. As for an alternative thread, I really prefer Isacord Polyester Embroidery thread. It’s a 40 wt poly that’s super high quality and comes in over 400 colors, so you’re bound to find one that fits with your quilt.

I wonder if you always stitch in the ditch, even on a big cozy quilt or if you start with quilting without stitching in the ditch?

Leah Day: It depends on the style of quilting – for quilting All Over style – no, I don’t stitch in the ditch because the quilting design is going to cover everything: blocks / sashing / borders and ignore all the piecing lines completely. For other styles of quilting like Section Quilting or Show Quilting – I absolutely would stitch in the ditch because it provides an outline between the different designs. It looks better on both the front and back of the quilt too. So look at your quilts and decide HOW you want to quilt them. Stitching in the ditch is one technique, but you don’t have to do it in every single quilt.

When quilting your larger quilts, how do you stabilize the sandwich? Do you pin, baste or use spray baste?

Leah Day: I baste with straight clover pins and Pinmoors. I secure the back with elastic instead of masking tape. I absolutely hate spray basting, and safety pins tear up my hands, so pinmoors were a great alternative to basting securely without the downsides.

Right now I’m quilting on a Brother SE400 embroidery machine and I’m constantly having bobber thread/rats nest issues and skipped stitches.

So I’m looking around for a machine that won’t cost an arm and a leg to have for quilting, that will be it’s only job. I know you did an article on the Janome HD1000, but do you still like it for that job? Throat size is an issue also, the Brother is TINY. I was also looking at the Janome 3000.

Leah Day: Really I think different machines have different uses. That SE400 is probably great at embroidery and that is what it was designed to do, so that’s really what it should be used for. As for a good quilting machine, yes, I think the Janome Sewing Machines HD1000 is a great machine for free motion. It’s not expensive and you will need to buy a foot and probably a spool stand, but I’ve been teaching my husband to quilt on one and it’s working great so far.

I’m going to make bed quilts for my 2 grandsons for Christmas and am trying to decide how much quilting to do on them. I want them to be cozy. Do you ever quilt “lightly” ?

Leah Day: Absolutely, I definitely quilt some quilts more openly than others. The key to a soft finish is not the density of the quilting, however, it’s the batting that goes in the middle of the quilt. Pick a soft, lightweight 100% cotton that has some shrink to it. After you’ve quilted, that batting will shrink slightly and make the whole quilt soft and comfortable

What is your favorite brand of 100% cotton batting?

Leah Day: Quilter’s Dream Batting is always my go-to batting brand. For cotton or poly – always Quilter’s Dream!

Deanna Sposito Miller: What do you suggest for filling in small blocks in a baby quilt?

Leah Day: I honestly can’t say unless I saw a picture. My best advice for picking a design is to take a photo of the quilt, print out copies on plain paper, and then draw over the surface until you found a design that worked well for you. If you’re just starting out, soft wiggly lines through each small block is a simple skill building way to quilt it.

Do you have to stabilize a quilt by quilting a bit in the ditch before doing FMQ, or can you just pin well (I use pinmoors too!) and get right to the FMQ? And if so, what is the best place on the quilt to begin so your finished piece doesn’t end up all wonky?

Leah Day I first starch and press the quilt top and back before basting, then baste with straight pins and pinmoors so the quilt is very stable before it goes under my needle. This lesson is actually taught in detail in my class Free Motion Fillers Volume 1. I also free motion stitch in the ditch and fill at the same time, so if I have a block in the center of the quilt, I will stitch in the ditch around it, then start filling – ALL in free motion so there’s no switching feet or switching between methods of quilting. As for if ditching is necessary – I think it is. The quilt just looks better on both the front and back if it was ditched nicely – it makes all the designs have continuity and make sense on the front and back. But no, it’s not REALLY required so if you hate it, stop doing it!

What do you use for a design board?

Leah Day: I use large 8ft x 4 ft polystyrene boards (insulation sheeting). Put them against the wall and cover them with flannel or fabric and you’ve got the perfect design wall and it can double as a blocking board.

I am really inspired by your designs. When you are quilting a large quilt what is the first thing you do?

Leah Day: The first thing I do is baste it well, then start in the center of the quilt and work my way outwards. I also always have the designs I’m using picked out and tested with the color of thread I’m planning to use. I hate having to guess and test and play when I’m ready to buzz through and quilt quickly.

What do you mean by basting exactly? I have basted by hand with large stitches that I would remove or do you mean stitch in the ditch type basting that you would take out after your quilting is complete?

Leah Day: No, use whatever basting method you’re using now. When you start quilting just start working in the center and quilt your way out to the edges.

I have the roughest time ‘stitching in the ditch’ free motion. My machine has a mind of its own , it goes everywhere! What can I do?

Leah Day: Place your right hand on the quilt parallel with the ditch you are stitching. If you’re feeding the quilt forward into the machine, you’ll likely stay in the ditch better because you have that hand placed parallel and can feed straight in with a straight line. But if you do jump out of the ditch – who cares? Tell the Quilt Police to get off your back! lol!

I have an image in my head for a wall quilt, do you use a special program for getting your patterns out of your head and onto fabric?

Leah Day: When I first started quilting, no, I didn’t know anything about graphic design and found it very hard to get the design out of my head and into the computer. So in the beginning I drew everything out on paper FULL SIZE. This worked a bit, but then I started getting more picky and wanting more control on size, etc. So I learned graphic design with the program Serif Draw Plus. It’s far more affordable than adobe and easier to use. I still start with a drawing, but now it’s a small sketch – usually 4 x 6 or 5 x 7 and scan it into the computer.

Once in the computer, I redraw the design to create lines I can play with in the program. Now I can resize to make a 45 inch quilt or an 80 inch quilt – it will now scale in size and stay the same ratio. So for right now, I’d suggest drawing on paper first. Build that skill. Then try scanning that image into your computer and tracing it. Fiddle and play and give yourself time to learn. It will take time so be patient!

When you are quilting from the center out, do you skip over the sashing and save it until the end or do you do just what is there and link it all up later as you work your way out?

Leah Day: It really all depends on what style you are quilting in. All Over style means you would just quilt over blocks/sashing/borders and ignore all the piecing lines completely and just quilt all over the quilt. If you are section quilting then you will quilt the center block, then the sashing around it, then the next blocks out, then the sashing around them, and so on until you reach the edges.

I really go into detail about this process in the class Free Motion Fillers Volume 1. I teach section quilting and quilt in the ditch, then in the sashing, then in blocks all at different times in the filling process. It’s definitely something you might want to watch rather than read about because it’s hard to explain and far easier to teach visually.

I’ve tried the poly and I love it. Would you recommend the cotton over the poly for the above-mentioned quilts?

Leah Day: If you want the quilt to finish soft and cuddly, yes, I would recommend cotton over poly. For a wall quilt that needs to hang stiff and straight, poly is a great choice because it won’t shrink or soften.

I got a Horizon 7700 almost a year ago and have been afraid to quilt on appliquéd faces I am doing for a quilt.

How do I get over that fear of ruining my appliqué so I can get on with quilting it? This machine is the most advanced one I have ever had and it intimidates the crap out of me! Any suggestions?

Leah Day: I know exactly how you feel Ellen! The best way I’ve found to get over the fear is to accept it and talk yourself down from it. “Okay Ellen! It is time to go quilt on the machine that scares you! You can do it!” Yes, it sounds funny, but it works. As for not messing something up, have you tried just marking the design on plain fabric and practicing there first without the risk of screwing up something you spent hours on already? Practice is key. Give yourself permission to practice, make friends with your machine, and don’t let fear lock you in place.

Showing my ignorance and I apologize but very new to quilting, but are you wearing gloves and is that a must?

Leah Day: I personally feel that it is! The gloves I wear are Machingers and they give you a great grip on the fabric and help you move and position the quilt so much better.

Well, I’ve just about filled two spiral notebooks with feathers, scrolls, doodles, etc. and I’m still not where I should be. I have a heck of a time sewing good feathers, ugh.

Leah Day: That design takes time. It took me 4 years to master feathers so it might take awhile. The best advice – stitch them even if they look like crap. The more you do it, the better they will eventually get!

Leah, tension stitching question here—when you have every single thing, and the tension when you free motion is still poor, then what?

I have a Viking, 3 yrs old, and it stitches fine until I start free motion. It has been this way since the beginning. Also, how do you construct that pull up thing to hang the edges of your quilt while you are quilting?

Leah Day: With tension, you’re really going to have to just fiddle and play until you find out what your machine likes. Are you dropping your feed dogs? If so, stop doing that and see if your tension improves.

I find it fairly easy to microquilt (very similar to what you do) and have been watching as you try to enlarge the scale of your quilting.

I am finding it very difficult to readjust the muscle memory. Do you have any recommendations? Are you still struggling to keep it even looking as well?

Leah Day: Yes, it is a muscle thing, but the more I learn about quilting, the more easy it is to fluctuate from one scale to another. The key is having some guide, some touchstone or drawn image to check just to make sure you’re not stitching wildly different from what you wanted to do.

I have trouble making leaves on a vine is there an easy to do this?

Leah Day: Well I can say there’s probably 100 different ways to stitch that. Have you tried drawing this shape before? Try drawing it every day whenever you’re setting at the kitchen table, and pretty soon stitching it will feel very easy and natural.

What quilting machine do you prefer?

Leah Day: I’ve been quilting on Janome Sewing Machines and specifically the Horizon 7700 and 8900 since 2010 and they are by far my favorite for free motion quilting. For piecing, I love Bernina machines and own an old 1230 from the 1970s. They’re solid, dependable machines and have an excellent patchwork foot for accurate piecing.

I just gotta say, I’m a huge fan! Do you know a good way to mark large circles for quilting?

Leah Day: Go to Office Max and find one of those huge circle templates in the drafting area. Usually you can find them with multiple templates up to 4 inches. Anything bigger than that (6 inches plus) you should try an Amazing Ray created by Renee Halidan.

I am wanting to make a quilt using my daughters clothing from the 1st year. They are all different textures so I am unsure if this will work. I am a beginner and just want to know if this will work before I go ahead with planning?

Leah Day: You’ll definitely want to starch and press that material to get the shift and stretch out of it first.

Leah Day: Here’s a photo of the quilt I’m working on right now. Yes, you really can do this if you quilt every day, learn how to ignore and forgive your mistakes!

Quilt by Leah Day - on Bluprint

For more help from free-motion quilter Leah Day, be sure to sign up for Free Motion Fillers, Vol. 2, and gain exclusive access to his insights and answers to all your questions!

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One Response to “Ask an Expert: Free-Motion Quilting Answers with Leah Day”
  1. Old Salty
    Old Salty

    when you were going over stitch in the ditch you stitched in the ditch around your block. do you do that around all the blocks before you stare free motion quilting? Thanks