When the piecing is done, the quilt is basted and you’re ready to start free motion quilting, there are two steps to prepping your machine: install a free motion quilting foot and disengage the feed dogs. But what are feed dogs and why would they interfere with free motion quilting? Get the full scoop on feed dogs in free motion quilting.
What do feed dogs do?
All sewing machines have feed dogs. This odd name refers to two rows of little metal teeth that emerge from slots in the needle plate, just under your needle area.
To see yours, turn your sewing machine’s hand wheel. The feed dogs should move up and down in time with the needle. In rhythmic motion, they just barely push up from the needle plate slots.
The grooves on feed dogs move fabric along as you stitch, gently pulling it forward. They help you sew a nice straight line, with evenly spaced stitches.
What should I do with feed dogs when free-motion quilting?
By default, a sewing machine’s feed dogs are engaged. That means that when you go to quilt, the feed dogs will pull your work straight forward. That’s not what you need to quilt your own designs!
When free-motion quilting, you want to be in charge of moving the fabric under the needle!
With the feed dogs engaged you must sew in a straight line, with the fabric always moving away from you as it travels under the needle. The feed dogs pull it along.
With the feed dogs disengaged you can move the fabric under the needle, toward the right or toward the left. You can pull the fabric toward you instead of pushing it away. You can even sew curves and glorious swirls! Plus, you can stop and change direction on a dime.
Disengaging the feed dogs creates a huge amount of freedom.
This is precisely what makes free-motion quilting possible. It’s also what makes free-motion quilting a skill that takes time to perfect. Engaged, the feed dogs control stitch length. Disengaged, you need to move the fabric at a suitable speed to create your desired stitch length. Practice, practice!
How to drop your feed dogs
To free-motion quilt, you need to lower or disengage your feed dogs. But how do you disengage them?
Most modern sewing machines and many older ones have an option for dropping or disengaging the feed dogs. Consult your machine manual.
You’ll likely discover a little lever that controls this mechanism. With a simple toggle from on to off, your feed dogs are on vacation. Turn the needle and you’ll see that now they remain still as the needle moves.
Can’t lower your feed dogs?
If your machine doesn’t have a built-in mechanism for disengaging feed dogs, there are a few work arounds.
- Try covering the needle plate area with low-tack tape. The tape prevents the moving feed dogs from grabbing your project, allowing you to control the motion of the fabric.
- Try buying a Supreme Slider. This is a slick plastic sheet that clings to your sewing machine bed like a vinyl decal. It peels on and off, leaving no tacky residues. There is a small rectangle cut out at center for the needle hole, but it covers the feed dog slots.
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