Quilting Blog

10 Beginner Tips for Successful Free-Motion Quilting

Do you want to add beautiful free-motion quilting texture to your quilts but aren’t sure where to start? Check out this list of 10 tips for successful quilting on your home machine.

Quilt made in different colors and different quilting

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1. Find as much table surface area as you can for quilting.

Christa Watson at Sewing Machine

Quilting on a domestic machine can be tricky if you don’t have much space to work with. Gravity pulls the weight of your quilt down and cause it to drag, creating friction, which prevents good stitches from forming.

Getting the quilt up off the floor and onto a table will prevent drag from occurring.

The very best option for FMQ on a domestic machine is a drop-in table where your machine sits flush with the bed of the table.

If you don’t have a drop-in table, use the largest table top surface you have access to, and set up portable tables around you to control as much of the bulk as you can. (See our post on 5 tips for an ergonomic sewing table, too!)

2. Match thread colors in both top and bobbin.

Machine quilting with walking foot

When you’re threading your sewing machine, be aware of thread choice. Unless your tension is absolutely perfect, you may see dots of bobbin thread showing through on the top of the quilt, or your needle thread poking through on the backside.

To eliminate this, use a matching thread color in both the top and bobbin of your machine. They don’t necessarily have to be the same weight or even the same fiber content, but by using matching colors, you will prevent all of those little “pokies” from being seen!

3. Busy fabric prints and thin, blending threads will hide your mistakes.

By using multicolored, “busy” fabric prints, all you’ll see is the texture of your quilting rather than any less-than-perfect stitches.

Choose a thin (50 weight or less) cotton or polyester thread for machine quilting in a color that blends in with your quilt top. This helps prevents a “thready” look to your quilt and hides all sorts of mistakes!

4. Practice on scraps and small projects first.

Quilt stippling on scraps

It’s tempting to dive in and begin working on a large quilt right away. However, just as you should practice cutting and piecing before making your first quilt top, practice makes perfect with free-motion quilting, too.

Start off by making a few practice samples: two 10″ or larger scraps of fabric with a layer of batting in between. You can play with different thread combinations, try out a variety of batting types, check your tension and stitch a few designs to see how they look. Keep these samples as a reference and make notes along the way.

When you’re happy with your results, make a small project such as a potholder, table runner or baby quilt, and give it away. The recipient will be pleased and will never notice your imperfections!

5. Quilt all of your quilts yourself. (This is another way to say practice makes perfect.)

Quilting a pink quilt on a bernina sewing machine

Most quilters spend a lot of time piecing but then outsource the quilting to someone else, so they never get comfortable with the machine quilting process.

If you force yourself to quilt all of your own quilts from the beginning, your machine quilting skills will be in line with your piecing skills, and you can improve both techniques one quilt at a time.

6. Choose simple quilting designs.

Simple wavy lines quilt design

Just as your first quilt likely uses a simpler design using large squares, strip piecing or pre-cuts, choose a simple quilting design that will complement it. For example, you can quilt effectively with a walking foot using straight lines, or with your free-motion foot in an all-over stipple or swirly design.

I like to use a technique that I call “stitch near the ditch” when making charm quilts. I select a decorative stitch on my machine and simply quilt over the seam lines in a blending thread. It’s a quick way to quilt and does not have to be perfect to create beautiful texture. I can always go back in later and add more quilting if desired.

7. Fill in your background areas with lots of texture.

gray quilt background filled with texture

Contrary to popular belief, some of the most intricate looking free-motion quilting designs are actually the easiest to stitch out. The key to adding beautiful background texture is variety and asymmetry. You can use stencils and washable marking tools to place key elements of your quilting design, then fill in all the spaces around them with dense background quilting in a variety of sizes.

8. Come up with a quilting plan before you quilt.

I like to take photographs of my quilt tops or sketch them out on the computer using quilt design software (such as Electric Quilt). I then draw my quilting motifs on the printed paper before I start quilting. This allows me to “audition” designs and see how they will interact with the pieced top. It also helps me figure out where I need to move across the quilt while quilting.

9. Educate yourself.

I read a lot of books and take a lot of quilting classes to improve my techniques. My favorite online classes are Quilting Big Projects on a Small Machine with Ann Petersen, and Design It, Quilt It: Free-Form Techniques with Cindy Needham. I also teach a beginner’s class called The Quilter’s Path: Plan It, Stitch It, Quilt It.  All of these classes focus on teaching you how to quilt your own quilts on a domestic machine. Want more machine quilting inspiration, check here!

10. The most important tip: develop a can-do attitude!

Most people are not natural born artists. Many of us have to work at what we do and take the time to acquire the skills needed to be successful. Just as you had to learn how to print your name in school before you learned cursive, learning machine quilting skills takes time and practice, too. Your first completed quilt may not be perfect, but you can call it your own and then move on to the next one!

Christa Watson Craftsy instructor

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Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in January 2014 and was updated in December 2017.

19 Comments

Cheryl

Thank you so much for this article! I think I can do this now!

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Pat Pesta

love this positive attitude

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Cindy Saffell

This is just the article I needed. Thank-you.

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Helen

You have inspired me to give it a go! I have the right machine, maybe a little skill and time to take on board a can do attitude!!

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nancy

i just finished a lap top or wall hanging and i think i am going to try thank you

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Diane Merrell

I HAVE just started doing this.I think i m going to love it.Thank you.

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Shirley Sanders

I have machine quilted a lap size quite awhile ago and now I am ready to try again.I am so happy that I read this article on quilting yourself, using your own machine.I am so excited about this.

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Roseann DiFiore

I am very glad I read article Can not wait to give [t a try Thanks

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Ro

Thanks for the article. I’m trying to do more machine quilting.

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Vickie

Are you supposed to start in the middle of the quilt & work your way out??

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Nan-c

Vickie, Hope someone answered your question. I am just now checking this blog. Yes, you begin in the middle and work your way to the outside. Helps prevent bunching or shifting. You have probably long since finished your project. Hope it went well!
Nan-c

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Betty moss -Perry

I would like very much to learn how to Free -motion quilting for Beginners:10tips

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Betty

I would like to learn Free- motion quilting forBeginners:

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Palma Smyth

I just love free motion quilting. so much so that I have recently ordered a Sweet 16 quilting machine. Hint 5 is so true, I am relatively new to the whole process and am finding improvement in both piecing and quilting are going hand in hand.

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Marsha Rose

Great ideas. I needed this bc I’m still a beginner.

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Anne Marie

How very true these tips are. I am fairly new to free motion quilting and am having to force myself to have a go. Most of my quilts up to now have been very geometric and so have looked better for being stitched using straight lines. The quilt I am working on now was a “block of the month” quilt that was sold as a kit. Each block is different and each has applique on it. I am now having to study each block carefully to see what will suit. So far I have done a mixture of straight lines, followed the applique nd filled in background with swirls and wandering lines. I haven’t finished it yet but I am getting there!!! I’m still far from being any good though.

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Nan-c

I have just finished a crib sized quilt for our grandson. Since it has lots of animals clustered on it and then a few squares and bars, I have a desire to emphasize the animals in a creative fashion. Straight lines should. Be much less a problem. Thank you for the encouragement! I WILL make a sample to practice on. That always is a help! I will try to let you know how it goes!

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maggie leiterman

Thank you, you gave me several ideas especially how I can expand my work space for quilt. I’m gonna use my library table scooted up by sewing machine cabinet! Also tips on free motion!

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JHolland211

Q/A: When using the free motion foot should the feed dogs be dropped? (similar to darning) Thank you.

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