Free motion quilting a green quilt

What Is Free Motion Quilting? A 2022 Primer For Beginners

Free motion quilting is an extraordinary way to express and enhance your creativity through design and detailing leaving a quilt with a distinctive stamp.

Ok I know, I know, the words free motion quilting might sound like something you will NEVER be able to understand let alone do, but hear me out.

Free motion quilting is easy. Yes I said easy – I know from first hand experience with trial and (lots of) error.

If you’re itching to know the answer to “what is free motion quilting?” then read on!

Learning Free Motion Quilting

If you’re a keen sewist or quilter and curious to know what free motion quilting is, raise your hand.

Even if you’re not a keen sewist or quilter but still want to know what free motion quilting is? Raise your left hand (I got two hands up..).

What is free motion quilting?

Free motion quilting is a style of quilting that can be done on any sewing machine. It’s a quilting technique where the sewist will move a quilt sandwich under the needle to create a patterned stippling effect.

The feed dogs (the little teeth under your presser foot that feed your fabric forward and space stitches perfectly) are lowered in free motion quilting.

This means you have to control the stitch yourself by balancing the movement of your hands and the speed of your machine which is controlled by the pressure from your pedal – eeek!

Process quilting with an electric sewing machine by using a free-motion
You can make some beautiful designs with free motion qulting

If the fabric is moved fast the stitches will be too large, and if the fabric is moved too slowly they will be teeny tiny and won’t be able to get picked out.

By moving the quilt freely in all directions you can minimize the amount you have to rotate and shift a large quilt in your machine.

You can stitch in a straight line, curves, circles and squares with this style of machine quilting.

How do I start free motion quilting?

So you’ve got your almost finished quilt that’s just waiting to be doodled over with thread but, put that down!

Practice Makes Perfect!

Before you even think about free motion quilting on your (almost) finished quilt, you want to create a small quilt sandwich to practice on.

NOTE

Don’t be disheartened if your first quilt doesn’t look so beautiful. The key is to practise on a small quilt sandwich and get used to being in complete control of your machine.

The reason for this is there can be tension issues, the bobbin thread can pull, the top thread can not look quite right – so many things can go wrong!

So, practice with some scrap fabric and batting to get an idea of what your machine is going to respond to tension settings and how well you can maneuver your quilt through with the free motion foot.

By practicing you will figure out free motion quilting motifs you want to include on your quilt!

Other Tips and Tricks

You need to have a fresh needle, and move the stitch length to 0. Drop the feed dogs, and use the correct foot.

I like to pull the bottom thread up through the top of the quilt when free motion quilting to minimize the chances of the threads getting tangled at the back.

Quilt being held down by a walker foot
Beautiful designs take time and practice

You are completely in control! The quilt can be moved around in any direction to create beautiful patterns all over.

TIP

When you first practice free motion quilting on small projects, I recommend to keep the stitches in even if they’re wonky. It’s a wonderful thing to be able to look back at a project from the past and compare your skills in the future!

Can any machine do free motion quilting?

Absolutely!

You can create free motion quilting on any type of domestic sewing machine. My ancient little Brother, I bought for $50 second hand with a throat space of 5” x 7” was the first machine I learnt to free motion a baby quilt with.

Speaking of babies, If you want more baby gift ideas, have a look at these baby sewing patterns I found.

Using Bigger Machines

Would a larger device with a larger bobbin holder and wider throat space be better? Of course, but don’t let the size or power of your machine stop you.

The more experienced quilters may use a stand up, long arm or mid arm quilting machine. These incredible commercial creations have big bobbin cases and special heads with handles; that are used while standing.

What quilting foot should I use?


A foot is an attachment used with sewing and quilting machines to hold the fabric flat when material is fed through the machine.

The best type of foot to use when free motion stitching is a darning foot, which is specially designed to hover over the surface allowing the quilt top to move in all directions.

A darning foot will allow a quilter to move the quilt in any direction under the needle when the feed dogs are lowered.

 “Do I need a Walking Foot?”

You can use a walking foot for quilts, but I wouldn’t technically call it free motion stitching.

This presser foot helps move the quilt through under the needle so the stitch will always be balanced and evening spread.

A limitation of using a walking instead of a darning foot is you cannot move the quilt in all directions.

Quilt held in place by a walking foot
You need freedom to create some intricate designs

You’ve always got to move the quilt around so it feeds through the machine facing forwards (think feed dogs but reversed!)

This however is a good shout if you want to follow quilting patterns in straight lines.

Trying both feet while making your own quilts is definitely worth playing around with. A walking foot will be easier for beginner quilters, as it feels more like normal sewing.

What do I need?

You will probably need to take a trip to your local fabric haberdashery to get the right tools if you’re seriously thinking about free motion quilting. A quilting subscription box might help too. Some of the basics are: 

Sewing machine

You need a sewing machine!

As I mentioned earlier you don’t need a top end expensive quilting machine that has a huge throat space, but – you definitely need one!

The bigger the table size on your machine, the better as it will give more freedom in terms of movability to work with large quilts.

Sewing Machine Features

The more modern sewing and quilting machines have a stitch regulator built in which is really helpful! You can pre-set the stitch which will remain the same throughout, even if your speed doesn’t.

If you are moving the quilt too fast underneath the needle the sewing machines will tell you!

TIP

If your sewing device has a needle down function make sure to press this when free motion quilting as when you stop quilting you want the needle to be in the down position.

Feet

You will need the right foot which is compatible with your sewing machine, and unfortunately feet are usually brand specific. You can choose from darning or walking feet, or you could even try a free motion foot.

Quilting gloves 

Quilting gloves are really useful and will make your serious free motion quilting life easier!

They feature rubberised fingertips for extra gripping power and control that help you to grip the fabric and move it around whilst you’re developing your quilting style.

Gloves can help you work more effectively (and keep your hands clean!)
Gloves can help you work more effectively (and keep your hands clean!)

They can also prevent the kind of stain that only comes from oily or mucky hands, and if that’s not all they can protect your hands from any nasty needles, pins and scissors.

You don’t have to spend a fortune on gloves, when I first started quilting I would use a cheap pair of gardening gloves (same difference, right?).

These make great gifts for quilters as well. I have a more comprehensive list of gift ideas here.

Thread

May seem a little obvious, but you will need to use a good quality thread such as a 100% cotton as you don’t want your thread breaking.

Play around during your test quilt, and see what your machine does better with, maybe it’s polyester thread. Whichever thread you choose, just double check it’s good quality OK!

I like to try to keep the thread the same as the fabrics, for example – sometimes polyester thread can be quite strong, so if you are using 100% cotton fabric it won’t be consistent.

TIP

You also want to triple check your bobbin thread is completely full as free motion quilting is going to use up a lot of thread and maybe get an extra bobbin or two on standby.

Slider

A supreme slider is a sheet of plastic, usually made from polyester, designed to make a quilt easier to move under the needle.

The smooth surface allows quilts to glide under the sewing machines’ needle with less drag and strain on your hands.

Make sure to measure your home machine as they come in different sizes and you want to make sure it’ll fit!

TIP

For a quick hack, you can use a smooth surface and tape in place of a slider! Simply cut a small hole for the needle to pass through on something like a vinyl shower curtain or teflon sheet (or similar), and tape the quilt to hold it secure.

Table

​​You don’t want a bulky quilt sandwich dragging down by your legs causing thread tension issues. The stitches will look a lot better if the entire quilt weight is evenly distributed, so an extension table is a good purchase for your sewing machine!

Pink quilt-in-progress under a sewing machine
More intricate designs need more table space

Is free motion quilting difficult?

Beginners might find free motion quilting difficult to master due to the balancing of the stitches due to the feed dogs being lowered.

All of a sudden a beautiful stitch is suddenly a big mess of big and small stitches. Free motion quilting can feel out of control and can get ugly!

But, with practice and taking responsibility for the quilt, the stitching patterns and the speed of the machine you will be just fine.

NOTE

To be honest my first few quilt sandwiches were pretty ugly, but it’s all part of the learning process. It’s essential to master where to put your hands, and matching the quilt movement to the speed of the machine and that only comes with time!

Can I make a free motion quilt by hand?

You can use the hand stitch method when you free motion quilt to sew quilt tops to a backing fabric.

An easy way to hold the top fabric together is with a basting spray, which works as a glue to hold the top to the batting and backing fabric.

Pros of hand stitching

  • You don’t have to worry about scary feed dogs, or bobbin thread running out.
  • Each stitch on the top fabric will most likely be completely different giving a truly authentic aesthetic.

Cons of hand stitching

  • Quilters on a machine will be sewing faster!

You may easily find a free quilt pattern online to follow for hand quilting if you are lacking in inspiration. Here’s a video that shows you a bunch of examples you can start on.

YouTube video
Good Designs For Beginners!

Conclusion

While free motion quilting may take more time and practice to master, the benefits of being able to sew any beautiful patterns over your quilt sandwich are worth it!

I really hope you’ve found this article enough to answer the question “what is free motion quilting?” and maybe inspiring enough to go and pick up a sewing machine and give free motion quilting a try! You could even try your hand at an umbrella!

For more quilting tips, you can find online workshops or you could join a free motion quilting tutorial to get started.

Feel Free To Share!

While you are here, share this blog post with any budding quilters that you know or anyone who is interested in sewing.

And don’t forget to check the site for more sewing topics, such as this guide about types of clothing patterns.

Share your quilting experience with me, and in the meantime happy quilting!

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Kris Daub
Kris Daub
[email protected] byCurated I'm a maker at heart! I love to create and tech others to create. I particularly sewing and hand crafts like ebroidery. I also love larger home decorating projects. ✂️ ?