I had the good fortune of learning FMQ from probably the best possible teacher there was. Her name was Kathy Sandbach. She quilted professionally for other quilters, not on a long arm, but on her domestic machine. Can you imagine? She also wrote books for C&T Publishing and I can't tell you how many times I checked out "Show Me How to Machine Quilt" from the library because I was in nursing school and had no money and wanted to remember what Kathy taught me.
Anyway, I'm telling you this because as a person whose business depended on doing good and fast quilting on her domestic machine, Kathy had developed a very practical and sound approach to free-motion quilting. When she taught us, she showed us how to baste and then jump right in freehand, without even marking designs. Notably, she did not teach me to "stitch in the ditch" before doing the FMQ. Stitch in the ditch (SITD) is what you call quilting along the seams of patchwork, right against the seam, ("in the ditch"). Some quilting teachers teach their students they have to do this before they free-motion quilt. I am so happy I learned from Kathy. If I had learned from someone who told me I had to quilt my quilt twice (once SITD and then again with FMQ) I would never have started free-motion quilting. I would have two unfinished quilts still in my closet probably. I didn't have time for that. In fact, I still don't have time for that. Who has time for that?
Someone asked in my Craftsy class about whether they need to SITD before they FMQ and I typed up such a long reply I thought it was basically a blog post, so I wanted to share it here too, because I while I bet some of you have never even heard of this "Stitch in the ditch before free-motion quilting" idea, some others of you think it absolutely has to be done, all the time, for "every stinking seam". So let me share my thoughts on this.
Stitch in the ditch (SITD) is an option, not a requirement. It has two effects. One is to stabilize your quilt so you have less shifting around as you quilt. That's certainly something we want, because it means our quilt isn't distorted and puckers are prevented. But, stabilizing the quilt is really the function of basting, which we are already doing anyway, so there's no reason we need SITD for stabilizing the quilt.
The second function of stitching in the ditch is to hold down seam lines so they don't puff upwards when the quilt is quilted. You're most likely to see this with dense, shape-filling quilting. Since anything that's not quilted pops up a bit and the things that are quilted push back, the unquilted seam lines will pop forward a bit if you are quilting each shape in a block individually. Here is a block I quilted without stitching in the ditch. Can you see the seam lines popping forward a bit?
If this would drive you crazy you should maybe stitch in the ditch. If you can't see what I'm talking about, or if you're thinking "the quilt is going to be more rumply than that after I wash it!" then there is no problem and you should probably not stitch in the ditch.
If you can kind of see what I'm talking about and don't love it, but would prefer not to stitch in the ditch, you might consider all-over quilting designs instead of shape-filling designs. Here is the same quilt block quilted with an all over pattern. Again, I didn't stitch in the ditch, but now you don't see the goofy seam thing happening. Cool, right?
Now, if you are sending your quilt to hang in a quilt show where you might win money or fame or free burgers or something, SITD may make the difference between getting a ribbon and not getting a ribbon. People spend so many hours quilting for show that a few extra hours stitching in the ditch may not be a big investment compared to the dismay it may save them. I find that it's almost always quilters who quilt for show that recommend SITD before free-motion quilting.
I don't quilt for show. And every shred of time I get quilting is a hard won triumph after tending to the needs of my family, my job and my household. I really don't like to waste that time on unnecessary tasks. Also, I use a lot of all over designs, and I know my quilts are going to be washed, which is going to give them plenty of bumpiness anyway, and at that point a little puffiness at a seam line will be darn near unnoticeable So it's the right choice for me to just dive into the FMQ. And I've been happy with the results.
Based on your plans for your quilt and your quilting you can decide what you'd like to do. You could make a trial block and quilt it with your chosen batting and quilting design to help you determine if SITD is worthwhile for that particular quilt or not. If SITD makes you feel safer and more confident with your FMQ, then go for it, I definitely support whatever makes you feel ready and excited to quilt. If you prefer the way SITD looks and you want to do it you should!
I hope that was helpful to some of you quilters out there. I like to take the voodoo out of free-motion quilting so you feel good about what you're doing and why you're doing it. Happy stitching!