September 03, 2010

Free Motion Quilting Basics: Practice Stitching

If you are already experienced with free motion quilting you may not need this step. Your choice! We're going to get a feel for free motion stitching, and work out any initial problems you encounter. So, get out your practice pad (a quilt sandwich to practice on, I recommend 12 by 18 inches).

Draw four vertical lines about 2" apart on the right side. I used a regular pencil.

Wind up some bobbins.

If your sewing space looks like this, clear it off. Free motion quilting will vibrate all that crap right off the table anyway.

Now cozy on up to your sewing machine.

If you have an extension table for your machine, put that on. (If you don't, we'll talk about that soon.)

That's better.

Quick check:
Feed dogs down/covered?
Stitch length set to 0?
Darning foot on?
Sharp needle?
Good thread?


Let's make sure you've read this post or watched the video.

Now let's get you used to moving your quilt sandwich! We'll start by stitching those lines you drew. It doesn't have to be perfect. If you don't end up right on the line, or if your lines are crooked or wobbly that's fine. I want you to get the feel for stopping and starting, and I want you to start trying for the right number of stitches per inch. Start at the top of the line closest to the edge, by locking your stitches. Put your hands in the "U" shape, and start stitching down the line while pushing the quilt away from you. When you get close to your thumbs, stop, reposition your hands, and continue stitching. Do this to the end of the line. Lock your stitches, cut your threads, and go back to the top to stitch the second line. And then the third. And the fourth. I know, your lines aren't straight. Mine either.

Now let's take your quilt off the machine and see if there's any glaring issues that need to be fixed. Are there loose loops of your top thread on the bottom? If so, you probably need to increase the tension on your top thread by a number or two (most people do need to increase their top tension for free motion quilting). The picture below shows the bottom side when I stitched with the top tension too low.

Next we're going to fill in the spaces between the lines. In the first column, between the first and second lines, stitch a bunch of straight-ish lines. You don't need to lock your stitches at the end of every line now, you're probably getting the hang of that. Instead, when you reach the end of the line, take a couple stitches to the side, and then stitch back up the quilt sandwich, pulling the quilt toward you. I know, it's weird, you can't totally see where you're going. Try it anyway. Keep going, down and up, until you've filled up that column.

Take the quilt sandwich off again. How's the tension looking? Fiddle with it if you need to.

In the next column, try stitching a bunch of zig zags, by moving your quilt side to side while you stitch. The quilt doesn't need to be turned or angled, your hands do all the work of guiding it where you want it to go. You are drawing by moving the "paper" instead of the "pen".

In the last column make a bunch of loops. They don't have to be pretty!

Check out the tension again. Sometimes things look fine with straight lines but then get loopy at the apex of a loop or the point of a zig zag. Fiddle some more if you need to. We don't want any loose loops on the back.

The rest of the blank area is for trying whatever you'd like and getting more practice moving the quilt and stitching at the same time.

Remember: It's not uncommon to have troubles at this step. Maybe you keep getting loopy threads on the bottom, or your thread keeps breaking. Initial troubleshooting includes rethreading (make sure the foot is up when you thread), trying a different thread, and trying a different needle. Make sure your machine is clean and lint free, and that you remembered to put the darning foot down when you stitch (I screw this up occasionally!). 

If you had to adjust your tension and you found one that works, note in your journal what number your top tension was on when it worked. If a specific thread or needle made a difference, make a note of that. This will be a good place to start the next time you sit down to quilt. Anytime you are stitching on a new machine or trying to do a basic test of the tension, I would try stitching some straight lines, some zig zags and some loops for a quick analysis.


PATRICIA said...

Hola hasta ahora he seguido todas las indicaciones, hoy por la tarde haré mis pruebas con la máquina. Muchas gracias por compartir tus experiencias y conocimientos.

Gene Black said...

I will try to do this today, even though I already do some free motion. I need to get my stitch length consistent.

Debbie said...

Really great instruction and simple way to begin. Most teachers try to get you to quilt without test runs, or understanding too much.
It is such a balanced combination of thread, tension, needle and speed to get it right.
Great job.

Graciela said...

Gracias Cris!!!! , tratraré hoy de probar a ver como me va con las lineas rectas

quiltingnana said...

wonderful tutorials.....I may decide that free motion isn't so scry afterall

Kay Lynne said...

I'm an experienced quilter, but I'm still learning all the time! I always have a practice piece by my sewing machine. It's really not that hard once the process is broken down into steps.

Barb said...

Your sewing table looked just like mine, and you are right...I have lost a many a thing on the floor during sewing.

Love the tips....can't wait for more.

GranthamLynn said...

Great tutorials and I love 'Done is better than perfect' I need to borrow that one. Your so right. I appreciate all your help. You are making it not so scary. And your right I have no interest in ribbons so I shouldn't quite so much. My family that would receive my work would be so happy just to get a quilt. Hopefully I'll get practising. The feed dog thing has been confusing for me I'll work on that. Can't wait for your next installment.

Gene Black said...

I did my practice piece and it went really well. I did not get even stitches on the straight lines, but I was pretty consistent on the zigzags and looks. Yaay! this was fun. Now I need to make the top!

Queen Of The Armchair aka Dzintra Stitcheries said...

Hi there!!! Thank you so much for this...I have just gotten myself a new machine that does free motion...I will be back to refer to this...Dzintra♥x

Dolly said...

Great start !
I never THOUGHT of doing straight lines without a walking foot..that's a BIG PLUS.....AND I've wanted to do the 'organic' ones, so this exercise alone is SO FREEING !
I tried to 'cheat', going backwards, and I would quilt way beyond the point where my hands were in shows in the waviness of the lines at those points.
I really need to get some MORE things basted......this is going to be terrific !

Thank you !

tvbleak said...

Rough start, but I think I have solved the problem. This time it is not me, but the thread. My machine does nt like the new thread I bought, so back to the old and things are much better. BTW if there is a prize for the biggest bird's nest, I win. :^D

Unknown said...

This looks great, such an 'easy' way to begin! I have been away for the weekend, but will try this tomorrow. I may need more than the 3 practice sandwiches Ive already made :o)

Debbie said...

I have to tell you, your method is fantastic. I have an old 40 yr old machine. I covered the feed dogs with a card, set the stitch length as low as it would go, and away I went. It worked great. I had to tighten the tension on the top a little and everything went great. Now to work on my technique.

Sherry Hogan said...

I finished my practice pad today and I think it went well, not perfect but good for the first try. I did turn my speed control (or whatever it is called) as slow as it goes and it worked great I felt in control of everything not the machine. Yea! You gave the best directions. Now to iron the top and baste it together.

Unknown said...

Bless you - I now know what I need to do to sort out my problem with the bottom bobbin - it's actually the top tension that needs adjusting - I've tweeked everything, including the top and things were better but now know what to watch for next chance I get sit at my machine - thank you

Charlotte Scott said...

Just found your blog through blog hopping. Nice tutorials and I like 'Done is better than perfect'. And just 'cause it's a kinda weird co-incidence, I'm a thirty-something midwife who likes to quilt and create too! (Except I'm half a world away in New Zealand)

SheilaC said...

Your post made me chuckle!!! I am enjoying following your lessons, even though I'm not sewing along right now.

Your prescription is PERFECT!


Scottish Nanna said...

Thanks for your tutorial I am going to try it I get problems with my sticthes underneath my work whenI go backwords they seem to catch.
Hugs Mary.

Vesuviusmama said...

I did it!!! Getting started was definitely the hardest, but I think I've figured out how fast I should go, what my top tension should be, etc. It looks pretty awful, but I'm excited about practicing and learning more. What fun!

Vesuviusmama said...

I blogged about my practice stitches at I anxiously look forward to the next installation in this FMQ adventure!

Cindy Maki said...

Thank you so much. I have actually already completed 3 double bed size quilts with FMQ. Mostly a really wild stipple, but they look good anyway. I am trying to work up to some other variations and your site has given me some really easy motifs to try. I am making a Double Wedding Ring for my daughter and want to be really good at this FMQ before I quilt that one.
I love the simplicity of your instructions. I also appreciate your advice on tension issues which I have had a few of. My feed dogs lower but I am curious about that card covering the feed dogs--don't the feed dogs chew up the cardboard pretty quickly? Anyone can reply to my question. Thanks. Keep on quilting!!

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