Expert Tips for Free-Motion Quilting

A selection of free-motion quilting samples by Susan Brubaker Knapp

This time of year I am always looking for quilting techniques I can use in my quilted gifts.

Turbine motif quilted by Susan Brubaker Knapp

Turbine motif quilted by Susan Brubaker Knapp

My go-to technique is almost always free-motion quilting. Quilted potholders are the ideal project in my book because they are quick to make and easy to customize. Plus, potholders are a manageable size and they give me a chance to experiment with a variety of free-motion quilting motifs.

If you are ready to make a few free-motion quilted potholders, you won’t want to miss Susan Brubaker Knapp’s tips for free-motion quilting:

Lower your machine down into a cabinet.

This is one of the best investments you can make, as it will improve your ergonomics, reduce drag (the weight of the quilt which you have to move into position under the needle), increase your comfort when you are stitching for extended times, and boost the quality of your stitching.

An extended surface–such as an acrylic extension for your machine–is the next best thing. You simply can’t place your hands properly for free-motion stitching when you can only place them on the bed of the machine–you need more space. Can’t afford an expensive sewing machine cabinet? Consider cutting a notch in the end of a wooden table, or a hole in the middle, and building a shelf underneath to support the machine.

Free-motion quilting motif of microbes by Susan Brubaker Knapp

Microbes motif quilted by Susan Brubaker Knapp

Experiment with different types, brands, and weights of thread to see what gives you the best results.

Motifs that require you to stitch back over a previous line of stitch may look too strong if stitched with a 30wt thread. Try switching to a lighter thread, like a 50wt or 60wt, for a less prominent line. Aurifil™ Cotton Mako 40wt is my favorite thread for machine quilting. It has a nice sheen, is strong, and doesn’t leave much lint in my machine.

Don’t overlook the needle.

I used to quilt and thread sketch with a quilting needle, but after trying different types, I found that topstitch needles did a better job when using cotton thread. Topstitch needles have extra-large eyes and grooves where the thread slides, so if you have problems with some types of thread fraying and breaking at the needle, give a topstitch needle a try.

I also like Microtex needles for stitching through high thread-count fabrics like batiks or for quilts with fused layers. These needles with a small shaft are very sharp and pierce these thick layers more easily.

DNA motif free-motion quilted by Susan Brubaker Knapp

DNA motif quilted by Susan Brubaker Knapp

Needles are labeled in European sizes (60-120) and American sizes (8-20). Higher numbers mean that the needle has a larger diameter, as measured just above the eye. Most needles are labeled with both size systems: 60/8, 70/10, 80/12, 90/14, etc. I usually use size 80/12.

One more note on needles: Sewing machine needle manufacturers suggest replacing the needle every eight hours or so. Most sewists I know only change their needles when they break! Try to find a happy medium—a new needle may make the difference in your stitch quality.

Choose your batting carefully. Batting makes a difference, too. Thick batting is bulky and heavy, and it’s hard work to manipulate the quilt sandwich under the needle. A thinner batting is easier for beginners.

Expand your free-motion quilting even further as you watch Susan demonstrate over fifty free-motion quilting motifs in her video 52 Free-Motion Quilting Motifs and Fillers. Start making potholders today when you instantly download the video.

Happy quilting!

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