Getting Started with Free Motion Quilting | McCall’s Quilting Blog

Before I tried free-motion quilting for myself, I had the impression that it took skills and supplies that I did not have, and the thought of even starting was pretty daunting. My first attempts were made in 2013, and the results were not great. It was frustrating, because I really wanted to be good at it, but it turns out that the only way to get good is to sit at my sewing machine and do a whole lot of free-motion stitching. So I did.

Some of my early free-motion quilting attempts in 2013.

treebackground Workshop Wednesday: Free motion Quilting

Front and back of a pillow sham, c. 2014. I was trying to follow the print with stitching.

I started with very basic exercises, then moved onto different patterns and following print patterns, and it wasn’t until 2015 that I felt comfortable enough to quilt an entire quilt with different free-motion quilting motifs. I wrote about my free-motion quilting journey on the Quilters Newsletter Editor’s blog; read all about it if you like here, here, here, here and here. I included lots of tips and tricks (and photos!) that helped me in each of the posts, so check them out if you want to know (and see) more.

garden9 Workshop Wednesday: Free motion Quilting

The back of a big quilt I finished in 2015, all done with different free-motion quilting motifs.

As far as supplies go, you don’t need much, and most of those supplies usually come with new sewing machines, so it’s likely you already have them. The necessary items are:

  • Darning foot, or open toe embroidery foot. You need the special foot because unlike a standard presser foot, the darning foot hovers just slightly over the surface of the fabric, which lets you move the quilt around under the needle. Many sewing machines include this foot with purchase.
  • A sewing table or extension. You need a large enough surface that you can place both hands flat on either side of the needle to move the quilt. It does not have to be fancy (see photo below).
  • This isn’t a separate item, but you have to lower the feed dogs on your sewing machine. The feed dogs are what moves the fabric forward as you sew a standard seam, but you want to be able to move in any direction for free-motion quilting. Your sewing machine manual will tell you how to lower the feed dogs on your particular machine.
exttable Workshop Wednesday: Free motion Quilting

My custom-made sewing extension table. It’s a tin box taped to the table. I told you it didn’t have to be fancy!

Those are the necessities, and there are a few additional things that aren’t crucial to free-motion quilting, but they may make things easier:

  • Quilting gloves. They have little grippy sections that make it easier to move the quilt around.
  • Marking tools. These can range from washable pencil to markers to marked paper or even products like Press & Seal. It’s good to experiment to see what works for you, and you may decide you don’t care for marking at all. That’s fine.
  • A sense of adventure. Unless you are very lucky or very talented, your first attempts at free-motion quilting will be underwhelming. Don’t let it discourage you; just keep going, that’s truly the only way to improve!
FMQ1 Workshop Wednesday: Free motion Quilting

I used a kitchen product to mark my free-motion quilting motifs, rather than marking the quilt.

Every quilter should at least try free-motion quilting on a home sewing machine, probably more than just a few times, too. You can do it! There are lots of resources to help you on your free-motion quilting journey, I’ve selected just a few to share.

Quiltmaker has a free, convenient PDF with all kinds of free-motion quilting tips and best practices from J. Renée Howell, a professional machine quilter from Centennial, Colorado. Click on this link to download.

If you’d like to get a little more in-depth, try Catherine Redford’s Modern Machine Quilting eBook, available at It provides multiple techniques and instructions for stitching many common motifs. It’s a resource you will turn to again and again.

DPS8742FP Workshop Wednesday: Free motion Quilting

Modern Machine Quilting Ebook, by Catherine Redford

A short preview video for arranging your sewing space for free-motion quilting, with Lori Baker and Erin Russek, as well as a preview for starting to free-motion quilt on your domestic machine. You can watch the full videos for both on

The Free Motion Quilting Project by Leah Day is full of information, help and beautiful quilting motifs. If you’re brand new to free-motion quilting and are not sure where to start, start here.

I hope you’ll give free-motion quilting a try! Start small, and accept that even though your first attempt may be disappointing, there’s nowhere to go but up! If you keep at it, you will improve and suddenly find that you love it, enjoy the results, and the creative freedom it allows. Happy (free-motion) Quilting!

quilting 300x300 Workshop Wednesday: Free motion Quilting

Happy (free-motion) Quilting!







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