I’d like to tell you that free-motion quilting on a domestic sewing machine is easy peasy, just pick up and go. But, to be honest it’s a lot like learning to ride a bike. You have to learn how to keep your speed under control while learning how to maneuver around objects. If you don’t turn the right way you’ll run into the curb. (In this case, stitches you don’t want to cross, the block outside the one you are working on or even off the quilt top.) Nevertheless, all can be managed with practice, practice and more practice.
Tackling the Issues of 1st Time Free Motion
As with any skill to be learned, there are tools that can help you and techniques to make it easier. I felt like my first attempt at free -motion quilting was a disaster. I left the experience wondering if I’d ever do it again. I didn’t want to give up without trying to figure out what went wrong so I tackled the issues I had with my first try, one-by-one.
#1. My free-motion machine foot was out of control. I had a difficult time stabilizing the evenness of my stitches. The machine would zoom along happily stitching and then it would stick in one place, making a mound of stitches or skip stitches and break threads. I verified the presser foot was seated correctly and the feed dogs were down. I also tried using the stitch regulator I purchased for my machine—guaranteed to adapt to my sewing speed. I initially started with my usual attack-and-go-with-the-flow method. That didn’t work; so I checked out a couple of YouTube videos to ensure I had everything set up properly for my machine.
I learned from the video that the stitch regulator not only helps to create a consistent stitch length; it should also help with moving the fabric around. I selected an 18″ block, a relatively small project, for my first free motion project. Because of this, I felt confident I could control my fabric. Not necessarily. This brings me to my next problem.
#2: My quilt sandwich seemed to stick to my machine. I tried clips to hold the sandwich together and a pair of Quilters Touch Machingers Gloves to get a better grip on the fabric. And, I asked a couple of coworkers for advice. Lori Baker (Acquisitions Editor) checked off all the issues I mentioned in #1 and recommended I try the Supreme Slider, developed by Pat LaPierre. It helps control friction through a plastic sheet that sits on the machine bed, allowing the free-motion foot to work through a hole in the center of the slider. Carolyn Beam (Content Director) suggested Sullivan’s Silicone Spray, to spray on the machine bed, the thread spool and bobbin case to help eliminate friction caused by free-motion quilting. Both of these methods were very helpful to develop my own free motion groove.
Selecting Free-Motion Stitches and Motifs for Learning
I also discovered the free-motion stitch you begin with can make a big difference to your success as a beginner. One of the most popular free-motion stitches still seems to be a simple meander. As a beginner, I thought it would give me the best practice for controlling steady movement of the fabric sandwich around as I tried to keep stitches even and the curves flowing. Take a look at Color Me, our Project Linus pattern designed by Mary Hertel, on page 44 and Scott Flanagan’s Lil’ Dashes on page 76. The curving meander really sets off the geometric design of these quilts, and with minimal effort.
But, you know, the thing I remembered from just messing around with the longarm at work is that I was naturally making meandering loops. So, perhaps this is the best place to start—and, interestingly enough, I learned at a recent staff meeting that most of my coworkers think so too. Lori made a good point: Most of us already know how to draw loops and have the movement of making them in our memory. So, naturally, loops might be the quilting we can already draw with machine stitching. This also confirms the concept to practice and practice drawing the design on paper before you take the design to your machine.
I next moved on to practice connecting circles, another quilting motif where our memory can step in to help. There is an example of circle quilting in border #1 of Nancy Mahoney’s Carribbean Sunset quilt on page 38. Circles gave me practice with managing curved lines that touch as well as controlling the sizes of the shapes I create with free motion.
Kicking It Up A Notch
After I mastered quilting a meander and connecting circles I took a leap to create curlicues. This is another popular quilting design selected for many of the quilts we see at Quiltmaker. It’s perfect for all over surface quilting. Check out Prism Blooms (page 34) designed by Wendy Sheppard, Jo Kramer and Kelli Hankin’s Reflecting Pools (page 16) and Grandma’s Spools, designed by Barb Eikmeier on page 62. Oh, and don’t miss Terrie Peterson’s Fresh Air quilt on page 50 to see how meander quilted curlicues were combined with loops in her quilt. To quilt curlicues I started by drawing them on the surface of my 18″ block with a marker and then simply followed the lines with stitching.
I’m feeling fairly confident with these free-motion quilting designs. Now, I need to step up my game and try making free-motion leaves and flowers. Take a look through this issue to find how designers have chosen them for their quilts.
This is the last of the series Machine Quilting: for the First Time. Thank you for joining me on this adventure. If you haven’t read the first 4 parts, you can find them in the 2017 issues of Quiltmaker, May/June, July/August, Sept/Oct and Nov/Dec. If you haven’t used your domestic machine for quilting I hope that you will give it a try. Happy Quilting!