Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Newbie's Guide to Free Motion Quilting: Preparing your machine.

Alright, y'all...today we learn about getting our machine ready for free motion quilting. First and foremost, you are going to have to have a darning foot (aka free motion quilting foot).  I am going to touch on a few "troubleshooting tips" in today's post but I will conclude this series with a handy "troubleshooter's guide" that you can use for quick, easy reference.

This foot hops up and down allowing you to move the fabric through at your own pace without drag. I use a model like the one above...an open toe, clear foot. This type of darning foot gives you the most visibility. It's important to see what your stitches look like, especially if you start doing more and more intricate designs that involve traveling over previously quilted lines.  If your foot is made of metal or closed toe, that's perfectly ok.  Just know that this option is out there if you ever feel you want to upgrade.

You will want to set your stitch length at ZERO.  I usually have my stitches around 2-2.5 in length.  I use the highest number, 6, for basting.  With the stitch length at zero, you control the size of your stitches.

As you can see the stitch length is on a dial on the right of my throat.  Some machines are computerized and will require you to find the zero on a digital display, but many mechanical machines like mine have the dial.

I put my machine in "needle down" mode.  This way when I stop and start I don't have to worry about aligning everything perfectly the next time I start stitching.  I take frequent breaks during a big project and keeping the needle down between stitches helps me hold my spot.

Lower your feed dogs.  The feed dogs pull the fabric through.  Sounds like it helps, right?  Not really.  You want to be THE ONLY THING controlling where the fabric is going.

Have you ever heard the phrase "running like a well oiled machine?"  Well make sure your machine is oiled and cleaned regularly.  Free motion quilting is hard work for your machine and you need to keep all the moving parts lubricated or it's bad news for your motor (and good news for your local sewing machine salesman/repairman).

If you have a quilting table that attaches to your machine, use it!  I love mine.  The purpose of this is to have a nice area to work on.  It gives me a large flat area to quilt before I have to worry about switching hand positions.  I place my sewing machine on top of a table that is large enough to support the entire quilt being quilted.  When quilts hang off to the floor, it creates a lot of tugging which is going to give you puckering, uneven stitches, or just plain old sore shoulders. 

LONG, huh?  I rarely take this off.  It's handy to have space to lay my piecework that is still within an arm's reach.

Thread...ah, thread.  I'm a believer in cotton thread, but not everyone loves it.  You want to make sure you use the same color for top and bottom (and really this isn't a rule, this is just because it's SO hard to get your tension perfect...if you can, go ahead!).  I like to use the same brand/weight/type of thread for the bobbin and the top thread.  Sometimes if they are 2 different weights (even if the color is the same) you get ugly stitches.  I use Coats and Clark a lot because of availability.  I really love affinity and mettler for quilting.  Every machine is different, every quilter is different.  What I DO NOT recommend is buying bargain no-name quilting thread from a certain vendor at the quilt festival, AHEM.  It was a nightmare for me (and on a twin size moda bakeshop quilt no less). 

Needles are another HUGE factor in FMQ.  I use a 90/14 needle.  Start your FMQ project with a new needle.  You'll be amazed at the difference.  Needles warp and get burs over time which will cause your thread to shred or skipped stitches (toe catchers).  FMQ is hard on your machine, don't make it harder by being cheap with a needle.  Your motor and thread will thank you! 

Needle Tension.  This is usually a dial that goes from 0 to 9, but on my machine it goes from 0-4.  Most people raise their needle tension slightly to FMQ.  If your thread is breaking, you probably have a case of cheap thread, bad needle, or a needle tension that is too high.  Tension issues are the culprit when you have loops in your stitches.  If you can see your bobbin thread on the top of the quilt, the upper tension is too tight and you should adjust it to a lower number.  If you can see your top thread on the underside of the quilt, your upper tension is too loose and you should adjust it to a higher number.

Many machines also have foot pressure controls.  As you see above, my machine has a dot in the middle for "normal sewing."  If you feel like you are jamming your thick quilts under too small a space, adjust your foot pressure but raising the foot a little to give you a little more space for the quilt to guide nicely like so:

If you get your foot pressure too loose, you're gonna get skipped stitches AKA toe catchers.

Bobbins...A lot can go wrong here, so it's important to know how to test your bobbin tension.  First start with a good well wound bobbin.  If your bobbin is threaded all wonky, your stitches will look all wonky.  Trust.  You'll also have breakage issues.  Keep your bobbin clean and lint free.  You make also choose to place a TINY drop of oil on your machine where the bobbin sets (right in the middle where the hole of the bobbin case would go).

The perfect bobbin tension is one where you load the bobbin and let it fall with a SLIGHT jerk (like a yoyo, but delicately).  It should drop 3-4 inches.  If it falls to the floor, your bobbin tension is too loose.  To remedy this, make TINY TINY turns of the largest bobbin screw to the RIGHT to tighten it up a bit.  A WEE LITTLE TURN can make a huge difference.  If your bobbin doesn't drop at all, your bobbin tension is too tight.  You will need to make a TINY TINY turn of the largest bobbin screw to the left to loosen the bobbin tension.  A lot of people think this is something best left to your sewing machine repair shop.  I don't get that...I check my bobbin tension with every new bobbin.  It's crazy to think big thick threads are going to react the same way a fine silky thread will.  Be very delicate with as you loosen/tighten the bobbin case, but don't be afraid.  It's part of learning how to take care of your machine - take ownership of that.  It's YOUR machine.

This is my thread  cutter button...love it.  This is so nice to have and if you have the opportunity when getting a machine, upgrade to the one with a thread cutter!  It's very nice when you are quilting smaller motifs that don't flow into one another or quilting big quilts. 

You will want to clear your workspace of any breakables and drinks.  That's an accident waiting to happen.  You need to make sure your space is well lit enough for you to safely operate the machine (which I would hope you already have that!).  Finally, make sure your chair is a good height ergonomically.  You shouldn't have to raise your arms too much or slump your back over to reach your machine.  More on the ergonomics in our next session:

Getting YOU ready to quilt!


  1. This is very helpful. I HAVE taken a class on FBQ & have dabbled with it on my machine. Just wish there was a 'confidence' button! :-)
    Appreciate the tips on thread as well....

  2. I do have one question.....why do you have to put your machine stitch length on 0. If you drop your feed dogs, doesn' t that elimate changing the stitch length. It would be the quilter moving the fabric and the speed that would determine the stitch length, or am I just not "getting it"!!!

  3. Thanks Mary, that was very helpful with lots of great information!

  4. I have the worst time with FMQ. The worst!! I will try some of these tips and see if they help. Thank you.

  5. Annelies, that is a great question. The reason you set your stitch length to zero is just to extend the life of your feed dogs. Your feed dogs are lowered so they would not get it the way even if if they were moving, but it would cause unneccessary wear and tear on your machine. Thanks for bringing that up!

  6. Your tutorials are really good and helpful...thanks!

  7. Thank you Mary! Wow, I've learned something about my sewing machine that is very helpful! Thank You!

  8. Sew ;) informative!! I would love to do some FMQ, but am afraid to ruin my beautiful quilts!! So to see this so simply explained is awesome! Thank you!

  9. Mary, this was great! I have been practicing FMQ for a couple of months and it was going great until 'something' went wrong and I started getting long skipped stitches then thread breaks. I've tried everything I've read online for the problem, but I'm still getting the same thing. Switched to my regular foot, reset everything, i.e. feed dogs up, same thread in upper and bobbin, changed needle to 90/14, upper tension reset and I get really good looking straight stitches, no problem; then I decided to try the decorative stitches and still no problem, looks great! Back to Darning/Quilting Foot, tension where I always used it (8), stitch length to 0, feed dogs down. Guess what??? Still getting the long skipped stitches, thread breaking. I've done as you suggest on the bobbin tension also. Have you any ideas???


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