A Beginner’s Guide To Free Motion Quilting

So you’ve just created your gorgeous quilt top, and you can’t wait to try it out, but first, you have to quilt it. 

When trying to decide how to quilt your quilt, it can be a little overwhelming with all the different types of stitching. Plus, there’s the option to send it out to a longarm quilter as well. 

I personally love to do my own quilting, as it just adds that extra personal touch and handmade feel to my projects. In this tutorial, I am going to show you the following:

  •  How to free motion quilt (FMQ) (also sometimes referred to as freestyle quilting).
  •  A popular style of FMQ
  • Tips and tricks to help you practice FMQ.

What Is Free Motion Quilting? 

Before we jump right into the tutorial, I want to go over two of the biggest questions that come up when talking about FMQ.

What is free motion quilting?

Free motion quilting is a quilting style that you do with your home sewing machine.

As the name implies, you use “free motion” to create designs with your stitches. 

Instead of your feed dogs feeding your fabric through your machine in a straight line, you will lower or cover your feed dogs. Then, depending on your machine, you move the fabric with your hands “freely” under your needle in any direction.

The design possibilities for FMQ are endless. You can do any shape, size, or even lettering to create a unique design for each project you create.

Some may think you need a fancy machine to do FMQ, but that’s simply not true. You can do FMQ on any home sewing machine. However, the size of the project you can do on your machine may be limited, depending on how much throat/ harp space you have. There are a variety of sewing machines that are excellent for free motion quilting. 

Is free motion quilting hard?

I know it can seem overwhelming when you first start watching some FMQ videos or reading tutorials. But with enough practice, you will be able to do it on your machine and make beautiful designs for your quilts.

This tutorial will show you a popular FMQ design called meandering quilting, also know as stippling quilting. This design is perfect for beginners and will help you get a feel for free motion and execute this type of quilting on your own projects.

Supplies Need for Free Motion Quilting

  • Quilt sandwich ready for quilting (quilt top, batting, and backing basted as desired)
  • Regular sewing items: sewing machine, thread, scissors, marking tool (Hera marker or water/heat soluble pen)
  • Free Motion Quilting foot

Free Motion Quilting Tutorial for Beginners

Step 1: Set up your machine for FMQ.

Attach your FMQ foot, lower/cover your feed dogs, and adjust your stitch length and speed.

An FMQ foot (also called a darning foot) is a key factor when doing FMQ. It has a spring that will lift the foot while the needle is up and you are moving the fabric under the needle. Then it lowers the foot when the needle lowers and holds the fabric in place while stitching.

Lowering or covering your feed dogs is also very important for FMQ because you want to move your fabric in any direction.

If you were to leave the feed dogs up, you would be fighting the feed dogs whenever you try to move the fabric. Once they are lowered/covered, then you have free motion of your fabric under the needle.

What is the best stitch length for free-motion quilting? With some machines, you will need to adjust your stitch length to “0”. 

Play around with your machine and see if it needs to be adjusted or not. You’ll also need to play around with the speed.

If your machine has a speed dial, then I would suggest trying it at about half speed when you are practicing and then slowly raise the speed as you get more comfortable with the movement of the fabric under the needle.

Step 2: Practice the meander.

Practicing is essential when you begin your FMQ journey. If you are artistic and doodle often, then it may come more quickly since you are used to drawing swirly lines and pretty designs. 

Once you have picked out the design you would like to attempt (in the case of this tutorial, the meandering/stippling design), grab a pen and some paper and draw the design on your paper to the scale you’d like it to be on your quilt. 

I know it may feel a little silly, but this really does help your hand and brain get familiar with the movements you will need to make. 

Tip: Another way to practice, which I personally like to use, is by making a small practice quilt sandwich and taking it to your machine. I remove the bobbin thread and needle thread, set it up for FMQ, and practice the design without thread. You can then see the design from the needle pokes in the fabric without wasting any thread.

Once you feel you are ready to actually quilt your project, move on to Step #3. 

Step 3: Make any marks on your fabric that you need.

This step is optional and depends on you and whether or not you want to use marks. Using marks may help you, especially initially, so you don’t feel overwhelmed with your entire project.

I suggest marking your quilt with 10”-12” squares either with a Hera marker or a water/heat soluble pen. Then you can focus on one square at a time instead of your entire quilt top.

Step 4: Begin quilting your project.

Take your quilt project to your sewing machine and place your quilt edge under the needle. I always like to start my stitching on the edge of my quilt sandwich.

I would suggest beginning slowly and don’t panic if you have some “pointy” curves. You can always seam-rip them if you don’t want them on your project.

For meandering quilting, try to think of curvy rivers, puzzle pieces, winding roads, etc. This imagery helps you when you are creating the meander design. If you are using Step #2 and taking your project one square at a time, begin in one top corner of the square and work your stitching down to the bottom corner of the same side.

Now start going back up to the top of the square, continuing your curvy rivers and winding roads.

Continue moving your stitches up and down the square, filling in blank space. You’ll get a good feel for your movements in this first square. When you have filled in your first square, move on to the next square you have marked on your project.

Repeat this step until you have completed your quilting on your quilt top.

Once you have figured out and feel comfortable with the meandering FMQ design, you can start adding little swirls, hearts, stars, and other shapes to the mix and create some gorgeous designs on your quilts.

I’d like to encourage you to just go for it with your FMQ projects. If you find a design that you really like but think you can’t achieve, I challenge you to take out your paper and pen and practice it. Practice makes perfect, right? Good luck and happy stitching!

Do quilting differently this time. Try and learn how to do FMQ in this post on the free motion quilting tutorial.

About the author: Miriam Ronne is a lover of all things quilting and sewing. She is a self-taught quilter and is constantly learning and broadening her skill set to create one-of-a-kind quilts! When she’s not behind her sewing machine you can find her playing with her fur babies or trying her hand at other crafty things.

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