Confessions of a Newbie Free Motion Quilter

I am a relatively new Quilter.  I began my journey in Quilting in June of 2012.  I signed up for a series of newbie Quilting classes at one of my local quilt shops.  I am blessed where I live in Georgia to have many quilt shops nearby.  I knew that if I could conquer the piecing part of quilting that my next step would be to learn to quilt the quilt.  A quilt is not a quilt until it is quilted.  For me if I am going to make something and say I made it, that means that I did the “whole” thing, not just a part of it.


In lieu of having someone quilt my quilt, the need to learn to Free Motion Quilting was right smack dab in the middle of my quilting journey.   I had completed a couple of quilt tops and it was time to quilt them!  So I started by setting up my machine with the open toed darning foot and then found that once I put this mass of a quilt on the setup I had at the time just wasn’t working.  The quilt would slide off of the table and start pulling.  I wasn’t able to easily move the quilt under the needle causing my stitches to be very uneven and erratic. What was I going to do to fix this?  


My first reaction was to learn to use a Long Arm quilting machine.  The space in my home is somewhat limited and I wasn’t sure I wanted to make that big of an investment ($10,000 - $15,000).  So maybe renting a long arm at the local quilt store was the answer.  I took the “certification” class on the Long Arm to see if that was going to be the answer.  I am kind of slow so being put on the “clock” to quilt my quilt while renting the Long Arm still didn’t seem to be the answer either.  It meant I would have to finish the quilting all in one day or have the hassle of offloading the quilt and reloading it again on another day. 


However what I did learn was there is a young lady who had a blog on Free Motion Quilting by the name of Leah Day who had started the Free Motion Quilting Project.  Hallelujah! Leah saved the day. It was her tips and thoughts that really started to make sense to me.  Many of the things she says I had read before but it really hadn’t clicked until I really started to try and quilt a real quilt of any size.  Visit her site if your really serious about learning to FMQ with your domestic sewing machine.  Also know that you don’t have to have a fancy sewing machine like my Janome Horizon 12000 to do this.  Although this machine does make it a bit easier as it has a large throat area (about 12”).  I already owned this machine as I also like to do machine embroidery.


I also want to thank Betty New for starting me on my journey in Free Motion Quilting.  Her inspiration and encouragement to just get in there and do it even if it isn’t perfect!


These tips are just things that have worked for me as I have continued on my Quilting journey.


1.     Sewing Workspace – you need a large flat workspace where the quilt can lie so that it doesn’t fall on the floor.  Best layout would be to have an “L” shaped space where it is nestled into a corner against the walls.

2.     Sewing Machine on/in sewing space – Having the sewing machine recessed into a cabinet or portable sewing table (SewEzi or a Gidget II from Arrowhead Cabinets are a couple of choices) is ideal.  I have the SewEZI sewing table and extension table that allowed me to expand my executive desk area that I was using to sew on. The money I spent on these was worth every penny that I spent and they are easily stored away when I want to clean up my sewing area that is shared with my Living Room.    Not having the sewing machine flush with the tabletop may be fine for small wall hangings or baby quilts.  A substitute here would be large acrylic type of table (Sew Steady).  If your budget doesn’t allow then get some inexpensive long folding tables (5 or 6ft) and put them together and sit your machine on them. 

3.     Sewing Chair – it should be adjustable to allow you to sit comfortably in front of the sewing machine so that your elbows are at a 90-degree angle to sewing table and sit up straight.  If your chair still needs to be a bit higher for you, put a pillow under your butt. 


4.     Gloves.  Gloves or no gloves.  You need something to help you grip the fabric as you move it under the needle.  I personally do not like gloves but found that Machinger’s brand gloves to work well to allow you to grip the quilt.  Your hands don’t sweat in these gloves and allow your hands to breathe and are very comfortable.  Another option that I like on smaller quilts it to put 3 or 4 drops of Glycerin on your hands (This is a clear liquid that can be bought at a drugstore, Walgreens or grocery store in the pharmacy near the hand lotion section).

5.     Hand position on the Quilt – Keep your in a “wedge” format on each side of the needle.  Stop as needed to reposition your hands as you quilt along.  The further your hands get away from the needle the more difficult it becomes to control your stitches.


6.     Slow your machine speed down.  Adjust the machine speed of your machine down to where you are comfortable and then you can “mash” your foot peddle all the way down to keep a constant speed.


7.     Open Toe Darning Foot.  I had never really thought about this until I watched Leah Day’s videos about the darning foot.  I knew I need something that was open toed, but the thought of removing the “hop” never occurred to me.  After I thought about it, I had to agree that whoever thought a “hopping” foot was necessary was a bit crazy.  So I modified my open toe darning foot by cutting off the bar with a pair of wire cutters that sat on top of the cross bar on the needle lifter.  What you may need to do to your foot may vary from what I did for my Janome. 


8.     Thread.  Use good quality thread.  I personally like cotton threads and I like the Superior brand.  Polyester threads are fine too.   Sue Nickels book “Fabulous Feathers and Fillers” book has a nice explanation of the different type of threads and how they are “coded” and when to use what threads when.  There are many different thoughts about threads and whether or not to mix or not to mix thread weights and colors.  I say try it and if it works for you, then use it. 


9.     Needles.  Match the size of the needle to the thread weight.  For finer thread use a smaller needle.  I personally like to use Microtex needles.  They are very sharp and pierce through the layers of the quilt easily.   Also change your needles fairly frequently as they get dull.  I always start a new project with a new needle and then change my needle after 6 to 8 hours of sewing or if I start to hear a “pinging” sound when I sew. 


From Sue Nickels book “Fabulous Feathers and Fillers” she has nice chart that I refer to often:


Needle Size

Thread Weight


40/3 cotton thread

40-weight decorative thread


50/3 cotton thread


50/2 cotton thread

60/2 cotton thread


100-weight silk

.004 Invisible thread



10.     Lighting.  Good lighting is a must.  I like the Otte lights.  Use your Joann Fabric coupons or watch for them to go on sale. I have two floor stand lights that I can move around as needed.  Also have as much light as possible at your machine.   My Janome Horizon 12000 has a great lighting system built into it (one under the head in the sewing arm area, and another one that pulls out to light up the needle area).  However, you can easily add more lighting to your machine.  They have LED lighting system that sticks under the arm in the sewing area.  You can also buy a small light that sticks to the left side of the head of the machine that lights up the needle area.  I found a couple of those lights at Nancy’s Notions for my smaller Janome machine that I use for classes that work great.  Downside is that there are extra cords that have to be plugged in but they come with a cord management system to keep them out of the way,

 11.     Thread Tension.  When you lower your feed dogs the default tension settings in your machine probably won’t work well and you will need to make an adjustment.  Make sure you check your thread tension using the exact fabrics and batting that will be in your quilt each time you start a new quit.  Just make s small quilt sandwich with some of the scraps and make some test runs.  Make sure you know how to adjust the tension on your machine.  Check your owner’s manual for your machine. 


12.   Marking pens.   Personally I don’t like to mark my quilts if I can help it.  If I have to mark my quilts I like to use a “chalk” type of marking pen or I also do like the Frixion pens.  These pens when you apply heat to the ink it causes the ink to disappear (caution cold will bring the markings back.) These pens don’t always work on all fabrics!    When using any marking pen make sure you test it BEFORE using on some scrap fabric.

Secret Solution
(from Betty New) that will take out almost any marking pen/pencil marks out of fabric:

            1 part Glycerin

            1 part Dishwashing Soap (Dawn)

            8 parts water

Mix together and apply to fabric and then rinse out.


13. Tracing Paper.  For complex designs where I it needs to be precise and I am not good enough to do it freehand I will trace the design onto tracing paper and then pin it to my quilt and then stitch onto the paper.   Golden Threads makes some good quilting paper that easily rips off.  This can be purchased on-line or some quilt shops carry it.


14.  Supreme Slider.  This is a Teflon sheet that sits under your needle and under your quilt.   This allows your quilt to “glide” under the needle.  They come in two sizes, 8 ½ x 11” and 8 ½” x 17”.  If you have a large throat on your machine, yes you need the larger one 8 ½” x 17” They can be purchased on-line at or on Leah Day’s shop:


15.     Genie Magic Bobbin Washers™ These slick space age washers (the white ring in the bobbin case) eliminate the backlash in the bobbin when changing directions at high speed. Backlash creates "birds nests “in free-motion quilting and embroidery. They can be purchased on-line at or on Leah Day’s shop: or some quilt shops carry them.

16.  Starting and Ending Threads.  Some quilters like to start/end their quilting by running the needle in place two or three times.  I don’t like to do that and I like to bury the ends in the quilt.

When you start to quilt make sure to pull up your bobbin thread to the top of the quilt by putting the needle down once and then by tugging on the top thread pull up the bobbin thread.  When ending/stopping just lift your needle and pull your quilt away from the needle leaving 4 to 6 inches of thread and cut.  Got to the bobbin thread and cut it.  Now go back to the top thread tail and tug it up slightly and with a needle pull on the loop that is the bobbin thread and pull it to the top. 

Now take a Cheater Needle - Clover's Self Threading Needles (these have a slot in the top of the needle eye and you can just “pop” the threads into the eye) and thread it with the thread tails (beginning and ending) and then put the needle in as close to the end point as possible and then weave it into the batting without going through the backing and then bring the needle back up through the top.  Pull the threads all of the way through and trim them. 

I keep this Cheater Needle next to machine on this little magnetic base that has a suction cup (Pin Place) along with my snips so they are always easily found and available. 


17.  Practice, Practice, Practice


Educate yourself.  Seek out the experts, take classes, join your local sewing guild and learn from others.  Practice, practice, practice.  Make some 4 or 6” quilt sandwiches and practice different free motion designs.  These can be turned in potholders. Do remember that pushing around a 4 or 6” square of material is MUCH different than having a full size, queen or king sized quilt under your needle!



So what have I accomplished?  This is my first Free Motion Quilted Quilt.  If you look carefully you can see the Free Motion doodling around the dog and the Dog Bones in the sashings.  There is also dog paws in the corner stones, but you can't see them as it is black thread on black fabric, but they can be seen on the back.




Published Thu, Aug 1 2013 8:40 PM by Diana
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# Sukochi said on 02 August, 2013 07:54 AM

Diana, I could learn SO MUCH from you.

Sukochi  at QCA

# Denise Smart said on 03 August, 2013 08:09 AM

I found taking classes at to be very helpful in learning FMQ. You get to interact with the teachers, at your own time and speed. For beginners I highly recommend Leah Days class Free Motion Quilting A Sampler (her other classes are more advanced) and also Ann Peterson Quilting Big Projects on a Small Machine.

# Diana said on 03 August, 2013 09:16 AM

Denise thank you.  Yes I have started Leah's class on Craftsy.  I plan to work through the exercises.

# Rara said on 03 August, 2013 03:56 PM

I agree with your appreciation for Leah Day. She is one of the best teachers on the web. Free motion quilting didn't make much sense to me until I ran across her web site. I also endorse her Craftsy courses. I've been trying my hand at quilting for the past couple of years. You should be very proud of your first quilt Diana!

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