Or, Karen, as you call it, ‘the squiggly stuff.’
This is the moment you’ve been waiting for. . . . free motion quilting. The challenge I face is showing you the basics of free motion quilting–which by its very name requires movement to do a really good job of showing you what to do–and all I have is a still camera. Eh, well.
Here goes. . .
I’ll start first with the secret to success . . actually I’ll offer a list:
1 – Relax. This whole process is about developing smooth, even stitches.
2 – Develop your own style. You may not know what that is just yet, but the more you quilt, the more you’ll find things you like. Textures you want to repeat and things you don’t necessarily like for one reason or another.
3 – Start with the basics, get really good at them, then challenge yourself to reach the next level. This is not an over night process. Every project you quilt will get better and better. Be patient with yourself and with your technique.
4 – The quilting adds personality to the quilt. Listen to the quilt, it will tell you how it wants to be quilted. (No, Aunt Joan hasn’t flipped her rocker!) It’s really true. You may not think so at first, but you’ll see. . .
5 – Some will recommend drawing some quilt patterns on a piece of paper first. I’m not sure I agree with this approach. When you draw on paper, the feeling is completely different because the paper is stationary and the pencil moves. On the sewing machine, just the opposite is true the pencil (or needle) stays in one spot, and the paper (or fabric below it) moves.
6 – If you want to test the concept first, it’s a very good idea to make a test quilt sandwich. Take two 10-12″ scraps of fabric and place a piece of scrap batting in between. Try some free motion strokes on this test square first. This will allow you to check the thread tension and make adjustments before you hit the ‘big time!’
7 – Read through all the directions below first, then try your hand at it. Experiment and try different things. Be bold, not timid, but also not forceful or jagged. Smooth, deliberate lines are the goal.
First, a few (more) things that might come in handy.
We’ll start with a darning foot or free motion foot. This one might look a little strange because it also has a sensor mechanism which automatically regulates my stitch size. You don’t need anything this fancy. You will recognize your free motion foot by the spring and circular or semi circular base.
You might also like to try some quilting gloves. The rubber dots in the finger tips help you to hold and move the quilt sandwich securely. They aren’t necessary, but you may find them helpful as you use your hands to maneuver the quilt on the sewing machine bed.
You may also like to keep your seam ripper handy, not because you’ll be ripping out stitches (you might rip out a few), but this helps bury the knots (just like we did on the straight line quilting).
Before you do anything, drop the feed dogs. The feed dogs move the fabric forward in one direction. By putting them out of commission, you will be able to move the fabric from left to right and backwards and forward freely. Consult your sewing machine manual to find the switch or lever. Usually it’s somewhere on the bottom or side of the machine.
Next, decide where you will start. I’m going to suggest that we start with the side rectangle on one of the blocks. We will fill that rectangle with a ‘meander.’ It’s one of the easiest fill patterns. Meander ‘purists’ will tell you to make smooth and steady loops that don’t cross–imagine Mickey Mouse hands or traveling on a back country road. Rounded lines that transition smoothly from one curve to the next.
First, insert the needle in the upper left corner of the rectangle. Pull the bobbin thread up from the bottom as we did before in the straight line quilting lesson and park both threads up and behind the foot (the squiggly red line in the upper left of the picture). Keep your needle in needle down position, so it stops in the fabric when you stop sewing (mine is needle up in the pic). Then remove the basting pin (red arrow). You’ll be traveling from the upper left corner to the lower right corner with a smooth, steady straight line of stitching. Try to keep the line fluid and organic.
Like this. Notice a couple of things. The stitches are nice and even. The faster you depress your foot pedal the faster you need to move the fabric to keep the stitches even. So, do yourself a favor and go for smooth and steady (repeat that phrase in your head, if it helps!). Not fast and furious. Smooth and steady. Also notice the big read parentheses markings. That’s where my hands should be (if the right one weren’t taking the picture). Your hand placement should always be on either side of the needle, gently pushing the fabric outward – key word: Gently.
Important! Stop and look at the bottom of the quilt. Do this early and often. Look for nicely formed stitches that are balanced from top to bottom. It’s not uncommon to have to adjust the upper thread tension to get a well-defined stitch when you switch from piecing to quilting.
If your loops have little spider legs on the bottom of the quilt, you might try INCREASING the upper thread tension a little bit and give it another test.
If too much of your bobbin thread is poking through to your quilt top, you may try DECREASING the upper thread tension. Especially when you are first learning, it’s a really good idea to check this frequently.
With experience, you’ll get to know your machine and the settings that work best, but it’s not a happy thing to get all the way through and realize that the tension is off. Thread type, batting, fabrics all can create different tension issues. That test quilt sandwich can help you get a good handle on this, too.
Here’s how the bottom of my quilt looks:
Back to the front, notice we’ve moved from the upper left corner to the lower right corner with a nice even meander. To avoid stopping and starting and burying all sorts of knots, you can move carefully from one rectangle to the next where they meet in the corner. Slow down as you approach the corner so you can transition from one rectangle to the next easily. See the arrows? Don’t forget to stop and remove any basting pins before you proceed, and while you’re at it, adjust your hand position too.
Oh, and by the way, don’t forget to breathe!
You can transition from one block rectangle to the next in this same process. Remember to remove pins as you work, and change your hands so they offer the best support for the section of the quilt you are working on. Tie off and bury the knot and ends as we did before–at the beginning and the end of the stitching.
Snip the thread close to the quilt top. A word or two about the thread cutter. Some people say I’m crazy, but I rarely use mine. I haven’t yet found a sewing machine that does a neat job of making a tidy knot. So rather than have lumps of thread all over the back of my quilt, I know it can be tedious, but I much prefer burying the knot this way. You will find plenty of people who disagree with me on this. So you decide. . .
So here’s how the block looks with the four rectangles quilted with a meander fill. Notice that where I’ve quilted, the layers are compressed. Where I haven’t quilted, the quilt is puffy. Now you have a clue to my quilting style. I like to create texture. The more densely I quilt, the more the quilt is compressed. The more I leave un-quilted, the more it puffs. In my opinion, this adds such interesting dimension and personality to the quilt. Just be sure to stay within the recommendation on the batting package. Most cotton battings require that your quilting stitches are at least 6″ away from each other. Otherwise the batting will degrade over time and use.
Just for something a little different. Try quilting in the corner and center squares of one of the blocks. Like before slow and steady is the ticket. Transition from one shape to the next via the corner. Don’t forget to remove pins and change hand position. (Are you still breathing?)
I like to recommend that new quilters work the meander until they are sick to death of it. Seriously! It’s more challenging than it looks, and it’s very versatile. Big meander is a nice fill for big spaces, tighten it up and it’s a nice medium fill for spaces like our blocks. And tighten it up even further for really compressed look – a really tight meander is also called ‘stipple.’ It takes planning to make the transition from one shape to the next and to avoid getting stuck in the corner.
Keep meandering if you prefer, but just for fun, I’ll show you a couple of easy alternatives to try. For the cream sashing strips, I’m going to add really easy up and down lines. The effect is a corduroy look. Again, slow, deliberate motion. Start in one corner, pull up the bobbin thread, hold it off to the back and side until you take the first two or three stitches. . .
Here’s a bird’s eye view of the quilt. Notice in the lower right, I’ve already worked two of the sashing pieces, transitioning from the lower horizonal strip to the lower vertical strip via the corner where they just touch.
Now, look at the red X in the lower left corner. If I start there, work my ‘corduroy’ toward the middle, I can then transition to the lower middle verical sash. Then to the middle right sash, then upper right, then top. Realize that I’m parking my needle in the quilt, then I’m positioning the quilt comfortably so I can move across the row with my stitches after each corner transition. (I hope this makes sense.)
What happens if you run out of bobbin somewhere in the middle. No worries.
Cut the top thread, flip the quilt to the back and pull out a few stitches until you have a thread end long enough to knot.
Then knot and bury the thread ends as before.
See, all gone.
From the front, insert the needle close to or on top of the last stitch (where you make the knot).
For the border, let’s try a slight variation-a loopy meander. This time we can start off the edge (you can now remove those pins that held the folded backing over the quilt edge.) that way you don’t have to bury the knot. And we’ll make smooth and easy loops to fill in the border.
Like this . . .
Once you’ve made it all the way around the quilt, plan the stitching so you can stop in the batting just off the edge of the quilt.
Here’s the back. Look at all the texture!
If you aren’t feeling completely confident in your quilting stitches just yet, don’t fret!! This skill takes a fair amount of practice. Take a look at my first attempt at free motion quilting. The long curvy lines in the blue border were perhaps not the best way to start. That’s why I like to start with the meander so much. The short curvy motion is much easier to conquer than long curves.
And my first attempt at meandering in the border of that same quilt, shown from the back because it’s a little easier to see. Your first attempt is bound to be filled with jiggley less than confident curves. But it you stick with it, free motion quilting can be the best part of the process. And the most fun. At least I think so!
That’s a lot of information. Questions: ask away!
Next time we’ll bind the quilt. Almost done!