Machine quilting basics

Machine quilting basics

Machine quilting basics:  find out here how to carry out some basic free motion quilting.  Master the basics and then all you need is plenty of practice.

The quilt that I have chosen is this jungle fun baby quilt .  I want to demonstrate the machine quilting basics.  This quilt has lots of open spaces for the sewing machine quilting.  You will see meander quilting in the green squares and triangles with a double heart motif in the white shapes.  You can find a separate article on how to prepare your quilt.  Assuming that your quilt is ready to begin, the first thing to look at is sewing machine settings.

Sewing machine settings

I used to drop my feed dogs for quilting.  A far more satisfactory way of quilting is to leave the feed dogs up and set the stitch length to zero.  For this idea I have Leah Day to thank at the free motion quilting project.

The stitch width is obviously also at zero and your tension will need adjusting.  On my machine I move the tension from Auto to about 8 or 9 – almost as high as it will go.  The only way to find the right setting for your own machine quilting designs is to try it out on a sample patch.  Make up a square of the same three layers of fabric – quilt top, wadding and backing.  I have a quilting extension arm for my machine but I haven’t used it for this project.  Machine quilting can be carried out without any special extras.  The extras can help improve your machine quilting, but we’ll look at them over a period of time.

Use a quilting foot

Having said that, you do need a darning foot for free motion quilting basics.  This has an open toe so that you can see what you are doing,  It is also spring loaded so that the machine hops along the fabric rather than gliding on it and potentially causing ripples.

Machine quilting basics: begin in the quilt middle

Begin machine quilting in the middle of the quilt

Begin machine quilting in the middle of the quilt

Always begin in the middle of the quilt.  In this project that’s the central line of green squares.  Place the quilt in the sewing machine and make sure that the part of the quilt not in use is supported either along the table or on your lap.  Have the area that you are about to quilt in front of the needle, nearest you, so that you can see where you are working.  Position your hands so that your fingers are either side of the needle.  Your thumbs should form a W in front of the needle.  Quilting gloves are a necessity – they will make sure that the quilt doesn’t slip under your fingers.

Manually turn the wheel of your sewing machine to drop the needle into the fabric and back up again.  Pull on the thread to bring the bobbin thread to the top.  Then as soon as you have sewn a few stitches you’ll be able to tie the threads and clip them so that they don’t get caught in the quilting.

Meander machine quilting

Fill the square with meander quilting

Fill the square with meander quilting

Begin by sewing a line of stitch in the ditch (on the seam) around the area that you are working one.  This stabilises the area for quilting.  I have used a simple meander quilting in the green square – lots of gentle curves.  Be as inventive as you like – basic U shapes, jigsaw type shapes, scrolls.  This is a great way of getting used to the fact that your hand movements are controlling the pattern.  The fabric is not being moved by the feed dogs.  It will only move when you move it.  Make sure that you go right to the edges of the square and into the corners.  When you have filled the area, move on to the next area.  On this project I quilted the line of green squares down the middle first and then started over with the white shapes on either side.  Always move from the middle out.

Keep your hands moving regularly

The photo above shows the back of the quilt but I was working from the front of the quilt.  Try and keep your hands moving at the same speed all the time. Then your stitch length will be the same all the time.  It won’t happen straight away but will come with practice.

How to quilt a double hearts design

Draw a double heart for machine quilting

Draw a double heart for machine quilting

Draw another double heart branching away

Draw another double heart branching away

For the next step I have moved on to a more defined easy quilting pattern, but still freehand.  Draw a heart (this is a baby quilt!) with a fabric marker and then draw another smaller heart inside it.  Run your pen up one side of the first heart and then branch off and draw another heart at an angle to the first one.  When you are sewing this, stitch around the first heart.  Then follow the line of stitching up one side before branching off to quilt the second heart.  This is known as travel stritching and is used a lot in machine quilting patterns to enable you to keep quilting continuously.

Quilt the double hearts

Machine quilted double hearts

Machine quilted double hearts

Begin machine quilting your hearts in the middle of the column of white and work down to the bottom of the quilt.  Take your quilt out of the machine and start again in the middle of the quilt and work up to the top of the quilt.  You will find that you don’t need to draw all the hearts.  Once your hands have got used to the movements you’ll find that you can machine quilt the hearts without the fabric markings.  In fact, by the time you have finished a quilt you’ll be able to quilt hearts from right to left or from left to right or even upside down!

Continue the machine quilting basics

Machine quilt from the middle outwards

Machine quilt from the middle outwards

The order of quilting that I have used is to begin with the column of green squares in the middle.  Second came the white areas either side of these squares.  Then the columns of green triangles, followed by the white squares and then the last column of green triangles.  This way I am always working from the middle towards the edges.

Machine quilting the border

Before quilting the border, it is well worth thread basting the edge of the quilt.  It is nice to have a specific quilting pattern in the border, perhaps a cable pattern or a vine.  However for these machine quilting basics I have just meander quilted the border.  We can look at patterns using stencils in a later article.  Once the border is machine quilted, trim the excess wadding and backing fabric and your quilt will be ready for binding.

Here’s the how to machine quilt video:

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  1. Pamela Harmon says:

    Can you tell me what the name of the fabric pen you used that’s disappearing thank you Pam

    • Hi Pamela. The pen that I used in this particular article is known as air erasable. It fades with time so you have to do the quilting fairly soon after the marking. An alternative is a water erasable pen. These show up on your quilt until you spray them with water after you have finished quilting. Hope that helps.

  2. I see that you basted your quilt with pins in a way that I have not seen before. Can you tell me more about the pins?

    • Hi Vicky. I think you are referring to the pinmoors. These are rubber heads that you stick on the end of pins to keep them in place and to stop the points of the pins catching on your fingers. I used to stock them but the lady in America who stocked them was extremely unhelpful so I’m afraid that I no longer stock them.

  3. Thank you so much for a really clear tutorial. I have been scared of machine quilting but you have inspired me to have another go!

    • Thanks, Linda. Its definitely worth trying. Mainly it needs regular practice. Google luck.

      • Hi Rose. I have done battle with my machine and i think I have won! After much fiddling with the tension I was able to do some basic free motion quilting, following your instructions. It was surprisingly relaxing one I got going. You are right you do need gloves though so they are next on my shopping list! Thanks again!

        • Hi lynda. So glad that you’re managing free motion quilting now. It will open up all sorts of possibilities for you now in your quilting.

  4. Pamela Wales says:

    I had lost your advice on FMQ and have been trying to quilt again. None of the info on the web has helped…but then I found this site again. Your method works and is much easier than other methods. Thankyou so much.

  5. Feed dogs up and zero stitch width and length? You won’t believe this but today I tried free motion–again–and was convinced that I would never be a free-motion quilter. When I read dogs up, etc., I got out of bed immediately and went to my machine and tried it. Holy Moly–what a difference. There is hope for me after all! Thanks so much. Your tip about thumbs and W’s and starting slow are also really helpful. Happy new year and I hope you are not freezing in the UK. Lovely day here in Fort Lauderdale, but I grew up in Connecticut and use to live in Colorado. I like sunshine better. And quilting!!

    • Hi Jeanne. That’s made my day to know that my quilting tutorial helped you! I always had tension problems before I started leaving the feed dogs up. Glad you’re having good wether – we are getting storm after storm after storm.

  6. froggy101 says:

    brilliant i tried the fmq made a pigs ear, so came back for another read and guess what i had skipped a bit so lowered stitch length and whacked the tension up and hey presto it actually looked the business !!!! just need to practice round shapes and not disjointed heart edges oops!

  7. Marie Ellis says:

    I’m looking to buy a new machine for my quilting projects, at the moment I use an industrial machine to piece my quilts but it’s a major operation to set it up for quilting is there a particular domestic machine type that I should look out for . What do you use ?

    • Hi Marie. I use a Janome, but there are so many sewing machine makers out there that I think your best bet would be to try different ones out in a shop and decide which one suits your best.

  8. Awesome video. Tremendous help, haven’t machine quilted in a long time and (silly me) tried to free motion with walking foot! Which of course did not work. Was going to abandon and pay someone to do this smallish piece of wall art and found your video! Hurrah! Happy in Florida

    • What a lovely upbeat attitude! I’m so glad the video helped you. Did you blame the machine when it wouldn’t free motion quilt with the walking foot? rose

  9. I am interested in using a pattern template. Any suggestions on how to transfer the pattern to the quilt top?

    • Good question, Becky. The most simple method, but it only works with very light fabric, would be to place the pattern underneath the fabric and trace the pattern on to the fabric. With darker fabric, the way that I would choose is to sew over the paper pattern with no thread in the machine so that you just make holes along the lines. Use a fairly long stitch length. Then place the pattern on the fabric and go over the lines of the pattern with one of those chalk fabric markers. This should give you dotted lines on the fabric. I’ll try and put a demonstration on the website some time.

  10. what are feed dogs ?

    • Sorry Fiona – I should have made that more clear in the article. They are the grid like plates underneath the needle area of the sewing machine. Usually they move the fabric along as you sew, leaving you free to guide the fabric. For free motion quilting you want to move the fabric yourself so that’s why you de activate them by either setting stitch length to zero or dropping them so that they are too low to catch the fabric. Hope that helps. rose

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