Thursday 5 June 2014

Free Motion Quilting - a few tips

I've had a few people interested recently in how I quilt on my domestic machine, and I've been doing quite a bit of free motion quilting this week, so I thought I'd run through a few things I've learnt that can help make it easier. I am completely self taught when it comes to this stuff, so it isn't necessarily the 'right' way to do it - but this is what works for me :o)

I think the key point to make from the start is being able to move your quilt smoothly and freely through your machine makes a massive difference to how you'll be able to quilt. It makes it easier to get smooth curves on pebbles and spirals, and it makes it easier to make straight lines closer to straight (I think it is almost impossible to FMQ truly straight lines without using rulers, which is something I have not yet tried.) The first part of this post is talking about some things you can do to make moving your quilt smoothly possible, and then I'll talk about some other things I find helpful. 

I always pin baste my quilts, and tend to place a pin every 4-6". I use the seams in the quilt top as a guide, and normally pin each seam on the horizontal and vertical, creating a grid of pins.

Setting up your machine and quilt:

One of the biggest tips I have for making FMQ easier is how you position your quilt on your quilting table, and in your machine. I have quilted several really large quilts now (never a full Queen or King size, but I have quilted a few 80" square, or 96" x 72" quilts), and there are a few things I've discovered that can make it a bit easier to maneuver a big quilt in a domestic machine.  

You don't need a huge throat space to quilt big quilts. My machine has about 7.5" between the needle and the body of the machine, and I can manage about 40" of quilt rolled in this space. I wouldn't say it's easy, but the more you do it, the more you get used to handling that bulk of quilt between your machine and the needle. I personally find it easier to roll my quilt (quite tightly) in this situation, rather than scrunch it - it makes it easier to get the section I'm quilting to sit flat.  

Last November I found a sewing cabinet second hand, that has the ability to sink my machine down into the table, so the bed of my machine sits flush with the table top. This is a glimpse of my studio (aka garage sewing room.) It's a bit grotty, but it means I can close the door on the constant mess ;o) This has made a HUGE difference to how easy it is to move a quilt through my machine - not having to drag the quilt up onto my extension table makes it so much easier to move the quilt smoothly. Amy has a fantastic tutorial on how to do this to a regular table - but if you ever have the opportunity to buy a custom built table, it is seriously worth the investment. 

My biggest piece of advice here is to make sure you have as much of the quilt supported on the table as possible. This will cause less drag, and make it easier to move the quilt smoothly under your needle, which will make it easier to keep your stitch length even and avoid jerking the quilt (which will cause bumps in your quilting.) 

I always divide my quilt into four sections in my head, as in the diagram below. By starting with section 1, orientated as shown in the (slightly dodgy) hand drawn diagram, you will always have a the smallest amount of quilt within the throat of your machine as possible, and have as much of the quilt supported on the table as possible. 

Once you've finished quilting that section, turn the quilt so that section 2 is at the bottom right corner.

And again for section 3.

And finally for section four.

I tend to start as close to the centre of the quilt as possible - the centre is always going to be the hardest part to quilt, since you'll have the biggest amount of quilt within the throat space, and I like to get the hardest part out of the way first. Plus, your arms will get tired, so if you tackle the hard bit first it gets progressively easier as you move away from the centre, and you won't need to dread doing that centre part!

Quilting Tools:

There are a couple of tools that can really help make FMQ easier. 

I quilted for a very long time before I bought gloves for quilting - and was slightly horrified I'd left it so long. They make it SO much easier to move the quilt, and save your hands from getting sore from gripping the quilt. I use really flexible gardening gloves, with a stretchy back and grippy stuff on the fingers. I know you can get specific machine quilting gloves, but these do the trick beautifully. They're comfortable to wear, and my hands don't get sweaty. 

Supreme Slider Mat
This is the newest addition to my quilting arsenal - a Supreme Slider mat. This was my birthday present this year, and arrived on Tuesday. It's basically a really slippery mat that sits on the bed of your machine (and extension table) that makes it easier to move the quilt around under your machine. It honestly hasn't made as much of a difference as my gloves - but it does make it easier to move the quilt smoothly. 

Choosing a thread colour:

I almost always like my quilting to blend into the fabric, so I tend to choose colours that will match my fabric as closely as possible. My go to thread is Aurifil 50wt - especially soft white (2021) and dove grey (2600). 

I don't have a gigantic stash of thread - I have one or two shades of each colour. If my thread isn't a great match, and I have a choice I tend to go with the lighter shade rather than darker, as I tend to think it isn't as obvious on fabric (but other people prefer darker than lighter, so I guess it's personal preference.) 

Planning Your Quilting:

There are a few good ways to plan out what motifs you might want to use on your quilt top. For me, good quilting will enhance the piecing without distracting too much from it. I tend to use thread that will blend as much as possible for this reason - especially in background areas. 

I find a lot of inspiration for quilting motifs from the work of long arm quilters such as Krista Withers, Lisa Sipes and Angela Walters. Leah Day has a brilliant website full of ideas for quilting motifs as well.

Take a front-on photograph of your quilt and print out a few copies, and then use a pen or pencil to sketch out some ideas on how to fill the spaces on your quilt. This is my usual tactic for planning quilting. 

Template plastic:
Another idea is to use clear template plastic to draw out potential designs, and then place it over your quilt top so you can 'see' how it might look as a quilting idea. 

Marking Quilting Lines:

I do a bare minimum of marking on my quilts, and tend to use seam lines as a guide where ever possible. But sometimes it's nice to have a reference point, especially for straight line FMQ. There are lots of options for marking your quilt, but these are the couple of ways I do it. 

Hera Marker 
A Hera Marker is essentially a blunt plastic blade, that you can run across the quilt top to make temporary marks on your quilt (they make an indentation into the fabric). They are especially useful for marking straight lines that extend beyond quilt blocks into sashing and borders. The only negative aspect of marking with a Hera Marker is that sometimes it is difficult to see the marks, especially if you are moving the quilt toward you (ie quilting toward the back of the machine). 

Dissolvable Markers
I own a couple of dissolvable marking pens (that either fade quite quickly without any help, or require water to fade). I sometimes use them rather than my Hera Marker for straight lines, but more often for marking points - for example the diamond quilting I did on my Block Flower quilt. I marked dots along the centre of the diamonds, and aimed for these when I was quilting these areas. 

The actual quilting part:

As I mentioned earlier, the centre of your quilt is always going to be the hardest part to quilt. This is the area you'll have the most quilt in the throat space, and will have half the quilt in your lap. I tend to roll the section of quilt that is in the throat space, and sit the rolled part over my right shoulder when quilting the centre of my quilts. 

When I'm quilting, I normally sit both hands flat on the quilt top. The only time I don't do this is when I am quilting the centre part of the quilt, when I'll hold the rolled part of the quilt in my right hand and sit the other hand flat on the quilt top. 

When you're quilting it is almost always easier to move the quilt away from you, rather than pulling it toward you. There are a few reasons for this.
1. You can see where you are going more easily, and it is easier to plan out how to fill a space on your quilt with a particular motif.
2. Sewing machines are designed to pull the fabric through from front to back. Even if you drop your feed dogs when FMQing, it is more intuitive to push the quilt away from you and sewing machines seems to like it better.  

One time I ignore this 'rule' is when I'm FMQing straight lines. It is much easier to keep the lines straigh(ish) if you work top to bottom rather than side to side, but I do work in both directions (ie pulling the quilt toward me, then pushing it away) when doing straight line FMQ. 

The other big thing for me is that I stop quilting and reposition my quilt sandwich (ie make sure I have a flat area immediately between my hands) really frequently. I find I need to do it far more often near the centre of the quilt, but it becomes less of an issue toward the outside. Part of the stopping and starting is to move pins (normally a few inches before I get to them), but most of it is making sure the three layers are all sitting flat in the area I am about to quilt, and to make sure they are flat in relation to what I've already quilted (so that seam lines aren't pulled and skewed.)

I think I'll leave it there for today - this post has already reached an epic proportions! I might make this into a mini-series if anyone is interested though, and talk specifically about how I quilt particular motifs (and hopefully get some videos happening soon too!) Please let me know if there is anything specific you'd like me to talk about :o)

xx Jess 


Charlotte said...

really interesting, thanks! It does remind me why I don't like machine quilting though - I just don't have the right set-up. Oh well - it's lucky I like to hand quilt!

cat and vee xoxo said...

excellent post Jess, really so very helpful and full of information, thanks so much for taking the time to write it + share the pics!

Wendy said...

great tips and yes please to a mini series!

Gina said...

Great tips. THe biggest quilt I've done on my domestic machine was 110x110 It was a bit of a struggle but can be done. I always stitch in the ditch with monofilament first, that allows me to remove all the pins which make life easier. It also allows me to fmq the borders first which helps tho flatten the quilt more when rolling under the machine xx

Mystic Quilter said...

Thanks for such an informative, helpful post Jess. I only have had time to read quickly through but will come back and spend time reading tomorrow. Love the idea of gardening gloves, supreme slider I already have but it has not yet seen the light of day!

Di said...

Wow. There are some great tips here. Thank you. Di x

DeborahGun said...

so helpful Jess - thanks for sharing. Made me realise why I was so unsuccessful trying to quilt a large quilt recently - it was just dragging too much. Support is key!

wobblybobbin said...

We just moved and I have just a bit more space for sewing - I will definitely look into a table to drop my machine. Thanks for all the tips!

Carla said...

Thanks for these tips. I wonder if doing it in sections works with an all over design or would it be choppy? Hmmmm will have to try : )

Katy Cameron said...

All great advice! I suspect I will never intricately FMQ a huge quilt (partly because as a bag maker the worst thing I could do would be to drop the machine into a table!) by good to know I'm not the only one with odd rolls of quilt over their shoulder in the middle of a quilt!

mtnquiltr said...

Thank you for a thoughtful post with lots of useful tips. When quilting really large quilts I've found it useful to do it in sections and join them after. (QAYG). It works best with a quilt with sashing I think. I'm looking forward to reading more of your posts on this, please keep them coming!

mtnquiltr said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Serena @ Sewgiving said...

I'm going to pin this post - so much useful info, thank you!

MsMidge said...

Great post Jess! I got out of my fmq groove today with a lap size quilt - just some meandering patterns - but I have to say, my new extension table made such a big difference! Now I just have to get back to the more interesting FMQ that I used to be able to do without thinking too much!

Unknown said...

Great post. I just finished quilting a 60 x 70" quilt on my little Janome (5.5" throat space!) After going through this exercise I decided that I needed to get myself some gloves if I'm going to do this again, and consider finding myself a sewing table to allow more space to take the weight of the quilt. So thanks for confirming these two points for me may possibly make the quilting a more enjoyable experience :) Love your other tips as well.

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