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Navigating Your Way into Free-motion Quilting

Are you ready to start an exciting journey into the world of free-motion quilting? AWESOME! Free-motion quilting opens a doorway to a whole new level of design possibilities and allows you to add dimension accentuating different areas of your quilt. You might free-motion quilt over a pieced top, or a panel with a printed image, or you might quilt on a completely blank slate of cotton, leather, silk, vinyl, etc. creating an entire story in thread, yarn, other medium, or any combination thereof. This post touches on some of the considerations you may encounter as you embark on this journey with your domestic machine.

Starting at the machine: Generally, you do not need a specific machine to free-motion quilt, but it helps if you have a machine that makes the process comfortable for you. My first machine was a small, computerized domestic unit that took me far, from making throw-sized quilts stitched in the ditch to beginning to create more detailed designs, but it did not handle the way I was hoping for free-motion quilting. I did extensive research and thought practically about what I wanted to do and how much money I was willing to spend. I chose the machine that would serve my main goals, felt good to work with, and that produced great stitches.

Note: Clean your machine with its accompanying brushes, a lint-free cloth, and/or light air suction.

The next most important task is to start with a clean machine. If you've been working on another project, remove your throat plate and use the brush that came with your machine to give it a good cleaning. Remove the bobbin case and brush that clean, as well. Trust me, the first time something goes wrong (and it will) one of the first things you will do, after rethreading and perhaps changing out your needle, will be to open that throat plate to see if there's a tangled thread or a dust booger obstructing your path. By starting with a clean machine you eliminate a bunch of guesswork.

Also, don't let dust accumulate on top of your machine. Wipe it with a lint-free cloth after each use. It's also best to cover your machine when not in use.

* The above are the needles I use in my domestic machine. From left to right: 90/14 Titanium -coated Topstitch; 80/12 Universal; 90/14 Super Universal (non-stick); 90/14 Jeans; 70/10 Microtex; 60/8 Microtex. Note the large eye in the 90/14 topstitch needle, and the distance from the bottom of the eye to the point of the needle. Also note the blade diameters of the 90/14 needles as compared with the others, and in all the needles, the differences in the eyes and points.

Most often, I use a 90/14 Titanium-coated Topstitch needle. The titanium coating makes the needle very durable. I typically use my 90/14 Topstitch to quilt over standard quilting cottons with 40 to 50 wt. threads. For art quilts, this needle also works for metallic thread (a quilting topic in itself!) The large eye gives the top thread plenty of room to link up nicely with the bobbin thread. In a pinch, for general free-motion quilting, I've also used an 80/12 Universal with 40-80 wt. cotton or polyester threads, which has worked fine.

Special conditions: When using fusible interfacing or basting spray I typically use a Super Universal (non-stick) needle. If I'm quilting denim I use a Jeans needle. If I'm quilting a silk top I use a Microtex 70/10, a sharp needle that pierces through the weave beautifully.

Lastly, if I'm quilting over acrylic paint I like a 70/10 or 60/8 Microtex needle. The reason for this is because a big needle will put big, noticeable holes in the paint, not a very nice effect. A 70/10 or 60/8 Microtex will leave a much smaller footprint.

Note: Anything that touches your sewing machine, aside from its manufacturer-recommended machine oil should be DRY! If you value your machine, do not attempt to sew through sticky glues or paints.

Thread: Thread is the needle's best friend. I typically use a 40wt. trilobal polyester as my standard for free-motion quilting, and I use it in both top and bobbin. "Trilobal" literally means three faces, and it is this construction configuration that reflects light, giving this thread a great sheen and producing a lovely finish to quilt tops. It also runs well through my machine, is available in hundreds of colors, and is generally more cost effective than other thread types.

In the above quilt I used a 40wt. trilobal polyester in bright gold.

Thread painting with 40 wt. rayon

For quilts that I use as wall hangings or table toppers I've also used 40wt. colorfast rayon thread. This thread is sold by my local big box craft shop, so is readily available.

I've also used cotton, including variegated colors, which can produce a lovely effect! I typically use high quality, long-staple 50 wt. cotton as my piecing thread, which also glides through my machine beautifully as a quilting thread. Cotton thread generally provides a matte finish and comes in a variety of weights from 12 to 100. Working in combinations can produce some striking textural effects. Note also that when using threads such as 12 or 28wt. in the top, you will want to maintain a lighter (40 to 60wt.) weight thread in the bobbin, this helps the threads play well together as they form stitches. For thicker thread weights, you will want to adjust the size of your needle accordingly. You will also want to be mindful of the fabric on which you are quilting, as bigger blades are better suited to heavier weight fabrics, such as denim, canvas, leather, etc.

You may also choose to quilt using an invisible thread. The advantage of this in free-motion quilting is that you don't need to worry about matching thread color to fabric. A great standard for this is a monofilament polyester. It typically comes in "clear" and "smoke" to accommodate lighter and darker fabrics. When using this in the bobbin I prefer to use pre-wound rather than winding bobbins myself, as it can be a bit temperamental. I've also found it helps to use a thread net (covering the spool on the spool pin). This keeps the thread feeding correctly, preventing it from winding around the spool pin and causing tension issues and breakage.

Other options: You may also choose to use silk, metallic, glitter, or holographic threads, all of which can produce beautiful effects on your quilt top. Make certain to use the appropriate needle and bobbin thread (I have matched silk with silk and have also used 60 to 80 wt. poly, as well as invisible thread in my bobbin) for ease of use and to achieve the best quality stitches.

Quilting Feet: Your foot also plays an important role in this process. The type of feet shown above are typical for free-motion quilting. They are also referred to as "darning" feet. The foot on the right is the one I use most often for free-motion quilting. There are variations of these including those with an opening on the front or side of the foot (called an "open-toe"), which allow you to easily see what you're quilting, and is especially helpful when doing dense micro quilting.

An echo foot (not shown) features a disc, allowing you to maintain even spacing around a design as you quilt.

The feet above are ruler feet. Notice the high, 1/4" edges, this allows you to move a quilting ruler alongside the foot for precision quilting. The foot on the right allows me to easily adjust pressure without removing my presser foot screw. When combining ruler and free-motion quilting I typically just quilt everything with my ruler foot, rather than changing out the feet, which is totally fine.

*If a ruler foot does not come with your machine, make certain to order based on the manufacturer and model of your machine. I have two domestic machines. The one I use for free-motion quilting is a high-shank machine, the distance from the presser foot screw to the bottom of the foot is 1"+. My other machine uses a low-shank foot; the distance from the presser foot screw to the bottom of the foot is ~1/2". This is also important when ordering rulers, which are available in different thicknesses based on low shank, high shank and long arm machines.

Shown above is a couching foot. This foot allows you to quilt by threading yarn through the center eye to produce beautiful and amazing effects. It is not available for every machine, and in fact, this foot belongs to my low shank machine, which I use for applique work and specialty stitches.

The Bobbin: A well wound bobbin is important, and it is also important to check your bobbin prior to inserting it into your machine, as manufacturing flaws and packaging errors can sometimes occur. Note the three bobbins above. It took me the better part of an hour to realize that my machine was not working because the bobbin (center) inserted into my machine was too tall. I then inserted the bobbin on the right. As you can see, that bobbin was flawed, as well. Finally, the bobbin on the left was the one that corrected the problem.

Setting-up for Smooth Movement: The steps below will help you maneuver your project smoothly under your needle as you quilt.

First, use that switch on your machine to drop your feed dogs. On my machine I also set my stitch length to "zero," and turn the presser foot pressure to "zero".

It's a good idea to cover your auxiliary table with a slick surface. You can buy a quilter-specific item, such as a Sew Slip or Supreme Slider (shown above), or you can use a Teflon oven sheet (don't forget to cut a hole to accommodate your needle). In any case, be sure to tape down the front and back edges with masking tape (see above). Few things are as aggravating as sewing your slider mat to the back of your quilt (ask me how I know...).

Quilting gloves are also helpful. You can buy quilter-specific products, or you can use garden gloves with a nitrile coating on the palms, this coating provides a non-slip grip to help you grip the fabric and easily maneuver your quilt under the needle.

Finally, good lighting is also very important. This is true no matter what or how you are sewing. If your machine is not already equipped with a good lighting source, the adhesive LED strip lights shown above can be purchased through several online outlets, shops, and big box retailers.

Phew, we made it! I hope you find this information useful as you begin your journey into free-motion quilting.

Happy stitching!

- Liz


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