New to Free-Motion Quilting? Here's the 411

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Piecing a quilt top is a lot of work, so naturally the idea of letting loose all over it with FMQ feels daunting — especially if you're new to this technique. We've pulled together a few key tips to help a beginner out.

1. Find as much table surface area as you can

Quilting on a domestic machine can get tight if you don't have much space to work with. Gravity pulls the weight of your quilt down and causes it to drag. Dragging = friction, and friction is the enemy of good stitches.

How to prevent the drag? It's simple: you just need to get the quilt up off the floor and onto a table.

The very best option for FMQ on a domestic machine is a drop-in table where your machine sits flush with the bed of the table.

If you don't have a drop-in table, use the largest table top surface you have access to, and set up portable tables around you to control as much of the bulk as you can.

2. Match thread colors in both top and bobbin

When you're threading your sewing machine, remember that thread choice matters. Unless your tension is absolutely perfect, you may see dots of bobbin thread showing through on the top of the quilt, or your needle thread poking through on the back side.

Your bobbin and needle thread don't necessarily have to be the same weight or even the same fiber content, but by using matching colors, you'll keep all the little "pokies" from being seen.

3. Busy fabric prints and thin, blending threads will hide your mistakes

Multicolored, "busy" fabric prints are your friends: all you'll see is the texture of your quilting rather than any less-than-perfect stitches.

Let's be real, mistakes are part of the process here. So choose a thin (50 weight or less) cotton or polyester thread for machine quilting in a color that blends in with your quilt top. You'll avoid any risk of a "thready" look to your quilt, and any quilting errors will remain top secret!

4. Practice on scraps and small projects first

You'll thank yourself if you take a beat and give yourself a test run or two before jumping into that queen-sized quilt.

Start off by making a few practice samples: two 10-inch or larger scraps of fabric with a layer of batting in between. You can play with different thread combinations, try out a variety of batting types, check your tension and stitch a few designs to see how they look. Keep these samples as a reference and make notes along the way.

When you're happy with your results, make a small project such as a potholder, table runner or baby quilt, and give it away. (No one has to know that your awesome homemade gift was actually just a practice sample.)

5. Come up with a quilting plan before you start

I like to take photographs of my quilt tops or sketch them out on the computer using quilt design software (such as Electric Quilt). Then I doodle away, auditioning designs on my printed paper before I start quilting. This allows me to see how potential designs will interact with the pieced top and helps me figure out where I need to move across the quilt while quilting.

6. Choose simple quilting designs

You wouldn't choose super-tricky complex piecing for your first beginner quilt. Similarly, set yourself up for success with FMQ by starting off simple. Try straight lines using a walking foot, or use your free-motion foot for a forgiving all-over stipple or swirly design.

I like to use a technique that I call "stitch near the ditch" when making charm quilts. I select a decorative stitch on my machine and simply quilt over the seam lines in a blending thread. It's a quick way to quilt and does not have to be perfect to create beautiful texture. I can always go back in later and add more quilting if I want.

7. Fill in your background areas with lots of texture

Believe it or not, some of the most intricate looking free-motion quilting designs are actually the easiest to stitch out. The key to adding beautiful background texture is variety and asymmetry. You can use stencils and washable marking tools to place key elements of your quilting design, then fill in all the spaces around them with dense background quilting in a variety of sizes.

8. Quilt all of your quilts yourself

This is another way to say practice makes perfect. Most quilters spend a lot of time piecing, then outsource the quilting to someone else, so they never get comfortable with machine quilting. But if you bite the bullet and quilt all of your own quilts from the beginning, your machine quilting skills will be in line with your piecing skills, and you can improve both techniques with every project.

9.Get smart!

I read a lot of books and take a lot of quilting classes to improve my techniques. My favorite online classes are Quilting Big Projects on a Small Machine with Ann Petersen, and Design It, Quilt It: Free-Form Techniques with Cindy Needham. I also teach a beginner's class called  The Quilter's Path: Plan It, Stitch It, Quilt It .  All of these classes focus on teaching you how to quilt your own quilts on a domestic machine.

10. Be nice to yourself

Here's the thing: nobody was born already good at FMQ. Needing to work hard and practice — maybe a lot! — to get really good at this is totally normal. So cut yourself some slack. Your first completed quilt may not be perfect, but it's yours. And the next one will be even better.

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