What Is Free-Motion Quilting? + 3 Steps to Get YOU Started!

Have you finished your first quilt top and are you ready to start quilting?  Or, do you have a stack of unfinished quilt tops waiting in the queue?  Either way, now is the perfect time to explore the exciting world of free-motion quilting!

What is free-motion quilting?

Free-motion quilting is quilting using a domestic sewing machine (as opposed to a long arm quilt machine) to stitch a quilt sandwich without the aid of the feed dogs.

Sometimes there is confusion with the terms "free-hand quilting" and "freestyle quilting," which refer to quilting without a drawn pattern. Whenever the feed dogs are disengaged, you are free-motion quilting whether you are following a pre-drawn line like a stencil line, or stitching a doodle from memory.

That's the simple definition, but to really understand how FMQ works, we need to understand our machines better.

How sewing machines stitch a straight line

To understand what free-motion quilting is, it's helpful to first understand how our sewing machines operate for standard sewing.

In normal sewing — like stitching a seam or piecing — the feed dogs move the fabric with every stitch. The feed dogs are the "toothy" device that sit underneath the foot plate. The stitch length button sets how far the feed dogs move the fabric and varies from stitching in place to ¼" on most machines.

The problem is, the feed dogs can only move fabric straight forward or straight backward. As a result, when we quilt with the feed dogs engaged, we're limited to straight lines or gently curved lines.

While straight and curved lines can make stunning quilts (as you can see in Christa Watson's  Startup Library: Quilting  class or Jacquie Gering's  Creative Quilting With Your Walking Foot ), removing that limitation opens a world of possibilities.

How free-motion quilting is different from standard stitching

First, free-motion quilting requires disengaged feed dogs.

When setting up our machines for FMQ, the first step is to disengage the feed dogs. There are a few common ways to do this:

  1. On most machines, you can press a button and the mechanism lowers out of the way.
  2. On some older machines, you can disengage the feed dogs by covering them.
  3. A third way to disengage the feed dogs is to set the stitch length to zero. When we set the stitch length to zero, we are telling the feed dogs to remain stationary. In this case, the feed dogs will not advance the fabric.

This set-up gives the quilter full control of the movement — and that's when the magic begins! Once we are in control, we can stitch in all directions to create swirls and twirls, flowers and feathers and so much more!

Second, free-motion quilting requires a different sewing machine foot

The feed dogs work in tandem with the presser foot. Because we've altered the function of the feed dogs, we must also choose a different type of presser foot.

In regular sewing, the piecing foot remains stationary and the feed dogs release the fabric with every stitch to allow the fabric to move. On the other hand, when we are free-motion quilting, our feed dogs are not engaged, so we need a presser foot that will release the fabric.

Free-motion quilting feet are designed to do just that. You may have heard quilting feet called "hopping feet" because they "hop" with each stitch. This "hop" is necessary to allow the fabric to move while quilting. Most sewing machine manufacturers offer a variety of  "hopping" presser feet suitable for free-motion quilting. Choose the foot that gives you the greatest visibility.

Finally, you can start stitching your FMQ

Once you lower the feed dogs and attach a presser foot, you can thread your machine — just like you always do. Now start stitching!

Remember, in free-motion quilting, YOU are in control! You determine the direction of the stitching line and the size of each stitch.

It's just like driving a car: Coordinate the stitch speed (gas pedal) with the movement of your hands (the steering wheel) and off you go.

Be patient with yourself! Start with a small quilt sandwich — a fat quarter is ideal — and quilt your favorite doodle. Once you are comfortable, add loops and scallops and you are on your way!  (For more beginner motifs, check out my step-by-step tutorial for beginner loops and flower power .)

Remember, there are just three simple steps you need to take to start FMQ:

  1. Lower or disengage the feed dogs
  2. Attach a free-motion quilting foot
  3. Thread machine for normal sewing 
Don't forget, once YOU are in control of your sewing machine, the possibilities are endless!
Creative Quilting for Any Space

More Creative Quilting Tips & Motifs

Learn simple strategies for filling any space with beautiful FMQ designs in up-close video lessons with Lori Kennedy of The Inbox Jaunt. Learn More


January 10, 2018
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What Is Free-Motion Quilting? + 3 Steps to Get YOU Started!