Saturday, November 8, 2014

How to Practice FMQ

How do you learn and continue to improve your free motion quilting?  Every teacher, every book, every online tutorial has thoughts on this process so this post reflects my own journey.  When you sit down at the machine for the first time you'll find that the quilting foot doesn't hold the fabric down,  the foot pedal wants to send the machine into outer space, your eye doesn't know what to look at, your hands are helpless, and the quilt bulk is totally unmanageable.  At least that is the way I felt.

1.  CHALLENGE:  Back and neck get stiff and sore.
CAUSE:  Poor posture.  Chair and machine don't meld to maintain good posture.
SOLUTION:  Get a good chair.  Plant your feet flat on the floor with thighs parallel to said floor.  Forearms parallel to the floor from elbow to sewing table.  Sit straight.  I found it helpful to get an unstable cushion (yoga cushion).  It takes some getting used to, but will strengthen your back and help you sit straight.

2.  CHALLENGE:  Body and brain tension.
CAUSE:  FMQ is intense because there is a lot to think about to get it right.
SOLUTION:  Take periodic breaks, walk around and stretch.  Drink water.  You will learn to relax as you do more FMQ.

3.  CHALLENGE:  Quilting doesn't look like the planned design.
CAUSE:  Inexperience.  Design may be too difficult at this stage.
SOLUTION:  Practice your design with paper and pencil before sewing.  This helps build muscle memory and eye-hand coordination.  It really works!  Doodle.  Doodle with the sewing machine.

4.  CHALLENGE:  I don't know what designs are best to learn with.
CAUSE:  Inexperience
SOLUTION:  Draw, then quilt some loops like the letter "e" and start with those.  Medium size is best for learning.  Keep practicing with any letter of the alphabet - it is OK to backtrack.  In fact that is a useful skill.  Look at books and online tutorials.  Leah Day has over 400 quilting motifs and has arranged them so that you can find the ones for your level of expertise.  She has short videos with each of them.  Practice on them.

5.  CHALLENGE:  I don't want to ruin my quilt with my imperfect skills.
CAUSE:  Lack of experience and practice.
SOLUTION:  Make at least a dozen 12-inch square sandwiches of fabric-batting-fabric.  I used muslin that I had, but you can raid your stash, buy fat quarters or whatever.  Pin the sandwiches together so they are ready when the mood strikes, or for daily practice sessions.

6. CHALLENGE:  My needle has a mind of it's own and doesn't always obey.
CAUSE:  Inexperience.
SOLUTION:  Keep your eye about 1/4 inch in front of the needle and it will follow.  Amazing, but true!  There is some kind of mystic connection between the eye, the hands and the needle.  Don't try to move your hands at the same time you are moving the fabric under the needle.  Stop, rearrange and start again.

7.  CHALLENGE:  My hands and feet don't coordinate.
CAUSE:  It takes some getting used to.  Sometimes your foot makes the machine go when you are not ready and that can cause havoc.  Sometimes the puppy steps on the foot pedal - urrghhhhh!
SOLUTION:  Work on keeping the machine going at a steady speed.  Listen to the machine.  You can hear when you are getting irregular.  Take your foot all the way off the pedal when you stop and don't put it back until you and your hands are ready to stitch.  It is not cool to stitch a finger.

8.  CHALLENGE:  After stopping then starting again the needle jogs off to the side.
CAUSE:  The fabric is pulling.
SOLUTION:  This is tricky because it is hard to get started along the same line again without a jog when the weight of the quilt is not supported.  Arrange the fabric in a nest around the machine so that you have complete control of the portion around the needle.  Bring the needle up then move it down almost to the fabric by hand so you are sure it will land in the right place.  Do a stitch in the same hole where you stopped, then start slowly as you move the fabric carefully.  You have to hold the fabric very steady as you start.  Practice this regularly on your little squares, but realize that managing a big quilt will be a bit more difficult...but you can do it.

9.  CHALLENGE:  Stitching in the ditch to anchor the quilt.
CAUSE:  It is intense and difficult to stay in the ditch.  It just is!
SOLUTION:  Stitch two inch squares together into a 12 inch "quilt," batting and all.  Practice sewing right in the ditch.  Be careful at intersections where the seam allowance may be switching to the opposite side.  When done correctly the thread will bury into the seam and be essentially invisible.

TIP:  I'd rather stay positive, but I must warn you about a couple of things.  Stippling is one of the hardest stitches to master.  Straight lines are also hard to manage until you have more control.  These are important to learn, but not critical at first so get your feet wet with easier designs.

When you feel reasonably confident with the alphabet, look at some books with patterns.  Most quilting books have some ideas and there are designs all over the Internet.  Before you know it you will gain competence with eye-hand-foot coordination and will notice that you can follow a line.  When I was finally able to follow a line exactly, I realized I could do just about anything with a needle and quilt.

TIP:  I found it great fun to quilt on medium to large floral fabric, following the edges of the flowers and leaves.  It great for beginners because the occasional misplaced stitches are not obvious.  Looks pretty too.

What are my recommended goals at this stage of the game?
*Maintain good posture.
*Strive for a regular, steady speed with the machine.  Some people go fast, some slow.  Some
machines have the option of a slow, set speed.  Decide what works for you.
*Aim for stitches that are all the same length.  No one is perfect, but it is an admirable goal.
*Keep your eye ahead of the needle.
*Learn to stop and start in the same place without the needle going off to the side.
*Draw designs.  Doodle.  Practice 15 to 20 minutes each day on the machine.
*Have fun with it.

TIP:  You learn to quilt by quilting.  With some practice under your belt go ahead and quilt your quilt.  Most people won't even notice the imperfections.  I promise you will get better with each quilt.

Here is one of my early quilts.  I tried my hand at FMQ and thought it looked so awful that I ripped out ALL the quilting and started over.  That is probably not the best way to practice quilting, but when I went back to it, I did a much better job.  I did simple, large flower petals in the plain areas and followed the border design in the fancy spots.  You really can't see the quilting in the border areas.  That is real advantage on this quilt!  I got a lot of practice doing this, and you know what?  The quilt is not ruined!



  1. This is such a useful post. Thank you

  2. I must be unusual. I found straight line and stippling to be the easiest things to master, and close to the only thing I've mastered. I can also do loops, love to write in cursive and "hide" messages in baby quilts. The parents love to look for them too. I'm very much a beginner, and struggle because of lack of harp space, but I keep plugging away. I do need to do some sandwiches up again, but those are easy compared to a quilt. Practice, practice, practice, that's what they all say. cdahlgren at live dot com

    1. I must confess that I too started with stipple because I didn't know what else to do. Try some feathers. I love doing them, and they are so gorgeous. Do them on paper awhile first. McTavishing is also lovely and not hard. Harp space is definitely an issue on a domestic machine, but there is nothing to do but deal with it and learn how to manipulate the monster.

  3. It's a pretty quilt. The only machine quilting that I've done thus far is on smaller pieces such as table runners and pillow covers etc. So trying smaller pieces is good advice. I hand quilt for the most part but I would like to get more comfortable with the machine as well.

    1. Thanks for your comment. I got pushed into machine quilting when I had to pull my needle through with a hemostat every single time. Thumb and finger would no longer do the job. I have come to love machine quilting as I have improved.