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Complete guide to free motion quilting for beginners

Give your quilts a design boost with our essential guide to free motion quilting. What is it and how do you get started?

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Sew your quilt together with stars, flowers, swirls, geometric shapes or even lettering. With free motion quilting, you can add extra impact to your quilt projects, boosting the patchwork patterns of your quilt top.

It can be a little daunting the first time you try free motion quilting but follow the steps below and you’ll find lots of tips and advice to guide you through the process.

If you’ve never tried free motion quilting before, this tutorial is for you. It also offers a refresher in the basics, if it’s been a while.

What is free motion quilting?

Free motion quilting is quilting the layers of a quilt together freehand, using a continuous line of quilting. Imagine your needle is the pen and your quilt is the paper.

When you sew your quilt sandwich together, your needle will be able to move freely in all directions, instead of just in straight lines. Think of it as doodling with your sewing machine.

This allows you to create a variety of patterns and shapes as you sew, adding interest to your finished quilt.

What’s the best sewing machine for free motion quilting?

Good news: you don’t need a specialist quilting machine to do free motion quilting. You can use the technique on most domestic sewing machines.

In the next section, we’ll show you which settings to adjust on your machine.

If you’re looking to buy a new machine, keep an eye out for features that make quilt-making easier. Most machines (though not all cheaper ones) give you the option to lower the feed dogs (more on what that means later).

It’s also helpful if sewing machines come with a free motion quilting or darning foot, and extendable or large surfaces for you to rest the quilt on as you sew.

Most sewing machine companies offer models that are designed especially for quilters. These should include everything you need for free motion quilting and more.

Here are a couple of our favourites…

Brother FS100WT Free Motion Embroidery and Quilting Machine

Most quilting machines come with quite a big price tag, and while this nifty tech from Brother is still an initial outlay in cost, it’s one of the most affordable quilting machines on the market.

If you want something budget-friendly but reliable, the Brother FS100WT will meet your needs and then some. It comes with essential drop feeds for free motion quilting, plus a transparent free motion embroidery foot which you can use for quilting too, and a wide table to spread your quilt out onto while you sew.


Janome 5120QDC

This pro quilting machine is a joy. It comes with a drop feed for free motion quilting, plus lots of handy features, including an automatic needle threader, thread cutter button and a jam-proof top-loading bobbin system. We love the extension table that will hold your larger quilt projects comfortably.

For more machine ideas, see our full guide to the best sewing machines for quilting.


How to do free motion quilting as a beginner

Free motion quilting is really addictive once you get started. The more you practise, the easier it will become.

It helps to start with a small project like a cushion cover or baby quilt. Then you can progress on to larger, full-size quilts once you have built your confidence.

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You Will Need

  • Sewing machine
  • Thread
  • Free motion quilting foot or darning foot
  • Basting spray (1 can), For basting the quilt
  • Patchwork quilt top
  • Wadding or batting
  • Quilt backing fabric
  • Safety pins
  • Quilting stencils
  • Air drying pen

Total time:

Prepare your quilt sandwich for free motion quilting

Step 1

Spend some extra time and care basting the layers of your sandwich together securely and you’ll see the rewards when you get to the quilting stage.

Prepare the layers of your quilt

Square up your quilt top so it’s got straight edges all the way around (you can do this with scissors or a rotary cutter, ruler and mat). Cut a piece of batting and backing fabric so they are the same size as the quilt top, but with an extra two inches around each edge. This will be useful later when you quilt, in case your fabric moves and shifts as you sew.

free motion quilting step 1

Step 2

Secure your quilt layers with basting spray

Lay your quilt backing, print-side down, on a large work surface. Spread the fabric flat in front of you and then spray all over with basting spray. You can do this on the floor if you don’t have a large table, but it will work best on a hard floor, rather than carpet.

The spray will make the fabric sticky, and ready for you to add the next layer. Place your wadding on the sticky quilt backing and smooth from the centre outwards in all directions to stick.

Spray the wadding all over with basting spray. Place your quilt top on top of it, right side facing up, with the wrong side of the quilt top pressing onto the wadding. Smooth it firmly all over from the surface outwards.

free motion quilting step 2

Step 3

Add safety pins to secure the quilt sandwich

Add some safety pins to the 3 layers of your quilt sandwich to finish basting.

How many depends on the size of your quilt top. For a lap quilt or single bed quilt, I usually use a few rows of 4 safety pins per row, across every other row of quilt blocks.

This is an optional step. Many quilters swear by just using basting spray for the best results when quilting. Ultimately, how you baste your quilt is down to personal preference.

Now you’re ready to get quilting.

free motion quilting step 3

How to adjust your sewing machine settings for free motion quilting

Step 1

Lower the feed dogs

Drop the feed dogs on your sewing machine. These are the “teeth” that poke up beneath your needle and guide your sewing in straight lines.

If you’re not sure how to do this, check your sewing machine manual.

Some domestic sewing machines do not allow you to drop your feed dogs. You can still use them for free motion quilting, but you might find it helps to purchase a mat which sits on the bed of your machine, on top of the feed dogs – and will allow you to move your quilt more easily when you come to the quilting stage.

For example this Free Motion Slider Sheet for Sewing Machines:

free motion slider

free motion quilting step 4

 

Step 2

Attach a free motion quilting foot or darning foot

Replace the regular sewing foot on your machine with a free-motion foot or darning foot.

How you change the foot of your sewing machine is different on different machines, so check your sewing machine manual if you’re not sure how to do this.

free motion quilting step 5 darning

Step 3

Adjust your stitch length

Reduce your stitch length to 0. With free motion quilting, your stitch length is guided by the amount of pressure you place on the foot pedal and how quickly you move your fabric as you sew.

free motion quilting step 6 stitch length

Step 4

Lower your foot presser speed

Change the foot pressure setting on your machine to the lowest setting possible.

When you start sewing, the slower you move the needle up and down using foot pressure, the more control you will have as you sew.

free motion quilting step 7 foot pressure

Step 5

Check your sewing machine tension setting

Check or adjust your tension to suit the thickness of your quilting layers. The tension setting you select will depend on your machine so check your machine manual or test different settings to find the right one.

For my machine, I use tension setting 7 or 8 and adjust as needed.

It helps to create a tester sandwich first using some scrap layers of fabric and wadding, to check for any tension or stitch length issues. That way you can adjust your settings as needed (for example if the machine is sewing too tightly or loosely) before you begin, without having any impact on your main quilt project.

free motion quilting step 6 stitch length

How to do free motion quilting

Step 1

Decide on your quilting pattern

Before you begin, think about the pattern or shapes that you want to make when you’re quilting. Some quilters prefer to go completely freehand. They move the quilt around in their sewing machine to form loosely sewn shapes, such as stippling, wavy lines or spirals.

If you do this, try doodling with pen and paper to practise simple free-motion quilting patterns before you proceed to fabric and thread.

free motion quilting step 6 practice

 

Step 2

Optional – use a stencil to prepare your pattern

If you want to quilt in a more uniform pattern, you can also use specialised stencils to mark where you want your lines to go before you sew.

To do this, place a quilt stencil on top and trace the pattern using a fabric marker. Move the stencil along and repeat, building up the pattern in a tiled effect until you have traced a guideline of your pattern across a full row of your quilt.

Air erasable or water erasable pens are handy for this stage. If in doubt, test your fabric marker, and how to remove the ink, before you cover your quilt in it!

You can check out our fabric marker guide to make sure you get the right one for the job.

free motion quilting step 10 stencil

 

Step 3

Select a spot on your quilt to start sewing

To start your sewing, select your starter spot. Set your needle to the up position and move your fabric underneath the needle, with the start spot in the centre of the free-motion foot’s hoop. Now lower your needle into the fabric. Begin by sewing a stitch or two back and forth using your machine’s reverse stitching setting to secure your thread.

For small projects like cushions or baby quilts, or larger quilts where you’ve spray basted in advance, start at one corner of the project and either quilt a row of patterns across your quilt, or quilt one section (also known as a ‘block’). Then move your needle across the quilt to build up more and more rows and blocks until the whole quilt sandwich is secured.

For larger projects, or quilts where you are using pin basting, start in the centre of the quilt, and split your quilt into four-quarter sections. As you sew, move outwards towards the edges of your quarter section.

This is because, with pin basting, your fabric is more likely to shift and bunch up slightly as you sew. If you start each section at the central point and sew outwards towards the edges, it won’t matter if your layers shift a bit as you sew, as you’ll have room around the edge to adjust for this. Any sections that gather up slightly under your needle as you sew won’t end up bunching in the middle of the quilt.

free motion quilting step 11 - start

 

Step 4

Start sewing your layers together

Sew the beginning of your free-motion quilting line by gently pressing the foot to bring your needle up and down.

As you sew, move the quilt around with your hands to create a trail of stitches. You are now “drawing” a pattern of freehand stitches with your needle.

The amount of pressure you put on the presser foot, and how fast you move the quilt as you sew, will create your stitch length. Speed up or slow down how much pressure you apply to the foot pedal, and how quickly you move the quilt, to increase or decrease your stitch length.

If your stitches are too long then you need to apply more pressure on the foot pedal and decrease the movement of the quilt. If your stitches are too small then you need to reduce the pressure on your foot pedal and increase the movement of the quilt.

free motion quilting step 12 sew layers

Step 5

Check your tension

After you’ve stitched a trail of a few inches, stop and check your tension looks ok – both above and below your stitching so far.

You don’t want to see any teeth or signs of wrong tension. If you need to, adjust your tension so your sewing leaves an even line of stitches on both the top and bottom of your quilt.

You should check the underside of your quilt as well as the top at the beginning of free motion quilting to ensure that the tension is balanced.

If you need a hand with your tension when you start quilting, see our guide to how to fix a sewing machine, which includes tips on getting your tension settings right.

In this image you can see “teeth” appearing alongside the line of sewing – this is a warning sign that you should adjust your tension.

free motion quilting step 13 stitch lengths

Step 6

Sew the rest of your quilt pattern in sections

Keep moving across your quilt in sections, blocks or rows, filling each row with your quilted pattern. Sew one section at a time of your quilt in this way.

For traditional free motion quilting, where you are sewing wavy lines or a stippled pattern, try and sew in one continuous line, without crossing over a previous line you have sewn.

Don’t worry too much if you cross the line though – free motion quilting is a forgiving technique and no one will notice this when your quilt is finished.

If you have used safety pins, remove the pins as you sew.

When you finish quilting a quarter section, cut and tie the ends of your thread, burying them inside the quilt sandwich. Then move your quilt back so the needle is in the centre again to start the next section.

free motion quilting step 14 - keep sewing

Have you tried adding appliqué to your quilts?

Now you’ve caught the bug for adding a wow factor to your quilts with free motion quilting, why not give appliqué a go? It’s another clever way to achieve more advanced designs and motifs on your homemade quilt projects. We’ve got a complete guide to show you how.

Learn how to do hand applique

Step 7

Change your bobbin thread

If you are in the middle of your quilt when your bobbin thread runs out, stop sewing and remove the quilt from the machine.

Trace your line of stitching back to when the thread ran out. Gently tug the last few stitches out until you have enough length in your thread ends to knot them off and sew them into the layers of your quilt. You can choose to cut the thread ends flush with the surface of the quilt or knot them and ‘pop’ the knot into the layers when you sew your ends into the quilt.

To start stitching again, change the bobbin and pull the new bobbin thread through to the top. You’ll find it helps to have a couple of backup bobbins pre-threaded to hand which you have prepared before you start quilting.

Place your quilt in position at the point the line of stitching ended, and do several stitches in the same place to secure the thread. Now you can proceed with your free motion quilting.

free-motion-quilting-step18-change-bobbin

Step 8

Trim and bind your quilt edges to finish

Once you have covered the whole of your quilt with free-motion quilting patterns, cut, knot and hide your thread ends inside the quilt sandwich.

To finish your quilt, straighten up the edges of your 3 layers of quilt by trimming them into a straight edge using scissors or a rotary cutter and ruler.

Bind the edges to finish your quilt. If you’re not sure how to do this, check out our step-by-step tutorial on how to bind a quilt.

free motion quilting step 19 finish
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You’re all set to become a free motion quilting pro

In this guide, you’ve learned how to baste a quilt sandwich for the best free motion quilting results, how to adjust your sewing machine settings, and how to quilt your sandwich together using free motion quilting.

Whether you choose to quilt your quilts freehand in whichever way your imagination takes you, we’re sure you’ll find your confidence growing with each quilt you create.

As with all crafting, it’s about practising your skills and perfecting your techniques.

Advance your quilting techniques with Gathered

Now you’ve mastered creating quilt patterns like a pro, why not try a new technique to vary your future quilt projects even further?

One of our favourites is foundation paper piecing. This clever method uses paper templates to sew neat and intricate patchwork patterns.

Explore our detailed guide to Foundation paper piecing for beginners now.