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What is Free Motion Quilting?

Have you heard about free motion quilting, or FMQ? I'm sure you've seen it if you've ever admired seemingly complex designs in someone's quilting. At the most technical level, free motion quilting is stitching through the layers of a quilt on a domestic sewing machine with the feed dogs disengaged. I find this definition... less than helpful... if you're really trying to learn something. So I broke it down into its parts to help you learn about FMQ in a Q&A format. Buckle up, friends!

Q: What's a feed dog? And why is it called that?

A: Feed dogs are the metal teeth below the presser foot. They move up and down in a sort of circular motion. The teeth grip your fabric and the motion is what makes your fabric go through in a straight line. Disengaging the feed dogs allows you to move your quilt freely from front to back and side to side while your needle moves. The best I can tell, they're called feed dogs because of the teeth.

Q: So how do I make designs with the thread using free motion quilting?

A: Moving your quilt in a certain direction or in a series of directions is what makes the design in thread. Here's the August quilt by Elizabeth Hartman that I'm working on right now. I quilted the straight lines with my walking foot and then switched to free motion. Moving my quilt in a circular motion as I travel down the row is what's making the pebble motif you see here. 

Q: Can I do free motion quilting on my domestic sewing machine?

A: Yes! As long as you can disengage your feed dogs and attach a darning foot, you can do FMQ on the sewing machine you already own. Check your machine's manual to learn how to disengage the feed dogs and what darning foot they recommend.

Q: Darning foot? Now it just sounds like you're making stuff up!

A: Seriously, that's what it's called! The darning foot hovers over your fabric instead of pressing down on it like a regular presser foot. Here's the one that came with my machine. Notice the spring? That's what helps the foot bounce off your fabric, allowing you to move it freely.

Q: How do I learn different motifs?

A: This is where doodling is your friend. Practicing motifs with pen and paper first helps your body build muscle memory so it feels more natural when you get to your machine. If you're ever in a meeting that could have been an email or bingeing on Netflix, pull out a pen and paper and start doodling. I like to use a lined journal when I doodle. You'll want some motifs to maintain a certain height, and the lines help me make sure my practice is on point. 

Q: I'm worried I'll mess up once I get to my sewing machine. How do I get over that?

A: I'm a huge fan of practice sandwiches for this very reason. A practice sandwich is about 18 x 20, or fat quarter sized, of inexpensive fabric and scrap batting to make a mini quilt sandwich. I keep one by my sewing machine at all times. It's a great way to practice a motif before you do it "for real," and it also helps you make sure you don't have any tension issues before you start. 

Q: Where do I start quilting?

A: It depends on how you basted your quilt. If you used safety pins to baste, you'll want to start in the center and work your way out. When someone is pin basting, I usually recommend they stitch in the ditch (starting in the center) to help stablize the quilt even more. At that point, you can start your free motion quilting anywhere you'd like. If you used a basting spray, you can start anywhere. I use basting spray, and I usually work from one side to the other. 

I hope you found this helpful and are ready to start free motion quilting. The possibilities that open up when you start learning and practicing are incredible and will take your craft to the next level. 

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