My Number One Tip for Learning Free Motion Quilting

posted in: Quilting, sewing, Tutorial | 14

I love free motion quilting. I dream about it at night. I study quilts, and quilters for hours. I watch endless technique videos, own many books, have bought several Craftsy classes. There are a million and one tips and products out there to help you get the most out of your quilting.


I’m not claiming to be an expert, but of all that I have read, studied and watched, here is my number one tip.

Are you ready for it?

Step AWAY from the sewing machine.

Yes, I know that seems to be a little strange, but bear with me. The one thing that has made a difference to my quilting, which has helped me go from stippling to feathers? Stop trying so hard. Don’t stress about wasting fabric and thread. Don’t google one more gadget which is guaranteed to turn you into a kick-butt quilter overnight.


Get some paper and a pencil. I keep a spiral bound art journal near me most of the time. When I’m stuck in bed and I can’t get to my machine, when I’m waiting at the doctors, or in the car. I draw.


Play with shapes and lines, and teach yourself how those shapes interlock, how they repeat. How they stack or stagger, and how you move around them.


I find it ridiculous that I can stitch feathers, but can’t get my brain/eye co-ordination thing around swirls. Surely they are a quilting basic?


Ahhh, swirling feathers. That’s nicer. You can see, I just don’t care how these look. I’m playing with the shapes, with how they interlock. Seeing what changes in scale may do to them. I will practice a drawing over and over again, page after page, until I feel comfortable with it.


Only then will I grab some scrap fabric and batting and try stitching it out. Sometimes it just clicks, and sometimes I get hopelessly lost. Then I go back to my book and draw some more, working out where I went wrong and what I need to do differently next time.

So there it is, my number one tip for better free motion quilting. Just draw. No pressure. No judges. Page after page of swirls or feathers, stipple or pebbles. If you are struggling with quilting, I would really encourage you to give it a try. If it helps you, I’d love to hear it!

Happy Crafting - Cassie.

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14 Responses

  1. JO

    i agree – sketching is the key. I still sketch pattern on the steamed up shower screen every morning. I love that top quilt…so much. I still struggle with stippling but can do feathers and swirls – isn’t it funny how the more simple designs can be a struggle?

  2. lisa chambers

    Hello! I agree you are so right! Practice practice practice. I think it also has to do with your speed to movement ratio as well. Once you have grasped that you can get your fmq on. I can do swirls but pebbles gets me stuck all the time! Very frustrating as it looks easy but is hard for me! I think I will have to watch you next time I come over! Can’t wait for a little pebble lesson!

    • Cassandra

      I’d love to give you a lesson! Pebbles are harder than they look, but once you get into a rhythm with them, you can get a lot done quite quickly.

    • Cassandra

      Any old drawing pad or notebook will do. I love to get the school supply ones cheap. Or do as Jo does, use the shower screen!

  3. Barbara

    Thanks for this tip. I have seen it mentioned other places but your comments really stuck with me. I already have a sketch book where I keep ideas and notes on quilts as I am constructing them. It would be a perfect place to practice that hand/eye coordination necessary for FMQ.

  4. Kim Johnson

    I have a question about skipped stitches while free motion quilting. It mostly happens when I travel backwards. If I am doing straight line quilt in free motion and I start going up and back, I will have skipped stitches going back. In order to avoid this I have to turn the quilt so I am stitching side to side. I have tried new needles, different types and sizes of needles, different thread, (although Aurifil is my first choice), bobbin washers, different bobbin case and nothing seems to work. I looked it up online and apparently this is a pretty common problem. Do you have any suggestions?

    • Cassandra

      Hi Kim,

      You don’t mention what type of machine you are using. The mechanics of the motion suggest to me that the needle isn’t making a complete stitch, which is causing the skipping. Is your machine one with a top loading or front loading bobbin? If it’s a front loading one, I’m wondering if the backwards motion is pulling the thread away before it makes a loop with the bobbin thread.

      I do know for a fact that some rotary hook bobbin long arm machines can be a bit difficult when moving in one particular direction, because of the same type of reason.

      The only other time I have encountered that type of problem was when I bought a cheaper brand of needle, which, it turned out, was a couple of mm shorter than my normal brand. As a result, the machine was having trouble getting the needle far enough down into the workings to make a complete stitch. However, as you can quilt normally in any other direction, I would suspect this isn’t your issue.

      Sounds like you’ve tried all of the obvious things, and you have a work-around, however awkward. It may just be a quirk of your machine that you may never get to the bottom of.

      Please keep me updated how you are getting on with it, and if there are any other questions you have! 🙂

      • Kim Johnson

        Thanks for your response, Cassandra. I am using a Viking Sapphire 875 with a top loading bobbin. I am using Schmetz top stitch needles, size 90. Do you have a suggestion for a different needle?

        • Cassandra

          To be honest Kim, I don’t have any experience with that machine and I would hesitate to comment. However I have just found, and joined, a fantastic Facebook group dedicated to free-motion quilting called Free Motion Quilting Frenzy. I think it would be an excellent idea for you to join, and you could get some more feedback on your particular machine perhaps. 🙂

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