Free-Motion Quilting Tips

I just finished stitching the second of the big feathers on my On the Road to Minnesota quilt. Now I am taking a break, and I decided to write down a few things I’ve figured out while working on this quilt. I thought if I wrote them down, I might actually remember them next time.

Golden Threads tips:

  1. When drawing an original symmetrical design, draw half of it, then fold the paper in half along the edge of the design, turn over, and trace the first half onto the second half of the paper. You now have a perfectly matching mirror image. If desired, unfold the paper, and retrace the whole pattern onto a new sheet.
  2. Visibility of the lines of the pattern is very important when stitching.
  3. Marking the pattern with pencil works okay, but the pencil rubs off while stitching, which means dirty fingers and maybe dirty fabric. Pencil is also not that dark.
  4. Ball-point pen makes nice dark, clear marks, but can sometimes get blotchy. I think this might be because of how slippery the surface of the paper is. (Or maybe all of my ball-point pens are full of fail.)
  5. Roller-ball pens make nice, clear marks, too. The ink takes a while to dry, and will smudge when wet. I had to either carefully plan to trace from top to bottom, to avoid smudging the lines, or wait at times for lines to dry before continuing.
  6. Permanent marker (Sharpie) makes a nice, clear mark, dries quickly and doesn’t bleed through the paper. The odour of the marker bothers me after a while, though.
  7. Tracing the pattern is easier with good lighting, and table and chair set at comfortable heights. It also helps to put white paper under the master copy of the pattern if it is on Golden Threads paper or another tracing paper.
  8. I have printed on Golden Threads paper with an ink-jet printer. I cut the paper to a size supported by my printer. A light press with a dry iron on very low heat flattened the paper. I found I could only feed through one page at a time, and from an otherwise empty paper tray. The pages tend to stick together, and the feed is sometimes poor because the paper is slippery. Ink-jet printer ink tends to flake off with while sewing. I’ve used this method when using Golden Threads paper as a foundation for foundation paper piecing. Try it at your own risk.
  9. Even on dark fabric, fine black lines show up well, thanks to the light colour of the paper.
  10. Low-tack masking tape is handy to tape the page onto the master copy of the pattern.
  11. It’s a good idea to mark some placement marks on the pattern, to help line it up on the quilt before pinning.
  12. Ironing the paper on very low heat with no steam is a good way to get rid of the paper’s curl from being rolled up.
  13. Smaller stitches make the paper easier to remove after quilting.
  14. Fine-tipped tweezers are handy for removing tiny bits of paper stuck in stitches.
  15. Golden Threads paper is a great way to mark a quilt after it has already been sandwiched.

Free-motion quilting tips:

  1. A smooth work surface is very helpful to prevent the quilt from pulling or catching while quilting. I have a Sew Slip sheet on the extension table of my machine, and it works very well for me.
  2. It doesn’t take much to cause pulling or catching,  either of which make it surprisingly hard to quilt a smooth, even line. Adjust hand positions frequently, and adjust the quilt at the same time. Make sure it isn’t falling off the table edge, or catching on the bed of the machine or the front (or back) edge of the table or extension table.
  3. When stopping, keep the quilt still with both hands until the needle has stopped moving. Stop with the needle in the down position. I’ve noticed that I sometimes don’t get my foot all the way off the pedal quickly, and the machine takes another stitch or two when I am stopping. Letting go of the quilt at that moment can make it pull away and those extra stitches end up jumping away from the pattern line.
  4. Visibility helps – good lighting, a good seating height, clear lines on the pattern (if using one), magnifier glasses if needed – every little bit helps.
  5. Sit with a good body position – table and chair at the proper height, hands in comfortable positions on the machine’s bed. When stopping to adjust hands and quilt, also adjust shoulders back to where they belong – away from the ears.
  6. Don’t forget to breathe.
  7. Find a stitching speed that feels right for you and for the pattern. A complex pattern will require a slower speed. Too fast and you will feel panicked and have trouble following the pattern. Too slow can make it harder to get even stitches and smooth curves. Try different speeds to find what works for you. Ignore helpful people who tell you to go fast, fast, fast.
  8. Stitching samples in the thread (top and bottom) and fabric in the quilt is very valuable in getting the right thread tension. Stitch the sample with the same pattern you’ll use in the quilt – tension can vary between tight curves and straight lines.
  9. Keep a close eye on the amount of thread in the bobbin. Nothing is more frustrating than getting half-way through a complex pattern to find that you ran out way back there, three fronds ago.
  10. Keep an eye on the top thread, too. Watch for splits that foreshadow thread breakage. Don’t ignore odd noises and rough stitching or pulling. Those are signs something is wrong, and it won’t go away until it’s fixed. Honest.
  11. Top and bobbin threads should be about the same weight. They don’t have to be the same type or colour.
  12. Backing the quilt with busy fabric hides a lot of imperfections in the quilting. So does using matching thread. So does thinner thread. Unless you are making a quilt for entry to a juried show, little mistakes don’t matter.
  13. Finished is more important than perfect. (Oh, maybe that should be Tip Number 1?)

More Quilt Marking

I was trying out a tip I’d read about making multiple copies of a design on Golden Threads quilting paper. The idea is to use the sewing machine with no thread in the needle, and go over the pattern, through several layers of the paper, thus creating copies with the pattern rendered in punched holes.

copying pattern with needle

The picture above shows the sewing process. It was pretty easy to do. The only thing I had to watch for was not to get the holes too close together, so the whole thing wouldn’t fall apart.

The picture below shows the original, and two punched copies of the pattern.

copies of pattern

The next picture shows the punched pattern over the fabric. As you can see, it’s hard to see it over light fabric.

paper punched pattern on fabric

And here is my attempt at stitching the feather using the punched pattern. If you look close, you can see how often I missed the lines. It was so hard to see that I was guessing a lot of the time.

close-up after stitching

The pattern does show up a little bit better on dark fabric.

pattern on darker fabric

Over-all I am not impressed with this method. Although it’s fast, I really need to be able to see the pattern while I am quilting. Maybe if I was more experienced with free-motion quilting, I wouldn’t need the pattern as much and would be okay with not seeing it as well. But I am not, so I do.

I guess I am back to simple tracing. At least I only need 7 copies for this quilt.

Free-Motion Feathers Practice

I was doing some more free-motion quilting practice today. I am still working towards quilting the feathers on my On the Road to Minnesota quilt. Today I was trying out using Golden Threads Quilting Paper to mark the quilting pattern on the fabric.

First I traced the pattern onto the paper with a white chalk pencil. I used white so it would show up on this dark fabric.


Then, I pinned the pattern to the quilt sandwich (2 fabric layers, with batting in between)


This photo shows the sample after I stitched the feather pattern.


Once the stitching is done, I tore off the paper. It tears off pretty easily from around the outside, and from the larger areas. In the small areas it’s a little harder to remove. Smaller stitches make it easier to remove, too.



These pictures show the finished stitching.



I found this method of marking pretty easy to use. The paper stays in place without too many pins, and it’s very easy to follow the stitch line.

I think I’m getting the hang of stitching the feathers. The back-tracking needed to work around each feather element is getting easier with practice. I think I’ll do a few more and then tackle the actual quilt.

Reference books:

Guide to Machine Quilting, by Diane Gaudynski

Quilt Savvy, by Diane Gaudynski

Heirloom Machine Quilting, by Harriet Hargrave