Free Motion Stitching

Tags: free motion, how-to, quilting lesson

Even if you already know how to free-motion stitch, I suggest you read through the instructions, you may learn new tricks to improve your skills. At minimum, you will get in some practice. I'll be covering topics of

  • What is Free-motion Stitching
  • Machine and Needle Checking
  • Learning how to Free-motion
    • Settings and Foot to use
    • Threads
    • Free-motion Stitching
  • Tension (correct and incorrect)
  • Practicing Free-motion (includes short video)

For those who have had little experience with free-motion stitching, I suggest you start by reading through all the instructions for free-motion before beginning, then practice on your sample before working on your project. Even the best free-motion machinist should do some warm-up practice before beginning.

What is Free-motion Stitching

Free-motion stitching is used for several different types of applique and quilting so the following section includes general information used for any type of free-motion. Once practiced, you can apply this technique to your project.

This technique is a form of stitching where the machine does not regulate the stitches, but rather you control them by moving the fabric under the needle. Another way of looking at this (and also a good way to start practicing) is thinking about drawing where the pencil remains still while you move the paper under it. You will notice how you can move the paper back and forth, left and right and at any angle without twisting the paper.

Prepare a small sample by layering batting, backing and top fabric to practice on. I always have one handy so I can warm-up before starting and to ensure my stitching is correct before starting on my project.

Machine and Needle Check - Important

Before we begin any free-motion stitching, lets check that your machine is ready too.

  • A good cleaning with a small brush to remove lint is always important.
  • You should always begin a new project with a new needle. This is also important as we need to pierce the fabric with ease, rather than puncture and weaken the fibers.
  • A regular sewing needle size 80 or 90 is sufficient, however if you have problems with the thread breaking, then change to a top-stitching or metallic needle. The shaft and eye of this needle is designed to help prevent embroidery and rayon threads from breaking.

Now that your project is ready, your machine is ready and you have your practice sample, you are ready to begin stitching.

Note: Canned air is not recommended for removing dust and lint from your machine as it tends to blow the lint further up into the machine rather than out of it. Likewise, you should never blow into the bobbin case area. This is even more harmful as moisture from our breathe will make the dust stick to the mechanisms clogging them up and the damp can corrode your machine over time.

Thread up your machine with a machine embroidery thread in the top and a bobbin thread or matching thread in the bobbin. Start with your fabric sample ready to practice your stitching and check that your tension is correct.

Learning Free-Motion

I suggest you read through the instructions before beginning and then practice on some scrap fabric pressed onto stabilizer. Even the best free-motion machinist should do some warm-up practice before beginning any project to ensure the stitching is correct. Ensure your practice sample is made using the same fabrics as your project, and use the same thread you intend on using. This is important to get your tension correct.

Note:At times you will be sitting at your machine stitching for long periods. It is very important to rest frequently and free yourself of any tension. Simple shoulder rolls are great or a walk around the room will release this tension. I recommend you get up and walk every twenty to thirty minutes to prevent fatigue. Ideally, you will have your machine set up so that you are not hunching over it.

Settings and Foot

Make sure your machine is set for straight stitching. The length does not matter since that will be determined by the speed of your machine and how quickly you feed your fabric through the machine. This is explained in more detail a little later.

Put your darning foot or free motion foot onto your machine. This foot varies with different machines but is generally circular or oval in shape. Use an open-toed darning foot if you have one as this will give you more visibility.

If you do not have a darning foot, a spring needle may be used instead.

darning foot for bernina (left); darning foot for Janome (right)
Bernina (left); Janome (right)

Lower or cover your feed dogs. If you are unsure how to do this, refer to your machine manual or ask me. I may be familiar with your brand of machine.

Some quilters prefer to sew with their feed dogs up, if you are going to do this, you should turn your stitch length to 0 to minimize the feed dogs pull on the fabric.

If you have the option of 'needle-down' on your sewing machine, then select this so that every time you stop stitching the needle stops down in the quilt. It is important to ensure the needle is left down in the quilt when you stop, otherwise when you release your hands, it will move and make a jagged stitch.


I use pretty much any thread for the top thread however it does depend on what you are stitching. Often I use a finer thread for quilting and a thicker thread for applique such as machine embroidery.

I find using a finer thread in the bobbin works best. These threads are often referred to as Bobbin threads and include pre-wound bobbin, Metrolene Looper thread or Superior Bottom Line bobbin thread.

The bobbin threads are finer than your standard sewing thread. Other 2-ply thread can also be used.

Threads for the bobbin
Threads for the bobbin


Place your fabric sample under the foot and lower the presser foot. Notice how the sample can be moved around easily under the foot, even when it is lowered. This allows you to maneuver your work in any direction. You will be able to sew sideways, backward or at any angle without twisting the fabric.

Important:It is essential that you lower your presser foot so tension disks engage. If you forget, loops and thread nests will form on the back of your work. It is easy to forget because the foot does not sit flat on the sewing machine bed. Just as importantly, you should always make sure the presser foot is in the up position when threading your machine otherwise the thread does not engage into the disks properly.

Drop the needle down into the sample, then bring it up again. Pull gently on the top thread to bring the bobbin thread to the surface of the fabric. Use a stiletto or long pin to catch the bobbin thread loop, pulling the end through to the top. Do this whenever you begin free motion stitching to avoid a thread nest on the back.

Bobbin thread pulled up through the fabric
Pull bobbin thread up

Hold the two thread ends firmly, but not so tightly that you put tension on the needle. Do a few stitches very close together. This locks off the ends from coming undone. Later you can thread these ends on a needle and take them through to the back of your work if you wish, or just clip them close to the surface. At the end of your stitching, sew a few more stitches close together as you did at the beginning, to lock off your threads.

Note: When you are only practicing, it is not necessary to secure the ends properly, however I find it good practice to do so as it then becomes a natural process and something you do not have to think about when working on your project.

Grip your fabric between your fingers and thumb. Tip: You may find Quilter's gloves useful to make gripping easier.

Grip fabric ready for stitching
Grip fabric ready for stitching

Run your machine at a medium to fast pace, moving your fabric underneath the needle. The stitch length is determined by the speed of your machine and the movement of your hands as you guide the fabric through the machine. The quicker the machine goes compared to your hand movement, the smaller the stitches will be. If you run your machine slowly and move the fabric quickly, your stitches will be too large and curves will become jagged.

correct tension for free motion quilting
left stitching with small stitches has smooth curves;
right stitching is jagged – stitches are too large

Note: You do not have to run your machine at the highest speed, just stitch as fast as you can comfortably. It is actually easier to stitch a little quicker than it is slower as long as you have control of your machine. Do not let your machine control you.

Start stitching by making a curved line. Stitch for several inches then remove your sample and check your stitches.

Tension (correct and incorrect)

Do you need to adjust the tension? Your top thread needs to go down into the layers and your bobbin thread should not be visible on the top. It is fine if you see small dots of top thread underneath, but ensure your stitches do not form small loops, particularly when going around tight curves.

tension on the top side for free motion


tension loops


If you see loops on the back like this, it means the thread is not in the tension disks properly. Remove your top thread and re-thread your machine, ensuring the presser foot is in the up position.


If you see anything more than a small peak of top thread showing on the bottom or small loops are forming on the curves as shown in the picture above, then you will need to turn the tension knob to a higher number to tighten top thread. If you see bobbin thread on the top, your top tension is too tight. Reduce this by turning the tension knob to a lower number. Always check your manual if you are unfamiliar with the tension knob.

If you are unable to adjust your tension so no bobbin thread shows on the top, yet your stitches are formed correctly, use the same color thread on the bobbin as is on the top.


I have a video of this procedure to help you see what it looks like in action.

Once you are happy your tension is suitable, you can begin practicing on your sample taking note of the following:

Remember to lock your stitches at the beginning and end of your stitching.

If you have needle-down option on your machine, select it so the needle stops in the down position. When ever you need to re-position your hands or change your hand grip on your fabric, always stop your machine first with the needle down into the fabric. Once the needle has come to a complete stop, you can re-position your hands.

Practice by stitching straight lines, curves, different shapes and even letters of the alphabet. Try stitching in sideways and backwards motions without turning your fabric. Take note of where you start stitching so you can compare these stitches with your more current stitches. I am sure you will see a noticeable improvement.

Keep practicing until you feel confident, remembering to stay relaxed and to take breaks often.

Free-motion practice curves, straight lines and letters
Free-motion practice

Author:Ruth Blanchet

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