Free Motion Stitching

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.

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.

Bernina darning foot or free-motion foot

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.

Lower or cover your feed dogs. If you are unsure how to do this, refer to your machine manual.

Some quilters prefer to sew with their feed dogs up. If you are going to do this, you must turn your stitch length to 0.


Place your practice 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 to top through layers

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. Later these can be clipped off 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.

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

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.

 left stitching with small stitches has smooth curves; right stitching is jagged – stitches are too large
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. Remember, you need to be in control of your machine, not have your machine in control of you.

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

It can be seen here: Free-motion Video Clip  Note: this video will open up a new window and is located on my blog. To view it, click the play button arrow on the second picture

Now start stitching by making a curved line. Stitch for several inches then remove your sample and check your stitches. Do you need to adjust the tension? Remember, 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 differences
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 used on the top.

If you have the "Needle-down" option on your machine, select it so the needle stops in the down position.

Whenever 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 sideway and backward motions without turning your fabric. I am sure you will see a noticeable improvement between your early stitches and your current stitches. Keep practicing until you feel confident, remembering to stay relaxed.

free-motion stitching

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