How to set up your sewing machine for free-motion quilting: 12 essential steps

Free-motion machine quilting doodlesHave you ever wanted to learn the secrets of expert free-motion quilters? How do they dream up their designs? How much practice did they need before their machine quilting started looking great? Are there any tips or tricks to machine quilting that they know . . . and I don’t?

Short answer to that last question: yes! And that’s why Lori Kennedy’s latest book, More Free-Motion Machine Quilting 1-2-3, is packed with tips, tricks, advice, troubleshooting, and more. Not to mention 60+ motifs that’ll inspire you to give your free-motion quilting sparkle!

Notions quilt
Lori’s Notions quilt, featuring motifs from her book

One thing Lori does—and she swears by this—is to take a few extra minutes before she starts quilting to set up her machine for the fun ahead. It makes sense: you and your sewing machine are partners in creativity, and you’ve got to work together to get the best results! So today, we’re sharing the 12 setup steps that Lori reveals in her book, guaranteed to make you a better machine quilter from the get-go.

Below you’ll find an abbreviated version of Lori’s free-motion quilting setup steps—you’ll get even more in-depth information in More Free-Motion Machine Quilting 1-2-3.

Lori KennedyHow to set up your sewing machine for free-motion quilting: Lori’s 12-step setup

Excerpted from More Free-Motion Machine Quilting 1-2-3

Once your quilt top is finished, it’s time to transform it into a quilt with the magic of machine quilting. There are some easy steps to take before the quilting can begin. These steps are simple but important in determining the final look and feel of your quilt. Here are the 12 setup steps I always use before I begin.

1. Clean and oil your machine. Due to the fast sewing speed and fibers migrating from the batting layer, free-motion quilting leads to more lint buildup and requires more frequent cleaning and oiling than other types of sewing.

2. Thread the bobbin. Wind several bobbins and thread the bobbin case as for normal sewing. If the bobbin requires a tension adjustment, do it only after stitching a sample and adjusting the top tension.

3. Attach a straight-stitch plate. The stitch plate is the metal plate that sits below the needle and presser foot. It has a single hole for straight stitching and provides more support to the fabric as the needle penetrates the quilt, preventing the fabric from being pushed into the needle opening, which in turn allows for better stitch formation.

4. Attach a table extension. In order to free-motion quilt smoothly, it’s important to provide as much support for the quilt as possible. The completely flat surface provided by a set-in sewing cabinet is ideal. Extension tables are a good alternative and are available for most sewing-machine models. For very large quilts, add an ironing board or a banquet table beside the sewing machine to support the weight of the quilt.

5. Tape a Supreme Slider in place (optional). The Supreme Slider by LaPierre Studio is a Teflon sheet that adheres to the sewing bed and reduces friction during free-motion quilting. The Supreme Slider has a self-sticking back; however, to avoid accidentally stitching the Supreme Slider into the quilt if it shifts during quilting, many quilters use painter’s tape to hold the sheet in place. The Supreme Slider is an optional accessory, but one of the few I highly recommend.

6. Insert a new needle. Always begin a quilt project with a new needle. During free-motion quilting, the needle passes through the fabric hundreds of times per minute. In addition, free-motion quilting often creates a slight tug on the needle as the quilt is maneuvered. Change your needle whenever you see skipped stitches, notice tension changes, or detect a change in the sound of your machine—all indicators that the needle is dull or bent.

7. Attach a free-motion quilting foot. Depending on the make and model of your sewing machine, you may have a choice of several presser feet for free-motion quilting. The appropriate foot is often called a darning foot (right), but choose the option that provides the greatest visibility. I like an open-toe foot with an offset shank.

8. Disengage the feed dogs. In normal sewing, the feed dogs advance the fabric with every stitch. In free-motion quilting, the quilter controls the speed and direction of the quilt without interference from the feed dogs. On most sewing machines the feed dogs can be lowered to disengage their function by switching a button. Alternatively, set the stitch length to zero and the feed dogs will remain in the original position but won’t advance the fabric with each stitch.

9. Activate the needle-down function. Many sewing machines offer a “needle-down” option. When you use this function, every time you stop sewing the needle ends in the down position in the fabric. Engaging the needle-down function is very helpful in free-motion quilting, allowing you to maintain a continuous line of stitching when stopping to adjust quilt position or hand position.

10. Thread the machine. With the presser foot in the up position to properly engage the tension discs, thread the top of the machine as for normal sewing. For the best thread choices, see my “Thread” information in More Free-Motion Machine Quilting 1-2-3.

11. Stitch a test sample and adjust tension. Whenever starting a new project, stitch a sample to test tension, thread color, and the quilting motif. Most sewing machines have factory-set tensions suitable for straight stitching on two layers of fabric. Because free-motion quilting involves three layers, disengaged feed dogs, and a variety of thread types, it’s likely that you’ll need to make tension adjustments. Always adjust the top thread tension before making any bobbin adjustments. Tension adjustments may be required for each project, and on each day, because factors such as thread, batting, needle, and humidity all affect tension. (Find more tension-adjusting tips in the book.)

12. Begin stitching! Once the tension is adjusted and the stitches look perfect on your sample, you’re ready to quilt.

While the list above may seem long, you’ll be able to perform all of these steps quickly and start free-motion quilting in less than five minutes.

When you’re ready to start your next project, make sure you have lots of options for free-motion motifs! Lori has 60+ fun motifs to try in her latest book, including designs for the seasons, special celebrations, and some that are just for fun, plus a whole chapter on backgrounds and fills. Lori’s motifs really are as easy as “1-2-3”—she’ll show you how to free-motion quilt step by step, as you can see!

Butterfly free-motion quilting motif
Butterfly motif from the seasonal chapters

Baby carriage free-motion quilting motif
Baby Carriage from the Celebrations chapter

Scissors free-motion quilting motif
Scissors from the Just for Fun chapter

More Free-Motion Machine Quilting 1-2-3Order More Free-Motion Machine Quilting 1-2-3 at our website and you’ll be sent a link to download the eBook for free. How’s that for instant quilting gratification!

How many of Lori’s steps do you typically do before starting a machine-quilting project? Tell us in the comments!

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