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!

27 Comments (leave a comment)

  • Ten – I do not clean and oil my machine – I take it to the deaaler once a year. I do not always change my needle – for some reason I want every penny of the two dollars I spend on a needle, ha ha.

    Martha Morgan on December 14, 2018
  • Not long after I started quilting I took a class on stipeling. My free motion went from there to my own designs. They re not perfect but they are getting better with each quilt

    —Vivian Bernsen on December 14, 2018
  • I do them all except for taping down my Supreme Slider. I just make sure I clean the back of it before I place it on the machine.

    —Sandra on December 14, 2018
  • I actually do all those steps. Now I just lack the confidence and skill to actually do the machine quilting. That is next on my list to try to accomplish! I love her step by step approach to each design!

    —Patty F on December 14, 2018
  • Wow!I never knew a regular sewing machine w/a free motion quilting foot could produce such beautiful work. Its prompted me to be more creativetry in trying something new.
    Thank you!

    Lissa on December 14, 2018
  • I do all but straight stitch plate. I may have to consider that.

    —kathy o on December 14, 2018
  • I only do about half

    —Linda on December 14, 2018
  • I haven’t tried free motion quilting yet, but it is on my list for the coming year. Thank you for making it sound doable.

    —B. A. Fellers on December 14, 2018
  • Found her steps pretty much what I do with attempting free motion work. My machine practically does it with a push of a button. Hope to get more proficient at this skill and her book would no doubt bring joy and advice could improve my skills.

    —Betty P on December 14, 2018
  • I am learning to do free motion quilting, so this checklist is helpful to me. Testing ahead of time to be sure tension is correct is a great idea that I should employ each time to avoid problems. thanks for all these great tips

    —Judy Stevens on December 14, 2018
  • I’ve been reading Lori’s blog for awhile. Her skill is amazing in FMQ. I’m going to add this book to my wish list, as my goal for 2019 is to finally learn to FMQ.

    —Susan MacLeod on December 14, 2018
  • I make always the 12 steps . They are very important.

    —Rommy on December 14, 2018
  • I do all the steps except the Supreme Slider. My sewing table is actually one of those very heavy government surplus desks that I found in a Habitat for Humanity store shortly after I bought my machine for free-motion quilting. Hubs cut out a chunk of the top and added a shelf underneath to support my machine, which is recessed into the desk top. I keep the desk top slick with an occasional dusting with spray wax furniture polish.

    Lori’s work is amazing, and she has been one of my favorite and most inspirational free-motion quilting artists. She seems able to turn any motif into a fun and easy free-motion pattern.

    —Ali on December 14, 2018
  • I do all of them except the changing out the needle plate. Sometimes I use decorative stitches that require the larger opening needle plate and a different foot. Of course then it’s not free motion quilting. 😉 I also use Betty Bands or gloves but that’s not considered machine related. I really like the step by step of her stitches. I am putting her book on my wishlist!

    —Susan M on December 14, 2018
  • I do 9 out of the 12 steps – don’t own a Supreme Slider and didn’t know to insert a new needle and change to my single stitch plate. I’ll see if those last two make a difference.

    —SandyMay on December 14, 2018
  • Only one point missing. Sip a half glass of wine of your choice – Step 13. Then your relaxed and ready!

    —Katie Nolan on December 14, 2018
  • I do ALL of these steps. I have never sent any of my quilts out to be quilted by a longarmer (or any other service). I started just doing stitch in the ditch and then started trying FMQ. It is not perfect, but it never will be unless I practice and continue to quilt my own quilts. I can see improvement over the years.

    —Lillian K on December 14, 2018
  • I never thought to tape down the Supreme Slider but I will next time. Otherwise, I do those steps too.

    —Becky L on December 14, 2018
  • I do all but the slider as I don’t own one nor do I have a single hole plate. Can’t stress enough how important a clean, oiled machine is! I do it after every project and sometimes during one if it’s a particularly long or a lint producing one. And the needle, so important for the right sized one to be used. Now to find more free time to practice my free motion quilting.

    —Cindy on December 15, 2018
  • Most of them. I occasionally forget the supreme slider because I don’t remember where I stored it.

    —Linda Ahn on December 15, 2018
  • I use all these tips except for the slider – I have never used one. I collect and restore vintage and antique machines. I had gotten a reproduction of a vintage book showing how to embroider and embellish with these straight stitch only machines and many of Lori’s tips are the same as those in the book! I am anxious to get Lori’s book because I love many of her designs. This article was inspiring. Thank you!

    —Karin on December 16, 2018
  • I do all the steps Lori suggests and agree that they are all important. I also use Paula Reid’s bat wings to get purchase on the quilt and help it move. Lori’s instructions are so clear that I have been able to do many of the ones on her blog in practice, and have actually sewn two sofa size quilts using her designs. So helpful to this hand quilter whose arthritis is forcing her to machine quilt! Thanks, Lori!

    —Eileen on December 16, 2018
  • I do a few of the steps and I’m not very good at machine quilting…obviously I NEED this book! Good advice!

    —Gloria on December 16, 2018
  • I read the suggestions with great interest, but, sadly, I have never tried machine quilting. It seems so scary and overwhelming!! I’m determined to try it, though!

    —Teri D. Gailey on December 16, 2018

    —Theresa J on December 16, 2018
  • Oh Lordy, I haven’t tried free motion quilting yet…I’m scared…but these instructions and books will help me get over my fear…I do want to rry….2019 is the year to accomplish this…

    —Rachel Pappas on December 17, 2018
  • I do all of these and it works I am confused as why someone would not clean their machine after every use 🙄. Shame on you

    —Renee on December 23, 2018

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