Elizabeth Dackson from Don’t Call Me Betsy is the author of Becoming a Confident Quilter. (You can also find a copy in the Don’t Call Me Betsy Pattern Shop.) Elizabeth recently shared her Free-Motion Quilting Feet Guide at Sew Mama Sew to kick off excitement about her new Craftsy class, Start Free-Motion Quilting! We asked Elizabeth to join us for a series of posts on free-motion quilting, to help us gain confidence and learn new techniques. If you’re just starting out you’ll love Elizabeth’s Top 10 Tips for Beginning Free-Motion Quilters!

Top 10 Tips for Beginning Free-Motion Quilters

1. Give yourself permission to not be perfect right out of the gate.
This is quite possibly the most important tip I can give you today. Your first attempts at free-motioning will not be perfect. They might not even be pretty. But think of your first attempts at writing as a child… They weren’t perfect either, were they? It took a lot of practice to master handwriting, and free-motion quilting isn’t much different. It’s learning to write with a needle and thread. Give yourself permission to try, and to enjoy the learning process. You will get better, every time you practice, but it’s important not to beat down your quilting. Focus on the positives, even if you feel like they are few and far in between.

2. Put on a fresh needle and re-thread your top thread.
This is a super important rule: always put a fresh needle on before you start free-motioning your project. Even if you just put one on ten minutes ago to make your backing, put a new one on. I prefer working with topstitch needles for free-motioning as they are a bit stronger than your average needle, and free-motioning puts a lot of stress on the needle. The size that works best for me and my machine is a 90/14, but keep in mind that each machine is a little bit different when it comes to needles, so you may need to experiment to find the right needle for your machine. Also be sure to clip your thread right at the spool and rethread your top thread when you’re getting started with your free-motioning. It’s always good to start with a fresh threading job, and make sure to pay attention to what you’re doing when you’re threading. I recently had a free-motion student discover she’d been threading her machine wrong for the last three years, so make sure to follow the diagram on your machine or in you machine’s manual!

3. Pre-wind a boatload of bobbins.
Wind up several bobbins in your chosen thread before you get started with your project. This will save you from having to stop everything mid-quilting and load bobbins. Plus, a bunch of pre-wound bobbins look awfully pretty when they’re all full, don’t they?

4. Have a soundtrack.
For me, music is a big relaxer. When I’m free-motioning, I can zone out with my assorted playlists. That helps me keep my muscles as relaxed as possible, and it helps keep my inner perfectionist focused on song lyrics rather than stitches. Find your relaxation trigger, whether it’s listening to an audiobook or a great playlist, or even just having some emergency chocolate nearby. Free-motioning is a much more enjoyable experience when you can be relaxed.

5. The larger surface you can quilt on, the better.
When you’re free-motioning on your home sewing machine you’re controlling your quilt sandwich using your fingers or fists, and the larger the surface you have for doing this, the better. And you don’t necessarily have to have a drop-in sewing table to have a large surface to quilt on. You can always jerry-rig a solution to give you more work surface, using what you have on hand, whether that’s a Sew Steady table or an ironing board; just make it work the best you can. You also don’t have to invest in a super expensive drop-in table. You can work with a local handyman to make something for you like I did or you can look into some alternative tables that aren’t quite as pricey like the Sew Ezi or the Gidget or Gidget II tables.

6. Practice. A lot.
You know the leftover batting you cut off when you cut your batting down to size for your quilts? Hang on to it. Turn it into a practice sandwich (or five, depending on how big the batting scrap is!) and use it. Practice. My rule of thumb with practice is that any time I load my free-motion foot on my machine, I run through a practice sandwich before I quilt up a real quilt. It just gets me going on the right foot, and if there are any wonky thread/needle issues, they pop up on my practice sandwich rather than on my actual quilt.

7. Step away when you feel yourself getting frustrated.
Frustration is so toxic, and it can totally taint your free-motioning experience. If you feel your frustration meter rising, give yourself permission to walk away for the day or to take an extended break. Come back to the project with a fresh outlook and you’ll often find that whatever was frustrating you before has simply disappeared.

8. Reach out for help if you need it.
Social media is a beautiful thing when it comes to needing help or support. Put out a call for help or feedback on Instagram or Facebook, and you’ll be amazed at the response you get.

9. Stretch! Free-motion quilting is hard work!
Posture is super important when you’re free-motion quilting, but even with perfect posture it’s important to get up and stretch your muscles when you’re free-motion quilting. Do a few arm circles, neck circles and the like to stretch out your upper body. If you feel tension in your back, stretch your back out as well. You don’t want to feel tied up like a pretzel the day after you free-motion because you forgot to stretch!

Elizabeth’s first ever free-motion quilting!

10. Take pictures as you go.
Learning to free-motion quilt is a lot like anything that you learn gradually. At some point you’ll be really pleased with your quilting stitches and you won’t remember the struggle of learning, so take pictures throughout your journey so you can see your progress. It’s also helpful to go back and look at those photos when you don’t feel like you’re making progress.

This post is sponsored by Jones & Vandermeer. The crafty explorers at Jones & Vandermeer scour the globe for exquisite fabrics, knitting yarns, buttons, ribbons and other wondrous supplies for makers. They carry a delicious selection of Liberty Tana Lawn, Yuwa Life Life Collection, Sevenberry, Nani Iro and more.