Update: For part two of this series, go here: Bernina Aurora 440 QE: Free-motion Quilting – Part 2 of 2 – The BSR!
I’ve been sewing for a bunch of years, but have always admired from afar the meandering amoeba-like quilting stitch that some people use on top of their quilts. It sounds and looks quaint enough, but did I need special feet? Special thread? Special talent? Was this all done in some secret pattern that I didn’t know about? Was it done by hand and would I be too lazy to ever do this myself? Thankfully, the answer to most of those questions (including, most importantly, the talent question!) is no. As I’ve been learning, there’s actually nothing scary about this technique, and it turns out it’s extremely fun.
I invite you to come on my little trip through free-motion quilting as I learn about this technique in two parts: Part one will explore the free-motion quilting technique that can be done on any sewing machine; part two will focus on the use of the Bernina Stitch Regulator (BSR) attachment to regulate the stitch length while free-motion quilting on a Bernina sewing machine. Welcome to part one! Let’s get started.
Getting the Important Details Out of the Way
First let’s answer the most burning question that I just know has been bugging you as much as it has been bugging me: Hyphenated or not? “Free motion quilting?” or “Free-motion quilting?” I’m glad you asked because I can hardly stand it anymore. Based on Google search results, you can find many instances of both versions, though I’d say that the unhyphenated version seems to dominate. Unfortunately, the grammar geek in me wants to disagree. Since neither “free” nor “motion” modify the noun “quilting” alone and act instead as a single concept describing the quilting, the two words must be hyphenated. Grammarbook.com agrees, so let’s go with that for now. Phew! Glad that ever-important grammar diversion is out of the way. Ahem.
Free-motion Quilting Defined
So what is free-motion quilting in all its hyphenated glory? Free-motion quilting is machine quilting (yay) that is done with the feed dogs lowered and uses a darning foot. You make patterns on a quilt (or other fabric sandwich) by moving, but not turning, your quilt. Technically, to do free-motion quilting properly, you are making one continuous line of stitches that never crosses itself. You can decide how strictly to follow these rules; many people turn their pieces or cross their stitching to great effect! Typically, people use free-motion quilting to draw designs or patterns on a quilt, or to fill in areas of a quilt to make the feel of the quilt flat and firm. We’ll see about those things in a minute. For now, let’s walk through this definition step-by-step:
Next, we lower the feed dogs. On my Bernina 440 machine, this involved depressing the button on the side of the machine to bring the feed dogs down:
So far so good! Next, we should reach for the darning foot. In Berninaland, this is the #9 foot. Darning feet have a spring in them, and typically a round or rectangular opening. Sometimes they have an open toe attachment as well. As a random side note for you IP law junkies out there, the darning foot was patented in1951. The diagram and patent describing all of the intricacies that make this foot uniquely a darning foot can be found right here: Darning foot patent. For you visual types (admittedly, most of you out there probably aren’t IP law freaks like me…), a picture of my darning foot is below:
One last thing before we get started actually stitching. I have my machine set to a stitch length of 2, presser foot pressure to very low (almost 0) and stitch width to 0 (straight stitch). Technically, the speed at which you move the fabric around determines the stitch length, but my machine defaults to 2, so… I also leave my machine in the needle-down position so that when I take my foot off the pedal, the needle remains in the fabric in case I need a break.
OK, so now it’s time to place your fabric sandwich underneath the presser foot and lower the lever. If this is your first time doing this, it may feel quite odd. The feed dogs not being there mean that you can move your fabric sandwich around as much as you’d like and there’s nothing to hold it in place. Even though this feels weird, this is, in fact, the key point behind free-motion quilting, enabling you to move your fabric around while the machine stitches for you.
Now, your next task is to press the foot pedal in and off you go! A medium or fast speed is ideal for this technique, but no matter what the speed, it takes some getting used to. You – not the feed dogs – are in charge of moving the fabric around. You can go up and down, side to side, whatever you want! Though per the rules of the game, don’t turn your fabric sandwich and don’t cross your stitching. Often times, people use echoing (or the repeated outlining) of a particular line or pattern to build their meandering free-motion quilting stitch. Here’s a sample of what I did with my fabric sandwich, just meandering around, not echoing anything:
See those puffy little areas of goodness? This is my favorite part of the free-motion style. After washing, this often leads to a great wrinkly dense effect. You can also see that the closer together you stitch your lines, the denser and flatter the quilt will lie.
Stipple Quilting vs. Free-motion Quilting?
At first, I thought stippling and free-motion quilting were both the same thing, as they seemed to be used interchangeably. It turns out this is not the case. Stippling is similar to the meandering free-motion quilting stitching you see above, but where your rows of stitching are not more than 1/4″ apart. See a really useful example video of the technique, complete with technical terms like “Mickey Mouse ears” and “mittens” to describe the stitching. Definitely worth a watch.
There are all sorts of things you can do with free-motion quilting. If you’re artistic, you can stitch any number of cool pictures, echo-stitch appliques, or just freeform meander around your quilt until it’s as densely quilted as you’d like. I, as a free-motion beginner, am sticking with the flexibility of the meandering amoeba stitch for a while until I get good at it. Maybe later I’ll get into some fancier stuff soon.
Practice makes perfect
Everywhere I look, I see that the advice to getting good at this technique is to practice. Seems reasonable enough! My approach is to start with small projects before doing an entire king-size quilt. A table runner, maybe, or some quilted coasters? Trivets? You get the idea.
Here are some examples of free-motion quilting to get you excited to try it:
I’d love to hear your tips or see your own free-motion quilting work. Please post some of your tips or links to examples of your own free-motion quilting!
Posted by robyn on August 3rd, 2008 under bernina 440 qe, crafts, sewing, sewing machines, tutorials
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I'm Robyn. Thanks for stopping by! This is my craft blog.
Contact me at robyn [at] dognamedbanjo [dot] com.