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Free Motion Quilting: Birds Nests

by Holly
(La Belle, Fla )

I have a sewing machine and when I got it, it did good free motion quilting. Now I tried to do it and it ended up doing bird nest!

What am I doing wrong?

It's a Kenmore sewing machine and I using a darning foot. To tell the truth, using the feet dogs up, I think that actually helps me.


I'm going to answer your questions backwards if you don't mind!

It's Like Training Wheels...

You're not alone. A lot of quilters, especially when they are beginning free motion quilting keep the feed dogs up and truly believe that it is helping.

The feed dogs sole purpose is to pull the fabric (when you're piecing) or the quilt sandwich through the sewing machine, from front to back.

When you're free motion quilting, you'll probably be moving the fabric from side to side and even back to front, completely going against the motion of the feed dogs. So from a purely technical point of view, it makes no sense to leave them up. Right?

I'm going to let you in on a little secret...I did the same thing when I was first learning to free motion. Several of my quilting buddies have done it, too. And they're a smart bunch of gals.

I think that a couple of things may be happening.

  • It's possible that the feed dog action adds a bit of friction and slows down your movement of the quilt sandwich just a wee bit. That'd give you more control automatically.

  • Mentally, they may be acting like 'training wheels' for you. I don't see anything wrong with that, do you? If leaving them up gets folks to try, then I'm all for it.

  • The extra sound or 'feel' of the feed dogs may help keep you more in tune with your machine. Again, I don't think that's a bad thing.
So if you are better with them up, then by all means leave them up for now. At some point, you'll find you don't need them any more for free motion work, but that's for you to decide when you're ready. And though you
don't need it, you have my blessing to do so!

Birds Nests

Birds nests indicate a sewing machine tension issue.

If they're happening at the beginning of a line of quilting, then make sure to bring the bobbin thread to the top before you start stitching. Hold onto it, too, to apply a bit of tension. Many machines don't make a nice stitch on that first one. Holding the thread fixes this.

If one of your needle tension is too loose, you'll see a birds nest again. It can be something as simple as the thread has come off the uptake arm or missed one of the other thread guides. Each guide adds a bit of its own tension as your quilting thread winds its way through your machine, the missing the uptake arm seems to cause the most problems. My thread will come off it once in awhile during the middle of quilting. It happens.

It's also possible that your thread isn't in your machine's tension disks. Make sure that when you thread your sewing machine that the needle is in the highest position. then the disks are open to receive the thread.

Make sure that as you thread your bobbin case, that you catch the thread in its tension spring. If you're not sure where or what this is, refer to your machine's instruction manual. There'll be a picture.

Re-threading your machine will fix either of these tension problems.

If your needle tension is generally too loose with the needle thread looping on the bottom, going around a curve too fast can spool out extra thread and help to create the nest. (I call this 'thread throw-up' in my classes). Tighten your needle tension by turning the tension control knob to the right. This increases the tension number on your sewing machine.

If you haven't changed to a new needle in awhile, do it. A damaged needle can be the culprit of so many problems.

Holly, I hope I've been able to help you with your problem. Good luck to you as you get this quilt quilted. We'd love to know how it turns out!


Julie Baird

Comments for Free Motion Quilting: Birds Nests

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Frustrated new free motion quilter
by: Barb

I have quilted for years, and always used "stitch in the ditch" with a quilting foot. I am trying free motion quilting and am very frustrated. every inch or two my thread bird nests, I've changed needles, I've tightened the top tension, I think it is my top thread that is making a big loop underneath, other than the above options what can I do?

I have my feed dogs disengaged.

From the Editor: Check that your thread is seated in the tension disks ( you have to thread your machine with the presser foot in the up position to open up the tension disks so that the thread can sit down in them). Check that your thread is going through all the guides.

This is usually a tension issue.

I hope this helps.

~ Julie

bird nests
by: Anonymous

Great reply...just one more thing, be sure that the presser foot is in the down position to make sure that the tension discs are engaged.

From Julie: You are ABSOLUTELY RIGHT! With the darning foot on, it's hard sometimes to see that it's 'down'. And if it ain't 'down' the tension disks aren't closed and doing their job!

Thank you!

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