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Where to start free motion quilting?

by Mary James
(Pender, NE)

Where do you start when you free motion quilt. In the center? At a corner?


You would start in different places depending on the type of free motion quilting your are doing.

For all of the situations described below, the quilt sandwich is basted with #1 safety pins (they're about an 1" long), taking care to avoid any seam lines that will be ditch quilted first. Safety pins are no more than a few inches apart. With my palm flat on the quilt sandwich, I'll be able to feel at least a couple of pins.

General Order of Quilting

Once the quilt is pin basted, I proceed with the quilting as follows:

  • Stitch in the ditch to stabilize the quilt top: This lets you remove a fair number of safety pins. Once the quilt is stabilized you really can start with any block you want. However, I'd recommend beginning with some of the outside blocks to warm up on first.

    Another benefit to all of the ditch quilting is that problems areas are confined to a specific block(s) in your quilt.

  • Any other walking foot quilting: Then I don't need to change back and forth between quilting feet. Walking foot quilting and darning foot quilting are two very different skills and I like to keep them separate, too.

  • Free motion quilting designs: These are the feathered designs, the pretty quilting. Just remember to warm up first. Again, work the outside blocks before you jump to the center.

  • Echo Quilting: These are the roughly parallel lines of quilting that are used to give more definition to the free motion quilting designs in #2.

  • Background Fill: If there's some fancy free motion quilting, these are the stitches that smush and flatten the background to help make the "WOW" stitching stand out.

Standard Quilt Layout

Once all the walking foot quilting is done, and if the block is has both a free motion quilting design AND background fill, quilt the design first and then remove unnecessary pins.

Finish up the block with the free motion background fill.

Sitting at the machine with the block in front of me, I begin the background stitches in the left corner closest to me and work the fill stitching in an uneven row moving to the right. Once the right side of the block is reached, stitch back to the left side in an uneven row.

Uneven rows help disguise the rows of stitches.

Continue in this manner until you are at the previously stitched design. Keep moving left to right and right to left working around the design. Once I've reached the top of the central design I'll either:

  • Continue quilting until I reach the top of the block (the edge farthest away from me) and stitch in the ditch back down to where I need to finish the quilting the block.

    I'm apt to choose this method if I'm using a clear monofilament thread. Or...

  • Once I get to the top of the central design, go around the design over it's top and down the side to get to where my original background stitching stopped and begin working my way again from left to right and right to left until I reach the top of the center design. Then continue on left to right, etc., until the block is finished.

    This is my method of choice if I'm working with a contrasting thread. This way I don't have to tie off and start a new line of stitching.

Quilting on the Diagonal

If the quilt is a standard straight set, but the quilt top is to be quilted predominantly on the diagonal and no ditch quilting is planned, consider adding some vertical and horizontal lines of "rough ditch quilting" with water soluble thread. ("Rough" in that you needn't be concerned with hitting the ditch because the thread will be removed.) Your quilt must be washed to remove this thread once the quilting is finished, but it will help the quilt hold its shape.

Start with the center-most diagonal line and free motion quilt. Flip the quilt 180 degrees and stitch the center-most diagonal line. These two lines of stitching form an "X". See "How to Machine Quilt" for more information on quilting diagonal lines.

All-over Free Motion Quilting

If a free motion quilted allover pattern is to be used and no ditch quilting planned, again, consider adding a few lines of "rough" ditch quilting to stabilize the quilt top. (Remember, you'll need to wash the quilt to remove the thread.) With this "rough" quilting stitched, then proceed in an organized fashion, working the pattern from left to right and right to left starting in the lower bottom corner (most of the quilt is on the opposite side of the machine. As you quilt you'll end of with more and more of the quilt sandwich in your lap.

Whole Cloth Quilt

Quilt the central design, the fru-fru pretty stuff first. Next, on to the echo quilting and finish with the background fill stitching to push the background into the background. Some quilters will stitch a line of basting a scant quarter of an inch around the outside edge before they start quilting a wholecloth or just after they've completed the central heirloom design.

I hope this information has been helpful to you. Remember, adequate pin basting and ditch quilting, though pretty boring to do, can really make the process of quilting enjoyable!


Julie Baird

Comments for Where to start free motion quilting?

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learning quilting
by: Pamela N.

I am new to quilting. I read most all magazines and other web based tutorials, some helped, but none even comes close to your site.

I had decided that I wanted to make a mini quilt for my sister and so I jumped in and now I have my quilt sandwich ready to sew....not quite ready to start as I am a bit nervous.

Once I started browsing thru your site I was amazed. Information is well put together and I like your tips and encouragement you offer to your readers.

I've signed up and I want to say thank you.


From the Editor: You are MOST WELCOME, Pamela. Thank you for writing!


Julie Baird

PS Nervous is okay...we all are at the beginning...and even later, too. Don't-want-to-wreck-it-itis is a thing, unfortunately. But we get better by doing.

You'll be just fine!!!

Very Helpful and Comprehensive
by: Anonymous

Since I had a break from quilting of almost 15 years, I feel like I am stating over. This information is very helpful.


From the Editor: Welcome back! There's so many new things to explore. You're in for a treat!

~ Julie

Best ever explanation!
by: NanaJudy

This is most well-written set of instructional quilting steps that I have ever read. I am a retired technical writer and am very appreciative of clear, concise writing - which is woefully absent [throughout] the Internet. Thank you!

From the Editor: Thank you very much!

~ Julie Baird

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