There are a LOT of great tutorials and resources available to help you gain confidence and learn to free motion quilt on your home machine (a long arm is not required!). I was intimidated enough by the process that I took a class from Elizabeth Hartman in order to force myself to learn. I kept reading about the techniques, but I was too afraid to try it on my own.
But fear not, because you can start to learn and build confidence without even using up fabric, thread, or time at your sewing machine. My tutorial and advice for today is to practice with a pencil and paper. The more you practice, the more confidence you will feel and the more muscle memory you will develop to help you when you start working with fabric at your machine.
One of the hardest things to learn is how to fill in all the space. By drawing on paper, you can learn how to make continuous lines (don’t lift up the pencil!) and how to come back in a pattern to fill in any gaps or spaces that you might create as you go along.
To start, I am going to talk about patterns that utilize a grid. The grid can be natural in your quilt (the quilt blocks) or marked out on the quilt top with washable marker, chalk, or pencil.
This meandering pattern makes me think of the old Enron “E” logo. 🙂 Note that the line is continuous, and the change in direction every other block gives a bit of interest to the pattern.
The alternating scallop and dogwood patterns shown above might be a little more difficult. I personally struggled to sew smooth, arching lines as I was beginning to free motion quilt. Heck, you can see I struggle to sketch them a bit, too! However, the more you sketch out a pattern, the more ingrained that motion becomes in your mind and muscles and that muscle memory will serve you well when you transition to moving the quilt around on your machine. For the dogwood pattern, I want to point out that the pattern is sewn in columns by first working up a column forming the outside of the flower or circle, and then by working back down the same column filling in the interior arc.
One of my favorite patterns to quilt is a looping heart pattern. Again, practicing with pencil and paper can really help you feel confident in changing the orientation of the hearts.
Which reminds me to discuss one critical topic: when you are practicing drawing out FMQing patterns, keep the paper in the same orientation. Resist the urge to shift and rotate the paper around. This discipline will help when the time comes to work with your quilt. There are times when rotating a quilt while FMQing is important, but in general I think it is important to get a feel for how to have continuous lines by moving up and down or side to side without needing to constantly spin your paper / quilt.
Another soft and curvy quilt pattern is what I like to think of as water ripples. I like this pattern because there is very little side to side motion needed and just a lot of forward and backward motion.
Most people start off practicing FMQing with a stipple pattern. You might notice that I do not have a stipple pattern shown here. For some reason I have a mental block and do not like the way I sketch a rounded meander or stipple. In fact, I went through several sheets of paper this afternoon practicing again. I’ll get there one day! For me, a more blocky / square meander pattern (shown above) was easier to create. Play around with crossing back over the patterns to form interlocking boxes and try using different size squares and rectangles to find what you really like.
Tip: To make your corners crisp, pause at each corner to let the sewing needle repeat stitch in each corner. This will help keep corners from looking rounded and give your brain a split second to stop and coordinate with your muscles to change direction.
A pattern that I wanted to free motion quilt is a 5 Pointed Star. I learned how to draw a 5 pointed star in elementary school art class, and I love doodling them. You can create a 5 pointed star without lifting your pencil by creating 5 overlapping lines as shown in the diagram above.
To connect 5 pointed stars into an overall FMQing pattern, I simply lead in with an extra long line before forming my first star. When I complete the 5th leg / point of the star on the lead in line, I change direction and create another long, straight lead in line that I use to make the next star, and so on.
Tip: If you ever find yourself stuck with the 5 pointed star pattern, you can just use a robot / straight line pattern to move into empty space or you can tie off your thread at the end of a star and start over again somewhere else.
Below are a couple of quick videos of me sketching out quilt patterns on paper. Remember, what I have shown here in this tutorial are just a few sketches and ideas for free motion quilting. There are many more patterns and ideas out there for you to try. The more you practice creating patterns, the more confident you will become in filling in blank space.
Connecting 5 Point Stars