What is Free-Motion Quilting?

N.F. Mendoza
N.F. Mendoza
Woman with a flower
Woman with a flower

Quilting, aside from being a classic American craft, can be an individual or group activity. The resulting quilt — which can take many, many hours to complete — is often treasured as a family heirloom, passed down to generations. These days, there are many mass-produced cotton poly or all-cotton quilts, but while beautiful, these quilts aren’t likely to produce any kind of personal satisfaction.

If you crave a sense of accomplishment, have some patience and an interest, you can begin quilting yourself. Patience is required throughout all levels of quilting; quilting is not ever a “rush job.” The best way to learn to quilt is to take a class or research online for a quilting circle.

Free-motion quilting, which is gaining popularity among quilters, is an advanced technique that allows the fabric to move freely. It shouldn’t be attempted by beginners. But if you’re experienced in hand and machine quilting, free-motion quilting can be extremely rewarding, allowing the quilter to express their creativity.

Free-motion quilting utilizes a sewing machine that has its feed dogs dropped and uses a darning foot. This will allow the fabric to move freely without the machine “feeding” the fabric. Some shops that sell sewing machines and fabric often hold classes created for advanced quilters. Taking a call on free-motion quilting may be an easier way to learn, but if there aren’t classes available in your area, there are certainly many books available devoted to free-motion quilting.

One of the initial challenges that even seasoned sewers experience is learning to create even stitches. For those who free-motion quilt with a machine that doesn't have a stitch regulator, the length of the stitches will be determined by the speed at which the quilter is feeding fabric. The free-motion aspect of this style of quilting resembles embroidery, but done in the proverbial “free hand” — meaning the quilter creates their own design as they manipulate the stitches.

Sure, there are machines, even computer generated, that can create an even, elaborate design on fabric. But advocates of free motion quilting appreciate the freedom — they’re not tied to a pattern. Even if a pattern is a self-designed and fed through a high-tech computer sewing machine, it is ultimately the machine, not the quilter executing the design.

Elegant loops, paisley curves and florals are just some of the stitches that are popular with free-motion quilters. The initial stitch often suggested for novice free motion quilters is stipple stitch quilting, which is true, free-hand stitching, and a great way to start and begin the practice.

Free motion quilters use a special rounded toe presser foot called a free-motion foot or darning foot, which travels above the fabric. The quilter manually feeds the fabric through the machine, and is able to disengage the feed dogs — the metal teeth that help direct the fabric. Both machine and bobbin are threaded in the same way as a normal, straight-stitch.

With the quilt under the presser foot, the quilter places both hands on the fabric about 2 inches (5 cm) on either side of the presser foot. Other experts suggest both hands in the same area, but in an L formation — one hand with the fingers placed vertically, the other hand with the fingers place horizontally. The quilters’ hands then guide the design.

Some free motion quilters find that using rubber finger tips on the index and middle fingers on both hands improves control and helps feed the fabric more smoothly. Another good thing to remember is that quilting is not a race. Slow and steady wins the race and slow and steady is the key to free motion quilting. The quilter moves their hands slowly while the needle is moving rapidly. The winning combination for even stitches in free motion quilting are slow steady hands and a quick needle.

Discussion Comments


You can do a couple of things: If your sewing machine manufacturer makes them or there are universal plates, you can buy an accessory to place over the feed dogs so they can't grip as usual. Another is to put your stitch length on zero. If there's a problem with the presser foot clamping down on the material of the quilt, a free-motion presser foot will do the trick. There are other hints and tips online. Good luck.


i have a brothers ls 2020 and my feed dogs don't drop. what can i do to do free motion thanks pat

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