The Secrets of FMMQ

Here is the FAQ on FMMQ…that is Frequently Asked Questions about Free-Motion Machine Quilting.

What is this darn darning foot anyway? It is the foot in the bottom of your machine accessory box that you have never used before. It will have either a lever type protrusion, bit like a mini crane or a spring on the shaft, like a pogo stick. Introduce yourself politely, speak clearly as she has been asleep in the bottom of the box there for quite a while, then gently attach her to your machine. If in doubt, check your manual.

What is the darning foot going to do for me that my walking foot can’t do? Your walking foot is designed to hold your layers of fabric together, applying pressure from the top and bottom of the job and feed them under the needle smoothly and most importantly…STRAIGHT. In FMMQ there is no straight!

Why are my stitches so long ? In FMMQ, with the darning foot on and your feed dogs dropped, you are in control, you are now the Stitch Length Regulator. Big title, usually results in Big stitches. As a beginner to FMMQ, you probably are sewing quite slowly on your pedal with the intention to give yourself control by sewing carefully. Consequently, your machine is stitching slowly but you are pushing the job through quickly and this results in large jumps between each stitch. Your natural reaction is to go even slower to gain control……..naaahhhhh……..speed up your foot on the pedal, but move your hands smoothly. You will need to disconnect the sound of the speed of your machine with the speed of movement of your hands. Remember, “Up here for waltzing, down there for running.” It is a bit like driving your car, listening to the revs of the engine and knowing from experience, it is time to change up a gear…..don’t….leave the machine revving fairly high but your hands moving slowly and smoothly, and you will have created smooth flowing lines from small even length stitches. (If you drive an automatic, swap to a manual car so you know what I mean)

Why are my circles so square? Each stitch, no matter how long or short is actually a straight line. Put lots of these short straight lines together in a circular movement and it will appear as a circle. Put only a few long stitches together and you have an angular shape, a wonky squarish kinda circle. Speed up your foot pedal but keep your hands moving smoothly and you will sew more stitches per cm and create more circle kinda circles.

Why am I fighting to push the job through my machine? If it feels like you are struggling to actually glide the job under the needle smoothly, you might need to adjust the foot pressure on your machine, to cater for the thickness of your job.

You might notice your darning foot pops up and down slightly but very quickly while sewing. For each stitch the darning foot goes down onto the job, just to hold it in place as the needle does its stitch, then pops up again. The up movement is the split second of free-motion when there is nothing actually holding the job in place. Put lots of these split seconds together and there is your free movement to go any direction under the needle.

But if I can’t stipple, I can’t do ANY free-motion quilting. News flash…Stippling is one of the hardest quilting traditions to perfect and yet it seems to be considered the first to master. It is not any easy style to get right. It is a continuous smooth flowing line, that “S” s from left to right, meandering smoothly and freely. For a beginner, stopping mid stipple is not easy. There is no where in the pattern where you can pause or have a look around to see where to go next or stop to remove a safety pin or to even take a breath . So don’t be so hard on yourself if you find this one tricky when starting out. Practice on paper first, try creating just lines of looping circles first, just to get the feel of moving your job. Your hands should be moving in circular movement like you are rubbing body oil onto…..oops sorry, like you are mixing a chocolate cake in a bowl. Your hands are moving the job under the needle in circular shapes, not rotating the entire job.Try writing a string of cursive “e”s like the head mistress would make you practice at school. Try signing your name too….you will be surprised how well you can do it. Believe me! You could write your name with your eyes shut, under water…it is automatic. There is a light globe moment we are striving for here. Grab a pencil and paper. Hold the pencil in your wrong hand vertically and hold it still on the paper. With your writing hand, move the paper under the pencil to write your name. The needle is like the pencil, it stays vertical and in one spot and you move the job, the paper, under the pencil to make a mark….Hmm tricky concept!

But isn’t it easier just to stitch in the ditch?
In my very short career as a Ditch Stitcher, I found I was able to go very close to the ditch, almost in the ditch, parallel to the ditch, across the ditch, near the ditch and occassionaly in the ditch but never to my satisfaction. The ditch is actually only a mm wide and requires accuracy, patience and a perfect eye for all things straight. None of these attributes are required for successful Free-Motion Quilting……hence, excuse the language but this Bitch don’t Ditch!

In Free-Motion Machine Quilting, if a flowing line curves slightly off to the left and then gracefully flows back again…it looks just fine. Consistency and flow is the aim; For example, if you are quilting “bubbles” , no one else looking at your quilt will ever now if you were actually planning to create perfect circles, or ovals or rounded squares, or even a brick pattern….so long as it is consistent and flows with flair and style baby.

What is wrong with drawing the pattern onto my quilt and following it?
A drawn line of pencil or fabric chalk, if not stitched absolutely accurately might not wash off . Also if a line is not followed accurately you might get arrested by the Quilt Police. Following a pencil or chalk line is like trying to stay precisely in the ditch with no allowance for error…..see above.

But I can’t draw a giraffe?
This can be seen as a problem. Easy fixed with a degree in Design and Drawing and 20 years art experience OR a trip to the $1 shop to buy some children’s colouring books with simple shapes and designs that you can modify for your needs. Whilst at the $1 shop, pick up a roll of greaseproof paper like your mum used to wrap your lunch in and use that as tracing paper. Trace your desired giraffe and pin the paper in position on your quilt and stitch right through the paper. Gently tear away the paper when done. Just remember that if you stitch lots of details it becomes harder to remove the paper, so only stitch the basics then tear away and fill in more details after if required.

What will a metallic or topstitch needle do for me?
A specialised needle designed for using with metallic thread will stop your neighbours gossiping about the amount of cursing and frustrated screaming they hear coming from your home. A metallic or topstitch needle has a tiny channel along the length of the shaft for the thread to be protected and incased as each stitch occurs. This way the thread is not stressed as it is pulled through the fabric with each stitch.

How should I baste my quilt?
I have had great success with basting sprays, even on a huge quilt such as Waltzing Matilda, which is 2.3 m long.

Do it outside on a clean concrete area , layer your sandwich. Work on one half at a time and pull back the layers and spray in between and then flatten back down. It is only slightly sticky and can be peeled apart and repositioned if required. It is about as sticky as a post-it note. I still pin along the edges to ensure a corner of the backing does not flip under when it was not meant to and then do my bestest quilting just there and have to unpick it. NB However long it takes you to free-motion quilt an area….times that number by 4 if you need to unpick it. By the way, why do they call it a “quickunpick”? Coz it aint!

Will a oxygen breathing mask drop down from the ceiling?
I am seriously considereing asking the shops where I teach to install airplane style oxygen masks to drop from the ceiling. Some students are concentrating so hard and have everything so poised that they count to three and off they zoom….and with so much to think about they start to turn blue as they forget to breath.

Does this machine come with a masseur?
Well even my handsome Husqvarna, top model and all did not come with a little shoulder massage button….most inconvenient. If your machine is also lacking this function, just stop every 20 minutes or so to look around and change your focus, shrug your shoulders, wiggle your toes and get some circulation going. Otherwise I suggest you employ a good looking young fellow for the job, preferably one that can cook the dinner and clean the house too. Hmm must speak to Husqvarna about that and get me a swedish one. I wanna Sven button!

Where did I drop my feed dogs? Does the dog need feeding?
Dropping the feed dogs is not absolutely necessary. In normal sewing, they drop down with every stitch anyway, but I believe dropping them, if you can, stops any undue stress on them mechanically as you move the fabric from side to side which is not their normal movement.

Talking of dogs, where did this poodle come from?
In the excitement of starting into free-motion quilting, (or the fear of the unknown), I have seen students drop their feed dogs in preparation but forget to drop down or lower the foot lever as they begin to sew. When this happens there is no tension on the top thread. It looks fine on the top but as you flip your work to see how the tension is going you have this entire poodle thing happening on the back….big loops every stitch creating a lovely poodle, shaggy dog kinda look. Oops…you gotta lower your foot lever as per ususal or else…poodling!

Ahhh, my Pfaff can’t FMMQ!
When sewing in Free-Motion, the foot lever must be down as per normal….the job is held while the actual stitch happens but then the foot lifts a tiny bit (the darning foot action) after each stitch and that gives you the split second of free-motion. Put all these split seconds together and you are “drawing” with your sewing machine. However….. if you have a Pfaff, your foot lever goes half way down and pushed slightly to the back to sit on a little ledge, so the walking foot is disengaged. Knowing this can save you about 12 metres of thread and a lot of frustration trying to help a student with a Pfaff.

But my machine is so old. Can she handle it?
I have had quite a variety of machines come through my classes and I have to say that they all do pretty well, even a 32 year old Elna was a powerhouse. Sometimes the older machines that are totally mechanical are easier to adjust. Sometimes proud students with brand new wizbang, sew-it-all, make-a-capucino machines, are so computerised that unless the student is very familiar with their machine it can be a little tricky at first. But all machines can free-motion, some could just do with a little service before class.
But REAL quilting is done by hand!
Well……….I shall get back to you on that one!!! Did I mention I am also a Boxer?

If my quilting crosses over itself, will the Quilt Police arrest me?
It clearly states in the Bible that traditional quilting such as stippling shall not cross over itself. I think if it does your head will roll off or explode or something. In more contemporary quilting where there are really very few rules, or head explosions, you can certainly double up on stitch lines to emphasise a shape or to travel to a new area so long as the overall affect is consistent and aesthetically pleasing and I promise you your head will not fall off.

I can’t seem to get a grip Girl!
I have had students that don’t seem to be able to grip their job and feel the need to grab whole swags of fabric on either side of the stitching zone and hang on as if they were about to be swept away by a fast approaching Tsunami. To date we have not had any great flooding or tidal waves whilst quilting but I believe the problem is their grip. Some quilter’s seem to have worn away their little thumb prints perhaps due to a criminal background? Perhaps they have really over done the Oil of Ulay over the years. Who knows? Anyway their hands are too soft and smooth and seem to slide on top of the job rather than gliding the job under the needle.

Solution: those white gardener’s gloves with the little plastic grippy dots (also used by Boxer’s) or banker’s money-counting rubber thimbles or Machingers are a product developed by my friends at HandiQuilter in the US. They are all cotton and not sweaty for the main part of the glove except the little fingers have the grippy latex kinda finish so they are much more satisfactory to wear for long periods of time than the all latex surgery style gloves which make my hands very wet and uncomfortable. Otherwise, just develop large sticky lizard-like hands with broad fat thumbs like mine which work perfectly well. Mind you, with these thumbs I was never going to become an olympic TenPin Bowler…the ball would never fit.

But I can’t do it!…Wahhhhh
Don’t be too hard on yourself. Especially if you have been sewing for years and years, all your experience of sewing tells you Though Shalt Stitch in a Straight Line and all the action has been happening right there in front of you in that one direct straight line between you and the needle. Now I am asking you to stitch anywhere in a 360 degree radius around the needle…..that is a quantum leap and takes time, practice and faith my child!

What does Cleavage, Swans and Hugh Jackman got to do with Free-Motion machine Quilting?

 Come to one of Helen's Free-Motion Beginners class and she will Liberate you from the Ditch and reveal all!

 Why aren't all the secrets revealed here? Coz I want you to come to my class for the full experience!

Any more questions? Feel free to ask and I shall keep adding them.


+3 #2 Ann Craig 2014-01-09 07:00
I would love to see some of your classes online! I can't get to one of your classes, although I would LOVE to go, being in the US! Online classes would be great!
+2 #1 Ozgirl 2013-08-20 20:33
Hi Helen, loooove your site. And you're right totally liberating!! LOL Please come to North Queensland for a holiday (oops read class heehee) and we will all win:)
Very best wishes, Deb

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