We all get inspired by the beautiful quilting at quilt shows. We love the luscious feathers that look so delicate and airy on a quilt top. The curves and the swoops make the quilt top come to life. “Surely,” we think to ourselves, “it can’t be that hard to learn how to free motion quilt with just a bit of practice, right?”
That’s when we finally get brave enough to drop the feed dogs, pop on the darning foot, put on those white machine quilting gloves like a surgeon about to perform a quilting miracle, and entertain visions of blue ribbons dancing through our daydreams. But then? What a mess!
The “feathers” on our fabric look more like potato chips on a string. And, instead of lovely curves we get a chunky, choppy mess of stitches that are so long you could use them to pluck out a song like a guitar. Why does it have to be so hard?
Don’t panic. We’ve all been there. Free motion quilting is a skill just like playing the piano. You aren’t going to “get it” right away. You have to give yourself permission to learn and permission to make mistakes. Most of all, though, don’t expect to achieve perfection. You are not striving for perfect. You are striving for progress. Take the time to discover your happy place as you sew so you can express yourself creatively.
Your free motion happy place is the design that feels “right” to your body. When you finally discover which quilting motifs feel natural to you, you can build upon those particular patterns to branch out into other designs. First, find out what free motion quilting movements make the most sense to your brain.
When I have hesitant free motion stitchers who tell me that they can’t quilt, I ask them to try stitching their signatures just like they sign their checks. I make sure they have the machine going at a nice high rate of speed and ask them not to worry about anything regarding stitch length or how “pretty” anything looks. It is important just to leap off the free motion cliff with courage (and sometimes a glass of wine helps, too). When they stitch out their name they are surprised to see that their letters have beautiful curvy shapes and lovely organic lines.
Your personal style of cursive handwriting is nothing more than shapes you’ve been making all your life. You happen to call those shapes letters and together they make up something you call a signature, but they are simply shapes. The difference is that you have a brain-to-muscle connection for those shapes, whereas you haven’t yet developed a brain-to-muscle connection for, say, curling Amish feathers or a twisting maple leaf border.
Embrace your personal cursive handwriting style and use it to launch yourself into free motion quilting. It will feel much more natural to you since you already know how to make the letter shapes you learned way back in fourth grade. Play with your alphabet and you’ll soon discover a free motion pattern hiding in your handwriting that will be your happy place for quilting motifs!
Continue doodling this shape in all of these orientations until it feels comfortable to you. Take the time to wire your brain for creating this letter headed in all directions.
One caution to all of you who got “A’s” in your fourth grade cursive handwriting class instead of “C’s” like me. You have trained yourself to have a lovely 45 degree slant to your handwriting. That beautiful slant is going to be a problem for you as you try to place your cursive letter derived motifs in a border and make them turn a 90° corner. Try to focus on orienting your letters straight up and down instead of leaning over.
Once you have doodled this shape and feel comfortable on paper, load up some practice fabric and stitch out the same doodles with your machine. Don’t worry about consistent stitch length. Just focus on the movement of your body. Be sure to run the machine a little faster than you think you should as it will help smooth out your lines. If you have a stitch regulator on your machine, disable it. Try doing this in manual mode so you are just learning how to move your body for this shape.
Finally, take this exercise to the next level and try to doodle your lowercase “e’s” so they will change the direction they are facing. You will not make these in a line. Instead, let them wander around on your paper. Don’t let this intimidate you. You may have to tell yourself that you aren’t making a free motion loopy meander. Instead, think of it as lowercase “e’s” having a dance party as they wander around your paper or your fabric.
Cursive letters are a wonderful way to dip your toes into free motion without your brain getting too stressed. If you’ve ever wanted to give free motion quilting a try, or just improve on your basic quilting skills, practice these basic designs and watch the free motion quilting videos for support. You’ll be surprised by what you’re capable of. Who knew that all this talent came from your elementary school years?!
Angela Huffman has been a featured guest in numerous quilting publications and is a regular guest on the Fons & Porter’s Love of Quilting television program. Angela enjoys computerized, as well as, free motion longarm quilting and has designed numerous digital motifs. A former nominee for Machine Quilter Teacher of the Year, Angela has many video tutorials on both free motion and computerized skills available on YouTube and DVD. She lives with her teen triplets who also compete nationally in longarm quilting. Prior to having triplets, she was an Emmy award-winning television producer and she can still be found behind the microphone as a voice-over artist for television and radio. Angela owns Quilted Joy Studios in Jeffersontown where she oversees a gaggle of happy renters who come in to finish their quilts on her many longarm quilting machines under her careful guidance. Visit Angela at her website: QuiltedJoy.com.