Bake Shop Basics: Free Motion Quilting on Home Machines


Greetings Moda Bake Shop followers — it’s Karen from Karen’s Quilts, Crows & Cardinals Blog and Redbird Quilt Co.

It’s been a while since I’ve prepared a recipe for the Bake Shop.  I’m excited to be cooking up this Bake Shop Basics short series focused on Free Motion Quilting (FMQ) with domestic machines.

Do you quilt on your home machine?   Do you find yourself struggling with the process?

I’ve been quilting on a home machine for several years and find great joy and satisfaction in creating and quilting my own quilts.

Additionally, I’m fortunate to travel the States and share my love of quilting with Guilds and at Quilt Shops.  Along the way I’m often asked to share my “Aligning Your Free Motion Quilting Stars” lecture & trunk show.  It’s a fun and informative way to look at free motion quilting…Align the Stars and watch your FMQ skills improve!!

Today I’ll share a few Star Alignment thoughts with you while sharing projects quilted on my home sewing machine.


Redbird and Berries Mini Quilt for Moda Bake Shop

Let’s get started…

Machine maintenance:  It may seem obvious but…be sure your machine is clean and serviced.  Having a machine that is lint and dust free, oiled (if necessary) and putting down sweet looking straight stitches gives you a solid foundation to begin free motion quilting.

Do you avoid cleaning the bobbin area?  Well…avoidance is futile!  I tend to clean under my bobbin and feed dog area after each bobbin { or two 😉 }  Use a small brush, a pipe cleaner, or a mini vac to reach into those hard to see places.


Feathered Garden Lattice – Inspired by: Garden Lattice by Wendy Sheppard – Recreating Antique Quilts

If you’ve not had your machine in for servicing lately, do think about getting it to an authorized technician for a good cleaning, oiling (as applicable) and repair.   During my last service they discovered my bobbin casing was completely worn out and needed to be replaced.

NO WONDER my machine wasn’t making nice stitches.

Needles:  We often pay little attention to the type,  size, and age of the needle we have in our machine.  However, for free motion quilting it’s extremely important to pay attention to these factors.   Have you changed your needle lately?  Guidelines suggest we should be putting a new needle in our machine every 8 hours of stitching! Additionally, if you hit a pin, bend, or bump a needle, be sure to replace it straight away.  A fresh, straight, sharp needle makes a world of difference when Free Motion Quilting.

A new needle is a great $1.25 investment!!


When you reach for a new needle, consider the needle type and size.   TYPE:  For Free Motion Quilting I find using a Microtex Sharp, a Top Stitch, or a Quilting Needle works best. Do you embroider on your home machine?  Yes?  Be sure then, when switching from embroidery to quilting, to swap your embroidery needle for one of the above choices.  SIZE:   If you’re using a fine weight thread, needle size 75/11 or 80/12 should work perfectly.  Use the smallest size eye that will accommodate the thickness of your thread without shredding or breaking it.


DID YOU KNOW:  Most thread manufacturers share recommended needle sizes for their various thread sizes.   You’ll find an abundance of information on their web sites.   General thought: Avoid the use of Universal or Embroidery needles when free motion quilting.

In summary, if you’re having trouble with your stitch quality, thread breakage or skipped stitches, be sure to consider your needle selection, size and age.


Cone Flower Needle Turn Applique & FMQ by Redbird Quilt Co.

Tension: One great step toward aligning your free motion quilting stars is determining when and becoming comfortable with adjusting your machine tension.  On my home machine with 50Wt cotton thread top and bobbin, it’s necessary to set my top tension to a higher (tighter) number when FMQing .   It’s good practice to start at the “default” or recommended value for top tension (the same tension you use to piece) and adjust from there.   Ideally you want your top and bobbin thread to meet and lock in the middle of the quilt sandwich (in the batting) .   If your bobbin thread is showing on the quilt top, you may need to lower the top tension — or — if your bobbin thread is laying flat on the back of your fabric, you may need to increase (set to higher number) your top tension.    If tension is a big concern we can address more symptoms and solutions in another post.  For now though, get your machine manual out and begin to get comfortable with adjusting your TOP tension setting — it’s a critical component to successful FMQ stitches.


A Quilter’s Doodles with Needle & Thread by Redbird Quilt Co.

Thread: Ahhh thread…one of my favorite topics.   I promise I won’t play Quilt Police today, but I do want to share my personal experience when it comes to thread.     I try to match top and bobbin thread color.  Doing this helps avert {cover-up 😉 } the slightest of tension issues because they are less noticeable.  Maybe you call that cheating, but I call it smart.   If you have a major tension issue (bobbin thread lying flat, eyelashes on the back, etc.), you’ll want to fix the tension issue before continuing;  however, you can sneak by with slight tension issues by choosing to use the same color thread in the top and bobbin.


Really Mini Redbird & Berries — Mini Wool version of Redbird & Berries for Moda Bake Shop

Now let’s talk thread type and weight.   Of course there is a huge variety of awesome threads available today; personally I prefer 100% cotton thread.  I’ve been using it for several years, and it’s never failed me.   Honestly,  I’m partial to Aurifil thread because I find 50Wt Aurifil to be fine, yet strong, and with very little lint.   I can use the 50wt thread for piecing, hand (or machine) applique,  and free motion quilting.   It’s my go-to choice for FMQ.


I know many quilters who use other brands and types of thread with fantastic results — with that in mind, find what works best for YOU, YOUR style, and YOUR machine, and make a go of it.  In a follow-on post we’ll talk a bit about different weight threads and how thread should be drawn from the spool.   In summary though, most often Aurifil 50Wt thread fits MY Style and allows me to stitch dense machine quilting with little lint and minimal thread build up on backtracking.  For me, finding and using Aurifil thread helped me align another star of my “quilty” adventures.


Heart’s Content Pillow for Moda Bake Shop

Batting: Another favorite topic that we could spend all day talking about – batting…I’ll cut right to the chase.   I love to have my machine quilting shine with texture and definition.  Because of this I lean toward using 100% Wool Batting.   Wool batting is soft, fluffy, doesn’t retain fold marks, provides warmth, and the needle just glides through it during quilting.   If your goal is to show off the quilting on a quilt, try it out by making a small quilt or wall hanging using 100% wool batting.   I know you’ll love it.


Ruler Work using The QP Curve Templates

Many varieties of batting are available on the market — you can learn more about each by visiting the manufacturers website or discussing the choices with your friends at a local quilt shop or guild.  When choosing batting always consider the purpose of the quilt, the importance of the quilting, and be sure to investigate shrinkage rates and the effect on your completed quilt.

FamilyTree Final MBS PillowMBS Logo Cropped

Family Tree Envelope Pillow for Moda Bake Shop

Gloves:  Having trouble controlling the quilt sandwich?    I absolutely LOVE using quilting gloves.   Machingers brand gloves are my favorite.  They have fingers with grip, are NOT too heavy or bulky, and won’t make your hands sweat or feel uncomfortable.   I recommend you purchase the smallest size that fit your hands.   Avoid an oversize pair that leaves excess fabric in the fingertip area.   Mine are snug so I can change a bobbin and re-thread a machine without removing them.

Machingers Gloves

Quilting Foot:  Do you struggle to quilt well-rounded shapes and smooth curves?  If so, consider the quilting or darning foot that you’re using.   Many machines come with a square or rectanglar quilting foot.  Personally I find a rounded quilting foot to be a great asset when echo stitching, making pebbles, or quilting feathers.  The shape of the foot lends itself to making well rounded motifs.  Additionally, a rounded foot can give you equal distance from needle to foot edge in all directions, therefore acting as a consistent echoing guide.


Another thing to consider when choosing a quilting foot is the type of quilt you’re working on.  If I’m quilting around hand stitched applique (wool or cotton), I’ll use a closed-toe rounded foot so the toe will NOT catch on the applique stitches.   Otherwise, I love the open-toe quilting foot (horseshoe shape) as it allows for better visibility of the quilt top and stitching path.


Chevron with a Twist for Moda Bake Shop

I often use acrylic templates to stitch long-arm style designs with my domestic machine.  When doing this be sure to use a foot with a 1/4″ rise {a ruler foot} so that the acrylic template will not slide under or over the foot.   These are just a few things to consider when selecting a quilting foot.


Chevron Shuffle for Moda Bake Shop

Stitching area — flat, flush surface:   Are you wrestling with your quilt top?   If possible…arrange to have your machine bed flush with your work space.   So often I see beautiful machines sitting on top of a table.  This may be fine for piecing or embroidery, but when you’re free motion quilting, having a 3″ to 4″ drop from the machine bed to your work space works against having consistent stitches and smooth motif transitions.


Chevron with a Twist for Moda Bake Shop

When your quilt top drops off the edge of the machine bed or extension table, you normally have to drag or tug it back — this can be a prescription for failure.   Have space and/or $$ constraints?   I can relate!!    I use a portable quilting table (there are several on the market) designed for the machine to drop inside and allow the machine bed to be flush with the table top.  The clear acrylic insert that came with my machine bridges the gap between the machine and the portable quilting table.  For extra quilt support, position temporary tables to the front and side of the portable quilting table.   You can see and read more about my stitching area setup in this blog post.


Simply Spring Fleur an Original Design by Redbird Quilt Co. using The QP Curve & QP Edge Templates

Oh, and here’s some good news!!   There’s a new “Weightless Quilter” system available through United Notions that lifts the quilt top above the machine bed while you’re quilting.    Stay tuned for more information on that.  I’m test driving it soon!!

A Quilter’s Doodles with Needle and Thread by Redbird Quilt Co.

Ease of Quilt Movement:  Is your quilt top dragging across the machine bed?   This problem can be solved a variety of ways.  Personally I choose to use a Supreme Slider™ — a Teflon™ like mat that rests on the machine bed with a hole at the needle position.   The Slider works to bridge the gaps between machine and extension table and allows the quilt to move easily across the bed.  If you’re struggling to move your quilt sandwich across the bed of your machine consider using a Supreme Slider™ (Regular or Queen size).

SliderAdditionally, (or alternatively) consider using silicone spray to polish the top of your machine, extension table and cabinet area.  Silicone sprays are non-greasy and create a smooth surface for ease of moving the quilt top while quilting.

Silicone SprayFoot pedal placement & stability: Are you chasing your foot pedal around the floor?   Isn’t that the most frustrating activity?  Unfortunately it results in inconsistent machine speed, wreaking havoc with your stitch length and motifs.  Consider getting a non-slip mat for under your machine foot.  There are several brands on the market – some work better on carpet and some on non-carpeted floors.   Consult with your friends and reach out to your local quilt shop for more information.    Keeping your foot pedal stable and at a height that allows your foot to rest flat (no tippy-toes) is just one more star to align in your “quilty” adventures.


Machine Speed:  While we’re talking stitch consistency, I recommend beginner Free Motion Quilters set their machine speed down from full throttle to half throttle or less.   Doing this allows them to focus on the quilt design and stitches while pressing the pedal to the metal and having your machine stitch at comfortable rate.  It’s one less thing to worry about while learning a new motif or technique.


Wooly Ivory Baltimore – Inspired by Wendy Sheppard’s Ivory Baltimore – Recreating Antique Quilts

Your Body Movement:   Are you playing Twister® with your quilt top?   I just love to Twist and Shout but NOT when I am free motion quilting.  Recently I’ve noticed more and more beginner quilters twisting their shoulders and hands as a way to move into a corner or round a bend on their quilt top.  My general belief is that you have better control of the quilt top (resulting in better stitches and motifs) by moving the entire top with both hands synchronously, keeping your shoulders square and hands moving in unison on the quilt top.


A Quilter’s Doodles with Needle & Thread – Redbird Quilt Co.

Some final thoughts…

  • Drop or cover your feed dogs
  • Wind a few bobbins
  • Have great lighting
  • Baste, baste, baste
  • Begin by bringing the bobbin thread to the top
  • Always stop with the needle in the down position
  • Stop stitching while re-positioning  your hands
  • Take regular breaks — get up and stretch
  • Play music, have a glass of wine, sew outdoors — just relax
  • Take your time and enjoy the process…

Cone Flower Needle Turn Applique & FMQ by Redbird Quilt Co.

Will this galaxy of information help Align YOUR Free Motion Quilting Stars?

I would love to hear your feedback and/or requests for new content in the comments.

Stay tuned — in a few weeks we’ll get together and do some simple quilting on a table topper.

In the meantime, be sure to follow my Blog,  Facebook, or Instagram for upcoming events, inspiration and information.

Happy Quilting!

Karen L. Miller


84 comments on “Bake Shop Basics: Free Motion Quilting on Home Machines

  1. Kris says:

    Love learning from you. Thanks for teaching us so well.

  2. Thérèse ROGER-COLIN says:

    Bonjour, Votre article est très intéressant, j’aimerais tant apprendre à quilter des petits quilts avec MA machine à coudre !!!!!! En France nous n’avons pas d’enseignants de votre niveau, malheureusement et je le regrette beaucoup ! c’est une grosse déception pour moi ! Faites vous des vidéos pour donner des leçons de Quilting ???? Bravo pour votre travail et vos conseils. Thérèse.

  3. kaholly says:

    Lots of good information!

  4. Gloria says:

    Thank you so much for the information. This is good to know and helpful as well.
    The quilts are beautiful. I love cardinals.

  5. Michele Galloway says:

    Beautiful work Karen! Love all the information! This should help me greatly!

  6. Mary E says:

    I enjoyed your information on free motion quilting and hope to incorporate it in my beginning endeavors.

  7. Debra M Grosskopf says:

    Really great, timely (for me) information! Looking forward to the next in this series – meanwhile, on to the Craftsy classes!

  8. Cindy M says:

    You are such a talented woman! Gorgeous work as usual:) I’ve really enjoyed this “lesson”, easy to understand, plenty of visuals, I’ll be watching this repeatedly!

  9. Gloria Galiana says:

    I would have to say that Chevron with a Twist is my favorite. I love how the pattern and the quilting frame the vase of flowers. And if I remember correctly, there were lots of variations of this design, making it so versatile. I love all the detailed tips you give us. Thank you for sharing your love of FMQ!

  10. Gloria Galiana says:

    Hey Karen Miller! I just gave you a shout out on IG!

  11. Cynthia Wood says:

    I just love your cardinal. Looking forward to your table runner info.

  12. Donna Nelson says:

    I love the Feather Galaxy quilting that you did. Lots of good information in this post.

  13. carolyn montgomery says:

    your quilting is gorgeous, thanks for all the great tips and giveaway.

  14. carolyn montgomery says:

    i shared on fb.

  15. Sue says:

    I like the red bird and berries quilt! The information you’ve shared here is really valuable. Thanks!

  16. Catherine says:

    Your quilting is absolutely beautiful. Thank you for sharing your art.

  17. Karen says:

    Your Red Bird and Berries quilt is the one that caught my eye months ago and I’ve been following you ever since!

  18. Karen says:

    I’ve had my ruler foot for 6 months now and I’ve yet to even try it. I’m looking forward to spending some time with you online!!

    • Karen — aww darn — you will love it once you finally start stitching with your foot and rulers. It’s addicting. I’ve shared quite a bit of information on my blog and YouTube channel — let me know how else I can help. Take care now.

  19. Your quilt Pretty in Pink- Grunge caught my eye because of the different elements in the quilt.

    • LaDonna — thank you!! I had such fun with that quilt. The combination of ruler work and fast feathers make for great FMQ practice too. You can read a bit more about it on my blog (if you haven’t already)… thanks for the feedback.

  20. Mylene crammer says:

    Love the pretty in pink grunge!!!

  21. Rosemaryflower says:

    Wow, this is such a wealth of information you shared. You are so encouraging.
    I hope to become proficient in fmq, to some degree, one of these days.
    Why do we have to pull the bottom thread to the top? Did I miss this reason?

    • Rosemary — thank you for your kind feedback. FMQ is certainly addicting — and sew much fun!!! There are a couple of reasons why it is good practice to pull your bobbin thread to the top of the sandwich. For me, it takes the guesswork out of what the bobbin thread is doing on the back of the quilt. Left on the bottom and unattended, the bobbin thread can sometimes make birds nests — or it can get caught in all of your FMQ, winding its way around all those stitches. In my opinion it is best to pull it to the top of the sandwich, take a few lock stitches (nearly in place) and then trim both threads flush. If you plan to tie off and bury your threads pulling the bobbin thread to the top will get you one step closer to tie and burying. I hope this helps. You can watch a video clip of my “getting started” steps in this YouTube… There is a corresponding blog post too. Let me know if you have any questions. Thank you again!

  22. Linda Brancatella says:

    Love all of the hints. One I read about here that never occured to me was using a non skid mat under my foot pedal. Can’t tell you how often I have chased my foot pedal including at class today! I’d love future posts to discuss tension issues, along with pictures and solutions for the good, the bad and the ugly! Love you work! Piecing was always my favorite but you have opened up a whole new world to me witg your gorgeous sampkes.

    • Linda — thank you so very much. You are too sweet. I’m so happy there was a tip in here to help you out in some way. The foot pedal thing is one of my pet peeves and can wreak havoc on your quilting. It’ was nice to see you this weekend — let’s do this again soon ok ? Take care now — Go Bills!

  23. Barb Lounsbury says:

    Hi Karen, love all of the pictures, but especially love Feather Galaxy. I’m a feather addict and have to force myself to use other designs at times. You do beautiful work.

  24. Jeri says:

    I love the hearts content pillow. It’s so rich looking. Thanks for the tips, I’ve just started trying to quilt my tops on my home machine.

  25. Carmen Goldstein says:

    I love the pretty in pink. Im always interested in anything that makes quilting on your home machine easier. Thank you for the info.

  26. Kathi C Anderson says:

    I also love the ruler work in Pretty in Pink and the feathers with circles in Feather Galaxy. I’ll bookmark this page so I can reread it when I finish piecing the top Im working on and start quilting it. So much great information!

    • Kathi — thanks so much. While you’re waiting for a top to be finished consider picking up a fabric panel on sale at your local shop. I always recommend folks begin and learn on a panel…. Very little investment and a great way to learn. Let me know how it goes.

  27. Carol says:

    I love the Redbird quilt. Your work is so inspiring. Thank you

  28. Karen Seitz says:

    Wow – what a great gathering of information! Just reading this makes me feel more ready to attempt quilting my own quilts.

  29. Carolyn says:

    Hi – I don’t have a stitch regulator on my machine and struggle with slowing it down. It seems touchy and requires a lot of concentration to get the speed slow. Any suggestions on this problem? I’ve tried a piece of cardboard taped to the back of the pedal and also a popsicle stick. Thanks.

    • HI Carolyn — this issue is sometimes a tough one. One thing I can recommend is that you take your shoe off when quilting. Quilting in bare or stocking feet helps you “feel” the foot pedal better and may help you with the speed control. I assume your machine does NOT have a speed control ? If it does be sure to set it lower there. Another thing you can try is adjusting how much of your foot is on the foot pedal vs on the floor. Try your entire foot on the pedal — see if that helps. Try having your heel on the floor too… I’m not sure which way you stitch today. I might also try a larger piece of wood that would keep the foot pedal from going all the way down. Be sure to attach it across the entire width of the pedal…. Another thought — check with your machine dealer and see if they have a different pedal or a replacement pedal or other options. They’ve generally “seen it all”. I saw this same issue with someone in class this weekend. We did try “pedal” fixes that did not help. Never give up though – I’ll ponder other solutions…. there must be one!

  30. Ruth Gole says:

    Your quilting is amazing!!!

  31. Chris Reeske says:

    Great information but I don’t understand what you mean by “a foot with a 1/4″ rise {a ruler foot}”, I’m not familiar with this foot or how one would use it. So maybe a bit more on it? Thanks

  32. Hilary says:

    Fantastic post Karen! Your work is amazing!

  33. quiltbabe says:

    LOL – so much information in a single post – stuff it took me several years of machine quilting, a number of classes and several books to learn! I’m a needle-changing fiend, and make sure I buy several packs every time I see them on sale.

    One hint for those who embroider as well as quilt: If you need to switch from one to another, but your needle is still newish, invest in a pretty, multicolored/multisegmented pincushion (ahem *fonsandporter*). Mark each segment with a needle size, and stick the still good embroidery needle in the appropriate segment (80-E, for example) while you quilt. You know at a glance it’s a slightly used needle, and can put it back in the machine when you are ready to go back to embroidery. Be sure to mark the pincushion with your own, personal selection of most used needle types and sizes. Hope this makes sense.

  34. quiltbabe says:

    And a question for Karen – have you used the titanium needles for machine quilting? I’ve used them for embroidery, but have yet to give them a try for MQ. Wondering how they hold up.

    • Hi quiltbabe… First… thanks for the great “tip” above… love it!! And yes, I’ve used the Superior Titanium Top Stitch needles for FMQ and it works awesome. Now, on my Janome it sometimes requires a Janome needle – but otherwise I love the Titanium Top Stitch needles for FMQ… Great question.

  35. Connie Kresin Campbell says:

    Wonderful post Karen! I always love seeing your beautiful work and thanks for sharing all the information!

  36. Nadine says:

    Wow, so much info.. thank you for your contribution to this community. Love your work. Only try to emulate.

  37. Joey Strange says:

    Thanks Karen for the wealth of information. I’m sew glad that my Mom posted about you on her FB status!

  38. Sharon says:

    I love the cardinals. Every time I see them they remind me of my Grandma, who collected them. Thank you for the great tutorial. I have always wanted to try ruler quilting, but have been afraid to.

  39. Suzi Brown says:

    Karen, I love all your quilts. I have just recently started quilting, and just found your blog from Instagram. I recently posted my first attempt at a baby Wholecloth quilt. I’m so excited about all of these tips. They are going to be a huge help!! You are such an inspiration. Thank you for taking the time to impart your knowledge. I can’t wait to check out your tube videos.

  40. Your quilting on a regular machine is absolutely amazing. I’ve been so busy looking at the quilt patterns and fabric. Your blog made me stop and drool (lol) at the actual art of quilting. I want to explore this with the quilted pineapple rulers now especially that headboard. Wow! Yes a tutorial of the swirling feathers would be great, I am just starting with this!! As soon as I can obtain the rulers from Linda! Love the grunge quilt.

  41. Denise Toomey says:

    I came to read your “tip” and there is a whole course here. Thank you for sharing your beautiful work and your ideas to help us align our stars. Great information!

  42. Jan Ross says:

    Absolutely beautiful quilting, great technique suggestions, and above all, wonderful designs and ideas. I am working on a 4′ x 4′ wall hanging of a giant poppy, and I will be trying your technique suggestions. Thank you so much for posting.

  43. Linda Brancatella says:

    Therevis something about Feather Galaxy that is so calming and relaxing. The feathers remind me of waves and combined with the pebbles I think beach and water! Your pebbles aew so perfect and they compliment the feathers beautifully! Love your blog!

  44. younghomemakers says:

    Thank you, thank you! 😀 I’m a self-taught quilter, so these tips are tremendous! I guess my biggest problem is I should get my machine serviced. *blush* You’re quilting is just gorgeous…I am such a fan of this blog and it’s been so helpful, so I really appreciate the time you’ve given to share your tips and suggestions! I’ve loved every one of your projects you’ve shared here. 🙂

    Can I ask what sewing machine you have? Mine is a very basic/older model for now, but it does FMQ so I’m happy enough with it until I can afford a nicer model. 😉

  45. Linda Rhoades says:

    Karen…I love seeing the beautiful work you do. Thank you for sharing with us! I am anxious to try out the Feather Galaxy really appeals to me! Thank you!

  46. Denise Toomey says:

    I love all of your work. It is so difficult to pick a favorite. I am partial to Cardinals and Cone Flowers; so I’ll choose your signature Red Bird, the Cardinal. I have a goal to finish my Wooly Wren this weekend. Then I will be “ready” to quilt it. Thanks for all your inspiration!

  47. I love the chevron with a twist! Your quilting is exquisite! I am so looking forward to cooler weather that chases me inside to do some free motion practice! You have so many great tips….I have never used wool batting before and am thrilled with the results! Thanks, so much! Love your photos of the lake on FB as well!

  48. You have a flair for quilting your pieces that enhances the designs so well! I shared on Facebook as well!

  49. All of your quilting is gorgeous! I can’t imagine producing anything that spectacular. I follow you in Instagram and love your Cone Flower and Cardinals.

  50. Karen Miller says:

    Honestly I can’t even choose. They are all my favorites. I love your work.

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