How Hard is Learning Free Motion Quilting?

This question came up recently in my Babylock Tiara group from a member despairing of learning Free Motion Quilting (FMQ). She is ready to throw in the towel and her machine.

So really, how hard can it be? There are legions of YouTube quilters zipping through complicated motifs and showing how easy it is, with their fluid, beautiful and seemingly effortless stitching. As with anything on social media, the question should be, how long did it take the poster to arrive at this effortless place?

She/he is SO talented, we think to ourselves. Have you ever said that? “You are so talented!” It’s true, some will learn faster than others. But no one is born learning to FMQ! It takes hours and hours and hours and hours and hours of practice. There are award winning quilters out there who never have done FMQ on their own quilts. They pass on their quilts to a long arm operator who does the actual quilting. Is the award winning patchwork maker talented? Or the long arm quilter? What they are is accomplished. They have spent years learning and practicing to be considered “talented”.

One consideration is thinking that as adults, we can easily master a new skill. Adult learners have some advantages as we know how to deal with disappoint, handle stress, manage our time and understand the value of patience. (Or some of those at least!)

Want to learn to play an instrument? How long would that take? A few months, longer? FMQ is no different. It takes time and determination and above all, practice.

When I bought my Babylock Tiara sit down long arm machine, I did so on impulse, several months before I retired. I wanted to be able to QUILT my own quilts. Unfortunately, the shop that sold me the Tiara closed within a few months and the promised lessons on using it never happened.

I did everything wrong at the beginning: I didn’t understand the machine, I used thread that made every attempt worse, and I watched those dang videos and wondered how my attempts could be so terrible and crude. So I created my own Babylock Tiara group and became doggedly focused on learning to use it. What my members did not know, I researched. I joined a FMQ learning group.

I had no prior experience with FMQ before my Tiara; I have never done FMQ on a domestic. So what did my work look like? I still have that first FMQ quilt I made in 2015. It is a tangible reminder of how far I have come. The stitches are wildly uneven; the tension is bad, my lines are wonky.

An early wonky feather. I didn’t even try again for another year.
I get serious about feathers a year later,
Another year later…

Quilters yearn for short cuts and “hacks”…maybe using rulers or a stitch regulators will shorten the pain of learning. Maybe stencils or quilting on pre-printed design will lessen the frustration. Perhaps, or perhaps it may confuse the issue. Ruler use is a separate skill and requires even more dexterity. Regulators have limitations and hinder the development of your own quilting rhythm. Following a line does not cure uneven stitches or tension issues or allow you to understand how your machine works. There are no true short cuts.

Ultimately, I chose to learn ONE thing first. I tried some different motifs (and by the way, stippling or meander is NOT an easy first motif) and – after many “failures” – decided that I would concentrate on swirls. I swirled on dozens (yes, dozens) of placemats, on runners, hot pads and many baby quilts. After the second year of “learning FMQ”, I could do killer swirls. And then I started branching out into other motifs like poppies, paisleys, feathers (which frankly, scared me!) and McTavishing.

A “crab” stitch that I invented when I was first learning. I was seriously thinking about quitting at this point!
Early swirl attempts.
My happy place with swirls, I made over a dozen quilts with just swirls.

You do not have to do ALL the motifs to be a happy and accomplished quilter. If a motif befuddles your brain, drop it and move on to the next one. There are many basic motifs; some will be easier for you. Try again in a month, or next year. You can do beautiful FMQ with just ONE motif. You don’t need to learn everything.

  • Common “beginner” FMQ mistakes:
  • Understand how FMQ should be done on your machine – Read your manual, ask questions in a dedicated machine group. Set up your machine correctly for FMQ if a domestic; understand how your sit down machine operates.
  • Quilting too fast – Have a lead foot? Slow down, way down. If your machine has speed settings, set on slow or to a lower number. I had to slow WAY down! It took me 18 mos to figure that out.
  • Trying to FMQ a whole quilt right out of the gate – Practice on squares, not too small; 18′ x 18′ or 24′ x 24′ is a good practice size. Practice pieces can be made into tote bags, table toppers or animal beds. Also good for packing when moving!
  • Using old thread and needles – Good quality thread and fresh needles are important to good FMQ results. Poor stitches, skipping and thread shredding can result just from poor thread and old needles. Invest in your learning and use good quality thread and needles when practicing. Use your “what I was thinking” fabrics for practice.
  • Rome wasn’t built in a day – What?? This is not an exercise in instant gratification. Did your first couple sessions go poorly, feeling discouraged? Keep going. And practice several times a week. You can’t practice a couple times and then sideline your FMQ for a month or two and make progress.
  • High expectations/Perfectionism – Expect improvement over weeks, not days. Over months, not weeks. Perfectionism needs to take a back seat when learning a new skill. I can guarantee you will not be perfect. Think how you would encourage a friend, or daughter; be kind to yourself. Don’t let self criticism and perfectionism suck the joy out of your practice.
  • Comparisons are odious – Feeling bad because you are comparing your work to professionals or seasoned quilters? STOP! This is not a contest. I didn’t start FMQ until I was 62 years old. I will never quilt as well as those professionals who have spent 20 years on their craft and practice it full time. But I love creating and finding my own style and that is what matters.

If I can do it, you can, too. But be prepared to practice a LOT. It was worth it for me.

How difficult is learning FMQ? It’s not easy, and it is not quick. For some, continuing to use a long arm service will be preferable. Concentrating on mastering difficult piecing or creating painstakingly beautiful applique may make more sense for you.

Go with what makes you happy and where you want to spend your time. If I can do it, you can, too. But be prepared to practice a LOT. I chose to pursue FMQ. Did I ever feel like quitting? YES! Did I ever wonder why I ever thought I could learn this? YES! But I kept going and have found my bliss and my balance.

From my Queens Gambit quilt, 4 years after beginning FMQ practice.

Find your bliss!

Lennea

12 Comments

  1. Lennea, great read and sooooo true, practice makes it easier and there are no short cuts. It taken me years from 2016 to get where I am . I am happy doing what I love just like you. Keep FMQ (ing ) and be happy 😊 I still have lots to learn x

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Love this advice! The quilting is not my favorite part yet, but who knows. Maybe one day. I do need help deciding what to quilt on a piece also! Thanks for your input and encouragement!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There was a time when FMQ was not my favorite part either, but now I look forward to it. Once we are confident in our FMQ, and have a couple motifs we are comfortable with, the “what to quilt” question is less difficult. Perhaps I need to do a blog on the topic!

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  3. Tried several times and no it’s not for me. I rather spend my time on applique and piecing. Leave the quilting to the longarmers. I get joy out if creating not finishing up with quilting my pieces. I think your first attempts are gorgeous. You have a natural ability to FMQ.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I am glad you have found your happy place. My “natural ability” took three years to develop and I learn every day that I sew. But we don’t all have to do everything. I love applique, but many find it quite tedious. Do what you love.

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  4. Great advice, especially about the practice pieces. It is something I have been meaning to try but whenever I sit down with a quilt I know I have put so much effort into the top I don’t want to ruin it with bad quilting, but a small piece you aren’t emotionally invested in is manageable

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Great advise from you ladies on here. I love my sewing even though I only have a domestic machine. I will keep trying though. One day I hope to get a bigger and better sewing, quilting machine. Until then I will keep practicing on my lovely little singer.xx Thank you, you are an inspiration

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  6. I should be a sleep but just wanted to read your blog as I look forward to them, it’s taken 3 days to read it this week, we are closer to handing over the keys to our home so we are working longer and longer hrsLOL. GREAT blog Lennea , I had my machine all set up to start practicing each day and then it all flew out the window when family decided we should move! But I’m looking forward to sitting down with plenty of time to sit and enjoy it Lennea. What with your advice on needles and thread I should have better results this time. Love you positive out look on quilting and appliqué, you will have us all thinking out side the box. Thanks a million for still blogging! Cheers Glenda.

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  7. Three days! Well that is commitment to reading my blog. Our own move is not that long ago and the memories of those frantic days are still fresh. Looking forward to seeing you back at the machine; your work is such an inspiration to me.

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