How Should I Quilt This?

One of the big frustrations in the FMQ journey is trying to decide how to quilt your quilt top. I have been asked to talk about what to quilt where.

First off, I have never blogged about this because this is not my strong point and I have spent many, many hours wondering the same thing. How should I quilt this????

The earlier in your quilting journey you are; the harder this is to navigate. My approach is two parts logic and one part intuitive. 1) How is the quilt going to be used?, 2) What are your skills?, and 3) What does the quilt say?

These three questions have overall boundaries/guidelines/assumptions. I will call them guidelines here. You can make your own guidelines, but these are mine.

Have empty space to fill? Have fun!


SID (Stitch In the Ditch) – Before you do anything else, SID your main elements or components. If your quilt is block based, SID the blocks. If you have embroidery or applique, outline those elements. I use Superior Threads MonoPoly for this task because it is “invisible” thread. Any wobbles in your stitching are very difficult to see and trust me, we all wobble a bit. Some people use a ruler for this. Rulers will take longer. I just FMQ this part. Over time, you get much better at it! Other good choices are Bottom Line (60 wt) in your main quilt top color or any thin weight thread.

I skipped SID for a long time, I just wanted to get on with it and get that top quilted! But I am now a firm believer in SID. I don’t do ESS (Every Stinking Seam), just the main block or elements. It stabilizes your quilt so that you can smoosh and move your quilt freely without basting pins catching your table or needle. Even if you don’t pin, it will still further stabilize your quilt and give you a good structure for your detailed stitching and help assure that you don’t quilt in a fold or wrinkle. SID also gives you intimate time with your quilt to think about the FMQ.

Contrast adds visual interest – I always want to add texture, depth and visual interest to a quilt. Does your top have strong straight or diagonal lines? Or does it have a lot of curvy elements? FMQ the opposite. Long cabin blocks, for example, with their strong straight lines and blocks do well with feathers or swirls. Applique with lots of curves can be contrasted with straight (cross hatch, for example) or echo stitching. Contrast helps the viewer’s eye to see the features you wish to highlight.

Curvy applique pieces with cross hatch background.
Swirls and log cabin

What is the focus of this quilt? – Is it beautifully pieced complex blocks? Or applique? Is it a wonderful bright fabric? Or is it the quilting itself? Quilts with lots of piecing or applique or an amazing fabric or lots of prints do better with simple quilting like straight lines. Solids show off beautiful detailed quilting.

The fabric is the star here! Outlining and simple shapes are the choice.

Divide and Conquer – My quilting partner Sandra always tells FMQ’ers to divide and conquer. Looking at a large top and wondering what to quilt is daunting. Divide your quilt into components (squares/blocks/patterns) or sections (a quarter) and look at that area by itself a while. For an applique quilt, you will need a background (or more than one), perhaps FMQ in the sashing and then one or two border motifs. You don’t have to eat the elephant all at once. One bite at a time is sufficient. SID, outline, background and your applique block is sorted. Then go on to the next one. FMQ it the same? Or use a second background?

The interior of the oval is McTavishing, feathers around the oval and plait in the border.

The Logical Approach:

  1. How is the quilt going to be used? Is this a wall hanging? Is it a placemat or table runner? A bed quilt? Will it be hung and never washed? Or used everyday and washed frequently? Is it a special gift, or a charity quilt? Heavy quilting in an intricate pattern (stencil work with tiny feathers, for an extreme example or small crosshatching) works better on a wall hanging that will never be washed. Washing diminishes careful custom quilting and gives an overall crinkled look to a quilt. It also hides a lot of irregular stitching! Bed quilts do better with less dense FMQ that emphasizes texture rather than carefully plotted designs. Tableware gets lots of washing and is good for practicing basic motifs. A charity quilt is great for practice. Large blocks look great done sampler style with a different motif in each block.
  2. What are your skills? Ever asked a group how to quilt this and you are told that feathers would look great and you don’t do feathers? Quilt what you CAN quilt and know how to do. Practice your feathers on a charity quilt or dog bed or table runner before jumping into a top that you spent a lot of time piecing. Are swirls your best? You can do tiny swirls, small swirls, medium swirls, big swirls, hooked swirls, swirls with one turn or with double or triple revolutions. You can do little background swirls or large overall swirls. Make your skill level work for you.
  3. What does the quilt say? This question used to drive me bonkers! My quilts were silent for a long time. When I started SID on my tops, they started chatting a bit. SID really gets you familiar with the details of your quilt and how you might want to FMQ. I often start thinking about the FMQ when I look at the pattern and before I even cut the fabric. What type of quilting will suit this pattern, it’s use and it’s focus? Do I want heavy quilting or just a nice overall FMQ? Do I need a background style?
Texture on a bed quilt. I did the medallions first. It took a couple weeks to decide on simple radiating straight lines in the dark squares.

Finding your own style:

Do you like traditional, old timey quilts? Do you like to “quilt to death”? Curvy, feminine quilting? Bold graphic lines? A modern, minimalist look? A practical “get it done” approach? Your FMQ will reflect this. Use your practice quilts and time to build skills in the type of quilting that you like. Follow your own aesthetic.

Sandra’s Romantic/Traditional style. Follow her on YouTube under Sandra Pearson Free Motion Quilting.

First, experiment. Second, quilt what you like.

While you learn and experiment, you will discover what you like to do and how you want your quilts to look, which over time will become your individual style. I like bold, deep colors, strong batiks and prints, metallic threads and fabrics, and high contrast so I lean towards a modern look, but I also love flowery applique and simple traditional piecing, like a log cabin. Perhaps you could call it traditional re-imagined? Over time, you will develop your own style.

Happy quilting!



    1. Thank you! It’s definitely not my strongest area. You are much better at helping others decide what to quilt! I need to have a relationship with a quilt and even then, it can be tough.


  1. Yet ANOTHER great tutorial Lennea, sat up late last night and read it, then wrote a long message and for got to send!!!!! I have learnt so so much from you and Sandra. Sandra’s videos make so much sence to me and they show all the little things most FMQ videos miss out when you are learning. You write and show how you do things also step by step and have made it look so much easier and it’s so true its mostly practice for the average quilter. I do love how you make you feathers with so much more movement and not scary like those perfectly oval curves LOL Thanks for such a GREAT read. CHeers Glenda

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Haha! I hate when I forget to send! Well you are quite busy now. Yes, Sandra is a “real” FMQ genius, but not a pro trying to sell their books or classes. I used to be a technical writer, so that is how I make sense of it all, breaking it down into steps. I will make a confession, I am very uncomfortable will those oval feathers so I developed my own style. Much easier to execute and get a good rhythm going with them. Thank you for your support! And your inspiration!


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