There's a lot of chatter out there about free motion quilting and how to do it.
Here's the stone truth: anybody who tells you that there is only one correct way to do it has proven to you that they cannot be trusted. Machines differ. Operators differ. There are many variables: needles, thread, method of securing the layers, type of fabric, type of batting.
So why in the world would I voluntarily jump into this particular snake pit? Because I hope I have something useful to say. Key word: CHEAP.
But really this is my response to something I read online by an FMQ guru. I'm not going to say who, her work is terrific, and if I live a million years I will never be that good. But you DON'T, you really, really DON'T need a machine costing thousands of dollars. Not even hundreds of dollars. If I had a machine costing thousands, and she had my cheapo machine, she would still be terrific at FMQ and I would still be terrible at it.
First, the backstory
I stumbled into this because I am have a Pennywinkle quilting frame (more about this later) on which a regular sewing machine can be pushed around to do free motion quilting. I'm moving along the steep upward slope of the learning curve with this system, and I have been auditioning machines on it.
|It's like a longarm setup, but with an ordinary size machine|
Before hoisting the 40+ pound machines onto the frame, I try them out with a small sample of free motion quilting in a hoop. This (and one ten-year old UFO) is the sum total of my experience with FMQ. So this post is NOT about how to become a whiz at FMQ, it's about how to choose the right machine for the job and how to set it up. The technical stuff rather than the talent stuff or the artistic stuff or the skill-acquired-by-hundreds-of-hours-of-repetition stuff.
Step One: Buy a cheap Japanese Singer 15 clone
Gazillions of copies of the Singer 15 were churned out of Japanese factories in the 1950's and 60's. Around here a reasonable price for a black one in perfect operating condition is $10. These are straight-stitch only machines with class 15 vertical bobbins.
|how to identify a Singer 15 clone in the wild|
Why a clone rather than a Singer? No reason, I just like them. I've got a Singer 15-91 that I have not bonded with, but it probably just needs more TLC. The clones on the other hand have all responded beautifully to a little cleaning and sewing machine oil. They all turn sweetly and smoothly. All seven of them. I have sworn off buying them more than once, then another $10 one places itself in my path. And I will confess to having paid more for the pink and green ones, but not much more.
|They also come in pretty colors.|
Anyhow, they are so cheap and plentiful that you should look for one that turns reasonably smoothly and has good wiring. No reason to waste your time and money rescuing a pitiful one.
|Can you still call it a clone if it has had a fashion makeover?|
|Jazzy stitch length device, but it still works just like a 15|
Step Two: Clean and oil it.
There is a lot of advice about this in other places.
Step Three: Test stitch.
Do a bit more than just stitch a few inches. Run up a few quilt blocks with it. Or make a tote bag. Give it enough of a workout at under normal sewing conditions so that any problems will have a chance to surface.
Step Four: Prepare the quilt sandwich
Layer your backing, batting, and top and then secure them. I use a hoop and for something small (like a pillow top) I would only use a hoop. For something larger I baste to hold things in position generally, but STILL hoop the portion being quilted. The hoop keeps the layers from shifting and prevents tucks on the back side. The hoop gives you something to grip to move the quilt around under the needle. You can use a hoop twice as wide as the space between the needle of your machine and the machine pillar.
You want to hoop it so that the quilt sandwich is flat against the bed of the machine, not raised. You will probably have to remove the presser foot to get the hoop into sewing position, but put it right back on again.
There are other techniques and they may work well for you. This is what I prefer, but this is not the secret heart of the DragonPoodle method--that's coming up next. So use whatever works for you to secure the layers together.
Step Five: Reduce the presser foot pressure.
As you unscrew the pressure regulator, the pressure on the presser foot is reduced. You want to reduce it to nothingness. You want the presser foot to float right on top of the quilt sandwich. Unscrew it to its maximum. On two of my machines this worked. On a third machine there was still a bit of drag on the sandwich, so I had to remove it completely. Don't worry because a) you only spent $10, right? and b) it will screw right back in, so you have not ruined anything.
Put the presser foot lever in the down position--that's vital because it engages the thread tension. Move your hoop or quilt sandwich around. If it moves freely with no drag from the presser foot then you are ready to quilt. The presser foot IS still working for you--it is holding the sandwich stable right at the point where the needle goes through it to meet and mingle with the bobbin thread.
And by the way, this is why you want a vintage straight-stitcher for FMQ rather than a zig-zagger. A zig-zag machine has a MUCH larger opening for the needle. The fabric can be pushed or pulled into this opening, and there will be more play in the thread. A straight stitcher reduces the potential problems. A single tiny hole just bigger than the tiny needle gives your machine the best chance to perform well under the unusual circumstances of FMQing where you are pushing the quilt sandwich through the machine in any direction you please and changing that direction regularly. Of course some zig-zaggers come with a separate straight stitch throat plate, so if you want to try this technique with a vintage zig-zagger this would be the time to use it.
By the way, notice what you are not doing right now? You are not spending more money on a special quilting/darning/hopping/embroidery foot. I burned my way through more than one of these before I discovered the DragonPoodle method. All you need is the original straight stitch foot that came with your cheapo machine.
|feed dog drop|
Step Six: To Drop, Or Not To Drop: That Is The Question
Here's the big joke: it makes no difference. Drop the feed dogs, don't drop the feed dogs. In my trials it made no difference. If you choose to leave them up, or if they are stuck in the up position on your machine, then just set the stitch length to zero. I drop them because if I bump the stitch length lever (or completely forget about it) it won't matter.
Step Seven: Have at it
You should always test FMQ on a sample first. Adjust the tension as necessary.
They say it takes 200 hours of practice to rise to FMQ adequacy. But you know what? Normal people will not care if you are not a whiz. They will say, in tones of awe "you made that?" or "you made that for ME?" if you use cute fabrics and the batting is not hanging out of the seams. So FMQ badly--and proudly.
Two more tips for how to FMQ badly
- don't use solid colors--busy prints will help hide your stitches
- use cotton batting for that wrinkly vintage look that will also camouflage the stitching
OK, so there was not much in the above that was truly original except for my guaranteed, patented, certified technique for removing the presser foot regulator and floating that straight stitch foot. And that's probably not original either, there's a good chance I read it somewhere. But hey, it's super cheap and for me it is working like a charm. Why not give it a try? Why not, in fact, have a dedicated FMQ machine ready to go at a moments notice?
If you do, please leave a note below and tell me how it went. And feel free to send me the $4,990 dollars that you saved. I take PayPal.
ps: there are some great posts in the comments below, be sure to check them out!