Monday, May 20, 2013

How to Free Motion Quilt: The Basic Motion and Tension



You're all set up and ready to go, right? If you have questions about setting up, see the first post: How to Free Motion Quilt: The Set Up.

Quilt Sandwich

First you need something to practice on. Do yourself a favor and don't start quilting on a project that needs quilting. Use a practice piece. I keep several practice pieces to warm up on before doing good quilts. Don't skimp on this step, use material and batting similar to what you normally use for quilted projects. A  top piece, backing and batting. This is a good time to use colors or prints that you are no longer crazy about. If the print is very wild, use the wrong side out so you can see your stitches better.

Batting

A word about batting; if you use a very thin batting, you will have more tension issues than if you use a slightly thicker batt with more room for the interlocking part of the stitch to stay inside the sandwich. I like an 80% cotton/20% polyester batting because it shows the quilting texture better without being too thick and puffy. For those who want to use 100% cotton, battings can be found in thicker lofts. Don't go too thick! The thicker and bigger the quilt sandwich, the harder to move it. For a practice piece though, you really only need somewhere between 12 to 24 inches square.

Thread Thoughts

Use a middle weight thread, or even regular sewing thread to start out with. My favorite is Glide by Filtec, a trilobal polyester embroidery thread. It's available in a ton of colors, strong and truly lint free. It's a shiny thread, which I love for my fmq and decorative stitching. If you are a cotton purist, make sure you have a high quality thread like Aurifil or Filtec's Cairo Quilt for the best strength and less lint.  Cotton breaks easier than poly, so you might want to start with poly. Pick a color that you can see clearly on your fabric but remember that when quilting for real, you most likely would use a matching thread so those bobbles that stand out so much in contrasting thread will be a lot harder to see. 

Before You Start

Basic motion before tension: Since jerky movements can contribute to tension problems (and thread breaks), we're going to start with basic motion before perfecting the tension. If you have never done any (or very little) free motion quilting, do everything below except take the thread out of the machine!

You read that right. Set up your sandwich, foot, gloves, machine settings, etc. like you were going to quilt, but don't use any thread (bottom or top) and start quilting. Just get used to the motion of your hands in a circular motion, back and forth, smoothly. Listen to the sound of the machine and vary the speed. Using a topstitch 90/14 needle should let you see the holes a little bit and takes away some of the fear of tension settings, snarls, and mess ups.


Once you're comfortable moving about without thread, it's time to thread the machine.

Make sure your FMQ or darning foot is lowered! Since the foot 'floats' above the surface when the needle is up, it is easy to forget to lower the foot before stitching. That will create a snarl of thread for certain. (Guess how I know this?)

Pull up the bobbin thread: Hold onto the top thread and lower the needle down and back up. Give the tail of the top thread a tug to pull a loop of the bobbin thread up and pull the loop to bring the tail of bobbin thread to the top. You may need to raise the presser foot in order to grab the thread; this is when a knee lift system is wonderful. Hold both tails as you begin to quilt so they don't get sucked back under the quilt and make a snarl.

If you have a needle down feature on your machine, go ahead and set it to be down.

Motion

With your tension settings on automatic (if you have an automatic tension) or pretty much where they'd be if piecing, place your hands on either side of the needle, with your thumbs and index fingers making a circular or triangular shape about 5 inches wide. Begin making circular motions with your hands while pressing slowly on the foot pedal. I do not recommend the 'pedal to the metal' fast quilting. It makes me panicky. Vary the speed of your hands and machine until your stitches are fairly even. Pay attention to the sound of your machine when in this 'sweet spot'. If you have a speed slider, you can slow the top speed down so that if you 'floor it', the machine won't go too fast for your hands. Make some swirls and loops.


Repositioning your hands: You will need to reposition your hands when the motion brings either hand close to the needle. Stop with the needle down before you move your hands. This will keep the piece from moving as much when you move your hands. Don't walk your hands to reposition while the machine is still running.

Tension

By now it's time to think about thread tension. Have you already had a snarl? Hopefully not. Pull the piece out of the machine and take a look at the top and bottom side. (You'll need to raise the needle and lift the presser foot.) Pick a spot near the stitching and using a marker, write the tension setting number down right on the fabric. Make sure the presser foot is up before adjusting the tension! Remember, when using similar weights of thread in the top and bobbin, and you're not using a specialty thread, you should only need to adjust the TOP tension.

Here's a video of my tension adjusting process:




You can also see in this photo some needle holes from stitching without thread.

Top thread is being pulled to the underside (Which is the most common tension issue.), tighten the top tension to a higher number.



Does your free-motion quilting pull in the curves? In the picture above, those little eyelashes on the loops are a perfect example of changes in speed or uneven movement of hands throwing off the tension. Especially in curves, the hands tend to go faster, causing just enough abrupt change in the tension on the thread to cause slight eye-lashing. Slow your hands down just a bit in curves. Don't whip them out.


 Pretty close to perfect tension above and below.



Adjust the tension a little at a time and check frequently. I use my practice piece to record the tension adjustments, usually going from very loose (3 on my machine) to a setting that's too tight (a 6.5 or 7 for me) and then pick the best tensioned area and set my machine on that setting. See the video How To Free Motion Quilt; Tension Adjustments to see how I check my tension.

Vary your speed to see if it affects the tension. Iffy tension will show itself the most in curves. Some motions need more speed than others. I do not go very fast, but more speed is needed when doing curves to keep them smooth, because the hands tend to speed up. I find that if I am pulling my quilt directly towards myself, the needle can pierce the thread in mid-stitch formation causing it to shred or break. So I try to make sure I don't do that. Just a tiny angle to either side solves the issue.




Your tension may need adjusting with every different thread combination. Tension that works on regular quilting cottons might need to be adjusted when stitching on batiks.

Some newer, higher end machines have auto tension. I can't speak to other brands, but I find that the Janome auto tension adjusts pretty well. Some times it needs to be put to manual or adjusted in the settings if you are using a different thread in the top and bottom or if you still have abrupt changes in your hand motion.

Janome sells a special bobbin case for free motion quilting, sometimes refered to as the blue dot bobbin case. This has a lower tension to help avoid eyelashes on the back. Some people swear by it. I prefer to adjust my tension myself when needed instead of changing the bobbin case.

It takes time and practice to get your hands and foot control working together and learning how your machine responds. Every machine responds differently and of course, every single stitcher is as unique as the stars in the sky! You have to find what works for YOU!

Next in the series: Free Motion Quilting Designs. I'll show some designs that work in several different kinds of quilts. I hope you have found this series useful so far. Please leave a comment if you've got a question or a comment.

55 comments:

  1. Thanks Amy! I havent have a chance to check out the videos, but I'll swing by another day for sure. It always always always helpful for me to see other people's process!

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  2. This is one of the best tutorials on adjusting thread tension and free motion. Thanks!!

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  3. Thanks for the great tutorial. I'm going to try practicing without thread. That's a great idea!

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  4. Been practicing on preemie quilts via our Guild. Was working on circles and so proud of my circles and flowers only to discover the tension on the back was horrible, eye lashes everywhere. On recommendation of friends, I'm now pulling out all those threads, days now, so I can requilt it, straight lines. Makes several sample quilting layers to practice on. Tension on 8 and still getting some tension issues on the back. I started on 4. I wanted to cry.

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    1. Joan, I am so sorry I didn't reply to your comment until now! I hope you are having better luck with your free motion skills and machine now. I can try to help if you are still having issues. What threads are you using?

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  5. Amy you are a genius! I found your blog when I Googled "Tension for FMQ" and boy am I happy!! I have a Janome 6600 and a Juki TLQ (bought used a few years ago) and I love the Juki for FMQ. Of course I've been too nervous to do any real FMQ but today I thought "this is it - just go for it!" I'm happy so far but I had questions about needle size and tension and your blog was the only one I could find that really gave the basics from the beginning. I want to thank you so much. I've been quilting for almost 5 years now and its time to do some FMQ and thanks to you I'm not afraid anymore.

    I am now following your blog on Bloglovin'.

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  6. Not a genius, just more experienced maybe! I am so glad so many folks are finding this post helpful!

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  7. Thank you so very much, Amy! You answered a lot of questions for me!

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  8. Thank you for this wonderful tutorial. I've now got my tension up at 8 and this is working much better on my machine.

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    1. I'm glad to help! Every machine is different too.

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    2. Amy, if my machine has a stitch regulator that stitches as I move the fabric, is that something you think is better than using the foot pedal?
      I've looked at your designs but just don't know how to get create them. I have NO creativity at all. I have seen some pattern books but do I put the pattern on the quilt top before I sandwich it? I'm pretty new at the quilting part.

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    3. Just noticed that my previous response wasn't posted as a reply to you, so you may not have seen it. See the next comment of mine below yours for my thoughts.

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  9. This is in response to bookmama45 who left a no-reply email comment. I hope you see this.

    I have never used a stitch regulator, so I can't really say, but I don't think they are necessary if you put in the practice to get good at free motion quilting. Plus, they are expensive. I have heard that they don't always work well, so then you've got to do without.

    It takes much practice to get good and doodling the designs will really help. Some designs don't need to be marked if you've practiced a bunch and others work better with marking. If you do mark, remember to keep your stitching lines smooth and use markings as a guideline. Once the marks are gone, no one will know you got off track unless you make a bobble as you get back on the line.

    More complex designs might be easier to mark on the top before sandwiching. Make practice projects and just do loose designs and work on conquering the fear of messing up! There are some books that will show with arrows where the design starts and goes with arrows. I will try to keep this info need in mind when I show designs.

    Hope this helps!

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  10. Got it! Thank you. The BSR came with my machine so I didn't have to buy it separately. I'll keep trying, I get frustrated with trying to make those feathers and you make it seem so easy.

    Shirley

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  11. I've been trying my first free motion quilting project. On my sample sandwich things went well, but on my project I am getting skipped stitches, the machine won't form stitches at all at times, then will catch for a few and skip again. I'm thinking I need a new machine because the one I have has yet to make a nice looking button hole, and has been in for repairs twice in the last year and a half. Any suggestions until I can get a better machine? And what affordable machine would you suggest? THANKS!

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    1. Skipped stitches: try a larger needle size. Also, skipped stitches can happen if your hand motion is a bit jerky, causing enough needle deflection to cause the needle to miss being in the right place when the hook comes around to make the stitch.

      As far as thoughts on a new machine, IF you feel you need one, I am unabashedly a Janome fan. I also work at a Janome dealer's shop part time, so I am biased. But they are quality machines at a fair price.

      If you want a machine with bigger harp space than a basic sewing machine, but still want affordability, try the 1600 for a straight stitch only machine. The 6300 will give you the same 9 inches of harp space (space to the right of the needle) but with full zigzag and decorative stitch capabilities. Moving up from there is the 6500, with a few more decorative stitches, then the 6600, which is my machine, which has an integrated walking foot and alphabet stitches. But my current favorite machine for FMQ would be the 8200 which has 11 inches of space and a better integrated walking foot than the 6600.

      For a standard sized sewing machine, my pick would be the Magnolia 7330 or the 5100. Both have needle up/down, speed control, plus some decorative stitches.

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  12. great advise and i will be sharing your blog thanks :)

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  13. Your tension video was so helpful! I have had a lot of tension problems with my Bernina and doing a practice sandwich as you show us has finally found my best settings - lol - that is for one thread brand that is - seems to change with the brand. Oh my!

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  14. Hi Amy They say better late than never, after looking it seems forever, I have just discovered your tips on FMQ and I feel confident now to try and produce something worth looking at, without the mistakes I have made " going it alone. " Your explanations are brilliant, the best I have read giving me just the push that I need to have try again. Thank you

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  15. excellent....my stitches are never nice and curvy, but look quite square...will have to follow your suggestions

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  16. nice stitches.. and nice blog.. i'll share it with my mom and sister..
    check my blog also if you have time.. it's about electronics.. thanks

    geekmoves.blogspot.com

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  17. Great tutorials!!!! Amy, you have the best information on fmq out there!! Many thanks!!!

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  18. Thank you, I am just about to try FMQ without thread. Your tutorial is great, so easy to follow. I have watched the tension video and will be back.

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  19. Hi I have tried with my Janome I drop the feed dogs put on my darning foot then put my layered fabric underneath then do one stitch to bring the thread from underneath to the top and put both threads at the back of the foot then start to sew and my stitching won't stitch it sews along and leaves holes where i've sewn but no cotton stays in the stitch holes sorry its hard to describe but no stitches are sticking if you see what I mean. What am I doing wrong please?

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    1. Sounds like your machine is not forming stitches properly. Skipping stitches. You are holding the thread tails as you start, right? Is your machine sewing fine when sewing regularly? Is it making absolutely no stitches at all? Or just skipping now and then? There is definitely more opportunity for needle deflection when starting with FMQ, which causes the needle to not be in the right place when the hook comes around to form a stitch, causing skipped stitches, but rarely does it cause no stitches to form. A larger sized needle can help against needle deflection as will plenty of practice which will smooth out your hand motions. Making absolutely no stitches sounds like a timing issue, but if your machine sews fine with the feed dogs up in the normal manner, then it must be something else. Keep me updated.

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    2. Yes holding both threads and yes sews fine all the rest of the time. No stitches just nothing it is so odd I will go upstairs now and have another go I have watched your vids so know i'm doing everything right I have taken the needle out and put it back in, i've changed the thread. Not sure what else to try but if I get it sorted I will let you know if I suss out what it was. Thanks for your reply

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    3. Just been up stairs to have another go and it won't pick up the bobbin thread it takes me 6-8 times before it brings it up for me. I forgot to say while trying to sew it has loosened my needle and dropped it out 3 times over the days of trying plus has loosened the darning foot aswel. It's still not sewing but has done some hit and miss stitches so that's a start lol. I just haven't a clue what's happening why it's not sewing I have the right darning foot for my Janome.

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    4. Checking in with you via facebook. Keep me updated. BTW, my email is listed on the about page.

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  20. Forgot to check 'notify me' - I asked about the fraying top thread - please reply here. Thanks

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  21. Now I see my question is not even posted so I will ask it again. Your wrote: "I find that if I am pulling my quilt directly towards myself, the needle will pierce the thread in mid-stitch formation causing it to shred or break. So I try to make sure I don't do that. Just a tiny angle to either side solves the issue." So you try to pull from an angle instead of directly toward yourself? I have that problem but I thought it was happening when I went too fast. Will try to watch direction but I sometimes do not notice right away.

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    1. Yes, always at an angle, preferrable of to one side, though it's easy to say this if the design is fairly straight lines- in that case I stitch more side to side instead of forwards and backwards. Of course, curvy designs, don't comply with the stitching from side to side rule, but do the best you can.

      Since you mention speed, if you are getting a pretty fast snapping break of your thread when going fast, keep an eye out for thread that may start jumping in the thread guides and loop around something and snap! A thread net can help with slippery, jumping thread. Not sure if I've explained it clearly. Keep me posted.

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    2. That should read *preferably off to one side*. Besides, if you stitch forwards and backwards pretty straight, you'll see tension differences on the back most likely, as the needle flexes more when feeding fabric 'backwards'.

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  22. This is the best fmq blog post and video i've seen yet. there is so much is covered, all in one place - thanks so much! i am awful at fmq so far - but at least now have some things to try - i too am having lots of issues with stitches not even engaging. or teeny tiny. or long skipped jerky stitches - i have not found my sweet spot with my old machine yet. i will try a larger needle; i noticed you were using a top stitching needle. does it matter if i use top stitching or quilting needle or universal? so much to learn! i find fmq very hard - not natural at all. i use an old singer stylist; sews fine otherwise, great for piecing and general sewing. i would love to have something new with a much wider harp someday...like those janomes you describe. BTW your stitches are so beautiful.

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    1. Thanks for the compliments and sorry to not respond sooner. Style of needle: experiment to see what works best for you. I used to use just top stitching needles when FMQing, but at the recommendation of my dealer, I went back to universal needles for most threads as the larger eye of the TS needles were leading to sloppy stitch formation.

      It is my theory that older machines (and just a theory) sometimes are timed so precisely that they have little tolerance for FMQ when we haven't gotten our hands to work smoothly yet. Make sure your feed dogs are dropped or covered when FMQing. Some older machines have a special plate to keep the feed dogs from touching the fabric, but they don't actually get covered.

      A larger size needle can help with the needle deflection that you experience as a novice FMQ'er, allowing for better stitch formation.

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  23. Argh, first attempt at posting disappeared :-( So I shall try again.
    I'm having major issues with FMQ a lap-quilt: I use a Janome DC3050, which was threaded with King Tut long-staple cotton and initially using a quilting 80/12 needle. After some practice, I'd got the tension just about acceptable by turning top-thread tension up to the max (apparently bobbin tension was way too high, judging by amount of eyelashing to start with).
    With it set up this way I managed to FMQ nearly 3/4 of the lap quilt, with a couple of thread breakages and needing to change bobbin a couple of times. Then yesterday disaster struck: the top thread broke, and when I trimmed and re-threaded it to continue, we were back to eyelash central on the back of the quilt!
    I have since tried all the common things mentioned in FMQ books and blogs: re-threaded, re-loaded bobbin, cleaned up fluff, tweaked tension (even messing around with bobbin tension adjuster screw, about a half-turn!), put in a new 90/14 needle - no improvement whatsoever.
    At this point I was worried something had gone seriously wrong with the machine (only had it 7 months) so I swapped out the darning foot and thread and went back to 1/4" foot, 2 layers of cotton and standard poly thread, to check normal straight stitching, with feed dogs back up - it all worked fine.
    So I repeated the earlier exercises with darning foot and cotton thread again, but still seeing the darn eyelashes.
    On other blogs / websites I've seen mention of using a special washer in the bobbin case, or even a dedicated lower-tension bobbin case for FMQ, or perhaps just try with a different bobbin, but is any of that going to help? Or am I really going to have just get the machine checked out?
    I know the tension wasn't really quite right for the stuff I got done, but had assumed that was just down to me being a novice FMQer - now I am wondering if it's the machine :-(
    Any and all advice most welcome at this point, as I'm now seemingly stuck with a quilt 3/4 done and no possibility of being able to finish it. Worse still, I have 2 more quilts to finish before Christmas (which I had hoped to be able to FMQ) which I may now have to do with the walking foot if I'm to have any hope of getting them done.
    Please please help!
    :-)

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    1. I doubt it's a machine issue since it's doing fine in regular stitching mode, other than with a thicker thread like King Tut you run a greater risk of piercing the working thread as stitches are being made, especially if you are pulling the quilt toward yourself.

      I will say that I am not the best person to ask in regards to King Tut thread. It's a quality thread, but I have trouble with it in my machine. It does need a 90/14 needle.

      Bobbin washers won't affect your issue. Check your machine thoroughly for snags, sharp spots around the needle hole in the the stitch plate (especially if you've broken a needle on your machine. Check also your bobbin for defects/sharp spots.

      Make sure to thread the machine with the presser foot up and check the bobbin case for lint or broken thread in the grooves. With multiple thread breaks, you increase the chances of lint or thread bits causing additional problems. Go ahead and try a new needle.

      Are the tension issues happening evenly, or maybe just in certain areas, like the right side of loops and curves? This is caused by uneven hand speed or jerkiness and will clear up as you gain experience. Slow your hands down in curves.

      Also try a different thread, another spool of Tut, or try a poly thread and see what the result is. Check how the spool sits on the machine; if using a vertical spool pin and feeding off the side of the spool, is there a felt under the spool for smooth turning of the spool? If a horizontal spool pin, are you using a large spool cap and is it smooth also? If using a vertical pin, with thread coming off the top, like a cone thread stand, does the thread do better if you switch it to a spool pin where it can come off the side of the spool?

      There are so many variables to check, but don't give up. See this post: http://freemotionquiltingadventures.blogspot.com/2014/10/ten-tips-to-solve-breaking-threads.html


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    2. Wow, thanks for such a prompt and comprehensive response Amy! :-)
      First off I have to say I only used King Tut as that's what I found in my local quilting shop (I'm UK-based) but I might try and find something different, see if that makes a difference. That said, I did try with the normal poly thread I used for piecing as well over the weekend, and that made no difference :-( so don't think it's *just* the thread.
      Will check needle, stitch plate and bobbin case tonight for snags. fluff etc (when I get home from work!).
      Spool is horizontal, with large spool cap, no obvious snags I can see there.
      Prior to the "event" this weekend, I had noticed my tension was worse around corners, which I had put down to being a novice and struggling to keep an even speed, but now the eyelashes are everywhere, straight lines and curves, slow or fast :-(
      Long-term I will persevere, but in the short-term I think I will be doing my other 2 quilts with the walking foot in order to just get them finished, then perhaps return to FMQ after that
      Thanks again for all the encouraging words, and hopefully my own FMQ adventure will pick up again soon!

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  24. Wow, great Blog, I really appreciate your thought process and having it explained properly, thank you!

    Geminy Sewing Machine

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  25. Excelente!!!, descubriendo el acolchado libre, buenas las explicaciones, Ahora lo intentaré y a practicar mucho.

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  26. I'm impersesd by your writing. Are you a professional or just very knowledgeable.Thanku….ALOKA UST-5546

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  27. Hi Amy! Your blog post really explained the set up for free motion very well. I wish I had seen your blog first. I was really glad to watch your videos to make sure that what I'm doing is correct. My machine is a Baby Lock Anna. Basic, all manual. I was rolling along just fine and the machine seized up. My fault and I took it in for service. Before service, no issues with FMQ except for my own inexperience. Tension was working well at the same setting that I usually piece with. Aurifil 50wt in the top and bottom. After service, I am unable to keep the bobbin thread from popping through to the top. My tension setting is on 0 and there are no instructions for adjusting the bottom tension. I'm guessing that I have some issue with the bottom tension but what can I look for? Thanks, Linda

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  28. Thank you so much for the videos and tutorials!

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  29. Thank you so much for these very detailed instructions for the beginner learning free-motion sewing. The videos are so informational. A video is worth a thousand words!
    Teresa in California
    http://amagicalwhimsy.blogspot.com/

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  30. I found the tutorial on the tension to be very detailed, thank you. I loved the explanation of the eyelashes showing up as well. Brilliant idea to have a practice piece with thread types with tensions marked to show how the thread reacts differently. I will also include the type of thread used for future projects. Thank you for your detailed information.

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  31. I am just starting to try to lean to Machine quilt. Your explanations have been so clear and concise
    Thank you for the work that you do.

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  32. Amy, thank you for a great Tutioral, Great clear and helpful explanations.
    I have a little Jem Platinum 760. Which I love �� and now I have manage to quilt as well!
    So feeling very pleased with myself.

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  33. Hi Amy, I enjoy watching your videos. Please tell me what kind of machine you are using?
    I have a very difficult time making circular stitches. I have arthritis and am wondering if this is preventing me from doing this. Is there a way for me to improve my circular motions? I think one of the things is when free motion quilting, the fact the there is nothing gripping the material makes it feel like free falling out of control. Any advice is greatly appreciated.

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    1. I'm using a Janome 6600 in this post, but I now use either a Janome 8200 or 8900.

      Are you using quilting gloves and a Supreme Slider or Sew Slip mat? These make it so much easier on your hands.

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  34. Thanks for the information! Hopefully one of these days I can master it! The circles are certainly tricky.

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  35. Great tutorial and video! Thank you!

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  36. I have a Janome 6500, been usuing Aurfil thread never a issue till this project. I can feel it pull, when I turn over after quilting in that area to check back side i have these little ties what is this PLEASE HELP!!.

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    1. Hiya Amy! No worries, just tighten your top tension until the ties/eyelashes go away. If it'a only happening in the curves, make sure that your hands don't speed up when making curves (most usually do until they work at it) as the momentary whipping around a curve changes the tension.

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  37. I am a beginner and this post and the video are really clear and useful.! Thanks you a lot!

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