Speed is Relative: Tools for Regulating Free Motion Quilting Speed

Speed  when quilting free motion is completely relative. As long as you can balance what your hands and the machine are doing, and your brain (which decides the design) can keep up, it matters very little whether you quilt slow or fast. If you go too slow, it can cause lines of stitching, particularly curved lines, to be more jagged, but that's it.

The two most important tools for regulating your quilting speed are something many quilters don't want to hear, so I'll save them for last.

I will not cover stitch regulators as I have no experience with them. In the domestic sewing machine market they are limited to the higher end Berninas. There are a few other stitch regulator-like gadgets and tools out there I think, but again, I have no experience with them. I think you don't need them either!

Machine Speed Control

The number one speed control tool that all quilters have is the foot pedal. Make sure it functions properly and doesn't have places it gets 'stuck'. Speaking of stuck, make sure it doesn't slide around as you stitch and is positioned at the most comfortable spot for you. I have wood flooring in my sewing space and I use a few rubbery glue dots on my pedal to keep it in place. They work even though I pack up my machine quite often to sew elsewhere and re-stick just fine. I have heard of folks using nonskid rug matting too.

The foot pedal is a pretty basic device. If you have a fairly knowledgeable sewing machine service person in your area, it may be possible to upgrade your foot pedal to something more responsive. If you do not have a variable speed setting or slider control on your machine (more on that in a minute) you may want to rig a 'stop' of sorts for your pedal that allows you to 'floor it' without having your machine at top speed. Taping a block into place that prevents the pedal from going all the way down is the primarly method. Some people find it more comfortable to be pressing their foot all the way down rather than floating it somewhere in between. I think that you lose something in the control of your speed by getting used to 'flooring it', but it works for some. Leah Day at the Free Motion Quilting Project had a few tips for creating a 'stop' on her site at one point, but now I can't find the info. I think it was in one of her earlier videos on FMQ basics. Her advice on speed control is here, but it's one of the two tools I said you won't like......

Most of your mid-range machines have a variable speed control. It's a knob or slider that regulates the maximum speed you want when you sew. It can be helpful to slow the maximum speed so that if you do press all the way down with the foot pedal, it is a speed you can still control while quilting.

As a side note: My 6 year old daughter is starting to sew and she uses my Janome 3160QDC. It's a great machine at the low end of the mid-range machines at around $500-$600. It has both a speed slider and a Start/Stop button (and the ever-handy for quilting needle-down). I put the speed slider almost to the slowest setting and she runs the machine with the Start/Stop button. This easier for her than using the foot pedal.

When I first started Free Motion Quilting, I used my speed control to help me control the maximum speed. In fact I once was looking at a larger machine that had no speed slider/control and its lack was a deal breaker for me.

It's still not a matter of flooring the pedal at a slower speed though. Different motions of machine quilting require different speeds. But it's a bit like training wheels while you get the hang of varying the machine speed and your hand speed. In fact, I rarely set my machine slider anymore, which is a good thing as the slider control is irresistible to my three year old; though I usually discover his treachery when I find my machine will hardly go! It takes time and practice. Which brings me back to one of the two most important tools for FMQ; Practice!

Before I conclude, let's not forget the other side of the speed equation: your hand speed. Hand speed is affected most by tension in your body due to the set up of the quilting space or fear that you will mess up. Make sure your set up works for you and allows good movement of the quilt. Some folks mention having a glass of wine to loosen yourself up, music can help find your quilting rhythm.  I find listening to the sewing machine's motor helps me find the right speed for much of my quilting. Make sure your hands can control the top easily, whether you use gloves, lotion, a pinch, or something else. I use my Machinger gloves. A frequent break and stretch is good. I can get pretty tense from quilting too long and from being fearful that I will mess up. On important projects I pray before and during the quilting! And like most things you do with your hands, it takes practice.

Practice, practice, practice! I know that's not what you really wanted to hear. But it's what works. My next post will be on some ideas for practicing you speed control and practicing free motion quilting in general.

And that other tool I said many quilters might not want to hear? It's not really a tool per se, but it's hand-eye coordination. For some it is a natural ability or disability, but it can be improved upon. All it takes is.....practice! Get some time in on some good practice and find the balance of hand and motor speed that works for you.

Do you have any tips on speed control in quilting? Questions? I'd love to hear from you.

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