How to Free Motion Quilt: The Designs

Hopefully, you've read the two previous parts to this series, if not, you can check them out here:

How to Free Motion Quilt: The Set Up

How to Free Motion Quilt: The Basic Motion and Tension

Keep in mind that we could probably camp out for a while on the basic motion of FMQ'ing and tension issues. It takes a lot of practice! As you and your machine get used to moving together, some of your tension issues will go away as you get better at moving smoothly. Don't forget to have a good slick surface! When you are in the beginning stages, any extra pulling or jerking of the quilt in relation to the needle and speed will cause extra tension on the needle (called needle deflection), causing it to flex slightly which leads to tension issues and skipped stitches.

Practice, practice, practice! Doodle quilting designs on paper too! Which brings us to designs...

I divide quilting designs into 4 major types:
  • Overall Designs- These are designs that do not pay attention to the piecing. Similar to a pantograph used by a longarmer, these are great designs for utility, bed and comfort quilts.
  • Block and piecing designs- These are designs that are based on the piecing. Designs for blocks, squares, triangles, borders and sashing.
  • Fills- These smaller designs are for filling in spaces between other types of quilting, adding texture and interest along the way, sometimes they are even used as larger design elements in the quilting.
  • Motif Designs- These are the ones we love to see in fancier quilts; the scrolls, feathers, floral motifs and more that are major parts of the design of a quilt in of themselves.

The four types are not overly segregated and mix and mingle quite often. While overall designs are usually loners, typically, motif and fill designs work together and are pretty much mutually necessary.  Block and piecing designs are good mixers in a quilt, and I think are the unsung heroes of FMQ.

Overall FMQ design
Some simple overall designs
Overall Designs- Also called edge-to-edge designs. These are some of the easiest designs to begin with, but not all overall designs are simple. They can be large stippling, other larger meandering designs, or even feathers  as an overall design. You can get ideas for these types of designs by looking at quilts done by longarmers with pantographs. Some can even be quite complex, featuring horses, bears, flowers, stars, etc. For a complicated overall design, you might need to mark it or use a length of marked paper, preferably something like Golden Threads Quilting Paper. More on this in an upcoming post.

Free Motion Quilting designs
Block and piecing designs

Block and Piecing Designs- This includes the tedious but many times necessary "Stitch in the Ditch" which can also be done with a walking foot without using FMQ. Once you have a good grasp of FMQ, doing stitch in  the ditch with the darning or free motion foot means no turning of the quilt as you stitch. Block and piecing designs can really enhance the piecing in a quilt. In the above pic, the top left drawing is "continuous curves"  and the bottom left is "Terry's Twists" which is my go-to for lots of small squares. I have three great books that give a ton of ideas on not only block and piecing designs, but the other types of quilting as well:Quilting Possibilities...Freehand Filler Patterns , Adaptable Quilting Designs , Machine Freehand Patterns by Nan Moore, which doesn't seem to be available through Amazon any more, but I saw she has another book out that might be similar. The first two books are by Sue Patten who is a very creative longarmer and a hoot if you've seen any of her videos online. 

Design books for Free Motion Quilting

Fills- Pebbles, smaller stipples, even closely spaced lines of stitching are in this category. Leah Day's site does a great job of categorizing and teaching many, many fills at the Free Motion Quilting Project. She's also produced three books of designs, one of which is From Daisy to Paisley: 50 Beginner Level Free Motion Quilting Designs. Keep in  mind that because of the scope of the project and the stitched samples, these designs are shown quite small. At the small size these are great for filling in around larger motif designs or in conjunction with block and piecing designs. It is up to you to decide at what size you want to quilt these for your quilt! Make them bigger and many can even be overall designs.

Motif Designs- Many of these designs benefit from good planning and marking. There's the classic feather wreath and all of its variations, feathered swags and borders. Some motifs are suitable for block and piecing designs too. Traditional whole cloth quilts are fabulous examples of motif designs coupled with fills. Two wonderful books by Karen McTavish (I have most of her books; they're great) The Secrets of Elemental Quilting  and Whitework Quilting: Creative Techniques for Designing Wholecloth and Adding Trapunto to Your Quilts give great examples of using motifs in quilts along with some great tips.

Some general tips for choosing designs:

The denser the quilting, the stiffer the quilt. And of course, dense quilting takes longer and uses more thread. Save really dense quilting for wall quilts, fancy quilts, and yes, show quilts. No one wants to snuggle down with a stiff quilt, so for comfy quilts, choose an overall design or fairly simple block and piecing designs.

One of the big differences between what we can quilt with our domestic sewing machines versus those of the longarm machines has to do with our range of motion. We can only quilt in the space between our hands before we have to reposition our hands and quilt. Those using longarm machines, have a range of motion for stitching that is pretty much the range of their upper body motion. This means the designs we choose either have smaller shapes, well-planned changes of direction, or we have to be really good with our stops and starts when repositioning our hands. Usually, it's a mix of all three factors.

Many quilts benefit from "Stitch in the Ditch", stitching along piecing lines to stabilize the seams, keep things square and subdivide the quilt to keep shifting of batting and backing to a minimum. For the most part this type of quilting is done first and many choose to use a walking foot with the feed dogs up. But, again, once you become proficient at FMQ, doing it in free motion can be a lot faster with little or no rotation of the quilt needed.

Applique quilts can also benefit from stitching around the applique shapes. Ann Fahl's book, Dancing With Thread: Your Guide to Free-Motion Quilting, describes this type of quilting and regular stitch in the ditch quilting as stabilizing the quilt and recommends using clear monofilament for this type of stitching in case the stitches wiggle from one side of the seam or applique to the other. I agree. I will be doing a post soon on using monofilament thread.

Large motif designs with inadequate fills around them lose their impact and when properly surrounded with fills can really pop, making a faux trapunto effect. Couple motifs and small fills with a lofty batting and you've got some great dimension and texture. Larger areas of "white space" are prime real estate for motifs.

Once again, I feel like we've just scratched the surface of choosing FMQ designs! There are so many great designs out there and used in so many way it can boggle the mind. But I think by dividing the types of quilting, it helps to choose the right kinds of designs.


  1. Nice! Lots of info here. Thanks for putting it together, I know how much effort goes into it!

  2. Great tutorial, really covers these concepts well!

  3. I have recently started FMQ...I didn't have the quilting gloves the day I started but I did find a great substitute...the gloves sold in a gross box...not the yellow dishwashing gloves, latex ones (or latex-free)...they are sticky, cheap, and work great!!!

  4. Very nice article, well put together. I've been meandering through the blog and enjoying very much tonight. Have you ever looked at any books by Toni and Robert Fanning? They were grooving with the FMQ back in the 70's. Your post card kind of reminded me of them. I'm adding you onto my list of blogs to read, looking forward to more.

  5. I am so glad I found your blog. I was on Pinterest and well, you know how that goes, I quite literally stumbled on your blog. I have been FMQ on my Janome 6600 for 2 years now and have found so much information on the web, but your blog is so complete. Thank you for compiling it all here! I am recommending your site on the Janome 6600 blog. I am really interested in the Sew Fine rulers and the special quilt ruler foot, they are on my 'got to have' list for this coming years projects!

    1. Why, thank you so much! I am such a fan of the Janome 6600 and that awesome free motion foot. I am so glad you and others have found my blog to be useful.

  6. I am really learning a lot, Amy! So glad someone on Quilter Friends on Facebook posted your blog.

  7. Edge to edge. What a great concept for domestic machines. I've tended to think in all over the place motion. thanks!!! I also appreciate the time you are taking to teach and explain the variations. Always something to learn!!!

  8. I'm fairly new to quilting and just finished my granddaughter's first quilt. I've saw your tutorial on youtube and had to find your blog! Thanks so much for the help. I think with practice I won't feel so burdened or afraid when quilting. I'm looking forward to your blog as well!

  9. Estou aprendendo a conhecer a técnica é um vasto mundo de possibilidades. Ao encontrar seu blog senti .que, para mim será um otimo começo, Obrigada

    1. Eu estou contente de ser de ajuda e inspiração (graças ao google translate! )

  10. I am a real Newby to this FMQ. I'm kinda stuck ting to figure out how to FMQ my courthouse steps challenge quilt. I know I want cables in the large boarder. I don like a lot of quilting done on my bed quilts, I like them soft and fluffy. Could you give some simple FMQ design that can be space 2 to 4 inches apart. I bought my batting, it's polyester and 10X, 1 inch thick. Thanks I'd love to here what you say. You can email me if you would like to. thanks. :)

  11. I am new to fmq and will soon also be using rulers. I have both a quilting and a ruler foot. Is there any reason I shouldn't use the ruler foot for regular fmq? Thanks! I am enjoying your craftsy class in rulers.

    1. I regularly use my ruler foot for regular free motion quilting. I don't like to change them out and rarely need the better visibility of an open toe free motion foot.

  12. In looking for ideas for design for my wall quilt, I found this site. I am so impressed by your helpful information found here. I consider myself fairly new to the FMQ, and found your article about adjusting the thread tension very interesting and helpful. You have taken the "what the heck do I do to make this stop looking like this" out of my work. Thank you so very much Amy.

  13. I really struggle with this aspect of the quilting process. You brought so much perspective to this tutorial. Thank you for clarifying so much!