Marking Free Motion Quilting Designs

I did something this week when quilting that I don't normally do: I marked my quilting design.

I do get asked from time to time about marking designs, usually by beginners who are busy trying to juggle all the variables of free motion quilting and find that having a line to follow seems reassuring. I really try to discourage marking designs. I'm not talking motifs or major foundational lines like a feather spine here, rather, marking every line of stitching for even a filler design.

marking a free motion quilting design

 I find that many people will tense up more when following a line or make more noticeable 'course-corrections' trying to follow the line than when the design is unmarked. Of course, not marking means that the shapes of the design need to be in your head, built into your muscle memory via practice.

But that's my opinion and I know there are others who encourage using a marked design for beginners. There are even pre-printed panels and stencils available for practicing your free motion quilting. I'm sure some folks find them helpful. If you feel stumped by the "where do I go" feeling, and marking makes it more comfortable, give it a whirl, but try to use the lines as merely a suggestion of where to go. Once the lines are gone, no one will know that you didn't stitch right on them.

I still swear by doodling designs on paper (or other drawing methods), practicing on a batik quilt sandwich using no thread in the needle, and plenty of practice.

When do I recommend marking designs?

Grid-based designs
Reference marking: Marking a spine, lines for grid-based designs, measuring off intervals for some ruler or template work, and foundational lines for some designs (like the straight lines between "C's" from Week One of this month's Free Motion Monday). Many designs in borders and sashing benefit from marking.

Many of the trees and shrubs were doodles with an erasable marker, though I didn't follow the lines very much in actual quilting.
 Motifs: Definitely mark motifs. Whether you need to mark the entire motif, like a large scroll-shape that will be left unquilted, whole cloth quilt elements, and other design elements or maybe you just need to make some indication of where a motif will go or the orientation of it.

Marking with my favorite kind of marker.

Visibility Issues: When quilting on a domestic sewing machine, the visibility can be limited to the area directly around the needle and our hands. This is especially true when quilting a large quilt. Sometimes we need to step away and look at the whole of the quilt and mark certain areas. Maybe you've got a nice area of 'white space' to fill and you want 3 different fillers across it. Mark those areas. You can get in the flow with one design and never realize you went too far. When doing large designs that are bigger than the space between your hands, you might want to mark it, since you might not be able to see the entire design at once.

When you just can't get it right: A difficult design have you stumped? Maybe you can make a feather plume to the right, but when you go to the left, it looks all squished. Maybe you want to make sure your pebbles are all the same size and round, not roundish. (Be realistic here, do you need to trace a half-inch circle repeatedly over your entire quilt? *shudder* I hope not.) Sometimes you'll have an odd space to fill and you know only a certain stitched path will look right. Mark it. Sometimes I'll doodle the design on my quilt with an air-erase marker to see how the design will look, like a tight inner curl of a feather. Then I'll quilt it.

free motion quilting
Motifs in a wholecloth need to be marked.
So why did I mark my design?

It was a combination of visibility and I just couldn't get the design right. I was stitching a very narrow border between two larger borders. The borders on either side were dark fabrics while it was a cream fabric and I was stitching in cream thread. The design was a deceptively simple design, an open "S" curve from side to side of the 3/4 inch wide border. But I couldn't see it well and I kept getting the spacing uneven and sometimes overshooting my stopping point and stitching the cream thread up onto the dark fabric. That, I had to avoid at all costs. After the 4th ripping in what seemed to be a few minutes, I went ahead and marked it.

See there's only one thing I hate worse than marking my quilts and that's un-quilting! I gave myself permission to not stitch directly on the lines and then began stitching again. Worked like a charm.

So, when it comes to marking, do what works for you! Do you do a lot or a little marking?


  1. Like you, I usually don't mark. The odd registration mark, but 99% off the time it's freehand. But sometimes we need to mark, maybe we have the perfect stencil. You offer such comprehensive advice to your readers.

    1. Thanks! Comprehensive, I like that! So much more positive than wondering if I’m rambling on too much. :-)

    2. I hate to mark. I bought 2 long arm rulers and just finishes quilting the Baptist Fan on child's quilt.
      Love the design in the creme narrow border, would love to figure out how to continue fmq that design with out stopping.

    3. Pat- This was done continuously, I just didn't mark where I was travelling in the ditch. Open S curve down, travel in the ditch to the next marking area, S curve back up, travel down, etc.

  2. Great input. I am trying to "practice" your scroll flower and was thinking of marking but I just need to practice drawing it more I think. I have never tried running the machine with no thread in it. I should try that sometime! Thanks for the tip!

  3. What a great idea! - practicing on the batik sandwich with no thread. Off to try it. Thanks, Amy!!

  4. What marker do you use? I'm afraid to use the wrong one and have it leave permanent marks on my quilt.

  5. When I first started FMQ, I hadn't read about how much or little anyone marked. Now I strike a balance, like you have done here.

    And omg that fuscia flower above is gorgeous.

    Marking is great *when you are learning* but afterwards you do need to go freehand. All about the practise practise practise. :)

    I was great relieved to realize some people DO mark some registration marks and guides.

  6. most of the time I don't mark, resulting in very organic look quilting, that suits my style. But there are times that I will do some marking - usually more for placement that outright detail, but sometimes a motif does need to be there for me, so very much like you!
    Another wonderful post, full of such good information! Thanks Amy!

  7. It is such a pleasure to see your quilting process play out on my quilt. Good information and my anticipation is growing!

  8. Interesting post, it is my goal to not to have to mark (my limited experience!) but registration marks, etc are handy to do. I always struggle with which is the best marker to use!

  9. Amy I assume that is the blue pen that goes away with water? blessings, marlene

  10. Thanks, Amy. Will give it a try..

  11. I am frightened to mark since a disaster on a big wall quilt! It was a water soluble white marker on dark fabric, but after a few days I decided I didn't want to quilt that bit at all, but by then the marks had set too much to wash out. I ended up using fabric paint to cover the marks (luckily it was just in a few places).

  12. Great post! I am just trying to practice your flower and thinking of marking but I think that I need more practice on drawing it. Actually I have never been tried on running the machine with no thread in it but now I ought to try that and I will definitely do it. Thanks for these nice tips.