8 Free Motion Quilting Tips for Confident Beginners

It's said over and over again, practice is important when it comes to free motion quilting. This implies we make a bunch of practice pieces, but really, how long does it take before we're sick of making hot pads and place mats?

tips for better looking machine quilting

Then there's a project we just need to get done and fast. Perfect for a little machine quilting. Maybe it's that baby quilt that needs to be made this weekend. We know it doesn't have to be perfect so we decide we're moving on from those practice pieces.

So here's 8 tips to make those first free motion quilted projects look their best:

First, the set-up: Make sure you've got a set-up that will set you up for success. A smooth large workspace, preferably with your machine set into a table, cabinet, or large extension table. A chair at a comfortable height to your sewing surface. Quilting gloves or some other grip method. (See my How to Free Motion Quilt Series: The Set Up) Decent lighting, quality thread and a new needle will help get you off to a good start.

Choose a good batting
None of these battings are junk, but they are certainly thin. The top batting is my favorite 80/20 blend.
Batting: Use a medium thick batting. Nothing too poofy, but a little more room for less than perfect tension to hide within its thickness. A good quality medium thickness won't tend to flag up the needle or get poked down into the bobbin area if you don't have a straight stitch needle plate. My favorite batting is an 80/20 blend.

Thread: Choose a polyester thread of high quality. I know, I know, don't send me hate mail if you're a cotton purist. (Use some Aurifil if you can't stand the poly.) But a good 40 weight poly thread is probably the easiest thread to free motion quilt with. It's strong and smooth too, so it's less likely to break or fray.

Thread color: Use thread that matches or blends with the fabrics of the top. If you decide to use a variegated thread (and I don't recommend it, no matter how pretty it looks on the spool or how well it harmonizes with your top.), choose a quilting design without backtracking.

See how the variegated thread looks when back tracking? The top fabric here is black (despite it's appearance in this pic) and I used black thread in the bobbin.
Match your thread: Using matching top and bottom thread can hide minor tension issues. As a beginner, you will have tension issues that pop up in certain curves due to changes in hand motions or speed. Most quilters use the same color (or close to it) in the top and bobbin. If you decided to use a variegated thread on top, use a solid color in the bobbin that blends with the top, with the top thread, and the back.
See how much harder it is to see the quilting on the prints?
Backing: Having done all the above, use a backing that is a busy print or matches the thread used. You will see the texture the quilting provides, but not focus on individual lines of stitches. I still forget this tip all the time, tending to think, "what fabrics can I use up on this backing without using my best fabrics?"

A light solid backing with brightly colored thread will show off every bobble!
Relax: Take frequent breaks to keep from getting too tense. No one can quilt well when tense. The shoulders will sneak up to the ears and the back will curve forward. It's not good for your quilting and it's certainly not good for your body.
Finally, don't judge your quilting harshly while sitting at the machine. Take it out and spread it on a bed or a table and look with your eyes at 3 feet minimum from the project.
I hope you find these tips useful as you begin to quilt on your quilts. Don't forget to keep practicing on things that don't matter as much. This skill takes a lot of practice and there are so many variables to adjust on each project. With some care and the tips above you can go ahead and quilt your quilts before you are overrun with hot pads and place mats!

And don't worry, we all have those first quilts we tried our FMQ on before we really should have. They still warm the heart and build your skill.


  1. Hi Amy,
    Thanks for this post! I'm close to FMQing an oversize king and your comments are what I need right now. It's interesting that you mention poly thread. I'm starting to investigate poly as an alternative to cotton thread for my FMQ. The last quilt was a challenge because the thread kept breaking.

  2. thanks Amy. I am a person who can only do a few of those "practices" and besides, I have too much to quilt to wait until my quilting is "good". So, I am going to do my first lap size (I have done crib and other small stuff). So, thanks for the tips...

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  4. Thanks, Amy...great tips. I am my own worst critic! I am trying to give myself some slack! Keep the good info coming!

  5. Thank you Amy, still trying to get confidence! Bought Westalee foot and templates to follow but seems to be only for plain fabric quilting as mine is usually nice bright patterns!

  6. Amy, I fully agree with you! Poly thread, 40 weight is the best thread to use. If you've prewashed your fabric it won't matter if you use a poly thread. And I guarantee you'll have less breakage.

  7. Amy, I fully agree with you! Poly thread, 40 weight is the best thread to use. If you've prewashed your fabric it won't matter if you use a poly thread. And I guarantee you'll have less breakage.

  8. Great article. Just getting started in machine quilting after years as a hand quilter and piecer. Amazing how far sewing machines have come to help us with this technique!

  9. Amy, I was so glad to come across your site. I have just sent for an attachment to my machine so that I may begin the art of free motion quilting. Your tips were most informative and welcome. Thank you.

  10. what is the best thread length to use for machine quilting?

  11. Need help for breaking thread? Can you tell me where to find help?

  12. love your information. You always do such a good job...