Leah Day, Q&A, and the Free Motion Effect

Today I have a special interview with quilting instructor and blogger, Leah Day. I reached out to her regarding promoting our new Craftsy classes and she graciously agreed. You'll see her Q&A of me when my class becomes available. I asked a bunch of questions so let's get right to it!

Q I think most of my readers know who you are and are familiar with your Free Motion Quilting Project, but please give us a summary of who you are and what you do, including where we can find you online and what you do through those various venues.

Leah Day at the Craftsy studio
Leah Day in the Craftsy studio.
A I always like to start with the basics - my name is Leah Day and I live in Shelby, NC with my husband and son, two cats, and three ducks, and twenty chickens! I am the creator of the Free Motion Quilting Project and my online quilt shop can be found at LeahDay.com.

I consider myself foremost an online quilting teacher. I began focusing specifically on free motion quilting in 2009 and began shooting videos with a camera I “borrowed” from my father-in-law. I eventually gave that camera back…three years later!

Shooting videos for YouTube has been a great fit for me because I don’t really want to travel away from my family, but I still want to teach quilting to everyone interested in learning.
The experience shooting videos eventually lead to becoming a Craftsy instructor, and I’ve taught the following four classes so far:

Free Motion Quilting a Sampler - This is the perfect class for a total beginner because you can learn how to piece the sampler blocks then learn how to quilt them all either together or separately in a throw sized quilt.

Free Motion Fillers Volume 1 and Volume 2 - These two classes are all about design! You’ll learn 50 designs in each class and in Volume 1 how to apply them all to a throw sized quilt. In volume 2 we learn how to quilt the designs on a smaller scale in an awesome tote bag project.

The Free Motion Effect - This is my newest class and it’s all about choosing the best designs for your quilt. You’ll learn several different methods of quilting a quilt, how to break down negative space, and how to become more confident with selecting thread color, designs, and placement within your quilt.

This is my favorite quilt from Leah's newest class. Look at those straight lines I could do with a ruler.
Q What one thing made the biggest difference as you were first learning to free motion quilt?
The biggest thing for me was realizing I didn’t need to drop my feed dogs. I was quilting on an old Bernina Record 830 back in 2005 and I was always in such a rush to start quilting that I rarely checked my machine settings before getting started.
So I’d often start quilting and not have my feed dogs dropped, and guess what?! The world didn’t end! Lol!
I started paying closer attention to my stitches and realized that they actually looked better when the feed dogs were left up. When I felt the quilt being pulled by the feed dogs, I began lowering my stitch length to 0 to minimize their movement.
I look back on that time as the first time I broke a steadfast quilting rule and found not only an easier quilting experience, but better looking stitches too!

Q I find that some quilters are a bit fearful when it comes to free motion quilting, especially if they gravitate towards precise, controlled piecing. I think it’s a right brain vs. left brain thing. What is your favorite tip or word of encouragement for those who need a nudge to try free motion quilting enough to get past that fear?
I think the most important thing for students to understand is that free motion quilting is extremely different from any other thing you do on a machine (piecing, garment sewing, applique, or machine quilting with a walking foot). If a quilter is used to precision piecing, they are very used to the machine doing all the work - feeding the fabric forward and producing perfectly spaced, even stitches.

With free motion quilting, the machine isn’t doing any work for you - except to move the needle up and down. You are suddenly responsible for the stitch length and appearance and quite frankly, it can look VERY ugly when you’re first getting started.

My favorite tip to share is to expect your quilting to look ugly. Do not expect perfection! Can you sit down at a piano and play a Beethoven symphony with no experience? Nope. Free motion quilting requires practice and patience to master, exactly like learning how to play a musical instrument.

How long were you doing free motion quilting before you realized there was a big demand for more information about it and for the tools and supplies that you began to offer to help meet that demand? Were any of the products something that made a huge difference to you as you developed the skill of free motion quilting?

I began quilting in 2005, and I can remember well how much of a mystery machine quilting felt at the time. I never forgot what it felt like to be a total beginner and struggle with understanding all the steps to basting, picking, and quilting the designs on a quilt.

I honestly didn’t do much market research when I came up for the idea for my blog. I didn’t know there was any demand at all, I just really wanted to give myself permission to quilt!

My goal was to create 365 free motion filler designs and to have the excuse to quilt every day. When the blog started, I didn’t have videos ready for the first 14 days. On the 14th day, I began publishing videos and went back and added videos to all the previous posts. That BLEW things up!

Suddenly I was getting comments and emails and requests for gear. I really hadn’t known how to turn the blog into a business, but I quickly realized the quilters coming to the site were telling me how - carry the tools and equipment they were asking about.

Yes, almost all of the tools I carry made a huge difference to my quilting ability. I learned about Machingers quilting gloves at my very first quilting class and saw an enormous change in my control and comfort at moving the quilt instanteously.

A few years later I found the Supreme Slider and Little Genie Magic Bobbin Washers and saw a huge change in how it felt to move the quilt, and how good my stitches looked on the front and back of the quilt.

Around that time I also found the affordable flatbed sewing table I still use today. What a huge change! It makes such a huge difference for how easy it feels to piece and quilt, and really improves visibility to have the machine on a flush surface.

I know there’s a lot of gear focused to free motion quilting - hoops, grippy things, tracing paper, etc. More new stuff comes out every year, but I will only carry items that I actually use.

Q Other than seeing your skill grow over time and with practice, has there been a change in your quilting style over the years?

My style changed rapidly when I started the Free Motion Quilting Project. The first few videos I created were quilted without much contrast. I wasn’t quite sure what fabrics and thread would show up well on video, but I quickly learned that prints were off limits, and many bright or light colors were also a bad choice.

I began mostly quilting the designs with medium to dark fabrics and white thread - a combination that really scared me at one time!

Once I got used to the contrast, I really loved being able to see what I was doing. Quilting with matching thread soon began to feel like I was quilting in the dark. I wanted to SEE my stitching and became very comfortable with the bold contrast. Right now I’m quilting the Dream Goddess entirely with white thread and I love the effect!

Q You’ve quilted with a variety of machines over the years on your blog. Which has been your favorite for FMQ and why?

Yes, I’ve filmed videos on the following: Juki TL98QE, Bernina Activa 210, Janome Horizon 7700, Janome Horizon 8900, Bernina 1230, Juki TL2010Q, and the Juki Exceed F400.
It’s hard to pick a favorite out of this list, but if I had to, it would be the Juki Exceed F400 that I’m using now. It’s a sturdy little machine with lots of features and feet that usually come on much more expensive machines.

The one thing I always remind everyone I meet is it really doesn’t matter what machine you have. It’s a tool. If you take your time learning how to use it, you will use it well and be able to do anything you want with it.

You became really popular in the quilting community in part because you were so encouraging and helpful to quilters who were wanting to learn to free motion quilt during a time when there wasn’t a whole lot of information out there on the subject, especially video. Was it a surprise to you how quickly your audience grew? What three things do you think helped build interest in the subject or in your blog itself?

It was surprising how quickly the blog took off after I began adding video. It took around 30 days and suddenly I was being asked to come teach in California and write a book, etc. I was very surprised because I’d been wanting to share lectures and teach and hadn’t gotten any interest, but suddenly with the blog I guess they knew I was worth it!

I believe the three things that helped the most were #1 - posting videos #2 - timing and #3 - being open and giving. Out of these, #3 is the most important. Because I gave away the designs and posted them all for free, quilters were so eager and happy to share it with their friends. Everything spread through word of mouth and even now, we love to hear when a quilter shares the project with her guild or quilt bee.

Q As free motion quilting became more popular, how did your approach to the blog and your business change or grow?

In the beginning I really had no idea how much time it would take to shoot a video, edit, upload, write the post and publish and I was sharing a new design EVERY single day. It didn’t take long to realize that it wasn’t sustainable. I decided to stop posting new designs daily at around day 45.

There is a piece of me that still wonders what would be different if I had kept posting daily for that first year. I just had to slow it down though so I could focus on writing books and creating DVDs. It really surprised me that anyone would want a DVD with all the videos online, but they asked for them, so I created them!
It ended up taking 2 ½ years to publish all 365 designs and after that we began doing yearly Quilt Alongs which are a bit more focused step-by-step projects. This was a dramatic change because it requires so much preparation and planning months in advance. Right now it’s August 2015 and I’m already designing the blocks for our quilt along starting in January!
My business has grown as well. Josh began working with me in 2010 to pack orders and check email and last year my dad began working with us on fabric prep and piecing. I absolutely couldn’t have created all the quilts for my new Craftsy class without my dad’s help piecing all the quilts!

I remember you writing about receiving some age bias against your youthful appearance several years ago. It stuck in my mind because I’m 12-15 years older than you and have felt that way before in quilt shops. Do you still run into that issue now and why do you think that is?

I find I’m dealing with issues in shops much less these days. Maybe it’s the wonderful group of younger modern quilters?

I find it harder to explain what I do to other moms my age. I’ll say “I’m a quilter” and they will instantly assume it’s a hobby and I don’t really work so they will ask “What does your husband do?” It’s a bit insulting, but I can understand why someone would make that assumption.
You teach a wide variety of designs, but I’ve found with my students that typically some people will gravitate towards more pointy designs and others will go for more curvy designs. Which are you when you are working on a piece that isn’t about showcasing a variety of designs to students/readers? Pointy, curvy, or maybe both?

When I started quilting, I was definitely a curvy girl! Points literally gave me a headache. It took a few years to find my comfort zone with pointy designs and be able to quilt them as smoothly and quickly as curves.

From the looks of things, you are a very busy lady but you also take time to create your own projects. I’m thinking of your Zelda Costume in particular. How do you find balance or boundaries between being creative for your quilting business and quilting to feed your own creative needs?

Balance is a very good theory, one I’m trying to turn into a law of my life with every passing week! I do struggle with finding a boundary for work, mostly because it’s in my home and I always have the ability to jump on a machine or start doodling another design.

A few years ago I realized this was causing me a lot of anxiety and I forced myself to create dedicated work and play areas. While it might be nice to have a handwork project reachable in every room, I have had to clean up and put that gear away so I have a place to actually relax and REST.

My husband and I also got serious about having a dedicated schedule for work and family a few years ago and that has really helped. No matter what else is going on, we stop work and make dinner together every night. It’s fun, relaxing, and has become our special time to talk about things other than business.

I do have many crafty passions other than quilting and I simply try to follow my creative nudges. When an idea pops into my head, I try to make time for it, even if it requires pulling out a lot of gear and making a big mess.

When I ignore those nudges, I start getting irritable and burned out. I think it’s really important to do what you feel passionate about WHEN you feel passionate about it.

You are a great teacher, but was it challenging or different to teach your husband to free motion quilt compared to your typical student?

OH YES! Lol! In 2014 I taught my husband, Josh, how to free motion quilt during our Building Blocks Quilt Along. It was an adventure, both the teaching part and the filming. There were many times that I’d say something or give some advice and he’d totally ignore me. Most of my students usually at least try my advice!

You’ve got a new class available with Craftsy and you’ve said it’s a bit different from your previous classes. First tell about your past classes and then how this one differs.

My other classes on Craftsy focus heavily on free motion quilting designs. We learn how to quilt designs in specific places on a quilt or in a rectangle or square. This new class, The Free Motion Effect, focuses on the bigger picture - how the quilting design effects the finished quilt.

I showcased the different quilting effects by quilting three quilts three times. Yes, that is NINE quilts! It was a very big class to prepare, but I really had tons of fun preparing all the quilt tops and playing with the many beautiful design options for the surface.

What are the key skills or learning points that a student will learn from this class?

My goal with creating this class was to help quilters better understand quilting design and how to pick their quilting designs with confidence. One of the most important things to understand is that not all quilts need to be quilted to death!

The most important consideration for any quilt is how much TIME you have to work on it. If it’s a baby quilt that needed to be done last week, the last thing you want to do is quilt an intricate design on the surface that will take twice as long as it took to piece.

But there are also those projects that are special and important that you want to take extra time to quilt. We’ll dig into breaking down background space and play with different thread colors. Throughout the class I share everything I learned in the process, even the design choices that didn’t work out.

I’m not afraid to share my mistakes because that’s how we learn!

What was your favorite part of making this class and why?

My favorite part was quilting the Star Power quilts, a 40 inch star quilt with lots of background space. I really enjoyed designing three very different quilting designs for the surface and it surprised me how little time each took to quilt (6-8 hours of quilting each).

The least time consuming Star Power quilt had a 100% marked design from stencils. This really surprised me because I expected all those feathers to take a lot more time to quilt. Turns out having the marked lines sped up the process considerably because I didn’t have to stop and plan out my design.

What are you working on now and what can we as readers look forward to seeing from you?

Yes, I’m already off and running on my next project! I’m teaching all the basics of wholecloth quilting in a fun workshop called the Heart & Feather Wholecloth. This should be available coming up very soon in September at LeahDay.com.

But of course I can’t just work on one thing! We’re also digitizing many of the designs from the Free Motion Quilting Project for embroidery so they can be stitched out easily into a variety of fun projects.

What I love most about this amazing quilting world is how huge and all-encompassing it can be. I’ve focused very closely on free motion quilting for many years and now I feel the desire to branch out into other areas, like machine embroidery, that will be extremely fun to explore!

Amy here: That's the end of our Q&A and many thanks to Leah for playing along and letting us know more about her. If you click here, it will take you to her site where you can get a discount link that's good for 50% off her new class price.

I've nearly got my sewing space ready to share with you on Friday as promised. Are you ready to share yours (or even your favorite part of yours) in my studio link party? Remember, if you're not a blogger, you can email me one picture and I'll share it for you.


  1. I love Leah so much and it;s super awesome you're interviewing each other. :)

  2. How clever of you to interview Leah. It will be such fun having her interview you, too. Great questions. You put a lot of thought (and courage) into this.

  3. Thanks for lovely interview. really good to read!

  4. I think Leah is amazing! I am signed up for Free Motion quilting class and have enjoyed watching it, now to actually try doing it.

  5. Pure enjoyment! So much more to learn and so little time.
    Thank you.