Amy's Top Tips for Quilting with Rulers on a Sewing Machine

Whether it's a sewing machine, domestic machine, or sit-down long arm, if you quilt by pushing your quilt instead of moving a machine, I've got some great tips for using rulers to guide your free motion quilting.

ruler work quilting using rulersto quilt

Ruler work is a great technique for a huge range of skill levels. If you are comfortable moving your quilt under your machine, you can do ruler work.

If you're a beginner, using rulers helps you figure out the all-important "Where do I go next?" issue. Just follow the ruler. Specialty rulers can give you design options that you might not be able to create on your own.

create motifs with rulers with ruler work quilting

If you're more experienced with free motion quilting, ruler work can help you develop a framework that really helps your free motion quilting shine.

These tips are garnered from over 5 years of doing ruler work on my Janome machines. I've had a good long time to try all kinds of rulers and see what works and what doesn't.

So let's get to my top tips for quilting with rulers:

  • First of all, it really is easier than you may think! Try it and practice.
  • Anything that helps you move the quilt smoothly helps with ruler work. Having the machine flush with a large, smooth surface is the best. 
  • Arrange big quilts in a series of peaks and valleys around and under the machine. You only need it flat where you are quilting and under the ruler. The folds of the peaks and valleys act as hinges to move just the area of the quilt you are working on while letting the bulk of the quilt stay stationary. This reduces the weight of what you need to move.

  • DON'T do ruler work without a ruler foot! At best, you'll be extra tense trying to make sure the ruler doesn't hop over or under the foot. At worst, you'll break a needle and throw the machine out of time. Janome was the first with a ruler foot (even if I had to convince them that it could be used on a stationary machine), followed by the Westalee foot, plus a few others,  Bernina now has its official ruler foot for its newer machines and I recently heard (9/14/17) that Babylock is releasing their own ruler foot.
  • Make sure the ruler foot is low enough on the quilt for good stitch formation without causing drag on your project. You will likely need to change the foot height for different thickness of projects.
  • Wear quilting gloves! Drop your finger tips over the edge of the ruler and the grip of the gloves will help you lock the ruler in place while you move your project at the same time.
  • Don't shove a too thick ruler under the presser foot bar behind the foot, which is mainly an issue on low shank machines.
Westalee ruler foot

  • Given the above tip, thicker rulers are easier to control. They feel better in the hand and have more of an edge to grasp with your finger tips.
  • Handles and other grips can be handy. Some grips may be too tall for domestic machines though.
  • Use a non-slip grip product on your rulers. There are several types, but my favorite are the round silicone ones I sell in my shop. I still say the gloves are more helpful than products on the ruler, but they do help.
  • Don't press too hard on the ruler. Not only will it make it harder to move your quilt smoothly, but it will likely cause the ruler to slip. Trap the ruler in your gloved finger tips instead.
  • Basic rulers are easier to manage than specialty shapes. The more changes in direction, the harder to keep the foot along the edge and keep the pressure even to keep the ruler from slipping. For example, repeating the curve of a half circle is easier to manage than a series of clamshell shapes and results in the same design. Costs less too.
  • Speaking of rulers; you can get a huge range of design options with a good straight ruler and some curves in a range of sizes. My second class on ruler work is all about making great designs with basic rulers. Take the first one before the second, unless you've already begun to do ruler work. See link in sidebar.
  • While one of the advantages of using rulers is to make great shapes without marking your quilt, sometimes you need to mark registration lines. Mark 'em if you need to.
using rulers for ruler work quilting
  • Ruler work can give impressive, precise results, but can also be tediously slow. This is especially true for specialty templates made to mimic free motion designs. Some quilts need one but maybe not the other.
  • Related to the above tip; don't let ruler use keep you from learning and improving in free hand free motion designs. They both work beautifully together.
  • Want to learn more about using rulers to guide your free motion quilting? See my classes on Craftsy. See link in sidebar.
  • Have questions regarding specific rulers or a ruler foot for your machine? Contact me through my website and I can answer those questions and make sure you get what you need.

If you found this post or my previous posts on ruler work useful, pin it or pass it along. After promoting and teaching quilting with rulers on sewing machines for so long, it's getting a lot of attention these days by some real big players in the quilting industry and I'd like to not fade into obscurity. It's a fabulous technique and I hope you will give it a try!

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  1. The quilting on this quilt is just beautiful! I'll have to give rulers a try.

  2. Oh no, you are the queen of ruler work on a domestic machine so I don't think your many fans will let you fade away into obscurity!! I always looks forward to your blog posts and have both your classes on Craftsy. I'm still struggling on my Tiara and I keep telling Handi Quilter and BabyLock we need a real ruler foot. Hopefully someday enough of us will ask and they'll listen!

    1. Thanks Marlene! You are such an encourager. I'll have to look into the ruler foot option for those machines.

  3. I use the westalee ruler foot on my Babylock Seranade with great success. Your videos and blog have been very helpful with starting to use rulers.

  4. I'm not into ruler work (yet), but I miss your blog posts! I guess the store is keeping you really busy, which can be a good thing I guess. ---'Love"

    1. The store is definitely keeping me busy, but we're starting to get into the swing of things and making it a goal to get my quilty time as well as blogging time in.

  5. Amy, as a relatively new quilter - but "ole lady in disguise" - I'm trying to teach myself to FMQ. I knew NOTHING about "ruler work" until I saw an article about your work...was I impressed???!!! I bought the Westalee foot and am trying to learn this technique. Thanks for the tips...perhaps they'll help me. I signed up for your class on Craftsy (too late for your discount...didn't know) and I promise to pay close attention, and to PRACTICE!

  6. Enjoyed this article as well as your 1st Ruler Work Craftsy class :) I purchased the Westalee ruler foot and have the one ruler that came with it (straight on one side and curve on the other). Now I need LOTS of practice. I've been free motion quilting on a Brother PQ 1500 for about 2 1/2 years and love it!! Now I'm ready to try something new with the rulers! Just trying to decide which additional ruler(s) to purchase as the sets ARE expensive, so hoping to just select a few individual rulers. Thanks for sharing your knowledge!

    1. Stick to an assortment of basic curves and maybe a longer straight ruler than what you currently have. You'll be amazed at how many designs you can do with simple rulers. The second class is all about designs with basic rulers. Start with one or two QP curves. I sell them online and they are great for a machine like yours.

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  8. I enjoy watching you explain on rulers and how they work with the foot,this is a whole new ball game to me,I really want to get the foot and rulers.Thanks again Amy!