Turn Your Can'ts into Cans

I hear a lot of comments like "I can't free motion quilt" or "I'll never get that good," sometimes I'll even hear, "You can use rulers because you're so good at regular free motion, I can't."I've had customers tell me they took a class in FMQ and they still couldn't do it.

Free motion quilting is like any other skill, it takes practice to get good at it. It takes a willingness to create some ugly practice pieces in the process. It takes doing what you can to make your sewing set up conducive to doing good stitching. It takes that most valuable commodity....time.

Malcolm Gladwell writes in his book Outliers, that it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate, focused practice to become a master at a given skill. This 10,000 hour rule applies to any skill you might want to master. Now, we might not need to become a quilting master to create the quilts that we want to create and that's a good thing given the time 10,000 hours of practice would require.

What does 10,000 hours actually look like? It would take 3.42 years to reach mastery, and that's only if you can work on it with deliberate focus and sincere effort.....8 hours a day, every day!

I'm pretty certain nobody is keeping that kind of practice schedule up when it comes to quilting, especially from the start. I'm no where near that much practice and I wouldn't consider myself a master of free motion quilting yet anyway.

I figure we'd all be pretty lucky if we have a couple of hours a few days a week to focus on free motion quilting. At 3 hours a day, 5 days a week, each week of the year, that would take 12.8 years! Plus we'd need to have enough time to piece the tops or put the materials together for the samples.

I know I'm no where near that intense with my fmq practice! Especially now that my shop has me doing all sort of non-quilty work. (Let's take a moment and mourn the irony of having a sewing machine shop and have many days where there's no time to actually sew!)

So what CAN we do?

We can put the time needed to become proficient at this or any skill into perspective.

We can work on our machine set up. Even if a larger sewing machine isn't in the cards, try to get the machine bed level with the table or get a taller chair. Give yourself more smooth space around the machine to support your projects. Make sure you've got good light.

We can make sure to actually practice! Don't wait until you've got a quilt that needs quilted and do what ought to be practice work on it. (Yes, we've all been there with an at the last minute quilt....just try not to make a habit of it).

We can search out support for our efforts. Take a class. If you don't have access to an excellent teacher, or the class doesn't suit your learning style, do keep an open mind and "eat the fruit and spit out the pits." Try a different class, teacher, or take advantage of online classes, like those at Craftsy.

Sometimes that support is a fellow quilter who challenges you to practice by working together, or to participate in Show and Tell at a guild, or even an online quilting friend who you share you work with like I do here on the blog.

Next week I'll share a few ideas of what to do with your practice pieces plus other ways you can get your free motion quilting practice done.

Here's what I've been free motion quilting on lately. Below is an embroidery sample I began working on for the shop.

 I did a video on more of my paisley sanity stitching last week, but somehow my ipad/cloud storage ate the footage.

free motion quilting paisleys

While I haven't exactly become a master of free motion yet, I'd say I've reached proficiency and maybe beyond, but I still need to do my practice or I'll get rusty. But these days, I'm focusing more on my shop as a whole which does include my quilting, teaching, and blogging but a whole lot more on the business administration end of things.

It's been frustrating for me because these things take time.....remember those 10,000 hours? Yep that rule applies to this new thing that I'm doing. I've found myself whining over my own "I can'ts" more than I'd like. I'm passionate about helping my fellow quilters and sewists, but some of the work requires the drudgery of practice. (QuickBooks, sales tax, paperwork I'm looking at you.)

But when I put the work into perspective of the 10,000 hour rule and I've had the shop for not even 4 months, I realize that I'm still in the very early stages of my 'practice'.

Speaking of my shop, I've been playing with the brand new Janome Skyline S9. If you are looking for an embroidery/sewing machine combo and the top of the line MC15000 is out of reach, the S9 is amazing! There's an app that will ensure perfect placement of embroidery. Check out the stitching above. The brighter red was the first stitch out of this design. I then re-hooped it crooked and used the app on my iPad mini to adjust the design to make it continuous. The darker red is the second stitching and the basting line shows how much I moved it from the original position. It's giving me some serious ideas! With an MSRP of $3999, it's a heck of a machine! It's got 8.25 inches to the right of the needle too so it's a great choice if you want to make that move up from a regular sized machine to make quilting projects easier and do embroidery too.

Let's make sure we turn our can'ts into cans! Whatever they may be.


  1. You've put it into perspective so well! Small steps, one at a time.
    I tell my students "you didn't learn to drive a car in one lesson did you". Don't know if that helps them but hopefully they'll keep practicing.
    Love those paisleys too!

  2. Excellent post! And you're absolutely right, practice, practice, practice! I spent too much money on my machine to give up and my determination has paid off. You have been a big inspiration to my journey! Thanks!

  3. Great read...I reckon it takes about 3 months of daily practice to become proficient at FMQ to the point where you can just sit down at your machine and go for it. One of the things with practice though is that you have to accept that you are going to use up a lot of fabric and have a fair amount of practice sandwiches lying around. I used to practice a lot on cheap black calico...anyway, looking forward to the next instalment of this post.

  4. I tell everyone who says they can't FMQ that they need to give it time and as you say, practice, practice, practice. I can now say that I have a number of motifs that just come naturally and I'm very satisfied with my results. I can't use rulers because I have an older mechanical Bernina and I can't justify buying a new machine just so I can use rulers. As far as practicing, you can make table toppers or runners to use as practice pieces and graduate to a panel or wallhanging. Then you'll have a useful piece and won't feel like you're wasting fabric and thread.

  5. Your quilting looks like mastery to me. You're doing a great job and giving us words of wisdom, as well. Love that bluebird! Is that a Janome design? My MC11000 SE is still going strong -- just finished embroidering a pillow for my grandson.

    1. The bluebird actually is a design I 'digitized' myself. I used the shop's Artistic Edge 15 cutter and its software to trace the outline of a clipart bird, turned it into a cut file so I could use the cutter to cut the shape. Then it took that shape and created the embroidery file.

      I'm pretty excited about the possibilities with this thing.

  6. Amy, as always, I enjoy reading your blog! You are such a source of encouragement! You are the main reason that I FMQ and use rulers in my quilting. Now, I am teaching customers in my local quilt shop how to use the Westalee templates. Keep on quilting!

  7. Hi Amy, great to read this post. I love that Blue bird. I visited a friend today. She quilts and showed me one she has just finished and asked my opinion. I liked the colours but said it wasn't criticising but it needed more quilting. We discussed setup and she is afraid to try FMQ so I have offered to get together with her and show her how. I realise that I have lot of knowledge and can help her. So good that I have learned so much from Craftsy teachers like yourself. Thank you for sharing. Brenda in the Boro UK

  8. You are so right! It's been a few months since I've done any quilting and I'm sure that I'm going to need a lot of practice to get back to where I was! Maybe I'll make some potholders and placemats...

    1. Good plan! I need some new pot holders myself. I ought to do something about that.