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What Is Free-Motion Quilting? + 3 Steps to Get YOU Started!

Have you finished your first quilt top and are you ready to start quilting?  Or, do you have a stack of unfinished quilt tops waiting in the queue?  Either way, now is the perfect time to explore the exciting world of free-motion quilting!

Free Motion Quilting

What is free-motion quilting?

Free-motion quilting is quilting using a domestic sewing machine (as opposed to a long arm quilt machine) to stitch a quilt sandwich without the aid of the feed dogs.

Sometimes there is confusion with the terms “free-hand quilting” and “freestyle quilting,” which refer to quilting without a drawn pattern. Whenever the feed dogs are disengaged, you are free-motion quilting whether you are following a pre-drawn line like a stencil line, or stitching a doodle from memory.

That’s the simple definition, but to really understand how FMQ works, we need to understand our machines better.

Free Motion Quilting, Dizzy Daisy, Lori Kennedy

How sewing machines stitch a straight line

To understand what free-motion quilting is, it’s helpful to first understand how our sewing machines operate for standard sewing.

In normal sewing — like stitching a seam or piecing — the feed dogs move the fabric with every stitch. The feed dogs are the “toothy” device that sit underneath the foot plate. The stitch length button sets how far the feed dogs move the fabric and varies from stitching in place to ¼” on most machines.

Sewing Machine Feed dogs

The problem is, the feed dogs can only move fabric straight forward or straight backward. As a result, when we quilt with the feed dogs engaged, we’re limited to straight lines or gently curved lines.

While straight and curved lines can make stunning quilts (as you can see in Christa Watson’s Startup Library: Quilting class or Jacquie Gering’s Creative Quilting With Your Walking Foot), removing that limitation opens a world of possibilities.

How free-motion quilting is different from standard stitching

First, free-motion quilting requires disengaged feed dogs.

When setting up our machines for FMQ, the first step is to disengage the feed dogs. There are a few common ways to do this:

  1. On most machines, you can press a button and the mechanism lowers out of the way.
  2. On some older machines, you can disengage the feed dogs by covering them.
  3. A third way to disengage the feed dogs is to set the stitch length to zero. When we set the stitch length to zero, we are telling the feed dogs to remain stationary. In this case, the feed dogs will not advance the fabric.

This set-up gives the quilter full control of the movement — and that’s when the magic begins! Once we are in control, we can stitch in all directions to create swirls and twirls, flowers and feathers and so much more!

Free Motion Machine Quilting Feet

Second, free-motion quilting requires a different sewing machine foot

The feed dogs work in tandem with the presser foot. Because we’ve altered the function of the feed dogs, we must also choose a different type of presser foot.

In regular sewing, the piecing foot remains stationary and the feed dogs release the fabric with every stitch to allow the fabric to move. On the other hand, when we are free-motion quilting, our feed dogs are not engaged, so we need a presser foot that will release the fabric.

Free-motion quilting feet are designed to do just that. You may have heard quilting feet called “hopping feet” because they “hop” with each stitch. This “hop” is necessary to allow the fabric to move while quilting. Most sewing machine manufacturers offer a variety of  “hopping” presser feet suitable for free-motion quilting. Choose the foot that gives you the greatest visibility.

Free Motion Quilting, Cars

Finally, you can start stitching your FMQ

Once you lower the feed dogs and attach a presser foot, you can thread your machine — just like you always do. Now start stitching!

Remember, in free-motion quilting, YOU are in control! You determine the direction of the stitching line and the size of each stitch.

It’s just like driving a car: Coordinate the stitch speed (gas pedal) with the movement of your hands (the steering wheel) and off you go.

Be patient with yourself! Start with a small quilt sandwich — a fat quarter is ideal — and quilt your favorite doodle. Once you are comfortable, add loops and scallops and you are on your way!  (For more beginner motifs, check out my step-by-step tutorial for beginner loops and flower power.)

Free Motion Quilting, Flower Power, Lori Kennedy

Remember, there are just three simple steps you need to take to start FMQ:

  1. Lower or disengage the feed dogs
  2. Attach a free-motion quilting foot
  3. Thread machine for normal sewing 

Don’t forget, once YOU are in control of your sewing machine, the possibilities are endless!

Creative Quilting for Any Space

More Creative Quilting Tips & Motifs

Learn simple strategies for filling any space with beautiful FMQ designs in up-close video lessons with Lori Kennedy of The Inbox Jaunt. Learn More



Hello Lori,
I have been trying to learn FMQ on my Viking sewing machine, but the hopping foot drove me to distraction! I just could not get used to the foot stopping the flow of my quilting. So, I purchased a stationary open toed foot to use on my machine and realized it fit down too tight to move the fabric. I discovered that I could release the tension on my presser foot to 0 and then could easily move the fabric.
QUESTIONS: Will sewing like this harm my machine? AND, will it have an effect on my stitch strength or uniformity?
Thank your for your article and for your time.

Lori Kennedy

Hi Lynda, Thank you for your question. Some machines have very exaggerated hopping mechanisms–and like you, I find it distracting. You can use the stationary open-toed foot and I do not think it will cause any harm to your machine. (Of course, check with your manufacturer.) As far as stitch strength or uniformity, you should be able to achieve great results with this foot. The key, as you have already found is to lower the presser foot tension. I once taught free motion quilting at a high school and we were able to use the standard stitching foot for free motion quilting by decreasing the pressure.
Can’t wait to see what you create!

DeAnn Nichelson

My observations regarding quilting techniques:
It seems there are more than one form of free motion quilting, which means its time to separate the two for all quilters. First, all are valuable, depending on numerous factors, like skill, time, sewing machine capabilities, etc.

True free motion quilting is done without any pattern, guide, lines, or computerized assistance. The stitches will be unevenly spaced, the design similar, yet unique when comparing the same shape.

Sometimes, the quilter goes over lines, whether placed on the fabric or on paper. Again, the stitch length will vary slightly, lines won’t be perfect, but by far more accurate than true free motion.

Then, there are those computer generated designs where the stitch length is consistent and the curves and angles are on target. There is consistency in the size of each shape and the repeated pattern looks like it is professionally done, which it is, but by a computer with selected templates.

An overall computer generated design is the most efficient and offers professional results and is similar to a store bought bedspread. Some skillful quilters combine these processes, which is time consuming, but offers a very professional, customized quilt.

Then, there are those of us that combine the use of lines with free motion movement, etc.

It frustrates me to see all of these forms of quilting lumped into one or two categories, as it denies all of us the time and talent we put into our quilts.

Quilters, do you agree? It’d be fun to share our thoughts. . .

Pat Williams

I think Lori did an excellent job of explaining the difference between Frre motion quilting and free style quilting. I appreciate her perspective. Thanks, Lori!

Lori Kennedy

Thank you, Pat! There is no “Oxford Dictionary” to serve as the definitive explanation. I have tried to define it by the most common usage.
Again, defining the terms is less important than doing the stitching–LOL!

Lori Kennedy

Hi DeAnn,
Thank you for your observations. I agree that some of the terms can be confusing and people often use many of the terms interchangeably. We must allow our work to speak for itself–LOL!


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