On planning and positioning

Like I’ve written here before, I had a lot of fun teaching free motion quilting (FMQ) at Rock Paper Scissors a few weeks ago. We went over the mechanics of it, practicing as much as possible, but because of time restraints and because we were working with sandwiches no bigger than a fat quarter, there were a few lessons that didn’t make it into the class.

The biggest challenge, once the actual act of quilting is going smoothly, is wrestling with a quilt, especially one that is bigger than baby-size. And there are two main issues to keep in mind when you’re quilt-wrestling: how much is in the harp and how to support the weight of the parts that aren’t in the harp. I’ll break down how I like to cope with each of the issues, and hopefully it will help someone who is feeling challenged themselves.


Keeping the quilt out of the harp

The harp of your sewing machine is its armpit, and like your own armpit, you don’t put precious things in there. When quilting, your goal is to position the quilt and your machine so that there is never more than half of your quilt inside the harp. The hardest place to quilt is the exact center of the blanket, because that’s when it’s necessary to have a lot of fabric in the arm of your machine. Here are some ways to minimize the discomfort.

  • Rolling Have you ever rolled your clothes when packing a suitcase? It makes everything more compact. When there’s a part of your quilt that needs to be in the arm but you don’t need access to it, roll it up. This is especially useful when straight-line quilting, since you can just feed the roll through the harp. But it helps during FMQ too because you can minimize bunching. (I learned this by stitching the quilt over onto itself once.)
  • Repositioning It’s easy to accumulate speed and momentum during FMQ, but that means it’s easy for everything to run away from you. To stay in control and keep your grip, don’t be afraid to drop the needle, lay off the pedal and stop completely. With the needle down, you can pivot the quilt to a more comfortable position and continue your work. (Sometimes I like to loop back over that stop point just to be sure that it doesn’t show in the design.)
  • Planning I like to go into quilting with a plan. For Straight-line, that means starting in the center on one side and working outward. But for FMQ, especially all-over quilting, I like to start in one corner and work my way to the middle of the quilt, then reposition or go off an edge. The next time, I start in the middle and work toward an edge.

Supporting the quilt’s weight

This is more simple. I like to position my machine so that it sits on the right side of a big table, on the corner closest to me. With the table under the quilt, it is less likely to fall and create drag on your quilting. During quilting I reposition to make sure that as much of the quilt as possible is on the table if it’s not inside the harp.

This is a diagram of my plan when FMQing. (Please excuse the drawing,)


I start on the white star, with most of the quilt on the table. I work up the right side, then down a middle column. I quilt off the edge of the middle, near the black dot at the bottom of my terrible picture. Next, I turn the whole quilt so that the black star is where the white star used to be and repeat the process.

I hope that this has helped clear a few things up. Let me know if you have any questions, or if anything isn’t clear.

Happy quilting!