You're all set up and ready to go, right? If you have questions about setting up, see the first post: How to Free Motion Quilt: The Set Up.
First you need something to practice on. Do yourself a favor and don't start quilting on a project that needs quilting. Use a practice piece. I keep several practice pieces to warm up on before doing good quilts. Don't skimp on this step, use material and batting similar to what you normally use for quilted projects. A top piece, backing and batting. This is a good time to use colors or prints that you are no longer crazy about. If the print is very wild, use the wrong side out so you can see your stitches better.
A word about batting; if you use a very thin batting, you will have more tension issues than if you use a slightly thicker batt with more room for the interlocking part of the stitch to stay inside the sandwich. I like an 80% cotton/20% polyester batting because it shows the quilting texture better without being too thick and puffy. For those who want to use 100% cotton, battings can be found in thicker lofts. Don't go too thick! The thicker and bigger the quilt sandwich, the harder to move it. For a practice piece though, you really only need somewhere between 12 to 24 inches square.
Use a middle weight thread, or even regular sewing thread to start out with. I recommend Mettler Polysheen (a 40wt) or Isacord, which is rumored to be the same thread. Pick a color that you can see clearly on your fabric but remember that when quilting for real, you most likely would use a matching thread so those bobbles that stand out so much in contrasting thread will be a lot harder to see.
Before You Start
Basic motion before tension: Since jerky movements can contribute to tension problems, we're going to start with basic motion before perfecting the tension. If you have never done any (or very little) free motion quilting, do everything below except take the thread out of the machine! You read that right. Set up your sandwich, foot, gloves, machine settings, etc. like you were going to quilt, but don't use any thread (bottom or top) and start quilting. Just get used to the motion of your hands in a circular motion, back and forth, smoothly. Listen to the sound of the machine and vary the speed. Using a topstitch 90/14 needle should let you see the holes a little bit and takes away some of the fear of tension settings, snarls, and mess ups.
Once you're comfortable moving about without thread, it's time to thread the machine.
Make sure your FMQ or darning foot is lowered! Since the foot 'floats' above the surface when the needle is up, it is easy to forget to lower the foot before stitching. That will create a snarl of thread for certain. (Guess how I know this?)
Pull up the bobbin thread: Hold onto the top thread and lower the needle down and back up. Give the tail of the top thread a tug to pull a loop of the bobbin thread up and pull the loop to bring the tail of bobbin thread to the top. You may need to raise the presser foot in order to grab the thread; this is when a knee lift system is wonderful. Hold both tails as you begin to quilt so they don't get sucked back under the quilt and make a snarl.
If you have a needle down feature on your machine, go ahead and set it to be down.
With your tension settings on automatic (I don't have an automatic tension) or pretty much where they'd be if piecing or a smidge looser, place your hands on either side of the needle, with your thumbs and index fingers making a circular or triangular shape about 5 inches wide. Begin making circular motions with your hands while pressing slowly on the foot pedal. I do not recommend the 'pedal to the metal' fast quilting. It makes me panicky. Vary the speed of your hands and machine until your stitches are fairly even. Pay attention to the sound of your machine when in this 'sweet spot'. If you have a speed slider, you can slow the top speed down so that if you 'floor it', the machine won't go too fast for your hands. Make some swirls and loops.
Repositioning your hands. You will need to reposition your hands when the motion brings either hand close to the needle. Stop with the needle down before you move your hands. This will keep the piece from moving as much when you move your hands.
By now it's time to think about thread tension. Have you already had a snarl? Hopefully not. Pull the piece out of the machine and take a look at the top and bottom side. (You'll need to raise the needle and lift the presser foot.) Pick a spot near the stitching and using a marker, write the tension setting number down right on the fabric. Make sure the presser foot is up before adjusting the tension! Remember, when using similar weights of thread in the top and bobbin, and you're not using a specialty thread, you should only need to adjust the TOP tension.
Here's a video of my tension adjusting process:
Pretty close to perfect tension above and below.
Adjust the tension a little at a time and check frequently. I use my practice piece to record the tension adjustments, usually going from very loose (3 on my machine) to a setting that's too tight (a 6.5 or 7 for me) and then pick the best tensioned area and set my machine on that setting. See the video How To Free Motion Quilt; Tension Adjustments to see how I check my tension.
Vary your speed to see if it affects the tension. Iffy tension will show itself the most in curves. Some motions need more speed than others. I do not go very fast, but more speed is needed when doing curves to keep them smooth. I find that if I am pulling my quilt directly towards myself, the needle will pierce the thread in mid-stitch formation causing it to shred or break. So I try to make sure I don't do that. Just a tiny angle to either side solves the issue.
It takes time and practice to get your hands and foot control working together and learning how your machine responds. Every machine responds differently and of course, every single stitcher is as unique as the stars in the sky! You have to find what works for YOU!
Next in the series: Free Motion Quilting Designs. I'll show some designs that work in several different kinds of quilts. I hope you have found this series useful so far. Please leave a comment if you've got a question or, umm, a comment!