These snippets were first published in Machine Quilting Unlimited magazine's ask-the-expert column 'Ask Kimmy'. Copyrights held by Kim Brunner and Meander Publishing. All rights reserved.
Learning New Quilting Techniques from the July 2010 issue of Machine Quilting Unlimited magazine

Dear Kimmy- I'm fairly comfortable with pantographs and would love to feel more confident about doing freehand designs. What's a good way to begin learning how to do them? I keep putting my own quilts away thinking I'm not good enough yet, but I’m tired of just doing pantos on charity quilts and I really want to finish some of my own quilts.

Kimmy says: You’re not alone! I think every machine quilter goes through this. First we learn how to do the basics and then we feel like we’re ready to start dabbling in the more exciting stuff, but the more exciting stuff seems so intimidating and we don’t even know where to start, so we keep going back to the basics because that’s where we feel ‘safe’ but then we get frustrated because we’re not doing any exciting stuff. Sound familiar?

In my opinion, the best way to begin stretching your wings is to just keep it simple and fun. Go to your local fabric store and pick up some cheap clearance fabric. Don’t buy nice quilt shop fabric, because you're going to scribble and play and try lots of new things and throw it all away when you're done, so get something cheap enough that you won't feel guilty about throwing it out. You will want to buy plain fabric, not a busy print, because you will want to clearly see what you're doing. While you’re in the clearance aisle, you’ll also want to look for a couple of el-cheapo panels to use when practicing some more complex techniques. If you’re lucky, there will be some leftover Holiday panels that can be had for a song. You will also want to pick up some cheap batting similar in loft to the batting that you would normally use so that you can get a clear picture of what the designs will look like on an actual quilt.

Choose a quiet time in your schedule so that you can feel relaxed and unhurried, turn on your favorite music and load up the fabric and batting. Pick a nice forgiving thread like a sturdy polyester or poly-core so that you don't have to deal with the frustration of breaking thread while you're playing. Take a deep breath, relax your grip on the machine, loosen up your shoulders, unclench your jaw, drop the needle, hit the gas, and go. Start with some simple meandering curves, keeping your speed steady and your movements smooth and consistent as you go. Easy, right? Now start doing tighter curves. What happens if you go fast on those curves? See those railroad tracks on the back? That's from going too fast in tight curves. Congratulations! You've just learned that you need to slow down a bit when freehanding tight turns and you've learned that lesson on this cheap fabric so you won't have to learn it on a quilt where the RR tracks would have to be ripped out. Hooray! Now try adding some loop-de-loops (Photo B) to your meandering. Do you have to alter your speed or movement as you add these slightly more complex shapes?

Next, throw some sharp points into the mix, changing your rounded meandering into a more graphic, spiky, ‘I’ve had way too much coffee’ type of pattern . (Photo C) What happens if you pop too quickly into and out of the points? Did you end up with a long stitch at the point from changing directions too quickly? What happens if you linger too long in the point? Is there a little pile of stitches where you hesitated? Again, if you learn your lessons on this cheap practice fabric, you won’t have to learn those lessons on quilts where the retroactive stitching can take hours.

Once you feel like you've got the hang of doing simpler, flowing freehand designs, start making some flowers. (Photo D)Who cares if they look dorky? Hello, it's a practice piece; you can throw it out and act like nothing ever happened! If the first one looks too goofy, then make the next one a different shape and see if that looks better to you. Make some with round petals and some with pointy petals. Which ones do you like better? Try different ways of traveling from flower to flower. Which way works best? Try a couple of leaves. They don’t have to be complex, just fun little easy leaf shapes. Add some veins inside the leaves. Do you like how they look?

Now make some designs that look like sunbursts. (Photo E) Do they look pleasing to you? Do you need to change your speed when making these extreme direction changes compared to the speed you used when making flowers? Try some square shapes. How does the 'dance' that you do with your machine change when doing this type of design? Don’t worry a bit about things like density, connecting lines, blank spaces, etc. You’re not doing serious quilting here, but rather are just learning what’s fun, what looks good and what doesn’t really work so well. It doesn’t matter at all what any of this looks like, just relax and have fun.

Okay, you've done enough playing on a blank canvas and it's time to start learning how to color inside the lines. Load up one of those el-cheapo panel pieces and give stitch in the ditch a little try. Yes, I know, you're going to say that SID is boring and evil and you don't want to do it but I'm telling you that, like Brussels Sprouts, it's good for you and you should get used to the fact that sometimes you just have to bite the bullet and SID and that’s that. And, since this is a practice piece, who cares if your SID is more S 'near' the D instead of S 'in' the D? Use this opportunity to figure out which speed works best for you when doing this precise work, and which ruler, and which hand position. Next, try some echo quilting. How can you control the machine to make your echoing more evenly spaced? Does going faster or slower help you achieve that control? At what speed setting do you feel most in control of your machine?

Now let’s try some smaller scale filler designs like stippling or funky filling or pebbling. What happens to the quilt when you use these fillers? How much does the quilt draw up when you pebble versus when you meander? You'll have to know this ‘shrinkage factor’ when it comes time to do real quilts and you want to balance your density. Do you like to microstipple? Is pebbling fun, or is it a huge drag? Learn what you like and what you don't like while you're practicing because, believe me, you do not want to get halfway into pebbling a giant custom quilt only to realize that you'd rather contract the Ebola virus than ever do any more pebbling. Again, learn the lesson on the practice piece, not on a quilt and you will live a much happier life.

By the time you've done a couple of blanks and a couple of panels, you'll be feeling a lot more confident in your abilities and you'll be ready to tackle one of those quilts that you’ve got waiting in the wings. Just remember, when the time comes that you're ready to go 'live' on a quilt, be sure to choose something simple so you don't shatter your newfound self confidence. Choose something that you know you have a reasonable chance of successfully completing and when that one's done, move to a slightly more difficult quilt, and so on. Before you know it, you'll be quilting like an old pro and you'll wonder what you were so nervous about!

And remember; have fun. That's why you bought your machine, isn't it?


  1. Kimmy, I took a class at HMQS from you last year (2011)as a brand new quilter. I loved your class but thought I really don't need to learn how to freehand because I have this wonderful computer. Having just completed my 50th quilt using my HQ Prostitcher, I am now seriously wanting to learn how to freehand as I am doing custom quilts where it is required to do a bit of free motion now and then. I just found your blog and so appreciate all the tutorials you have posted. As I look back on the lessons I have learned over the past year through trial and error I wish I had taken the time to search out your tutorials way back when. I am now more teachable and committed to going through every one of these. Thank you so much for your commitment to help all of us become better quilters.

  2. Don't throw it out! Cut it intro kitty sized blankies and practice machine binding, and take them to your local animal shelter or rescue group.