FMQ Skill Builder

If you are anything like me, you want to improve your free motion quilting skills without experimenting on a large quilt that you have spent a lot of time and money on. I have done that, and regretted it – everything great until the end, and then embarrassed to the point it becomes little more than a dog bed.

The advise often given to improve FMQ is to practice on sandwich blanks. I did some of that, but it always felt aimless. I would stitch the same familiar patterns; ones I was already pretty good at. It also lacked real quilt problems – where you have to negotiate tight corners or small spaces, where you get distortions because of thread build-up and where you have to think through the order in which you do your stitching.

If you want to practice your FMQ skills and have something to show for it in the end, here is a great way to do it:

Pick a panel you like. Landscapes are good, as they will have fewer starts and stops. Also, darker landscapes will be more forgiving than lighter ones. Here is one I bought to make up as a Christmas gift. I will post both the before quilting… moose before

… and the end result.  Hopefully you can see the difference. moose final

The first thing to do is to pick a focal point and stitch around it to outline it (in my case, the moose). The focal point will be quilted the least, as it will puff out (and therefore appear closer) when the areas around it are densely quilted.

Tackle your project, following these general principals:

  1. Start in the middle (distant shore) and work out as much as possible (trees, upper right; trees, upper left; water and grasses, lower right; water and grasses, lower left).
  2. The key to achieving a 3-D effect is the density of stitching. Whatever you want to appear closer (moose, logs, bigger trees, rocks) should have less stitching. The dense stitching around those area will make them stand out. However, overall you will need to have the stitching balanced so you may need to make some things up as you go, or add general filler stitches in certain areas. I had to do that in the upper center area. moose background
  3. Work your colours in groups, and try to pick at least 3 of each – a light, medium and dark (especially the greens). You can get away with less if you use variegated threads, but you may be challenged by them as well. They have a tendency to stitch dark threads when you want light, or light when you want dark. Use shiny threads sparingly. moose2
  4. As quilters we often want to make everything perfect and symmetrical. But nature is not perfect or symmetrical.  Variety is a good thing. Vary your stitches. Don’t outline everything. Don’t highlight all the grass, or all the leaves, or all the branches.
  5. Make 3 overall passes.
    • For the first one, stitch an outline (or a partial outline) around the larger items. I started with the distant shoreline, then moved on to the moose, the tree trunks and logs in the foreground. For this step I used only black thread and was able to do all of it without changing thread colour.
    • In the second pass you will add most of the detail. It will be the most work, and will have the most number of thread changes. You will work all areas simultaneously but always background to foreground, dark thread to light thread. Darker threads are more forgiving, and backgrounds have fewer details, which gives you a chance to practice before you get to the front where the stitching will be more obvious. The foreground will be more detailed and lighter in colour but even there, I started with the darker colours – green grasses, rust leaves, purple water – before moving on to lighter golds. moose grass
    • In the final pass, add highlights and finishing touches. Your highlights will be minimal, light in colour and if you like shiny threads, this is the time to use them. moose1Also, in this pass, look for areas that sag and simply add some stitching. In my case, I had to stitch some fur on the moose, some tree trunks in the background, and lines in the water. moose detail
  6. If you don’t like something, keep going. More stitching usually looks better than not enough. Also, with dense stitching you can ‘eliminate’ a stray stitch without it affecting the integrity of your project.
  7. Save the most challenging sections for last. You will gain confidence as you go.
  8. You are done when the stitching is balanced and you can’t think of anything more to do that would add to the picture.

So, what will you do with your project? The obvious is a wall hanging but there are many other options. Your panel may be appropriate for a baby blanket or a lap quilt. Add borders to ‘frame’ it, or make it into a quilt using your favorite QAYG method. Finally, you could fold it in half, sew three sides, and face one edge for a quilted pillowcase.

In any case, keep stitching! It’s all forward progress.

About Judy's Quilting Studio

Creator of all things quilted
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8 Responses to FMQ Skill Builder

  1. Marnie Houston says:

    Thank you for the excellent article in outlining how to go about properly quilting a panel and practicing FMQ. I should definitely print this one out and put it where I can see it often!

    Marnie Sent from my iPad


  2. Constance says:

    This is a great idea. I agree with the “sandwiches”. Even though I have turned some of them into bags, etc. it is not the same as doing FMQ on “the real deal” LOL I will start searching for panels!
    Thank you

    • You might need several to keep on hand! Hang them where you can see them and think about different ways to stitch them. Your excitement might actually build as you look at them -to the point everything else gets set aside. Ha.

  3. Jacqui VMS says:

    Thanks so much for posting this….it would be very fun to try! Lots of great tips. I may be going to a couple quilt shops this week and will keep an eye out for a panel that really hits me that I can experiment with! I have a pile of projects to get done before I could play, but onward ho and get at it LOL.

    • Isn’t it funny how the projects never end? It keeps us motivated. Having a panel on hand is a great way to approach it. Every time you look at it, think about how you might stitch it (you may even find it invading sleep time!). You may change your mind several times before you actually stitch it. That percolation stage can be very valuable.

  4. Gail B says:

    Thank you so much. This is a great article. I’m a newbie, and can use all the help I can get. I’m working on a lap quilt for our front room. When finished I’m doing a queen one for our bed & I have a large panel with a Momma Bear with her 2 cubs in the centre. This info will be fantastic help when I start quilting it. Have a safe & fun winter 🙂

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