The power of paper, marker and clipboard for free motion quilting designs

Have you assembled the essential tools for successful machine quilting that I posted yesterday? If you did – great! If you didn’t what are you waiting for?

This week, I’m having great fun with machine quilting on the Husqvarna Viking Designer Topaz 50 which in addition to being an awesome sewing machine is also an embroidery machine. You can follow my previous post about machine embroidery techniques.

Husqvarna Viking Designer Topaz 50 sewing machine with optional extension table

Do you remember the last tool that I mentioned in yesterday’s post? The clipboard, the scrap paper, and the marker?

Here’s the thing – whenever I talk about machine quilting to people, I often hear three issues:

  1. What design should they use
  2. They stitch themselves into the corners
  3. The lines of quilting aren’t smooth
Today, we’re going to set the sewing machine aside as we take a look at how important the paper and marker are for successful machine quilting.
Here’s the thing – we’re comfortable with our sewing machines and we’re comfortable with pen and paper, but most of us are not comfortable with drawing. And when we attempt to do free motion on the sewing machine, we freeze. Why? That’s because we haven’t learned how to mix the two elements together – drawing on the sewing machine.
We’re going back to kindergarten. I’m giving you permission to get as much scrap paper as you can find (it’s a great way to recycle paper) and we’re going to learn this once and for all!
So get that clipboard and your marker (or a smooth flowing pen) and let’s get started!
A quick note – if you bought a very inexpensive clip board, I would advise that you keep the protective plastic on it. I’ve heard from some of my students that the quality is less than desirable and the sweat from their hands was enough to crumble the material the clip board was made from.

I can’t draw a straight line

Let’s be very clear, I’m not an artist. The best version I can do of a person is stick legs and arms with an oval body! Dogs get four sticks for legs and two blobs for the head and body! I’m not a doodler, but I wish I was, but I can at least doodle better than I can draw. But my doodling has improved immensely over the years. Why? because I’ve been practicing! The more I practice, the better I’ve become. And in case you wonder why I’m chatting on about doodling, look at most quilting designs. It’s a form of doodling! No way!  Yes – quilting is technically doodling by sewing machine!

When I ask my students to “draw” a straight line with their free motion foot, almost everyone says, “I can’t draw a straight line!” And my response? “GREAT – I don’t want the line to be perfectly straight – it looks unnatural!”

So here’s the first exercise. Draw a leaf shape on your paper. It doesn’t have to be perfect – we’re learning here and the outer shape isn’t important. It’s just a reference.

Two things to keep in mind:

  1. Do NOT rest your hand on the paper. That’s why the marker or a smooth flowing pen is good. If you keep your hand on the paper, you’re trying to write and we write small. We want flowing movements.
  2. Go BIG. See how my leaf is almost half a page?
Now draw a straight (ish) line through the middle of the leaf. Looks boring, doesn’t it? And how much fun was that to draw? Not much at all.

Leaf shape with a boring straight line through the middle

Now draw another leaf shape and this time, have fun with that line through the middle. Draw an ‘organic’ (for lack of a better name) straight line. Wasn’t that way more fun to draw?

A different leaf with an ‘organic’ straight line through the middle of it

OK – now ask yourself, which line is more appealing? Which line have you seen on someone else’s quilt that you’ve admired? Which line was more fun to draw? Most people will answer the second line to all three questions.

By the way, there’s NO need to keep these papers once you’ve drawn on them. They’re just practice sheets.

Now go ahead and draw another leaf. You could always draw one leaf and photocopy it if you wanted. But we’re not going for perfection here and the more you practice drawing the leaf, the better for you. In most cases, the leaf would have been appliqued on your quilt so no need to worry about that shape. We’re going for the quilting lines within the leaf.

Let’s pretend that we’re actually quilting this leaf. We don’t want to stop and start at every leaf because we’ve hundreds of them on our imaginary quilt.

Draw that organic line from one end of the leaf to the other, but this time, you have to go back to the beginning so you can move to the next leaf. Oh – am I supposed to come back down right on the line or beside or a combination of both? Well – why don’t you try it both ways and see which you like the best.

And if you had 100 leaves to quilt and each one was slightly different – who cares?  Each leaf could be unique if you so chose.

Center line of “quilting” up and then back down again – notice the lines are not on top of each other

How are you doing so far? Are you getting a feel for the organic lines? Try this exercise a few more times. Get comfortable with the flow of the lines. Keep your hand off the paper.

Now when you get back to the bottom of the leaf, try a few additional veins. Go to the tip of the vein and then back to the center stem and travel up one side and down the other. Try the squiggles in different angles. What feels right? What works best?

Don’t like what you drew? Throw that scrap paper in the recycling! Don’t keep these papers if you don’t like them. If you have one that you like – keep it! It becomes a good reference of what you like. You may also want to keep the ones that you don’t like so you have that as a reference as well. Don’t just say you don’t like it – ask yourself – why don’t I like it? That’s very important feedback for you!

The same leaf with a few extras veins drawn in

The second leaf has a different style center spine than the first leaf

Practicing a design for a quilt

Even though I’ve been quilting for years, I still spend a lot of time messing around with potential designs. It’s not so much as developing hundreds of designs, but figuring out about 10 designs really well and then getting creative with how you use them. There are oodles of books on the market with design ideas in them. Or you can search the internet. Here’s a couple of things to watch for:

  1. The design you’re trying to copy won’t work for you! You must take that design as an inspiration and adapt it so it works for you. Someone might be able to do tiny little circles and your circles might end up looking like ovals. That’s OK – that’s your style. Don’t try to fight it – let your style develop instead of trying to force something. Once you’re comfortable with your style, then you can start to learn new things.
  2. Take the style and figure out how you can modify it to get a new look. What if you lengthen or widen the marks? What if you adjust the height within the same area (like a triangle)? What if you add a small loop between your main components? If you look carefully at the professional quilters, they do this all the time. It broadens their repertoire without requiring them to learn a whole lot of new styles!

I had a quilt to quilt recently and I wasn’t sure what to quilt in the blocks. The block had been designed using a computer software program. The block was 6″ and I was able to print out an outline of the block onto paper. I then took a pen and tried different ways of “quilting” the block.

You’ll notice how rough my doodling is – it’s horrible in fact. I didn’t really care as I was trying a couple of things. Does the design that I’m trying even flow so that I can complete one block without stopping? That’s very important – no one wants to spend a lot of time starting and stopping!

I was also looking for issues – like the bottom left corner – should that have a mitered design or not?

The block represents a flower and I tried multiple designs in each block to see which I liked best. Often I find that the vision we have in our head doesn’t always translate well to the real thing. That is why this doodling exercise is so important.

Doodling attempts in a 6″ flower block

Below is an example of whether the bottom left corner should be mitered or not?  If I was going to miter it, then this is where a registration line would be helpful so I would be reminded visually to miter the design.

Should I miter the design in the corner?

It would be a tad easier to see if the block were colored, but I’m using the sections of the block as my reference lines. No need for marking and no need for registration marks, unless I decide I need something in that bottom left.

Same design in the two sections

Same design, different direction and some of the potential background quilting

And yet another option

And another

One more option with a few sashing options added at the bottom

Let’s not forget that you can do the same exercise for sashings and borders. If it helps, draw lines on your page to represent the width of your sashing or border. Don’t forget to figure out how to deal with the corners and the intersections.

The beauty is that there is NO right or wrong about any of this. It’s what you want, what you like and what you have the skill for. There are no quilt police and friends/acquaintances who make comments – well – we just won’t go there.

Options for the inner border

Here’s a picture of what the quilting actually ended up looking like on the right side. The quilt will be in the Winter 2017 issue of A Needle Pulling Thread so watch for that!

Up close shot of the front of my quilt with the flower blocks

The back of my quilt with the flower blocks

Here’s another very important thing. Once you’re relatively happy with the design, you may want to do a couple more on paper as if you were really quilting them. In other words, make them a teeny bit neater. You can move from the beginning to the end of the block and perhaps even on to the next block without breaking the thread – a huge time saver!

Then I’d go to the sewing machine and I’d stitch out a few of them on some scrap fabric (practice quilt sandwiches). Can you translate all that practice on paper to the machine? If you “quilted” with the pen several times, it should be way easier to do this on the fabric sample. Once you’re comfortable with it, then it’s time to get to the quilt.

Really? Do I have to do all that prep work before? Yep – it’s better to do all that prep work than spending hours and hours ripping out! Depending on the design, I can spend a lot of time prepping before I ever touch the sewing machine! Who knew?

Do you feel a little more comfortable now? This prep work is not just for beginners. It’s for everyone who is learning something new or trying to understand how the logistics of getting from A to B will work with minimal stops and starts.

So if you’re ready, we’re going to fire up the Husqvarna Viking Designer Topaz 50 tomorrow and see what we can quilt up!

Have a great day!


PS – keep that clipboard handy so when you have a few minutes of downtime (put DOWN your phone), you can doodle!

The front of my quilt with the flower blocks – get doodling and create stunning quilts!

This is part 2 of 5 in this series.
Go back to part 1: 9 essential tools for successful quilting on your domestic machine

Go to part 3: How to choose the right thread for your quilting project

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Rachell Reilly March 10, 2018 - 9:21 pm
Wow! So pretty! Thank you for taking us step by step through your process. And also for focusing on quilting on domestic machines....that's what I have and use. I'm always looking out for tips and tricks to help me be a better quilter.
Lori Morton October 5, 2017 - 9:55 pm
Thank you for this series!! As a new (trying to FMQ) to this whole process...this is AWESOME help! Definitely will help my confidence :)
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