Yes, we all know that practice makes perfect. Practice develops muscle memory which is used to repeat the movements needed to free motion quilt (both on the home sewing machine and longarm) or to follow a panto smoothly with a longarm. But, how can we practice without feeling like we will spoil a nice quilt or charity quilt, or without wasting fabric and batting?
The “Strokes” of Free Motion Quilting
Although cursive writing is no longer being taught in schools, back in the day when it was, students took a class called penmanship. In that class they traced the letters and repeated the strokes needed to create beautiful hand writing, or at least legible writing. This usually started in late 2nd or in 3rd grade. Learning to free motion quilt is very similar to penmanship class. There are only five strokes you need to practice which are the arc, “s,” loop, hook or point, and straight line. Unlike penmanship class, however, these strokes (movements) need to be practiced and mastered working in all directions, not just left to right. Like penmanship, mastering the strokes first before applying them to a design is helpful and actually shortens the learning curve of free motion quilting.
One quick look at a panto will confirm that all free motion quilting designs are a combination of two or more of these strokes (movements). So, how or where does a quilter practice to become proficient and confident?
Practice Without Wasting Fabric and Batting
The good news is that it is not totally necessary to practice at the machine or longarm. Simply moving the hand and arm through the strokes builds muscle memory. As a result, the quilter can create a series of exercises making these strokes on a whiteboard with a dry erasable marker, using a pencil on paper, or even following a panto pattern with your finger. Remember that these strokes must be made in all directions, R to L, L to R, top to bottom, bottom to top, diagonally, etc. Although these exercises are a wonderful place to start and practice to remain proficient, at some point it is necessary to work at the machine.
Practice At The Machine
For longarm quilters, pantos are a great place to start. The design is already there, the strokes pre- planned, and the results should look very nice. And remember, no one knows whether your laser was on the line or not.
If you feel you are not ready to tackle one of your quilts, or even a charity quilt, the next
best option is to purchase inexpensive fabric and batting (neither recommended for quilts you cherish or give) and simply practice the strokes over and over again. Then begin to build the strokes into simpler designs at first, progressing to more complicated designs. If you are feeling wasteful in doing this, know that veterinary offices usually welcome things that can be used as mats in the pet crates. Our local vet has crates that are 14″ x 18″ for the cats. Because I use a lot of practice fabric and batting on the frame at quilt shows (about 5-7 yards per show), I always “recycle” or re-purpose the “quilt” into cat crate mats. I cut them to size and either zig-zag or serge around the edges before giving them to the vet. They do appreciate them, use them, may even wash them a number of times until they are no longer usable.
If you want to learn a new design, learn feathers, or improve the designs you already do, practice them before you start quilting on the quilt. Use the whiteboard, paper/pencil, trace with your finger, or trace the design with the machine not running, or keep a practice “quilt” ready. Even when I free motion quilt a small project at my home machine, I always have a practice piece ready to get warmed up on. For larger projects I plan to longarm, I always have a large practice “quilt” ready to zip onto the longarm. Practice is never a waste of time or materials. It is the best, and only way, to improve your quilting skills.