I first read about free motion in the 90s and back then I had a Singer sewing machine. It was a basic machine and no matter how I tried, I couldn't figure out how to lower the feed dog. In all the books I had read, you need to be able to lower the feed dog in order to do free motion.
Years later, I bought a Sakura sewing machine and this one was a cash and carry deal and I forgot to check about the darn feed dog. I tried to explain to the old man who showed up at my home to teach me how to use the machine. He had no idea what I was talking about. Well, the feed dog stayed up and one day I discovered that if I lower the presser foot number to zero, I could free motion. Even with my regular foot. In the old days, I never bought extra machine feet. I had no idea where to buy them.
Then I bought a Brother sewing machine and I remembered to ask about lowering the feed dog. Yes! This machine not only had a switch to lower the feed dog, it came with a special foot for it. It's what most people use for free motion - a darning foot. That was 2007. Many of my early bags had free motion stitching on them. When I was selling the bags, customers would ask me to explain how I made the stitches. Well, either I got tired of explaining or the bags were hard to sell. I stopped including free motion stitching on my bags.
I forgot when I bought my current Janome. It was around 2011 or 2012. It came with a switch to lower the feed dog and I already had the darning foot. So I started doing free motion again. The thing is I completely forgot to lower the feed dog and I managed to do free motion as well. So that's pretty much how I do my free motion now. I don't change any machine settings but I use the darning foot. Without the darning foot, it won't work. Remember I mentioned earlier that in my Sakura I could change the pressure on the presser foot to zero? My Brother and Janome couldn't do that. The lowest number is one.
So here are the possible settings for free motion:
1. Cover the feed dog manually, use darning foot/free motion foot
2. Lower the feed dog, use darning foot/free motion foot
3. Change pressure on presser foot to zero, use regular foot
4. Don't lower the feed dog, change stitch length to zero, use darning foot/free motion foot
5. Don't change any machine settings, use darning foot/free motion foot
Some people do free motion by not lowering the feed dog like me but they change the stitch length to zero. When you change the stitch length to zero, you'll notice the feed dog does not move. For me I don't even change the stitch length but you do understand what I'm doing is not free motion quilting with all the swirly lines and stippling. What I do is a little more rigid as I sew outlines on applique and maybe some doodles of drawings. I'm no expert on free motion quilting and I don't even quilt so I'm not even sure if not lowering the feed dog and not setting the stitch length to zero is workable for sewing on quilts.
So what I think is this. There are different ways to do things and you need to find out what works best for you. Lower the feed dog, don't lower the feed dog. You try it out and see for yourself. The feed dog is honestly the least of your problems. To do free motion, you need to find the right combination of machine, needle and thread. There is no formula. You have to try it out and see for yourself. What works for me may not work for you.
The general guideline is this. You try to match your needle to your thread. If your thread is thick, use embroidery or topstitch needle otherwise your thread will shred and you will be very frustrated. Your bobbin thread should be the same or less weight as your top thread. When starting out, just use the sewing thread you use for regular sewing and use the exact same thread in the bobbin. If you're not using a special thread, a sharp 80/12 needle will be the go to needle. If you find a mass of bobbin thread building up on the underside of your fabric, you've got the wrong tension. My machine allows me to adjust the thread tension but if I use anything other than Auto, things go nuts. So for my machine, I have to use Auto. In my previous machines, I was able to modify the tension to my liking. Like I said, you have to see what works for you.
Fyi, I have tried Aurifil Mako 50wt and man, this thread sews like butter! Unfortunately, my sewing supplies shop doesn't stock Aurifil.
Before I show you how I do it, if you have a needle down feature you should activate it. Mine is on by default. Needle down means when you stop sewing, your needle is always in a down position. If you don't have this feature, you need to manually rotate the needle to be down when you stop sewing.
Starting and ending your thread.
In this applique, I've tried to sew outlines on the really tiny areas. It's not perfect but I feel with free motion, you want the child-like sewing. At least for my case, I do.
The most difficult part of free motion has to be moving the fabric around. There are tools available and if you google for them I'm sure you'll be able to find them. For me, if I find my movements jerky, I stick a piece of plastic over the sewing area. I cut out a space for the needle to go through. This plastic is something I get from the stationery shop. It helps a little. If I can get something smoother, I would.
Finally, remember all the pivoting we do? I rotate the fabric in so many directions that sooner or later the thread gets twisted. What I do is before I start sewing on a new project, I cut off the top thread and re-thread the needle. I find that when I do this diligently, everything goes smoothly.
Bag patterns at my Etsy shop
Applique patterns at my Etsy shop
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