How do I combine ruler work with free motion designs?

Posted by Anita Ellis on

Hello again. We have been discussing heaps of things to do with ruler quilting in the last couple of blog posts. Now we will explore how to combine ruler work with free motion designs.

Ruler quilting is really free motion quilting using a template to guide the stitching line. You, the quilter, are controlling the stitch length and the movement of the quilt sandwich with your hands, just as you would with free motion quilting. The two styles of quilting work really well together.

If after you have read this blog you have more questions, join me at one of my regular zoom meeting for beginners.

The main advantage of using the rulers is that you can create boundaries for your free motion quilting. Imagine being able to stitch the outline of a big flower on your quilt in a super accurate way and then play with filling up each petal with free motion fillers. These photographs illustrate how a design can grow, from a simple outline to a filled shape with echo lines and free motion quilting.

Another use could be a border that you have created with circles. The space created could then be filled with some beautiful feathers. The border will be ordered but still have movement from the feathers.

How do I go about choosing templates to create spaces?

Size matters…When you are first combining free motion with ruler work it is easier to stick to fairly large templates. If you choose ones that create only a small space, you could be limited to the designs you can use to fill them. Of course, you can fill any size space, I am sticking to the easy options first.

Anything that creates a shape 5” or bigger will be easier to tackle.

Shape matters… There are many shapes that lend themselves to filling with free motion quilting.  Experiment and see what you like best. Some shapes will be easier to fill than others. For example, if the space has a short narrow point it could be more difficult to fill than a more open space.

Using background fills to make template quilting pop

Sometimes it is not about filling up the shapes, but more free motion quilting in the background to make shapes pop. On the Flower Power example, you can also see this, as well as on the image below, a segment of a quilt designed and quilted by a student Janice.

Echo's around quilted designs to leave a negative space to define particular shapes

Leaving a ¼” space around a shape and stitching an echo line around it, gives a space that can define and separate it from the background fill. This is one of the things you will see on most quilts when you are at shows. A simple trick to improve your results at home. Most templates can be moved slightly to allow you to echo the original shape with a ¼” space in an accurate way. The stitching line will then echo the original line of quilting.

The first image shows the effect of echo lines and the second one shows circles done without an echo before they are filled.

Moving onto choosing background fillers that are suitable

You could use any of your favourite free motion fillers. 

Here is a small sampler of the types of fills you could use. I teach these designs to students, so that they can perfect the shapes and use them across their quilts. In the next article I am going to be showing you how to create several different free motion quilting designs. For now, we have explored how we use them inside template shapes.

Free motion fillers do not need to be complete shapes

Some of the best quilting is done with incomplete shapes. When you are stitching up to the edge of the shape, try to imagine the quilting disappearing under the edge. This will give your work so much more dimension than if you use complete shapes that do not run all the way to the edge. That edge could be the block edge, or a shape created by templates.

Lines finish outside the block and points finish inside the binding

Yet another thing to remember when quilting.

If you are doing a design that uses lines, be sure to carry them out to the edge of the quilt or the block if you are doing quilt as you go. The block will be trimmed, and the ends of the lines will be encased in the sashing or the binding. This makes the design look complete.

If you are doing a design with points or shapes that you want to be part of your final quilt or block, be sure to mark the sashing/binding line before you quilt, so that the points remain in your quilt and are not cut off. Sounds simple, easy to forget. I had an experience very early on in my career as a Long arm quilter. I was so proud of the feather border I had created around my quilt…until I realised, I had stitched all the way up to the edge and hadn’t allowed for my binding. A BIG unpick job. I hope you can learn from that, and don’t make the mistake yourselves. And no, I don’t have a picture of that, it is just etched into my memory.

There is plenty to think about here and I hope you enjoy putting these ideas into practice on your quilts. Next month we will explore how to quilt those free motion designs, from simple shapes to complex designs.

If after you have read this blog you have more questions, join me at one of my regular zoom meeting for beginners.

Happy quilting


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  • Thank you Anita, I found this post very informative and helpful. Look forward to the sequel. Cheers Jude.

    Jude on
  • Thank you, I found this very helpful.

    Gale on

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