Top walking foot tips for quilters

The walking foot. It can be one of your best friends!

The walking foot is no ordinary foot and needs to be used in a slightly different way to get the best out of it.  The foot itself does exactly the same thing as the feed dogs but from the top side of the fabric. It works in conjunction with the feed dogs moving the fabric back from the top and underside at the same time. In theory, this means the layers shouldn’t shift or pucker when sewn together.  It’s used for sewing slippery or hard to sew fabrics, curtains or quilting.

The latest generation of machines may have a built in walking foot but this post is about using the older style foot that is put on to the machine.

The most common problems that occur with walking foot work are:

  • puckering
  • uneven stitch length
  • dog legs (is when a stitch jumps out of alignment forming a dog leg in the line)

Dog legs are the most common problem with the walking foot or free-motion quilting but they are easy to avoid if you alter your sewing technique.

 

You know it and hate it, but why does it happen?

You know them and hate them, but why do they happen?

 

Puckering occurs when the fabric or quilt is being pushed up against the needle so when the needle comes out of the work, more fabric is pushed through than there should be for that stitch.  This can happen for one of two reasons: either your hands are positioned past the needle pushing the fabric or quilt against the needle or there is so much of the quilt under the harp that it is being pushed up against the needle.  Always make sure the quilt is not being pushed up against the needle before and during sewing.

Pushing the quilt through like this reminds of a speed boat zipping across a lake leaving many waves in its wake.

Pushing the quilt through like this reminds me of a speed boat zipping across a lake leaving many waves in its wake.  Working like this puts more strain on your neck and shoulders.  Work with the walking foot and let it do its job.

 

I was taught to have my left hand on top of the quilt with my pointer and middle fingers forming a V shape in front of the needle with my my right hand supporting the quilt from the front underneath.  Right handers were also taught to have the left hand on top but I suppose you’ve got to go with what works for you. This slows down your speed and allows you to only sew a couple of inches before having to stop and move your top hand back out of the path of the needle.  It controls the whole sewing process and gives you a better quality of stitching.  It may seem like more work than required but it really makes a difference.  If you have a larger flat sewing table top between the needle and your tummy, then you don’t have to put your right hand under the quilt to support it as the table is doing that job for you.

walking-foot-fiona-schiffl-correct-hand-position

Making a V shape a couple of inches in front of the needle will keep the quilt moving smoothly with both sets of feed dogs and won’t allow it to pucker up in front of the needle. Each time you need to move your hand, stop the machine making sure the needle is in the work, move your hand and continue on.

 

Uneven stitch length occurs when using a variety of sewing speeds. The walking foot requires an even, slow pace. Many quilters like to only use two speeds: stop and flat out.  I’ve found sewing flat out gives me smaller stitches that are quite noticeable.  It can take a while to adjust your sewing speeds to form a new habit but if you have any trouble, adjust the machine speed to half or even slower.  Your quilt will thank you for it!

Another reason for uneven stitches is if any part of the walking foot touches a pin.  Take out any pins before and behind the foot.

If you have a pressure dial on your machine, make sure it is set at the correct height for the thickness of the fabric. The pressure dial lifts or lowers the presser foot when the foot is engaged.  If you’re sewing thin fabrics, you may need to lower the presser foot so the sole of the foot touches the fabrics.  If sewing thicker fabrics or a quilt, the presser foot may need to be lifted up a little to allow the fabric/quilt to move under the foot as it’s supposed to.

 

Dog legs—those dreaded trouble makers that make you run for the nearest box of tissues…or chocolates.  There are several reasons why they appear.

  • You’ve gone to move your hands on the quilt top whilst the machine is still sewing.  As the needle comes out of the work while your hands are lifted off the quilt, the quilt is free to move anywhere it wants to, especially if the quilt is hanging partially off the table allowing gravity to pull it down.
  • This also happens when (although you have taken your foot off the pedal) the needle still has to make its way back into the work (if you’re using the needle up/needle down function on the machine).  In your mind, foot off the pedal may equate to machine not engaged and you take your hands off the quilt in that split second before the needle is embedded in the work.
  • Next, you may not have held the quilt firmly enough when sewing the start or last stitch.  To explain that, push down on the back of your hand and move the skin in a controlled fashion. You can push down on the skin hard or gently and still move the skin back and forth. You need to do this to the quilt when making the first or last stitch before stopping the machine. You push down in a controlled way but still allow the feed dogs to move the quilt under the needle.
  • When sewing a curve, you may need to use a smaller stitch length.  The more stitches, the smoother the curve.  A larger stitch may stitch off the line.  To get used to how the walking foot will handle curves, draw this diagram on a practice quilt and quilt it. You’ll soon know what the walking foot can handle and what stitch length does and doesn’t work for these kinds of curves.  The walking foot can do gentle curves well but you will need to turn the quilt before you think you have to, just like turning a corner when driving.
Make the largest spiral around 2-2½" then progressively get smaller until the last one is about ¾". Quilt the largest one first and it's okay to curse me when you get to the last one but at least you'll know that you'll never quilt something that small again with the walking foot.

Make the largest spiral around 2-2½” then progressively get smaller until the last one is about ¾”. Quilt the largest one first and it’s okay to curse me when you get to the last one but at least you’ll know that you’ll never quilt something that small again with the walking foot.

 

walking-foot-photo-for-curve-correct-fiona-schiffl

Your machine is only going to sew in a straight line here so make sure the couple of millimeters in front of the needle (of the line you are sewing) are straight too, otherwise your next stitch will be off the line. If the marker pen you have used produces a thicker line, choose one side of the line or the other to follow or your stitches may be on the marked line but drift left or right and the curve will be wobbly.

 

So whenever I want to re-position my hands, I stop the machine, make sure the needle is in the work,  remove any basting pins that are in a 8″ radius of the needle, move my hands into position, check the quilt isn’t pushed up against the machine, that the next stitch is going to follow my line, push down gently on the quilt to control where the next stitch will be while allowing the quilt to move through the feed dogs and continue on my merry way for a couple of inches.  Sounds like a lot of fluffing about? Maybe, but it becomes second nature and only takes a second. Why do it? Because I don’t like dog legs and unpicking!  It’s worth it, trust me.  My hard and fast rule is to never allow my fingers within 1″ of the needle when sewing.

 

Other tips:

  • If you are using a thicker batting, try a slightly longer stitch length to accommodate the bulk.  Generally I try to match or complement the stitch length of my free-motion work if the size of the elements are roughly the same.
  • Learn how to put the walking foot on correctly. The bar will go either around or over the top of the needle nut.
  • Use an open toe foot as shown above if possible. It’s much easier to see the marked line or ditch when sewing. You can also get a stitch in the ditch attachment if you can interchange the soles of the foot.

 

closed-and-open-toe-best

Top: Closed toe. Bottom: Open toe. The Bernina foot has an interchangeable sole.  I think the only time I would ever use the closed toe is if I was trying to keep something in place like if I was quilting and sewing appliqué at the same time.  So far, that hasn’t happened…

 

  • I’ve found that a 2.3mm stitch length is a pretty darn perfect length whether I’m piecing or quilting. Almost all of the time I will end my line right on the spot it’s supposed to end.  I know some machines only go up in 0.2mm increments but if you are lucky enough to have the 0.1mm difference, I thoroughly recommend it.
  • If you have a pressure dial on your machine, you may need to use it when quilting due to the thickness of the quilt.  It raises or lowers the presser foot when the foot in in the down position.  It’s very handy.
  • Use a circular embroidery attachment when sewing a complete circle or long arc.  It creates a pivot point and as long as you don’t bunch up the quilt in any way, you’ll have a perfect circle and won’t need to worry about staying on the line.  They are brilliant.
  • If your design has both straight lines and intricate curves, it maybe a nightmare to quilt. In the last couple of years, machine manufacturers have been starting to create presser feet for domestic machines that can be used with the thicker quilt rulers that longarmers use. This way a design can be quilted with the free-motion foot and straight lines can be quilted using a ruler with the FMQ foot. Yay! Once you’ve sewn that spiral, you’ll know what designs can be quilted with the walking foot. It’ll also make you a better quilt pattern designer as you’ll be thinking about what foot the design will be quilted with as you’re drawing the design and make changes to it as necessary.
  • When stitching in the ditch (that’s the lower side of the seam when the seams are butted and not open), I gently prise open the seam a little so I can get the needle on the underside of the top fabric. I do this by pressing a finger either side of the seam but I don’t distort the seam.  It basically makes the SID work invisible.
  • I am a firm believer in stabilising the quilt with SID work, whether it be with the FMQ or walking foot. It works for me as the quilt is sectioned off into bite size pieces that aren’t puckered…but that’s information for another post.

Well done if you’ve made it through this post!

Happy quilting,

Fiona.

 

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