The differences between them tend to come down to personal preferences. The main things to look out for are:
- Open toe or Closed toe - This means that the part the needle sits in is either in an incomplete oval (or square) or is completely enclosed. An open toe foot will make it easier to thread the machine and pull the bobbin thread up to start stitching a little. It also makes visibility easier as there is nothing between you and the needle. A closed toe darning foot however, has no edges to it. This comes as an advantage if you are sewing over something that would easily catch e.g. near fringing or trim, or over layered appliques, or textured quilts.
- Sprung or not - Some free motion feet come with a spring and others don't. This is exactly what you think - more or less movement. Your preference will depend on several factors such as whether you want to easily push it out the way to get a frame under. Also how steady you want the foot to glide vs how much you want it to move. For example, a fine embroidery may work better on your machine with little movement but the lack of movement when quilting with thick wadding may increase your chance of puckering. Some sewing machines also have pressure adjustments for the foot, or gliding functions to lift the foot. These may not require the spring as much as another machine without these features as you are able to make more internal adjustments.
- Large foot area in contact or hardly any - The larger the area, the more stability you have on your fabric (and the less you need to worry about watching your fingers). This is especially useful if you are quilting with a thick batting as it helps to hold it down and compress the layers in place as the stitch goes in, which reduces your chance of puckering. The larger foot areas are also usually plastic with markings on to help you with seam allowances, set distances between stitches and turning exact corners. However, the larger the foot area, the harder it is to get up close to the edge of embroidery frames.
- Plastic or metal foot - the base may be made of either. Plastic is usually completely see through which allows you to fully visualise your work which is useful for doing complex or very precise designs, however they are usually a little bulkier.
How to attach the free motion foot to your sewing machine
There may be slight differences with different feet, but on the whole, this is how most of them attach. First, you need to cover or lower your feed dogs as you can't sew in any direction you want if you feed dogs are pulling at your fabric.
Next, unscrew your current foot.
Line the darning foot up so that the long bit of metal that sticks out at the top hooks over your needle bar (this is usually the bit you unscrew to release your needle to change it). Then the little claw like part hooks around the main bar and you can go right ahead and screw it in.
You may find that a lower tension setting works better, but exact settings will depend on your foot, your fabric and your machine, so you might want to play on some fabric scraps first to find the best setting.
Lower your needle into your fabric and raise it back up. Pull on the loose end of the thread to lift the bobbin thread up to the top. Hold them out the way and your ready to go.
So what can you do with a free motion foot?
All sorts! You can move in any direction you like, over as many layers of fabric as you can fit under and make your needle easily go through. The main uses for this foot are embroidery and quilting.
Free Motion Embroidery
To embroider with this sewing machine foot, all you need to do is doodle! Its just like drawing with a pen and paper only you move the paper instead of the pen. It is much easier if you have marked out your design on the fabric first as mistakes are frustrating to unpick. I would also recommend having the fabric held in an embroidery loop. This makes it much easier on your hands as you are simply gliding a loop rather than trying to wrestle the fabric to maintain tension in all directions to stop puckering. The other alternative would be to use a light iron on interfacing or stabilizer to help.
To get your embroidery frame in and out, if you foot is sprung, simply make sure the presser foot is raised then lift the base of the free motion foot up to slide it in and out. If your foot isn't sprung, you may need to remove it to get the frame in and out.
Don't forget to trim off your original thread tails before going back to the same point so as not to catch them in your stitching. By bringing them to the top before sewing it makes it much easier to stop the bobbin thread getting caught up underneath. Once you've sewn a few stitches to lock the thread in you are safe to snip.
The joining threads can be snipped at the end unless they are getting in the way.
It doesn't just need to be pictures you draw, handwriting can be written, or letter outlines, or doodles to make the lines wider.
Remember, just like different pens and inks would give different drawings, threads and effects can be created by the machine too. For example, 2 threads can be passed through the same needle to give a textured or thicker or variegated appearance, circles or small spirals on the spot can be used for creating French knot effects to 'colour in', and metallic threads can be added. You may wish to consider using a heavy duty fabric type of needle if you are doing any of these options though regardless of the type of fabric you are sewing on. This is because typically the bigger needles have a bigger eye. This means less stress on the threads and so you are less likely to get breakages. You could even try some bobbin-work embroidery with your darning foot and embroider with ribbons and wider threads / textured threads which wouldn't fit through the eye of a needle, by winding them on your bobbin and effectively sewing upside down.
The only difference with this is that you need to have massively reduced bobbin tension and slightly reduced top tension. I would highly recommend getting an additional bobbin case to keep specifically for bobbin work as it can be so frustrating trying to get your bobbin back to the right tension to return to sewing. I would also recommend starting with a 2mm ribbon on near the loosest bobbin tension setting. Ribbon is much more forgiving than threads in getting the tension right, but I would suggest always having some scrap fabric to practice on first.
Remember that ribbon frays, so if you leave your ends at the front you may want to add some fray stopper. I tend to use a needle threader to pull the ribbon end to the back (the side you are stitching) to make it neater.
You can combine fabric with your stitching to create appliques with an alternative to raw edge or zigzag / satin stitch, or even use it just to attach fabric to an area that would normally be difficult to sew in with a standard presser foot e.g. adding a corner design to a duvet cover.
You can even combine those techniques and use the free motion darning foot to first applique your pieces on then seamlessly embroider details on to make up your picture like I have done with this chicken theme. I find it much easier to stick the pieces on first with a temporary fabric glue.
There is also nothing stopping you from sewing on dissolvable stabilisers in cut out work to make your own custom lace / floating stitch effect! I tend to zigzag the edges like an inverted applique then use free motion sewing for the detail.
Just make sure you do enough stitches to overlap the edges of the shape and to interlock them together. Don't forget that your bobbin side will be just as visible as your top side.
I prefer to soak off my dissolvable stabiliser in a bowl rather than pop it in the washing machine as the stitches are delicate and easily pulled out if you missed a small section. This way it is far easier to fix with a little hand sewing once dry. Press in place with the iron.
Free Motion Quilting
The only difference essentially between this and embroidery is you have added another layer or 2 to sew through. The free motion foot is perfect for quilting, because it lifts and lowers in the same way as a walking foot does so there is less movement of fabric layers. However, where the walking foot feeds from top and bottom to keep perfect straight lines, the darning foot will allow you to decide on the direction and speed of movement. This lets you create beautiful patterns on your quilted projects.
The most common ways to use it are to go over the entire fabric equally, regardless of your pattern.
Or used to fill in patterns in the background of a fabric design.
Or if less quilting is needed, or the pattern is small, it can simply go around main features.
Or it can even be used to write in the quilting such as this cushioned seat cover with a name quilted on.
There are so many quilts out there where the quilting is by far the bigger work of art than the actual fabric or pattern of the quilt.
Your imagination is your only limit!
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