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Six Most Common Sewing Machine Feet Used In Quilting

Originally Posted - March 29, 2017
Updated - January 7, 2023

Hello everyone today we are going to discuss a few of the basic sewing machine feet that we frequently use while quilting. I am not going to begin to try to explain all the different feet available for sewing special-purpose seams for the fashion enthusiast. My reasoning for this choice is simple, I don’t know how to use them or I am not proficient with using them. For this very reason, we are going to stick with the basic Straight, Zigzag, Walking, Darning, Hopping, and Roller feet. As a quilter, I haven’t run across a situation yet that couldn’t be solved by using one of these six sewing machine feet.

The six must have sewing machine feet for quilting

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When I say I use these 6 types of sewing machine feet to solve different quilting problems I am not saying that a person must have each of these to be able to quilt. I am suggesting that as quilters we should be open-minded enough to realize the advantages to be had when we have these feet at our disposal.

When we talk about quilting we are generally sewing small pieces of cotton fabric together to create a large piece of fabric which is used to cover a layer or two of batting which is in turn placed on a second large piece of fabric that serves as the bottom of the quilt, thus creating what is lovingly known as a quilt sandwich.  Since the first step in our sandwich is the top and traditionally it was made by sewing smaller pieces together it naturally became known as piecing. Piecing is done using a straight stitch foot or a zigzag foot also known as a universal sewing machine foot.

Six Most Common Sewing Machine Feet in Quilting

Straight Stitch Foot, Zig-Zag Foot, Universal Foot - Used For Piecing 

The difference between a straight stitch foot and a universal foot is straight stitch feet have a hole in the foot slightly bigger than the needle through which to pass as it makes a stitch. Or it has a narrow parallel slot splitting the foot into the so-called toes of the foot we are familiar with.

A  ZZ or universal foot has a perpendicular slot in which the needle can pierce through the fabric on either side of the central axis of the seam creating a zigzag stitch. Universal sewing machine feet work quite well for sewing a common straight-line seam as long as the fabric is heavy enough not to pucker and surge as the needle goes thru the fabric. 

A zig-zag or universal sewing machine foot, one of the six must have sewing machine feet for quilting

If the fabric is light enough and tightly woven it will flex up and down as the needle goes thru and it can be severe enough to cause missed or skipped stitches. When this situation arises a straight stitch foot will stop the lifting because it holds the fabric down on all sides of the needle. It may also be necessary to change the stitch plate to a straight stitch plate that serves the same functions and design as the foot but on the underside of the fabric to keep the fabric from pushing down with the needle stroke. So it is common to see the Universal foot and plate combination being used to sew straight stitch seams without any negative consequences.

A straight stitch sewing machine foot a must have for quilting

Quilting with a Universal Sewing Machine Foot

Once we have our sandwich made and pinned together we are ready to start quilting our sandwich together. Depending on the desired style of quilting we may not need to change from the foot we used for piecing. We can usually stitch in the ditch (follow our seams created during piecing) or we can straight-line quilt across the sandwich usually on a gridline diagonal without much hassle.  
The biggest problem comes when the top and bottom of the sandwich do not feed through at the same speed. Causing waves and wrinkles as the length of the seam increases. When faced with this set of circumstances we may be able to loosen our feed dog pressure and match the stretch caused by the feed dogs by pulling our fabric sandwich thru at the same speed the feed dogs are pushing causing the top and bottom of the sandwich to move at the same speed. Not exactly the easiest technique but it was only our ancestors had at their disposal during the infancy of the sewing machine.  Now we have the walking foot to keep that from happening. 

Walking Foot - Straight Line Quilting

Walking foot one of the 6 must have sewing machine feet

Eventually, history shows us the invention of the walking foot machines as we commonly refer to them as. (Purchase a walking foot for your sewing machine Low ShankHigh ShankSlant Shank) This helped in some aspects but the early walking foot machines still only moved the fabric from one side of the sandwich. Shortly afterward innovation and persistence paid off with the invention of a foot that mounted to the presser bar and an arm that rides on the needle set screw and operates a set of teeth on the foot so the fabric is pulled from the top by the foot and from the bottom by the feed dogs.
These sewing machine feet called walking feet made straight-line quilting much easier. They also incorporated an adjustable guide bar so the rows of stitches remained evenly spaced. The walking foot can be used on a slight curve but doesn’t work too well on tight curves. It can be used to turn 90 deg angles just like any other foot. The one thing they cannot do is reverse. By design there is no way to make the upper teeth reverse when the lower teeth do so reverse is out of the question. These feet do not have a way to adjust the speed of the teeth so the lower teeth or feed dogs need to be set so they match the stitch length with the speed of the upper teeth. Other than those discrepancies the walking foot had revolutionized the ease of straight-line stitches on fabric that was hard to grip and feed reliably with only one set of teeth.

Darning Foot - Used For Free Motion Quilting

Darning sewing machine foot, a must have for any quilter

During this same time period, we were also learning how to use a darning foot to patch holes in clothing. Being of a creative and curious species soon enabled our ancestors to realize that not only could they patch holes in fabric by sewing across the open spaces and sliding the foot along until they actually built a fabric where there was none.  They also learned they could embroider with the same foot. As they learned how to stitch pictures and shapes to be filled in they also discovered they could quilt shapes into their sandwich by dropping the feed dogs and allowing the foot to slide over the fabric.
Just as in the advances of the walking feet the darning foot soon followed. The lever that actuates the upper feed teeth on our walking foot now instead lifts the darning foot off of the fabric momentarily between stitches and allows the fabric to be moved easily between needle strokes. This was the beginning phase of free-motion quilting.  It put an end to the need to hand stipple areas on the quilt sandwich in order to gain dimension and depth. This allows the artistic touches into the quilt with the use of a machine.  As soon as the darning sewing machine feet were being used in this manner it was soon discovered that they were limited in the ability to lift high enough from thick fabric sandwiches and a new style of foot was soon to hit the market with a vengeance.

Free Motion Quilting Foot or Hopping Foot

FMQ aka free motion foot aka hopping foot a must have sewing machine foot for quilters

Enter into the picture now the foot specially designed to handle free-motion quilting, the hopping foot. (Purchase one Low ShankHigh Shank) It incorporates the same basic arm from the needle screw to lift the foot but now instead it lifts straight up against a spring which allows for a higher lift between stitches. The higher lift makes it possible to free motion on a quilt sandwich that is thicker and fuller than was possible with a darning foot. It inherently makes it much easier to move the fabric in any direction.

Roller Root - Used For Binding

A roller sewing machine foot makes it easier to machine bind a quilt

This just about covers all the feet that a vintage sewing machine user can use to manage the fabric. The last foot to be mentioned is the roller foot. (Purchase one Low ShankHigh Shank) It is as simple in design as its name suggests. It replaces a regular foot with the skid plate and toes with a carriage that contains two rollers. One in the front and one in the rear of the foot. It maintains constant pressure like a standard foot but instead of sliding over the material causing friction and drag it uses the rollers to reduce the drag and let the fabric feed easier. The roller foot works very well when using a slick or slippery fabric.  It also works well when putting binding around the edge of our finished quilt. I also like to use it sometimes when topstitching is very close to the edge of the fabric.

Like I said at the beginning of the post, it isn’t necessary to have all these feet.  But if you find them at your disposal they can sure make things easier. Until next time as always end your day with a smile, enjoy your machines your way, and may your needle never come down while you are changing the bobbin.

Frequently Asked Questions About Sewing Machine Feet

Which foot is a quilting foot?

This is such a tricky question.  A quilting foot depends on what you are doing at the time and who you are talking to about sewing machine feet.  Some will define the 1/4" foot, it's not in this post but you can learn more about it in our post about the 1/4" seam.  The reason a lot of quilters call the 1/4" foot the quilting foot is that it's what a lot of quilters use to piece their quilt tops.  Others will call the free-motion quilting foot the quilting foot since that is the foot you use on your domestic sewing machine to do the actual quilting.  

So how do you know which foot someone is talking about?  You'll need to use context clues, if the quilter is talking about piecing the quilt top they are probably talking about the 1/4" foot or the universal sewing machine foot and if they are talking about doing the actual quilting they are talking about the free-motion quilting foot. 

What are the six sewing machine feet you should have for quilting? Come find out!  There may even be a few surprises.

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