Spatial Awareness and Free Motion Quilting

We talk a lot about doodling, but what deeper skills also contribute to our ability to free motion quilting, and how can we improve them? Take a look with me at a crucial developmental ability— spatial awareness— and how we can leverage it for FMQ.

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Spatial Awareness & Free Motion Quilting with HollyAnne Knight of String & Story

Seem like a weird title for a quilting post? Yeah, I know— but as I was talking about free motion quilting and long arming with y’all last week, I realized that maybe we should talk about the role that spatial awareness plays in successful free motion quilting. Hang with me!

What is spatial awareness?

Spatial awareness is the ability to be aware of oneself in space. It is an organised knowledge of objects in relation to oneself in that given space. Spatial awareness also involves understanding the relationship of these objects when there is a change of position. It can therefore be said that the awareness of spatial relationships is the ability to see and understand two or more objects in relation to each other and to oneself.
— Sian Eckersley, Occupational Therapy for Children Blog

In its simplest terms, spatial awareness is knowing where things are. Like when you can make it from your bed to the bathroom in the dark— you know the space between your bed and the toilet (sorry for the charming illustration) well and how to get there without hitting a wall or doorframe (most of the time) because you’ve developed your awareness of that space. It’s how we avoid bumping into people in a crowded store. And how we successfully high-five a friend. When free motion quilting, there are two really important relationships:

Spatial Awareness and Free Motion Quilting with HollyAnne Knight of String & Story

Relationship 1: The Position of Your Needle Relative to the Rest of Your Quilting

You know how sometimes you’re quilting happily along, maybe doing swirls, and all of a sudden you realize that you totally swirled right into the swirl that you swirled three swirls ago? (sorry, couldn’t resist) Essentially what has happened is that the “three swirls ago swirl” fell off the spatial awareness radar. You lost track of where it was relative to where you were presently quilting. Now, depending on the project, who it’s for, etc, this may or may not be a huge deal. But, I think all of us moan a little when it happens.

Successful free motion quilting requires building an maintaining a mental map of the “in progress” portion of your quilt. This includes where you’ve stitched before, seam lines, seam joins, appliqué, etc. It sounds really intimidating when I write it out that way, but think about it— have you ever had the opportunity to look over someone’s shoulder when they’re quilting? Or maybe taken a “ride” on my longarm via Facebook Live? Then, have you ever been surprised when I turned the opposite way from what you expected? That’s because, perhaps subconsciously, you were building a mental map of what I was quilting, and I decided to navigate it differently than you would have. That doesn’t make either of us right or wrong, it just demonstrates that this mental map making is something we do automatically.

Spatial Awareness and Free Motion Quilting with HollyAnne Knight of String & Story

Easy Exercises to Improve Spatial Awareness for FMQ

In a minute we’ll “zoom out” and talk about spatial awareness of your whole body when you’re quilting and ways to improve spatial awareness on a gross motor scale. First, though, let me give you just a few tips that are free motion quilting specific.

  1. Draw. Draw some more. Draw a LOT more. Let the paper be your quilt and the pen be your needle. Draw individual motifs and draw the quilting plan for your specific quilt. Draw them more than once and draw them often. Understanding where your pen is on the paper is basically identical to your brain as understanding where your needle is on the quilt. But, it’s less emotional and less expensive to “take a wrong turn” on paper. Plus, it’s a lot easier to pause and get your bearings when you’re working on paper if you happen to get turned around.

  2. Speaking of stopping, don’t be afraid to actually STOP and get get your bearings, even when you’re stitching away on the actual quilt. If you’re new to free motion quilting, feel free to stop a lot. Stop as often as you need to. There is literally no shame ever in stopping (Do you have that “stopping is weakness” voice in your head? Just me? For the record, hit that voice over the head and tell it to shut up)

  3. Sewing machines are like cars— they all have a blind spot. Each machine and each foot is a little different. With practice, you’ll learn your machine’s (machines’) blind spot(s) and be able to sail along like a pro. In the meanwhile, just know that it’s there, waiting to confuse your beautiful mind map

Spatial Awareness and Free Motion Quilting with HollyAnne Knight of String & Story

Relationship 2: The Position of Your Body Relative to the Sewing Machine

aka Posture. If you’ve been around here a hot second, you know that I’m passionate about teaching you to take care of your body while you quilt. I went on a bit of a rant about this recently during an impromptu Facebook live, and I wanted to share it with you. Please note here the way I talk about your midline, or center of the torso. This is the spatial awareness piece and keeping your quilting right in front of your body helps “calibrate” that mental mind map we were talking about above.

Four Easy Yoga Poses to Improve Spatial Awareness

Struggling to maintain healthy quilting posture and build your “mind map”? Balance and spatial awareness are intimately linked, so here are a few simple yoga poses that will increase your balance and body awareness.

Note Bene: I am not a doctor. Please use caution and common sense when trying new yoga poses. Be safe and gentle with yourself. Do not hesitate to consult your doctor about the best fitness steps for you.

Spatial Awareness and Free Motion Quilting with HollyAnne Knight of String & Story

If you are not yet familiar with using doTERRA Essential Oils as part of your quilting, yoga, and self-care practices, check out this video for an introduction, and click here to read why I’m so passionate about wellness for quilters.

Spatial Awareness and Free Motion Quilting with HollyAnne Knight of String & Story

Standing Mountain Pose

While it looks “basic,” take time to do this pose correctly and use it as a tool to identify the muscle groups that will make all the difference in your balance and posture.

Stand with feet shoulder width apart and feet firmly planted. Feel your feet and legs going down into the ground/ earth (I highly recommend taking this one barefoot out in the grass) and your head lifting up toward the sky. Engage your abs, lifting the front of your body and slightly elongating your lower back. Relax and open your shoulders, feeling the slight pinch between your shoulder blades. Allow your arms to hang gently engaged at your sides. Breathe deeply. Then, continue taking deep breaths but close your eyes— feeling rather than seeing yourself in your surroundings.

Spatial Awareness and Free Motion Quilting with HollyAnne Knight of String & Story
Spatial Awareness and Free Motion Quilting with HollyAnne Knight of String & Story

Tree Pose

From Mountain Pose, bring your palms together in front of your body, so your finger tips are just in front of your heart, as if in prayer. Shift your weight to one leg, lifting your abs as you do so. Continue breathing and fix your gaze on a point in front of you for focus. Lift your free leg from the floor and rest the bottom of your foot against your standing leg (at a height you’re comfortable with). Breathe. Practice this pose close to a wall if you are unsure of your balance. Repeat with opposite leg.

Spatial Awareness and Free Motion Quilting with HollyAnne Knight of String & Story
Spatial Awareness and Free Motion Quilting with HollyAnne Knight of String & Story

Dancer Pose

This full pose opens the chest and hips, but it is also a doozy. Start with a modified version and work up to the full leg extension. From Standing Mountain Pose, shift your weight to one leg and bend the other at the knee, foot toward your bum. Catch the inside of the lifted leg with the same hand. Press the hip backward, extending the leg. Extend the opposite arm forward at shoulder height and gaze over the finger tips, keeping the chest up and open. As you are able, extend the rear leg higher. Repeat with the opposite leg.

Spatial Awareness and Free Motion Quilting with HollyAnne Knight of String & Story

Triangle Pose

Shake up your body’s sense of balance by dropping your head below your heart in this two-footed twist. From Mountain Pose, extend one leg behind you on the mat with your foot at a right angle to the other foot (front foot with toes toward the end of the mat; back foot with toes toward the side of the mat). Raise your arms to shoulder height at your sides and twist your body open to parallel the side of the mat toward which your back toes point. Shift your weight toward the back foot, then, lifting the ribs and hinging from the hips, lower your front hand toward the mat inside your front leg. Turn your head and look up at your back hand. Repeat on other side.

For maximum benefit, practice these poses along with other gentle stretches like these, as part of your quilting warm up, breaks, and cool down. As I say in the video above— please please please take care of your body when you are quilting (and don’t forget to drink water!)


In free motion quilting, we tend to talk a lot about the shapes we are quilting and how to practice them. While this is, of course, important and valuable, I think it’s also important to look deeper into the motor skills and perceptual abilities that make us successful at tasks like FMQ. It’s another way that our wellness and quilting skills, and it’s another way that quilting encourages us to be our fittest, happiest selves.

Watch me discuss spatial awareness as well as demonstrate posture and the above yoga poses in the YouTube replay of a Facebook live: