When the photo, above, appeared on the cover of the first issue of Machine Quilting Unlimited I cringed just a bit. The stitches looked gigantic. The fabric, could it be burlap? The mistakes, did they show?
Well, yes, of course they did, magnified and blown up and the stitches huge. But the color and punch of this small piece were exactly what the magazine editors were seeking.
Most quilters probably thought this stitch “size” was my normal quilting. It was not. It was very fine quilting, very tiny stitches done on a tightly woven crisp unknown cotton sateen type fabric with an almost impenetrable surface treatment. My friend Liz Armstrong designed and made the tiny piece, smaller than the size of a piece of paper. I quilted it with YLI #100 silk thread and a #60 Microtex Sharp needle, with small stitches, probably about a 1.5 in length.
However, when it was chosen to be used on the cover of this issue it was blown up larger than life size. The stitches look sooooooo big. Quilters seeing this would not even hesitate in thinking the stitch length was about 2.5 or larger, and the thread perhaps a 40 weight. Not!
What is the correct scale and proportion for thread and stitch length in machine quilting? Our wonderful machines can handle very fine threads to quite heavy ones that I personally would probably delegate for the job of tying up tomato plants or wayward roses in the garden, but never think of putting them through my Bernina, gasp. I know, I know….it is done all the time, no harm done. And simply threading the machine with this thread will clean out the thread pathway wonderfully.
So what is the bottom line in correct stitch length? The stitch length depends on the weight, color, fiber of the thread. There is no one perfect answer. The scale of the stitch length must work with the proportion of the design as well.
A nice “golden mean” for stitch length can be found by using a fine long staple cotton like Aurifil #50 (reads like a 70) or Superior MasterPiece, both about the same in fiber and thickness. With this thread in the machine, top and bottom, you can establish a lovely machine stitch and then vary it smaller for finer threads such as #100 silk or larger, longer stitches for heavier threads such as #40. If you do free motion stitching with this set-up, a 1.8 stitch length or finer looks nice, and yes, you’ll probably have to lower the top tension a bit, sometimes a lot, depending on your machine.
If you don’t know what a 1.8 or 1.6 stitch length looks like, first stitch out a line of quilting using feed dogs and a presser foot on the machine, and set stitch length at this number.
You can make several rows at various stitch length settings for comparison to your free motion stitching to get points of comparison. Then try some free motion, still with this thread combo in the machine, and see what you have to do to make your free motion quilting look exactly like the line you quilted with the feed dogs up, and a walking foot or presser foot on your machine.
The fiber content of the thread also determines the stitch length. Lustrous, shiny threads like silk or poly tend to need a smaller stitch than heavy, duller threads, mostly cotton without a sheen to them. However, there are some very lustrous cotton threads (Aurifil, e.g.) and some dull poly ones, so the best thing is to always quilt with the thread and figure out its best tension and stitch length.
A good way to check this is to begin with a fine cotton, get the stitch length established by how fast you run the machine and how you move your hands.
I like to tell students that a faster machine speed and smooth, slow and even hand movement works well for most of us. So slow down your hands, keep them moving smoothly with no jerking or quick changes of direction, and run the machine a bit faster. Get out of first gear! Try the faster speeds on that beautiful piece of machinery you own. Let it own the road for once, but only go as fast as you can still feel “in control” of what you are doing with your hands. The problem then can occur where you hear the machine going faster and automatically speed up your hands.
Speed up the machine a bit, and keep your hands slow, smooth, even.
If an entire area of a design is quilted correctly but there are areas with some large “basting” type stitches, the viewer’s eye goes directly to these. They break up the design and look not so great. They are there because your hands moved too fast in that area for the speed of the machine.
I slow down for tricky places where I can’t see well, or for more demanding and precise types of quilting like echo quilting. And when I say slow down I mean both the speed of my hands and the speed of the machine. Hands and feet work together as one.
And sometimes I speed up when there is “open road” or an easy design I’ve done a million times, and when I speed up that means I move my hands faster and I run the machine faster too.
With more elegant, refined and closely spaced machine quilting, below, I need a finer thread and smaller stitches. Large, open scale and fast quilting can have bigger thread and bigger stitches, but keep them even, and have the proper machine tension.
One of the most frequent comments I get when people see my work in “real life” is that they never realized my stitches were so small. They are.
Because of the very fine thread and the designs I quilt. Both of these things determine stitch length.
When I thread my machine with a heavier thread, I automatically slow down the speed of the machine so with the same hand movement I’m used to I can achieve a bigger stitch length that is appropriate for heavier threads.
Play with your threads and designs. The stitch length will vary accordingly. It will take some experience for you to be able to switch from a fine cotton thread to various weights and fibers, but it can be done very successfully, and it will make your quilting that much more interesting.
Keep quilting! Your work gets better every day.