On my recent trip to California I stayed on after the 5-day class at Empty Spools and taught a class for the Monterey Peninsula Quilt Guild. The lobby of my hotel had ocean inspired decor including some gorgeous tropical fish in a huge tank.
We learned clamshell quilting and after I explained all the places and sizes and options for this standard design, I did mention it is also called fish scales and could be used on pictorial quilts. When I returned to my hotel there I noticed the clay pot on the table in the lobby, photo above, etched with this lovely design. It's versatile and always works when you need a nice, even texture.
Below is a photo of clamshells quilted with #100 silk thread on a blue hand dyed cotton. It gives wonderful texture but is still an "organized" design, pleasing to the eye. If you find your lines start sinking at one end, every now and then draw a straight line for reference only to keep lines of clamshells level. These are about 3/8" in size. Larger ones are more difficult to keep even.
If you want funky clamshells let them go downhill, change size or shape.
Make them larger at the bottom row and decrease the size to create perspective, nice for pictorials. Always begin at the bottom of the design, and build up, like building a brick wall.
Below are some fast and wicked "relaxed" clamshells, done at top speed, for a very casual look. Don't worry if they aren't rounded, they are supposed to be loose and casual. You could do a nice pine cone with this design too. They would work great on a busy print, providing texture, but not formality.
We learned many things in that 2-day class. One, you must know your sewing machine and be able to adjust it, and get it to work properly.
If you have your machine serviced before any class, when you get it home check it to see it is OK. Sometimes changes are made and you can't get it to free motion quilt correctly.
If you haven't had it serviced, make sure it is working well for class, cleaned and oiled and ready to go.
Bring your free motion feet to class. Bring the foot control. :-)
If you have a new plexi surround, wash it thoroughly first. They tend to be very sticky when new, and quilts will not move well or at all. Warm soapy water, some white vinegar, buff it dry with a clean flour sack dish towel. Over time and use the surround will get better. If it gets sticky at any time, don't be afraid to wash it.
If you are taking a free motion machine quilting class and are a beginner or haven't done much, take some time ahead of the class to practice daily.
Don't try all sorts of complex designs. Instead, simple curved lines, loops, writing, repetitive shapes will help you get nice even hand movements and smooth stitches. Try for consistency and try to get your machine to work at its best.
Start with one even speed on the machine, and coordinate your hand movement to this speed so the stitches look even and a good length.
For practice or learning motifs, I recommend a fine cotton thread in ecru or a very light color, even white, and a #70 Microtex Sharp needle (Schmetz). Threads include Aurifil #50, Superior MasterPiece cotton, YLI Soft Touch cotton, #60 Mettler cotton, DMC #50 cotton. These are all excellent threads for quilting, top and bobbin.
Wash some great quality muslin, layer it with a good batt like Hobbs Tuscany Wool or Quilters Dream Select cotton, and use ecru or a very light color of thread, top and bobbin, and start in the center of an 18" square practice sandwich. Get the feel of it, the flow, attempt nice even stitches.
Even though you do not set the stitch length when feed dogs are lowered, a good looking stitch for this thread would be measured at about 1.7 mm. If you don't know what it looks like, stitch some at this length with your walking foot. Fine threads require a smaller stitch than the default setting.
Try sketching a curved line on your sample, and then quilt it on or close to the line.
Most often I see much smaller stitches when there is a line compared to quilting with no marked line. You should learn to get the same stitch length for both no marked line and with a marked line, and this takes some practice.
Try some echo quilting - quilt a soft curvy line and then repeat it a scant 1/4" away.
Don't "lazy susan" your quilt. Keep it facing the same direction. If you want to quilt to the west, simply do that, but don't turn the quilt. This will allow you to quilt a large quilt in a home machine when you CANNOT turn it.
Play at your machine. Relax, enjoy the process. Don't be hyper critical, this is not the easiest thing in the world to do, but look at what you quilt and decide how to make it better. Take a break, come back and try it again with that in mind. It is a process; it doesn't all come easily, and immediately. But keep at it!
Above, an example of beginning in the center with a simple curved line and then "playing." Echo anything and everything to learn stitch control, visualizing space, and even stitches. Have fun. Remember, smaller, curvy shapes are the easiest.
I learned a lot in my classes, and hope to use the information to make future teaching better. It was a marvelous trip, with great people, scenery, and delicious fresh food. Thanks to everyone who took care of me, and made my trip delightful. It's good to be home again, but I'm already planning my next class.
Keep quilting; your work gets better every day!