Recently Ann Fahl and I were discussing the angst of quilting pieced triangles in our home machines, and decided to post our conclusions and tips on our blogs. Hope this info will help with your machine quilting and you will enjoy easier quilting.
Click here for a link to her blog where she will be posting a multi-part series with information she has discovered on this topic, and about her Janome machine.
This post covers adjusting the pressure on the foot itself, and modifying the foot so it sits a bit higher, allowing more bulk to pass smoothly under it while quilting.
Free motion quilting (FMQ) when the foot gets hung up or caught or even stopped dead in its tracks is not fun. There is not enough room between the free motion foot on the machine and the bed of the machine because of too much quilt under the needle.
It goes without saying that you MUST have the feed dogs lowered or you will be fighting the quilt every step of the way.
Last winter while quilting over joins of small triangles in a yet untitled quilt (photo, above) with cotton sateen as the background, the spring from the presser bar actually fell out of my machine from being forced up and over the thickness of these multi-seam joins. Then the small lever that lifts and lowers the foot fell off, ker-plunk. I put that back on, but it was tricky to work it.
The sateen was heavier than the cotton in the triangles; the seam allowances built up and were like heavy knots at points where many seams met. My poor machine struggled and gasped and I did finish the quilting with no up/down on the presser foot; I had my trusty knee lever and dug that out and used it. BTW, don't do this; if springs or levers fall on your quilt, get your machine fixed.
This bulk problem can be now and then, such as going over a few seam allowances, or it can be constant when quilting thicker quilts with trapunto, or even with normal piecing and a batt with a bit more loft or density.
If you find you are using your hands to actually pull the quilt under the foot as you quilt, you need to change a few things to get that quilt to slide freely with minimal effort.
I had this problem when I first began free motion quilting on a home machine. Using the darning foot was problematic, because the clearance or space under it was very tight - this foot was engineered for darning, a single layer of fabric, and it definitely had difficulty sailing over a quilt sandwich. Now there are FMQ feet available, designed with a bit more room under them for a quilt. See what is available for your machine.
Going over seam joins was tough. I got leaping stitches, toe catchers or tons of tiny ones all piled up and then a big one as I tugged on the quilt or lifted the foot to move it. Frustrating! Not good at all, and not pretty to see.
Solving the Problem
Part I: Adjusting the Pressure on the FMQ foot
My machine at that time did not have any adjustments for pressure on the foot. My machine now, a Bernina 730, below, does have an adjustment available on it to help with this problem. Some machines have this, some don't.
I have mentioned this in classes and books and articles because it is such a fabulous tool on the new machines (and some vintage ones as well) - the ability to set that pressure lower so the foot "floats" nicely over thicker areas on the quilt top, while maintaining great stitch quality. Look for this feature if you are buying a new machine.
Sometimes it is a dial on the side of the machine's head as my Bernina 730 has, or on top of the machine, inside the door to the head of the machine, or in the electronic touch screens.
Sometimes it is sensor-based, built in to the free motion program on electronic machines. You do nothing, it senses the thickness of the quilt and self adjusts. I prefer manual settings that I can change for each task. If you have a sensor, be sure you know how it works or if you can do a manual override.
In the photo, above, note the pressure adjustment dial for the presser foot on my Bernina. You can see that I have it moved from the 6 p.m. default setting for use with feed dogs, up a few notches so the foot has more room under it. At times I have turned it all the way to the little "foot symbol" when doing stippling or backgrounds over puff, trying to work in excess and not get pleats stitched in. This works great for that.
For freehand straight lines, I set it at the default mark, 6 p.m. I get more control that way. If fabric starts distorting or stretching between quilted lines, go up a setting so the foot floats over the quilt without any stretching of the fabric. Go one step at a time and try it.
Always try quilting with the pressure setting on default and see how it works before making adjustments.
Don't over-adjust this dial. If you lessen the pressure too much, the machine "reads" this as having the foot in the "up" position and there will be no tension on the top thread. You will get loops or tension problems, or there will be skipped stitches, the most common problem.
Also, when you go back to quilting over thinner areas, remember to set the dial back closer to default. I change this adjustment depending on my needs at the moment. It is not something I adjust and forget. If you don't like this method, look for a machine that automatically adjusts this with sensors, or has a foot that doesn't hop but sits smoothly at a high position for FMQ. There are different systems on different brands of machines, so it is up to you to find one that works best for your needs.
Tip! Always check this dial setting to be sure it is right for the task you are doing. I've seen too many "broken" walking feet that would not work, only to find this dial was set for FMQ and there wasn't enough pressure for the walking foot for it to work properly.
Different brands of machines have different ways to adjust the pressure on the foot. Check your owner's manual if you are unsure about your machine.
NOTE: Some sit-down machines are engineered especially for quilting and the foot will lift during use so the quilt moves freely and there is NO separate adjustment for reducing pressure, and modifying the foot as I describe, below, might not work. Every machine is different.
Let's proceed to part II, where you can actually change the FMQ foot to help with these problems.
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Part II: Adjusting/Modifying the foot itself
If you don't have this pressure adjustment, or it isn't enough to get over those bulky areas, what else is there to do?
Years ago, Jenny B. showed me how she inserted a metal washer in the darning foot, at the base where there already is a small washer, sort of a horseshoe shape. She had to take the foot apart and put it together, but the result was fantastic! It was possible to quilt on pieced tops without the foot getting stuck on the thickness. Trapunto was so much easier. However, it was too much trouble to take the washer out, so this was a semi-permanent fix.
Another friend, Jill S., was in an early Camp Diane, and she came up with small rubber rings ("O" rings) that you could simply snip with scissors so it will open, and slide in under the spring with no need to take the foot apart, hurray. It's also easy to remove. She sent me bags of them but all are gone to happy students, but one I still have, below. You have to find one in a size that will fit your particular free motion foot.
Here is my #9 darning foot from my Bernina 1030. Next to it is the little rubber O ring that Jill sent me, and some frog feet at the top of the photo, for ambiance.
To find one that will fit, take the FMQ foot with you to the hardware store. Find rubber or soft O rings, ask for help, get several sizes if you are not sure.
Take it home and prepare to modify your foot. Sounds difficult, but it's easy.
- First, cut a slit in the O ring, just one snip so it can open up like a "C."
- Next, depress the foot by squeezing top and bottom, and slide in the opened O ring until it is settled nicely around the shank, see photo below. Release the pressure on the foot and voila! A foot that will now give you a tiny bit more room under it (works great for trapunto too) and can be removed easily if it isn't needed. To remove, depress foot, use tweezers to grab it and remove it.
- Below, photo of foot with the O ring inserted. It is just above the smaller black one that is part of the original foot configuration.
- Attach foot to machine and give it a try. The quilt should feel much easier to move, and stitches should look the same.
- If you have skipped stitches, it is "too much" clearance for your machine and this fix won't work.
WARNING: If the quilt is very thin and flat, you will not need to do this, and this modification could cause skipped stitches.
If you need even more clearance, and this helps but you still have to tug when you cross seam allowances, you could add another ring and give it a try. I've never had to do that, but there is always the recalcitrant quilt that needs extra help.
In my current machine, I rarely have to do this. The dial setting works fine, but sometimes I have had to add the O ring for specific jobs - some seam joins that get hung up when I quilt over them. Then the combination of the dial setting and the modified foot work for that area. I remove the O ring for the rest of the quilting.
I did add a smaller diameter O ring to my Bernina 730's #24 foot when I did a bit of trapunto in a wild moment. Even with the pressure reduced on that foot with the dial on the machine it wasn't enough to quilt smoothly, and the foot was pressing down making it hard to move the quilt easily. I put in one tiny ring and it was perfect. I took it out when done, machine back to normal. It's a great option to have, a trick in your drawer of machine quilting arsenal.
Also, when you depress the foot with your fingers, it should move freely, up and down as you squeeze it. If it is sticking and not working well, or squeaking, it might need some lubricant (your choice) such as a drop of sewing machine oil on the inside cylinder or where it moves in your particular foot. Press and release several times, wipe off excess oil. If this doesn't help, you may need a new foot.
Feet can wear out, become bent or damaged with use. Springs can break. I did get a new FMQ foot for this machine (Bernina 1030) due to the intensive amount of quilting I did way back when.
So I offer many thanks to Becky K. who prompted this blog post. She wrote in her email to me:
"I was quilting away today, I was making use of a tip you gave me way back then, and would have been unable to quilt had I not known this particular trick. I can' remember if it is in one of your books or not, but think it might be useful enough to pass on to your readers on your blog.
I am still quilting on the same 1031 Bernina from 1992, and the pressure on the foot is not adjustable. So when using the quilting foot (I use the small, open toed one), the amount of clearance is not adjustable. The quilt I am working on has Mariners Compasses with flying geese rings and in some areas of the piecing there are MANY layers of seam buildup, to the point that the quilt would not fit under the foot. Then I remembered you tip from so long ago, (haven't needed it in all these years, we're talking a lot of buildup!)
I suspect that you may not have had to to do this for quite a while given sewing machine advancement over the past 18 years, so I explained the whole original tip as you gave it to me.
And thanks to Becky for explaining it so well, and reminding me to tell you about it.
Here is another FMQ foot....Oliver's! He likes to help.
Do not let your cat near the bag of O rings. Oliver would eat them faster than you can blink an eye.
NEXT: More tips next week on moving the quilt easily under the needle. Stay tuned. We home machine quilters need all the information we can get to create our beautiful quilts with ease and comfort. It can be done!
Keep quilting! Your work gets better every day.