Monday, December 24, 2012

Merry Christmas

As snow falls and deep dark winter descends all around us, I wish you and yours a Merry Christmas and a wonderful New Year!  I cannot thank all of you enough for your love and support as well as your continued enthusiasm for the art of home machine quilting, the excitement you bring to this blog, the depth of your commitment and knowledge.  For all of you I wish the very best this holiday season and many blessings and much happiness for the future. 
Oliver is well and happy.  I took a wild chance and moved things around in the house, and put up the small faux Charlie Brown tree decorated only with birds and small nests and eggs.  Many of the nests were found in our yard, exquisitely and intricately constructed, a delight to examine and save on my little tree.  How they can construct these so perfectly whereas I have a hard time threading a needle I will never know. 
I carefully added several strings of clear lights to glow in the window and light up our long evenings and even the dark days. 
Oliver noticed it of course, and mostly wondered where his table by the window had gone and what was this big thing sitting in the way instead.  So far he has not noticed the birds, the nests, any of it.  He did nibble the end of a faux branch but that was not worth doing again, blech, so we have been safe for a week. 
Any time now I fear he will tilt his head as he tends to do when thinking about trouble, and notice that there are BIRDS on this tree with real FEATHERS on them and he might have a wild and wonderful time stalking and attacking them.  Until then, if that day comes, we enjoy it together.  He gazes at the lights reflected in the window and is content. 
Below, he joined us on the side table when his Godparents visited from far away AZ and enjoyed some Wisconsin frozen custard and coffee, and good conversation.  He settled in and was happy we were all together.
Merry Christmas from Oliver!
I hope in 2013 to bring you more information and tales of quilting, life in the home of a quilter with a cat.  Until then, keep quilting, take some time to enjoy your passion, but relax and enjoy the holidays.  Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Thread and Tension

I always advise a quick tension check when you switch to a different spool of thread.  The color and type of thread, even the brand of a certain type of thread such as silk, the humidity, a dull needle, all will affect the top tension and how the stitch looks.  It only takes a few minutes to do a bit of off-quilt stitching on a sample to see if all is well.
One of the first things I advise students in every class I have taught is to check the thread pathway before beginning to quilt.  From the spool all the way through to the needle's eye, make sure nothing is catching or interfering with smooth, even flow of thread through the machine. 
With the presser foot UP, pull the top thread through the needle.  It should move smoothly and easily; the needle shouldn't bend.  If there is a catch, or the thread is not coming off the spool evenly, you will feel it right away.
Bless your heart, try a cone thread holder....!
Make sure all thread guides are used.  If you have issues with the top spool pulling too tightly and creating tight tension, try a cone thread holder instead of whatever your machine provides.  In the photo, above, you can see it sitting behind my machine to my right, out of the way. 
A large cone of thread sits on the base spindle, unwinds gently with no pulling or tugging, goes up through the metal loop, then goes down to the thread guides on the machine.  It's the best method to deal with large cones or unruly threads such as invisible monofilament, but I have used it for normal spools because it works so well.  It's a nice option to have if you sometimes have trouble with upper thread tension.
However, trouble might be in a place you never check, the spool itself.  In her blog today Jenny Lyon discussed her adventure with figuring out why the top tension suddenly was very bad: 
Jenny has many good ideas and posts about home machine quilting, design, problem solving, etc. on this blog, and you might want to check back often, and also enjoy her creative and beautifully done work.
Meanwhile, may all your spools be well behaved!  Take a break as I am from dusting the house, or shopping, or baking, and do a bit of quilting.  You will feel better for it.....

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Part 4: Moving the Quilt: Batting, Products, and Visibility

Here are some more tips for home machine quilting.  Then take a break and have a tea party!
Note: Please keep in mind that everything I blog about or what I teach is geared to my expertise, quilting on a normal size home sewing machine.  Other machines including those with extended arms, or frame machines that are mounted over a quilt stretched in a frame, are different.  They can handle heavier batts, thick trapunto, and can build designs differently because so much of the quilt can be seen while quilting, and the thicker batts don't have to squeeze down to fit in a home machine.

I occasionally read Facebook posts or hear from other quilters and have discovered that many use two batts to get the dimension they want, especially in show quilts. Some will layer a basic stable batt with a softer loftier batt such as wool over it. Thin flat Poly like Quilter's Dream Select, and then something like wool over that, or Dream Orient and then wool. The wool highlights the quilting so beautifully.

I've used flat cotton batts from Quilter's Dream, Select usually, and then trapunto on top of that with wool or poly, but never an entire batt over another entire batt, not for my home machine. 

Why? Because for me it is too thick to roll or package to fit in the arm of my home machine. All that thickness and puff makes it difficult to move smoothly with my hands, and there is too much puff under the needle.  The underlying layer of stable batt makes it stiff too, so the quilt has two issues:  stiff and puffy at the same time.  Shiver, shudder, I need a cup of tea just thinking about it.

For the style of my own quilts, one wool batt is sufficient.  Or one "any fiber" batt, but I like wool the best. 

I don't try to obtain the overly stuffed designs; I prefer a gentler dimension from just the batt, with thread color choices or ink shading to set off the designs and make them stand out.  But the style you want, the effects you love, all those things determine what batt to choose. 

Also, there are the limitations of quilting in a home machine you must always keep in mind.  There is only so much room for half the quilt to fit in the arm space, and you have to be physically able to move the quilt under the needle smoothly and easily for good stitches.  Keep these things in mind when you start layering batts with gusto.

What batt to use?  There are many wonderful batts on the market now.  I began machine quilting in 1988 thanks to Harriet Hargrave's lecture and then her first book as my guide.  I used a 100% cotton batt, Mountain Mist.  It helped keep the layers from sliding while quilting, it was thin and would roll up to fit in the machine, and when done and washed, would shrink up a bit with lovely puckery drape to give a vintage look.  It needled so well, the threads sunk into the soft cotton wonderfully.  It was a great way to learn machine quilting.

After some years of making quilts using cotton batt or an 80% cotton, 20% poly (Hobbs Heirloom Cotton or Fairfield's Cotton Classic), I craved some puff in the designs, which were getting lost in all the puckers and on print fabrics.  I learned machine trapunto from Hari Walner's book, adding polyester batt over the cotton for the trapunto designs. 

I used this technique and these batts for 6 years until in 2000 I vowed NO MORE!  The trimming of the poly batt was painful and tedious, and quilting over the two batts in my home machine was doable but difficult.

I researched batts (and this is what you must do and keep on doing) and discovered Hobbs Heirloom Wool batt that had been there all along but I was so stuck in my rut that I never even considered it.

Interestingly enough, my bold departure from sure-fire winning batt and thread choices resulted in my first quilt that went on to win numerous awards and eventually was named a Masterpiece Quilt by the National Quilting Association, a huge honor and achievement.

This quilt, "Through a Glass, Darkly:  An American Memory," above, used Hobbs Heirloom wool batt.  Also for the first time I used solids (mostly hand dyed sueded cotton from Cherrywood Fabrics) and YLI #100 silk thread in the top and Aurifil #50 cotton thread in the bobbin instead of invisible thread. 

Every single step of the way on this quilt was a pleasure, and that told me I was so on the right track.  Listen to that inner voice!  The fabrics, the feel of the batt as I quilted, no trapunto to trim and wrestle with in the machine, the dimension in the designs that did not shrink up and disappear when I, gasp, washed this quilt, and the beauty of the machine stitches using silk thread - all these things were like rain after a long drought.

The pieced top had 1/2" logs when finished, and the weight of it was much greater than other tops I had done.  It was heavy, but so pretty.  I almost didn't want to quilt it.  I know you all know exactly what I mean. 

However, the wool batting was feather light and this quilt was actually very easy to handle in my machine.  It hangs well, it drapes beautifully, you could sleep under it and be comfy with a breathable batt like wool, warm in winter, cool in summer.  It packs and travels well too as the wool tends to rebound and creases hang out quickly.

After washing, there are some puckers, but not too many.  Steaming it when it was dry helped block it into perfect squares.  I found the wool batt could take just about anything I did to it.

Quilt detail
Would wool batting work well in all quilts?  Probably not!  If you have a heavily embellished wall quilt it might not have enough substance and/or stability to keep it flat and even while hanging for long periods.  You might try a wool blend with some poly in it for those needs, or a more stable batt.  
Research and find out what batt is available, how it acts, what is its intended purpose.  Often there are comparison articles in the quilt magazines or information online in forums or from manufacturers on their websites that will give you valuable information.  If you like to touch and feel it, see a quilt made up with it, go to your local quilt shop and see what they have and recommend for your quilt and what your quilt will be used for. 

If it's a fiber you like such as cotton or wool, silk, poly, bamboo, blends, it is probably available from various manufacturers and might have differences from brand to brand.  If you discover one you love, be sure and nail down a source either locally or online that you can order.  Catalogs offer batting too; it is readily available so you don't have to be limited by what your fabric chain store carries.

"Red Square" ~ Detail, wool batt

Pick up "batting samplers" at quilt shows or if they are offered by manufacturers online or in catalogs.  You can then try them out, but be sure to label your quilted samples with a permanent marker on the back for reference.  I always think I'll remember, but it's not easy to keep track after a few samples, trust me.

The main thing is to make some prototypes that are useful with various batts to see what works best for your style of quilt: 
  • Use all the same materials in the samples, but vary the batting so it will be a valid comparison test. 
  • Pay attention to how the batt behaves as you quilt as well as how it looks when finished.  Sometimes batts are so stiff they are all but impossible for me to deal with in the machine, or have bits of chunky cotton debris that will break a #60 needle when hit during quilting.
  • Make samples into small clutches, placemats, bags for sewing supplies, etc. if they turn out well.  Mistakes don't matter in items like this, especially placemats.  Doll quilts are good ideas too.

Quality batting is expensive, but well worth the price for the results, the ease of quilting, and longevity of the quilt. 


In a home machine it's possible to see only a small area around the needle, the flat part of the quilt held smooth by your hands. Even if I am doing long freehand curves that will be the base of feathers, I sketch those lightly on my quilt because once the quilt is in the machine, it is difficult to see or quilt a big smooth curve.

I can see only a portion of a long line at a time, and many times it is behind the needle. Soon you must stop and adjust quilt and hands, begin again, making a long curve that in actuality is a series of small curves with lots of stops and starts. It is essential to learn to stop and start a continuous line of quilting smoothly and with no visible flag that you had to stop. That is not easy!

I tend to readjust the quilt, then put the needle in the "up" position. It is in the down position to hold the quilt in place as I move things around before continuing.

When I resume quilting I first move the needle to UP, position the needle exactly where I will begin, and start slowly.  Then pick up speed so there are no little glitches or wobbles at this point.

It becomes second nature to move the needle to "up" and sometimes it is really important (poufy batt) or in the center of a large quilt, and sometimes it doesn't really matter, but the trick is, you NEVER KNOW if the needle will jump a bit to one side or the other when you begin. On my Berninas I can tap the foot control with my heel and the needle goes up or down, so I don't have to move my hands to press a control for needle up/down. Very handy to use the foot control.

I prefer an open toe foot so there is no obstruction around the needle. I can hit a previously stitched line precisely, no guessing.

As I quilt "away from myself" on the line behind the foot, with an offset shank as I have on my #24 foot, I can see the line.

A foot that has the shank offset to the side is also very helpful in seeing behind the foot, as in the foot above. There will always be a blind spot for you where the shank must attach, but I prefer it to the side, rather than spot in the middle of your line of vision on the back of the foot.

Wherever the blind spot is, you can turn the quilt slightly so that visibility is better for that particular angle.

Older Berninas do not have the offset foot available. You must look around the post in the middle of your field of vision, as is necessary in many brands of machines. Again, turn the quilt slightly so you can see better.

Sometimes the manufacturer puts a very large thumb screw used to attach the foot on the left of the foot and this too obscures your line of vision; you can replace it with a flush screw that will need a small screwdriver for removal or tightening. It really opens up the floor plan around the needle though, well worth doing.

And don't forget magnifiers for better visibility.  I need one and use one frequently.  Mine is by Bernina and attaches to my machine and is optical grade so I don't get seasick or a headache, and is easily attached or removed.  There are generics available too.  Try one out for detail work or if you feel it might help you.  Save your eyesight every chance you get.


If you use the Neutrogena hand cream or any specialty product for giving hands a tacky feel for better grip, rub it in well. Any excess could be absorbed by the quilt, although I have never had a problem with this product as it is not oily.

If a drop of oil might find its way on the quilt, blot it well with an absorbent paper towel, then place some cornstarch on the spot, rub in gently and let it sit for a few hours. Many times residue will disappear. Brush out the residue of cornstarch later.  If I'm washing the finished quilt, a bit of Orvus Paste dissolved on a damp terry cloth and some gentle rubbing will get it out nicely.

Adhesive basting sprays. I don't use them because I am allergic to chemicals, especially aerosols, but students layer quilts with these sprays, and I note that in addition to gunk that gets in the machine from them, in the hook/bobbin area, and even on the needle, the quilts can get quite stiff as they are quilted.  It's then more difficult to handle them with ease, get good thread tension, package them (roll or fold) to fit in a home machine, hang on to them. Machine needles will dull quicker too.  I still use safety pins, #1 bent ones for layering quilts, and am happy with them.  If sprays work well for you, use them.


Don't be afraid to try new things that might help. I do think it is a "less is more" thing though - the more aids and products you depend on the more you stray from the basics of you, the machine, and moving the quilt evenly and well. It takes experience, and you gain that by quilting.

Each little improvement I found, things that made my job easier, resulted in better quilting, and I was more relaxed, and didn't ache as much.

Try not to move from project to project, finish each one if you can. They all act and feel so different while quilting, so you won't get sustained improvement on each one unless you see it through to the end, even if you have to grit your teeth to finish.

"Blue Market Bag" - detail, wool batt

Do accept small variations in your work, stitches that are not perfect, freehand designs that are not all identical. Freehand quilting is machine quilting by hand, not by computer, and these variations give it the look of a hand made one-of-a-kind piece. Try not to take out stitches too often. Let them all be part of the story of the quilt, adding character and interest. Outright mistakes? Catch them and fix them right away. There is nothing worse than finishing a quilt and then having to go back and find the spots you have to fix. If quilting begins to deteriorate, stop and take a break, try again later. 

Oliver says......keep quilting! Your work does get better every day.