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.
Winging It Quilt Along – Week 7
17 hours ago
Thank you. Thats' a very good lesson. I'm a longarm machine quilter and what you're talking about works that way also. (I used to quilt on my Bernina)
Thank you for all the information in that post!
Maybe just a bit too "teacher-y" today?! I will try and be less serious in the future. :-)
I'm still trying to transition for hand quilting to free motion machine quilting and I must say, it has not been an easy transition. But I'm confident with practice I'll improve my technique and begin to feel more confident with my ability. Your posts are always full of information and so useful. Thank you!
Dena, keep trying - it's not as easy as you might think so realize that and it will not be as daunting.
I think the correct hand/foot coordination to get lovely stitches, plus correct stitch length, both really make all the difference and take total concentration at first, but become automatic later. I don't even think about it now, but at first I had a hard time breathing and quilting at the same time.
Also work with thread colors that are similar to your fabric, not a high contrast, and never darker. When you look down at your work and it is pleasing, you will relax and your quilting will improve, become easier to do. But you do have to work at it often, like any mind/body activity - music, dance, sports, typing. Good luck!
No, not too "teacher-y" for me! Like Dena, I'm transitioning from hand to machine quilting, and your posts are a tremendous help. Thank you! (P.S. I live in France, where we just don't get much in the way of good machine-quilting classes. Any chance of your coming to Paris?)
Diane, I understand your initial concern over the scale of your stitches on the orchid piece (is that a paph?), how the stitches look larger than they are, but aren't your stitches in proportion with the subject so it still reads balanced when the photo is enlarged?
I think I understand you're saying stitches need to be in scale with the thread, but isn't really both, to be in scale with the thread and the subject?
On another note,
A quilt shop near me is closing, everything is on clearance. It's funny how you've influenced me, I glossed right over the 40wt threads and snatched up the aurfil without a second thought, like "Will I ever use this color?"
Thanks for your inspirations!
Yes, it is still in proportion so turned out ok, and I quit worrying about it. Proportion truly is the key when you are deciding these things.
Hope you love the Aurifil thread, and on sale too. I like this thread in the bobbin when I try out new and different threads in the top. It also lasts a long time in the bobbin and produces very little lint.
Jill - wow, Paris! I am glad this info is helpful and I'll try to add more as I go along. I'm not travelling much right now, but perhaps in the future. Paris would be very tempting indeed.
Diane--These posts full of information are wonderful ---both as reminders for those of us who have been lucky enough to have taken classes from you, and as learning opportunities for those who have not yet had a chance to take a class from you. Please keep including these "teacherly posts" on your blog.
Not teacher-y at all! Well, not in a bad way. That is one of the reasons I enjoy coming to your blog.
And what you didn't say, it's so very much easier to keep neat even stitches with very fine threads and small stitches. It is harder to get even larger stitches, not impossible, just a little harder......
I'm so pleased you're blogging. I'd liked your monthly updates on your site, but this is so much better!
Sally you are right of course! I can get even stitches so much easier with fine threads and smaller stitches. Smaller designs are easier for the beginner too rather than large, more open designs with longer "runs."
I think I even dress nicer when I use these lovely textiles.....just kidding, but you do feel a bit more accomplished when the tools you use make it go so much better.
Great post, Diane! 1.8 is my "staple" stitch length on my Bernina.
Thank you for inspiring me!
Hi Diane, Great suggestions. It is good to hear and be reminded that we are after uniformity and smoothness. Take care,
This lilac, dark red quilt if I'm correct it was auctioned at the Alzheimer art quilt initiative. Do you have an overall picture of that quilt. I'm always very curious when I see this detailed picture. I also browsed the Alzheimer AGI once, but couldn't find anything ofcourse. Keep on quilting, still happy to read all of your tips, Babette.
Babette, No I never had a quilt auctioned, but it is in the Exhibit and you may have seen it somewhere - it has toured the country for several years and soon will be part of the exhibit at the Shelburne Museum. I don't have a photo of the entire quilt, it's small, a silk strippy, but it is in the book of the exhibit quilts, published and for sale. It's an amazing book.
I made this quilt, never thinking about how many people would see it. I was working on a tight deadline between some trips and that quilt came hot off the machine, washed, blocked, bound, and shipped and I never got a photo of it. Ami Simms had professional photos of all the exhibit quilts and they are in the book. I did take a few detail shots in progress, but once it was done I had to make time to get it to her on schedule.
When the quilt comes home to me I will get a photo and post it on my blog. It's simple, graceful, elegant - a tribute to my mother before the illness. I don't do pictorial or applique so I chose this style, my best work, to honor those who suffer from Alzheimer's.
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