Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Fabric Matters

At our recent classes at the National Quilt Museum in Paducah, KY, one of the key items I discussed was how to get dimension into quilting designs.  It's tough to go to all that work to find designs turn out flat and lifeless.

The design above was quilted on cotton sateen over wool batt, and had a soft fine cotton as the backing.  I used #100 silk thread and a stitch length of about 1.6 mm.  I did get dimension in the areas where the batt was left to fill the design. 

I realize it is NOT the same as stuffing the designs with extra batting ("trapunto") but I am quite content with this look.  It's easy to handle in a home sewing machine and just enough oomph to set off the designs.  I also quilt closely around them to flatten surrounding areas and make the design more of the focal point.  Thread color can also emphasize quilting designs.
However, some students consistently had problems getting any loft at all into designs.  After teaching for a long time and observing and drawing conclusions, I realized it is due to a variety of factors:

Batt, of course.  You need a batt with some loft in it to get designs to show well.  I currently am using wool batts, various brands and experimenting.  Some of the cottons work great as well, but remember, washing a quilt with cotton batting can cause shrinkage and puckering, making designs hard to see.  Wool tends to keep most of its dimension after gentle washing/wetting and air drying.

Stitch length.  In designs like Bouncing Bananas, below, or Headbands and Froth, if the stitch length is too big for the design size the puff will ooze out between the stitches, leaving you with a very flat design that is nothing but many stitches.

Here you can still see the individual stitches as well as the puff.  Stitches are not piled up, or so close it is a jumble of thread.  They are small enough to create a smooth shape PLUS create dimension and puff.  Correct stitch length is vital in creating puff.

Fabric choice.  The final crucial factor is the fabric you quilt on, even the fabric on the back of the quilt.  Sometimes when there was NO loft in designs at all, I would turn over the student sample only to see amazing loft on the BACK of the quilt.  The fabric used for backing had the proper hand and weave, thread count and finish, to allow the puff to appear.  The fabric on the TOP of the quilt did not. 

Many fabrics that we love don't work to showcase machine quilting.  Tight weaves, extra finishes, very dense fabrics, all can prevent the puff from happening. 

Even with a batt 1" thick, there would be little dimension if the fabric will not allow it to happen.  Sadly many batiks fit into this category, and that's why I suggest on my supply lists to save them for work at home, not in class.  Thread doesn't sink into them well at all.  They tend to be very flat when quilted, and many times affect thread tension adversely.

These fabrics can certainly be used, but if you plan on having areas in quilts to showcase quilting designs, do an audition on various fabrics before the top is even put together. 

Quilt up some prototypes, use the same fabrics, batt, thread, needle that you will use in the quilt.  Try various threads and colors,  adjust tension, see what works beforehand.  Plus, check for puff.  You want to see if the fabric will allow the designs to have dimension.

Sometimes spray adhesives used for basting quilt sandwiches can adversely affect puff as well.

Recently I had lunch with Ann Fahl and we were discussing the effect fabric has on quilting, how it prevents dimension, how some threads don't work well in certain fabrics.  She showed me her new book "Mastering Metallics" and she found that even with everything else done correctly, metallics don't work well or create problems in some cases because of the fabric.

Below, her new booklet, and my sample.  I tried some #40 Superior gold metallic with a Schmetz #80/12 Topstitch needle, #100 silk thread in the bobbin, on a mystery fabric that actually was so labelled.  It said it was a blend of silk, and unknown fibers.  It's a devil to quilt on, trust me, slips and slides and skews all over the place.  You can't see markings, and you can't see where you've already quilted.  I auditioned it several times for projects, and dismissed it as too difficult for the result.

However, I did get some nice dimension, and using Ann's guidelines in her booklet on how to place the thread on my machine, what needle to use, tension adjustments, and speed of machine, I successfully quilted a frond design with NO problems at all.

Even when several areas converged, everything went well.  There was no fraying thread, no skipped stitches.  I quilted slower than usual and that helped. 

Oh how I wish way back when I had had this book to help me when I first tried metallic thread!  If you want to use all the types of metallic and need some help, this booklet is perfect.  You can order it from Ann at her website,

So.....stop and consider everything before plunging into a project.  Selecting fabric to showcase your beautiful machine quilting to its very best advantage is worth the bit of extra time it takes.  After a while you will have experience in what works, what lines of fabric you love to quilt on, what backings work the best.  It's an adventure!

Meanwhile, keep quilting!  Your work gets better every day.

Follow me on Twitter!  I will be using it to mention machine quilting tips as they pop into my head.....!


Barb said...

You are just a wealth of information. thanks!!!

Anonymous said...

This post is worth its weight in gold. Thank you! I have never thought about the weave of the fabric having an effect on the puff of the quilting and I use a lot of densely woven fabrics.

jonhebert said...

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Here's a fun place to start! Everybody loves boob lube!

SewCalGal said...

I have mastered several of your designs and while I can do your headbands, I still need to work to get them to look as lovely as yours.

Great post, with wonderful insights. Thank you. I also look forward to checking out Ann's book on Metallics.


Diane Gaudynski said...

Thanks SewCalGal!
Work on one design, take a break, assess what needs change to make it look the way you want, and then do some more rather than switching to another design.

Each freehand design takes on the personality of the quilter, like handwriting, drawing, etc. You're doing great, keep at it and it gets easier and better all the time.