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.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Part 3 Moving the Quilt: Extra Credit

"Batzbelow" ~ Detail of bat that appeared in hand dyed fabric.....

Some tweaks to my previous two posts about moving the quilt in a home sewing machine while free motion quilting are needed.  There are always exceptions and "what ifs" and extra info to any topic, so today I will add a little more.

FMQ Foot

Some feet can be purchased for brands of machines that themselves can be adjusted so there is less pressure on the foot, and a bit more clearance.  Investigate your brand, explore their website, blog, forum, join a forum for your brand so you can ask other owners questions. 

Take everything you hear with a grain of salt, you are the final decision maker in how you quilt.  But do have an open mind.  Don't say, well, this is the way I always do something, or this is the foot I have used forever.  Perhaps there is a better way and you are not aware.

The Bernina BSR (stitch regulator) foot has three soleplates so you can choose which one works best for the task.  It lifts and "hops" as you quilt, and it can be used with several modes.  Whenever I have worked with this foot on students' machines who do use it there have been animated discussions among them as to which mode works best.  It is different for everyone. 

Although I don't need to use the BSR, when I demo it for classes I like to remove the foot control  and use the mode that is based solely on my hand movements.  That way I don't get confused and keep pressing pointlessly on the foot control to make it go faster.  It will only run if I move my hands.  My brain can handle this and doesn't get it confused with normal FMQ when I control the speed with my foot and the quilt movement with my hands and have them balanced for even stitches. 

The BSR doesn't care about your hand movements; it keeps up with you, slow or fast, and makes pre-set stitches at a length you set on the machine.  However, it works best if your hand movements are even, controlled, not too fast (it will beep at you) or not too slow and jerky.  It does teach you how to move your hands and that will allow you to progress to quilting without it and get great results flying solo.

If you've never done FMQ, the BSR is easy to learn.  If you are trained to FMQ without this device, it takes some getting used to and trying all the modes to find what works best for you, but in the end, it does give you very even stitches.  Even, consistent stitches create beautiful designs.

Be aware there is a number setting on the touchscreen you adjust for how much pressure is on the foot when you do FMQ with the Bernina BSR.  Check owner's manual for guidance in using this, but in class we have lowered that number quite a bit to quilt easily over seam allowances, etc.

Oliver investigates my first Bernina for FMQ

My first machine for free motion quilting was a Bernina 1030, above, and I quilted for some time with the #9 darning foot.  There was never enough clearance to quilt over seams, trapunto, etc.  And there was no auto needle down; I had to tap the foot control with my heel, which I still do at times now.  I like manual control.

Now I am so used to "auto needle down" that I have on my newer electronic machines that sometimes when I sew on the 1030 I sit and wait for the needle to go down, forgetting I must tap the foot control to make this happen. 

Later Bernina came out with the metal #29 foot for this machine, a big round foot that was like quilting with a mini-hoop, photo above.  The best thing, of all the machines and feet I have used, it had the most clearance.  It SAILED over seam allowances, and I started doing tiny stippling that I could see within the foot very clearly, no obstructions.  I learned to look ahead of the needle, not at it, and around the shank and the foot edge, and my quilting speeded up and became smooth and even.  My quilting improved dramatically with this foot.

It is a great foot.  However, at the time, when used on some of the electronic Bernina models, skipped stitches occurred.  It was actually sitting a bit too high, and later Bernina came out with the plastic #29 foot to solve that problem for those machines.  But the original metal one worked great for me on my mechanical model.

Check with your brand of machine to see all the options.  Many times all you need is a better FMQ foot, or a way to increase clearance under one.

Manufacturers make new feet for machines after they introduce the machine model, so always ask or check online to see  if new feet are available, and give one a test drive at your dealer. 

Next time.....Batting and more.

Keep quilting, it gets easier and better.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Moving the Quilt in a Home Machine

Quilting on a home sewing machine is fun, relaxing for the most part, works beautifully to quilt even large bed quilts.....but.....sometimes it is a huge challenge moving that quilt under the needle and getting great results.
My last post was all about the foot, the right one for your machine designed for the best outcome and the most clearance under it.  It was also about adjusting the pressure on it if possible so the quilt will move smoothly with feed dogs dropped.  Finally, I discussed some ideas for you to modify a free motion foot to allow it to sit a bit higher, giving you more space under it to move the quilt smoothly.
However, if other things are fighting you no foot in the universe will help overcome all difficulties.  The recipe for successful FMQ (free motion quilting) has many ingredients, and the foot is but one of them.  Below are some more ingredients you will need:
The Grip
In the photo above, my hands are lightly pressing down on the quilt while moving it smoothly under the needle, following a marked line.  This is a sample, so it wasn't a large quilt and I had plenty of room.  There was no half of an 85" quilt rolled or folded up in the opening of the machine, fighting my right hand for space.
My sewing machine does not have an extended arm, yet it is not at all difficult for me to quilt up to queen size quilts with it.  I roll, or loosely fold and scrunch the quilt area to the right of center into that space so that I can still place my hands flat by the needle. 
One of my students at the National Quilt Museum is using this same grip, light but firm touch, to move her quilt in a portable sewing table.  Note how her arms are resting lightly as well, and her hands are creating the designs.
Tip!  Avoid the "death grip"!  Relax, hold on to the quilt any way that is comfy for you and lets you have control of it, without pressing too hard.  That makes it too difficult to move. 
Gathering up some of it with your left hand, gently scrunching up some on the right or holding on to the bulk of it there will give you "handles" and help if you need it.  Press, lift at the same time.  It takes a bit of concentration to do this, but once you learn you don't have to think about it again.  Don't grab so tightly or press down so hard you leave creases or marks in the quilt top; then, it has become the Death Grip.
What about extra help?  I quilt with no gloves or extra aids, and find that this gives me freedom to move my hands as needed, and the sensory feedback from my fingers so I can quilt with more control and finesse.  Hoops provide some help if your hands can't do it alone, but I find them visually distracting and can't quilt as well with them.  But.....if you need extra help, use it.  Find whatever you can to help you move the quilt more easily and keep you from experiencing pain.
I use a batt (currently loving Pellon Legacy wool, and Hobbs Tuscany is also nice) that condenses nicely, and while it has loft, it isn't stiff or hard to move in the machine.  It squishes down easily while being quilted, and when quilted closely it becomes very thin.  It compresses yet stays soft. I can gather the quilt in my hands and move it easily.   It stays down in the dense quilting, and bounces back in large designs to add wonderful loft.
It's my favorite batt because of its properties:  loft in designs, flat and thin when quilted down, feather light to handle, compresses in the machine arm so it fits well.  The finished quilt hangs beautifully, on a wall or bed, and is much softer and lighter with wool batt than with other batt fibers.  I also like soft thin cotton batt, but only use this when wool would be too poufy.
If the batt is stiff the quilt will be difficult to move.  Sometimes a batt doesn't get stiff until it has lots of quilting in it (bamboo blends did that), and then it becomes like cement in the machine.  Or a board, flat and hard and so difficult to gather and move.  That's when you see quilters using gloves or other aids to help move quilts under the needle.  If you find you are getting very sore hand and arm muscles from quilting even small easy designs, the batt might be the culprit.
I also see quilters wearing gloves with certain brands of machines that tend to have sticky beds and feet that don't give enough clearance.  These things can be altered and your quilting life improved!  Do not simply accept the fact that quilts are hard to move in your particular machine.
Machine Bed/Surface
So many times in classes or in email questions I have to diagnose problems, and go through a mental checklist to see what could be causing them.  Many times struggles, uneven stitches, and most often the dreaded breaking needles come from a sticky surface under the quilt.  This can be the machine bed itself (many times sticky plastic), the plexiglas or other material used for an insert around the free arm, the surround added to make a flat space to support the quilt, or the sewing cabinet itself.  Whew, so many things that can go wrong.
If you think the surround might be sticky, wash it with fairly warm soapy water (mild mild soap like a dot of Orvus Paste dissolved in a bowl of water, or Ivory liquid) and buff it dry with a flour sack dish towel, washed but no fabric softener.  I especially recommend this for plexi surrounds, anything plastic. 
I wipe off machine areas with a damp cloth and white vinegar to remove residues. Anything you spray in your sewing area could make this area sticky in time.  New plexiglas often is all but un-usable until it is washed, maybe several times.  Once it is clean, the quilt constantly moving over it improves it over time and it will become like ice, nice and slippery, helping you move the quilt easily.
The Supreme Slider
If cleaning the machine's bed doesn't help enough, or the weather is humid and your quilt absorbs moisture like a sheep or your hair (!) or you notice your pets looking fluffier and nothing is drying in your house, you might need more help.  I use a product originally called "The Slider" and now called "Supreme Slider," above, because it is self stick, and can be re-activated by rinsing it off.   Check it out at
It's placed on the bed of the machine and provides a very slippery surface for that all-important area where your hands are resting, gripping, moving.  The first time I tried one of these I had passed out some of these to my class for them to try, then sat at one of their machines to do a demo, and was shocked and excited and stopped dead in my tracks to exclaim how incredibly easy her quilt was to move!  I asked her for her secret, and everyone laughed as she had one of the sample Sliders on her machine and I didn't know it.  So my first time was a true blind test, and I loved it.
Here is the Supreme Slider taped to my machine, hole centered over the opening for the bobbin thread.  This will also cover feed dogs that don't lower on some machines.  I still use, after all these years, the Neutrogena Norwegian Formula hand cream on my palms and fingers for extra "grip."  Hands are slightly tacky and quilt doesn't slip under them.  I get it at Walgreen's or grocery stores.
 I tend to use the Slider often, for most projects.  If the room and sewing machine insert feel a bit sticky, I use it.  If the backing of my quilt just doesn't move smoothly, I use it.  If my hands are tired or aching, I use it.  It can save entire projects that otherwise wouldn't move smoothly.  I have inadvertently used fabrics that simply would not move well, sort of moved in jerks and starts.  The Slider solved it.
Note:  If you press down too hard and have a "death grip" on the quilt, you could dislodge the Slider and it will become part of the quilt, and be quilted into the back.  If something doesn't feel right or sound right as you quilt, stop and check.  Students trying Sliders for the first time in class tend grip or press too hard and move it with the quilt.  Even though the Supreme Slider is now self-stick, I still tape the corners of it to the cabinet and to the bed of the machine on the right. 
Another tip is to use starch to press the backing of the quilt, before layering it.  I mix my own (recipe at end of post) with starch from the kitchen cupboard, and it works great.  It's especially nice because it is natural and you can adjust how thin/thick you want the mixture for how much body and crispness you want in the fabric.  I use a light mix for the quilt's backing, spritz it on the fabric and press it dry.  This adds nice slip to the back of the quilt and I find it really helps the quilt move more easily.
It also seems to prevent pleats and puckers forming on the back of the quilt from machine quilting.
I've also tried Mary Ellen's clear unscented starch and I like that; it's called Best Press.  It's handy and doesn't spoil, as my homemade stuff will do.  I confess I haven't used it on a quilt back, so can't say definitively that it will help the quilt move better, but I bet it would.
In the photo above you will also see some of the Legacy wool batt used in this sample.  It gives lovely dimension to even very tiny bananas.  They look stuffed sometimes and it's because of the batt.
Starch works, but you have to remember to add it to the quilt backing before you layer the quilt.  I forgot to do this on one of my show quilts, but the Slider saved me and I had no issues after that. 
And I always piece with starch:  press the pre-washed fabric with it, spritz it on my piecing as I press it.  Be careful not to use too much or it will cause distortion if it gets really wet.  A light mist works great.
Backing Fabric 
Choosing the best fabric for the back of the quilt is important for many reasons, but fabric that allows the quilt to move freely as you quilt is vital. 
For many years I used good quality muslin, pre-washed and pressed with my starch recipe, for all my quilt backings and it was perfect.  It showed quilting well (like a wholecloth), was soft so the stitches sunk in properly and tension was balanced, and it moved so nicely on my machine.  Then I decided some color on the back was a good thing, and switched to prints or almost-prints for backing. 
I discovered some fabrics needled better (accepted the stitch), sounded better while being quilted, and slid around so much better while quilting than others.  Tight weaves, dyes, deep colors all gave me problems.  Batiks are beautiful and stable but the thread on the back sat there on top of the fabric and tension issues were bad.  The quilt did not move well, and it became very, very stiff when it was quilted, so it was very hard on my hands and all muscles to wrestle it around in the machine. 
I learned what fabrics and brands worked best as backing and stuck with them.  Experiment, audition backing fabric on a small sample to see how it works before investing in yardage.  Color and design are important, but in home machine quilting sometimes function is more important.  Finding a nice compromise can be done so it will look wonderful and work well in the machine too.
Above, back of a quilt.  I used a lighter colored bobbin thread so the design is a negative of the front of the quilt.  This is a Benartex fabric by Caryl Bryer Fallert called "Gradations" that I picked up at her studio in Paducah, KY, but my local quilt shop carries it, as do many online sources including Bryerpatch studio:   It has gorgeous color, the perfect weave, and stunning colors.  It moves perfectly on the machine bed and surround, and the stitches sink into it just the right amount.
There are many fabrics, brands, styles that work just as well.  You have to find them.
Note:  Do not "use up" old icky fabrics for backing unless they move well, needle well.  Do not buy ultra cheap fabric for backing either, but sometimes you can score big with fabulous quality fabric from quilt shops at sale prices that did not sell because of color or design, and that might be perfect for your style and/or for quilt backing.  I've found great things in the sale bins; fabric is very high quality but no one wanted it.  Give it a home.  And audition it first before layering the quilt.
I hope all these tips have helped, and will give you some confidence when sitting down at the machine with your layered quilt.  Every project feels and acts differently under the needle, so take the time to figure out what needs tweaking so everything is at optimal performance level for you.
Starch Recipe
Below is my recipe for home made starch, which is nice but also good to have in a pinch if you run out of your favorite store starch:
Try my recipe for spray starch for all your pressing/piecing needs. Remember, you can adjust any of these amounts to suit your own needs, and also don't keep this for more than two weeks max. I make up a batch when I need it, then dump it out when I'm finished. It produces a super flat stable quilt:

Dissolve half a teaspoon (or one teaspoon for a stiffer starch) of regular Argo cornstarch (in your cupboard probably) in a few tablespoons of cold water in a heat proof 2-cup measuring pitcher like Pyrex. Add boiling water to make one cup, stirring constantly. Then add cold water to the 2 cup line. Let cool and use in a pump spray bottle. Shake it every time you spray. You may have to dilute it a little if it is too thick or builds up white flakes. Lasts a week or so as there are no preservatives, no chemicals, no nothing that harms us or the environment, and it’s practically free, except for the spray bottle! Don't starch fabrics for storage as it will attract critters such as centipedes, and mice.  Add water as you use it up to make it last longer and dilute it a bit more. 

Hope your Thanksgiving was wonderful and you have too many blessings to count.  Oliver licked the turkey roasting pan, a real adventure for a Vegan Cat.

And then slept it off on his soft blanket.....

Keep quilting!  Your work gets better every day,

Friday, November 16, 2012

More Room Under Your Foot


 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.
~  ~  ~

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!)

Luckily I still had the packet of Surgical rubber hinge rings (get them in the eyewear department at WalMart). I just inserted a snipped one at the bottom of the foot, between the bottom of the shaft and the end of the tubular back part of the foot that moves up and down the shaft. (If you put your index finger on the very top of the foot, and rest the bottom of the foot on your thumb, and squeeze, the foot will move up the shaft. The space opened at the bottom is where you insert the rubber ring. You snip the ring apart with scissors so it will easily slide on.)

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.

Sounds really odd, but that small additional amount of space makes all the difference in the world, and I have been gliding right over that seam allowance buildup for several days now, like it wasn't even there. Do have to remember to remove the ring when I go back to flatter areas, as that bit of extra space will then cause skipped stitches. But wow, what a wonderful help when I need it!
Anyone using an older machine that does not allow them to adjust the clearance of the foot would surely find this an invaluable bit of advice, I know I sure did, thank you again after all these years!"

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.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Combining our Knowledge

Ann and Diane at her book signing 2011
Recently Ann Fahl and I were discussing the angst of quilting over triangles on our home sewing machines.   The thickness, the foot getting hung up, the pulling on the quilt, large stitches, tiny stitches, broken needles, hair pulling, all of it.  The STRUGGLE!
Ann is busy on her end writing about this issue and will blog about it in a series of posts about quilting her red triangle quilt.  She has lots of info after working on this quilt and I will be posting my blog in a few days, so watch for hers and mine as well. 
We hope our joint effort will help with your quilting, because quilting in a home machine is definitely a challenge at times.  All of our experience and knowledge both in quilting and working with students and the wide variety of machines should give you the tips you need to make things go so much more smoothly.
I hope to publish more informational blogs in the upcoming months, maybe even another tutorial.  Thanks for all your well wishes; Oliver and I are doing well.  He is worried the weather is so very cold so early in the season, and he wondered about the snowflakes in the air the other night.  Oh no....
Above, Oliver the first week at our house.  He chowed down in my bathroom and now that I look at this I see why I thought his tail was so long; his body hadn't grown yet!  He was 6 months old.  He is still as sweet as ever, maybe even sweeter, but I am so biased.
Keep quilting!  Your work gets better every day....