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,


Marjorie's Busy Corner said...

great tips Diane....and lovely quilting

Fiona said...

thanks for all these tips.... so much to learn....
Happy Thanksgiving

Ramona said...

Incredible amount of information. Thanks so much!!!

Happy Thanksgiving.

Missy Shay said...

Oliver looks like my Muffin! Thank you for the great tips!

Anonymous said...

Hey Diane,

Thank you so much!! Do you find wool hard to pin baste?

Maggie in Arizona

NMSue said...

I print out all your tips. Thank you so much for all the great information. And, Oliver looks quite happy. Hope you both are completely well now.

Anonymous said...

please help me, stitches too tiny (moving too slow) and if I move fast my needle breaks, can you post a dvd of you actually sewing free motion quilting, many thanks any help and advice highly appreciated tks

Diane Gaudynski said...

Anonymous, try doing one thing differently first. If your stitches are too tiny, keep the machine at the same speed (you can hear if you alter the speed, try to be consistent), but move your hands just a little faster. The stitches should increase just a bit in size.

If your needle breaks, it means you are moving the quilt too fast for the speed of the machine. Slow down your hands, keep the machine the same.

Sometimes you have to adjust BOTH the speed of the machine with your foot control, either go faster or slower and keep your hands the same speed to get even stitches. It takes concentration. If your attention wanders things won't work well. As soon as stitches start to be irregular or wrong, stop. Take a break and a deep breath, start again and concentrate.

Repetition of doing the right hand speed and the right motor speed locks it in and this will soon become automatic and you won't have to think about it.

Keep at it, it does even out and becomes as automatic for you as walking, writing, washing the dishes.....