Thursday, August 2, 2007

Basic Guide to Domestic Machine "Free Motion Quilting"

Here is a unique way to get through the quilting process on your domestic sewing machine that gives a long arm finish - by tracing a paper roll pantograph with a water soluble fabric marking pen on see through white backing fabric, then quilting the quilt from the back rather than the front. If you are making a twin or lap size quilt with the thinnest loft batting, this is the most stress free way I have found to quilt your tops on a domestic machine.

Here is a video tutorial on my process:

For other great how to ideas for free motion quilting, here are some great reference resources:

Jera Brandvig, Quilt as You Go Made Modern

Angela Walters, Free Motion Quilting with Angela Waters

Diane Gaudynski, Guide to Machine Quilting

Diane Gaudynski, Quilt Savvy: Gaudynski's Machine Quilting Guidebook
Harriet Hargraves: Heirloom Machine Quilting

Ricky Tims, Grand Finale: Fine Machine Quilting (DVD)
Jinny Beyer, Quiltmaking by Hand

Choosing a Quilting Design

How to Choose a Quilting Design?
After you've pieced your top, you will be left to "quilt as desired." This is one of the hardest things to learn. These days, some quilting magazines and books are getting better at providing quilting diagrams as suggestions that come along with patterns, especially Fons and Porter. If the design choices have you stumped, there are several wonderful resources out there to help you answer this question. The Rodale Series offers a book, Choosing Quilting Designs, with very practical advice for beginners, with many diagrams showing various quilting options overlaid on top of various quilt designs. There is also another book, Encyclopedia of Quilting Designs, which catalogs every known design used by quilters from a historical perspective for traditional quilts.

Quilt shops rarely offer a good selection of stencils, but longarm quilt supply mail order houses usually are a great starting point. You can use pantographs found in longarm quilting supplies with all over quilting designs to transfer to your quilt top (see "bobbin quilting" tutorial here). There are also several online resources that specialize in quilting stencils: The Stencil Company, and Stensource are two great starting places. You can also find them through the Golden Threads website. If you get the chance to visit a quilt show, there will more than likely be several vendors specializing in templates where you'll have the largest selection to view and select from in person. Having a good stash of stencils, templates, and quilting designs is just as important if not more than having a good stash of fabric!

Here are several simple rules of thumb to keep in mind when you are looking for quilting designs:

  • Karen McTavish puts it best when she says, you don't want to overwhelm or underwhelm but rather compliment the quilt with a design you choose.
  • You'll want to make sure that the density of your quilting is balanced throughout the quilt.
  • You'll want to think about the amount of drape you want with your quilt when choosing a design - the more densely quilted, the less drape and vice versa.

Finally, its good to keep in mind, quilting shows up best on fabrics that are white or very light, solid fabrics rather than darker fabrics or fabrics with busy prints, (unless you want to quilt with contrasting thread, ie. light color thread on dark fabric and vice versa which is very unforgiving if you have unintended wiggles and wobbles).

The more you become confident and have fun with your machine quilting, the more you'll want to design and plan for quilts that offer alot of plain background fabric to quilt in. Also, for the backing, in the beginning you might want to use a busy print which will camoflouge wobbles, but as you get better, a white backing will show off your quilting, and will give you the look of a whole cloth quilt from the back where nothing but your quilting design will show.

The very best way to become skillful at choosing a quilting design is to go to as many quilt shows as you can to study what other quilters have done, where you can get up close and really see what rarely shows up in a photo, and then keep a book of ideas with you for the future. Its also really helpful when planning the quilting stage of your quilt if you create a diagram of your quilt, then make photocopies and rehearse several different ideas. Lastly, Sherry Rogers Harrison recommends transferring a quilting design onto thin upholstery vinyl magic marker, then overlay on top of your quilt as a way to rehearse various designs as well.

When you're ready to transfer your quilting design to the top of your quilt, here are a few suggestions:

  • If you are using a plastic stencil, always buy the clear, see-through kind, never pastel pink or any other color. See-through plastic helps you align the stencil with registration marks, especially on busy prints.
  • Try to avoid using quilting paper to transfer your design to the top of the quilt. It tears easily, you can't see your stitches while you stitch on it, and small bits of paper tend to get stuck underneath the stitches.
  • I have tried both blue and white pounce powder (by this brand) and found both of them to be useless - the white did not stay on and the blue did not wash out. HOWEVER, after hearing a podcast from Alex Anderson with Marilyn Badger, I learned that the brand of pounce powder you use can make a difference. Marilyn swears by the "miracle chalk" brand which you can view here. She needle punches her hand drawn quilting designs onto freezer paper with a large size needle and then transfers the design to the top of a quilt by swiping the pounce pad across the design where the chalk flows through the holes and onto the quilt top. According to her, the chalk does not come off until you take it off with a warm iron.
  • If you are trying any product based on chemicals to transfer the design, such as a marking pen, always test first to see if it washes out on ALL the fabric in your top. You'll want to rinse it completely out with "cold" water and then wash the quilt with a very mild soap. Also, be sure to avoid contact with direct sunlight or any heat source while the pen markings are on the quilt.
  • Before you commit to a final design, its helpful to rehearse the design on a piece of paper with a miniature scale diagram of your full quilt, then on a small swatch first before you commit to your final choices.

How to Avoid Common Quilter Mistakes

Wavy Borders
One of the biggest problems that new quilters make is "wavy borders." These can become a real problem when you are quilting your quilt because they just won't lie flat. There is rarely any advice in quilt pattern directions on how to avoid this. If you get wavy borders, you've eased in too much fabric. This problem can be caused if you add your borders by sewing a length of fabric to the side of the quilt and then trimming off the excess. To avoid this, measure the length and width of your quilt from the middle and use this measurement to cut the length of all your borders.

Squaring Up
Another common problem is in not knowing how to square up a length of yardage before cutting strips with your rotary cutter. Sally Collins offers a really good demonstration on how to do this in her DVD, Precision Piecing. If you are not squaring up first, your strips will be wonky in the area where the fold is and will become unusable. Worse, if you do use wonky strips, you're finished block sizes will lack precision and that can cause distortion when you try to sew them together. Like making a sauce in French cuisine, there is a point where the chemistry just won't hold things together and you might reach a breaking point where things become unfixable. So the key to machine quilting is starting with a top that has been sewn together with as much precision as possible.

Accurate Quarter Inch Seam Allowances
Getting an accurate 1/4" seam allowance is also a mystery for some people. This accuracy is similar to having the "correct gauge" for knitting. There are two simple ways to go. You can either purchase a quilters foot or you can place tape on the bed of your machine - either approach will give you a sewing guideline for a 1/4" seam allowance. With the quilters foot, your fabric should be flush or even with the outside (rightside) edge of the foot. When working with 1/4" seams, it can be a challenge to keep the fabric from slipping to the left because the stitching motion tends to draw the fabric in inwards. In order to correct for that, you might also need to adjust the foot if your machine comes with a dial that allows you to do that.

If quick and easy isn't for you or you are ready to take on a creative yet rewarding challenge, hand piecing offers the most precision for complex blocks. Jinny Beyer offers the best resource for hand piecing that I've ever come across. Her book is considered the bible and she also offers a demonstration DVD. You can find many free patterns on her website, and I also highly recommend templates sold through Marti Mitchell. For hand applique, I highly recommend the DVD by Piece O' Cake Designs, aka, Becky Goldsmith and Linda Jenkins.

Hiding Your Starts and Stops
Simulating hand quilters by hiding your starts and stops is also something that is not regularly taught and the only book I've ever seen this show up in is Karen McTavish's "Quilt for Show". She shows you how to bring up the bobbin thread on the first stitch, tie it to the top thread, and then using a needle to "pop" the knot through the top to bury it in the middle of the quilt along with the tails. The only other way to secure the thread at your stop and starting points is to let the machine needle go up and down several times in the same spot which causes what Diane Gaudynski calls a "thinking cap" or a small buildup of thread, which isn't a big problem if you only have a few starts and stops, but if you have alot of them, it will detract from the beauty of the finished results. You can also get them if you are free motion quilting and let the needle continue to go up and down in a single place while you pause to decide which way to go next, so its a good idea to let the needle rest in the down position if you need to pause.)

Quilting Supplies: Which Ones To Trust?

If you go to a quilt shop or a quilt show you'll see a huge variety of supplies, gadgets, and endless advice on what to try. Here are the supplies I've tried over the past five years that I felt were dependable and trustworthy:

1.) What Thread is Best for Machine Quilting?If you are doing any kind of free motion quilting (any quilting that is done without a walking foot), particularly if you are doing feathers or any motif that requires backtracking, you'll want to use a very fine, lightweight thread such as Aurifil's 50 wt Cotton or Superior Thread's Bottom Line, a 60 wt polyester thread. After I learned how to use this thread I would never go back to anything else. I would never use a heavier 30 or 40 weight thread because I don't like the heavy look of this thread, but that is just my personal preference. The lowest I use is 50 wt thread because I've learned that a heavier thread can cause thread build-up on the quilt top and bottom, especially if you are doing any kind of backtracking at all.  However, if you are not quilting by machine, heavier weight thread can be a really nice option.

If you have been happily quilting along with the standard thread weight mostly sold in quilt shops (probably a 40 or 50 weight thread), and decide to switch to a lighter weight thread for free motion quilting, you will probably need to adjust your bobbin tension by tightening or loosening the screw in the bobbin case with a small screwdriver (righty tighty, lefty loosy), and you'll also need to adjust your top thread tension as well. Lastly, you'll also need to make sure you use the right needle size for this lighter weight thread. Diane Gaudynski has a good section in her book on needle/thread recommendation for heirloom quilting using YLI silk thread. The Superior Threads website also has a table that provides recommended needle sizes for all their threads.

Its a good idea to learn how to do the "bobbin test" to see if you have the right bobbin tension: when you hold on to the thread and let the bobbin drop, it should fall about 6" and then stop. If it doesn't drop at all, its too tight, if it drops to the floor, its too loose. The only way to know if your tension on both is just right is to do a test swatch and look at your quilting to see if it looks right. (Eyelashes are a sign of tension that is too loose.)

Here is a link to the table on the Superior Threads website with recommended needle size for each type of thread they sell.

2.) Which Quilt Marking Products are the Best?
I have found the most effective product for transfering quilting designs is the Dritz Mark-B-Gone marking pen which washes out in cold water after you are done quilting. I was fearful of using this pen, like many other quilters until I realized the 'horror stories' I read about were most likely caused by incorrect use of the product (read more below). It works well for transferring designs on lighter fabrics but it doesn't show up as well on darker fabrics. There are white marking pens out there for darker fabrics but I haven't found a brand that I felt worked really well. So I use old fashioned white chalk on darker fabrics, even though the tip tends to break off alot.

You can transfer your designs onto Golden Threads quilting paper, but quilting on top of paper prevents you from seeing your quilting, and it is very time consuming to tear off (little bits and pieces get stuck under the thread). It also has a tendency to rip off before you have finished quilting the marked design.

I've tested both blue and white pounce powder (mostly made out of cornstarch) - the blue did not wash out and the white did not stay on! I've also tried marking pencils and the tips break often.

Some people have used the Dritz pen and had problems later on, possibly because they didn't follow the instructions for safe use. Before you use this pen on your quilt, test it on every single fabric in your quilt to make sure that it will wash out before you use it. You must not keep the marking in your quilt for a long time, you need to avoid exposure to direct sunlight, and it must be rinsed in cold water thoroughly, and never use an iron while the quilt is marked with this pen. Following these safeguards, you can use this pen safely and have a much better quilting experience. Using this pen liberated me from the time and frustration I went through with quilting paper and I'll never go back to using any other product again!

3.) Which Quilt Basting Product is Best?You can thread baste like hand quilters (Ricky Tims recommends water soluble thread for this task) but it is very time consuming. Some people pay to have their quilts basted with water soluble thread by a longarm quilter which is a very nice option but a little costly. I've tried the adhesive spray which promises quicker results, but you must spray alot on for the layers to stick and it leaves a gummy, sticky surface over everything the quilt touches, and has a strong chemical odor. Needless to say, I would never use it a second time. Safety pins, spaced 4-5 inches apart is an option that offers speed and convenience but you need to stop every few inches to remove them while quilting. Another option is to baste the quilt with long basting stitches on your machine using water soluble thread - it comes out in the wash and you never have to stop to remove a safety pin while quilting, however, you do need to use safety pins to keep the layers together while machine basting.

I have found that if you properly baste your quilt layers together, you won't need to worry about little tucks on the back of your quilt. If in doubt, use more rather than fewer safety pins to prevent that problem from occuring. There are great little plastic pin head covers that you can use to make them easier to handle (you may end up using hundreds of them on a single quilt).

4.) Which Batting is Best?
Harriet Hargraves offers a stack of batting swatches for you to try and test so you can arrive at your own opinion on what works best for you. In her book, she also provides a table that compares various brands by fiber content, amount of expected shrinkage, and other variables. She claims that polyester will cause premature 'bearding' but it does provide good loft for dimension at a good price so there is a trade-off.

As a domestic machine quilter, my personal favorite is Quilter's Dream cotton, thinnest loft. It is the 'easiest' to handle while quilting on a domestic sewing machine because it offers the least bulkiest solution and maximum drape which are a winning combination for my every day quilts.

If I were a hand quilter, I would use the thinnest loft batting and still peel a layer off the top to reduce it's thickness by half, or I would use silk batting (heavenly).

If you are doing an heirloom style quilt and have alot of special quilting including feathers, wreaths, etc., batting with a good loft will help show off your quilting the best. At the time of this writing, the Hobbs Tuscany Wool brand seems to be the best batting that is based on a natural fiber that provides good loft, but it is bulkier than the 'thinnest loft' cotton batting so 'quilting in thirds' is something you might want to consider if using this batting. I tried using it on a twin size quilt and it definitely felt like I was wrangling the quilt far more than I would like , so I would only ever use this again if I inserted only the middle third of the batting first, quilted that section, then proceed to zig zag stitch the two outside thirds of batting to the middle from the inside, then proceed to quilt the sides to finish up.

There are some things to consider when choosing the brand of batting. Different brands have different rates of shrinkage, and the more your batting shrinks, the more your quilt will crinkle after it is washed, especially of the batting shrinks more than your fabrics. If you like this effect, awesome, and if you don't, you can pre-shrink your batting. I've tried preshrinking the batting for things like table runners that I didn't want to crinkle up a lot and it worked just fine. You just need to let the batting soak without agitating so it doesn't become distorted and loose its shape.

Stress Free Ergonomic Quilting

Ergonomics is the biggest problem most people face when machine quilting. Because domestic sewing machines were never intended for machine quilting when they were originally designed, and the design has not changed much over the years, they can lead to a great deal of stress trying to manage a quilt in such a small area, but machine quilters have invented clever ways to adapt.

Usually most quilters complain of sore, stiff neck, back and shoulder pain after quilting on a domestic sewing machine, and this is usually the biggest frustration that causes people to give up or to send their "tops" out to a long arm quilter. After asking alot of people for advice, these are the things I came up with that helped me eliminate all of those limitations and problems:

Quilting on a domestic machine embedded inside a sewing cabinet allows you to keep your wrists at a comfortable position while you quilt, and is THE very BEST option, if you can afford it. However, its still not a perfect solution, because quilters have such limited field of vision on most domestic sewing machines, we have a tendency to lean forward to see better and that means our posture and our wrists are no longer where they should be to avoid muscle strain and repetitive motion injury.
There is another option thats even better, you can have a custom cabinet built just for your machine so that you are able to sit perpindicular to the machine (think of a capitol "T" and your machine is the lower portion of the T and you are the cross bar sitting at the machine). This way you have unlimited freedom to move your hands to the right or left and the quilt can comfortably spread out to the left and right of you as well. The Juki TL-2010Q is a great, affordable domestic sewing machine for sewing in this way because the head of the machine has a very streamlined shape allowing you to have maximum field of vision if sitting perpendicular to the machine (see photo above). It also has a higher and wider throat space than a standard domestic machine, and comes with an extended table that sits low to the ground. Another huge bonus is that this machine also has an automatic needle down position option, which is a tremendous help when doing free motion quilting with a marked design because it helps you save your place when you need to stop in the middle to reposition the quilt or to rest. 

There are other great options available to help improve your comfort and skill:

A Sew Steady Table, as a substitute for a sewing cabinet, helps keep your arms and wrists at the right level while letting your quilt rest on the table without you having to struggle to manage the weight of it while you quilt. It is an acrylic table that surrounds the arm of your machine to simulate a cabinet like experience. I also prop the back of my machine up from the back side with some inexpensive plastic door stoppers so my field of vision is improved. Having an extra table in front of the table you are sewing on can also help catch the quilt to prevent drag, making it easier to move around.

The one drawback to using the Sew Steady table is the friction that is created from sliding your quilt over the plastic surface. You can compensate for that by using the Sew Slip product (see below) which will help the surface become slick which is very important for any kind of free motion quilting. The other drawback is that the quilt has a tendency to get caught on the corners of this table, causing you to possibly lose your control over following a design or causing thread breakage, especially if you have a larger quilt or are using heavier batting. If someone can sit by you and help you keep the quilt moving along while you quilt to prevent it from hugging the corners, that is a nice way to fix the problem.

An Ergonomic Chair can really be of help because your back needs alot of support while you are quilting. There are alot of models available through the internet. Here is one place to get started. The "saddle chair" has been popular with some quilters, and I can personally attest to the comfort this chair provides, especially for the lower back, but there are many different models to choose from.

Banquet tables, the inexpensive, collapsable kind, are very convenient for quilters because you can place two together for layering and pinning your quilt, and while quilting the quilt, the quilt has a place to rest, rather than dropping to the floor, which will help your arms, wrists, neck and shoulders from having to constantly be strained from the weight of the quilt. These tables can be 'propped up' with inexpensive PVC pipe slipped around their legs, when you want a "taller" height for cutting your pieces, which saves alot on lower back pain.

The Sew Slip product allows you to create a slippery surface underneath the area of the quilt you are working on while machine sewing, which gives you a gliding experience rather than push and tugging your way through the experience and it does make a tremendous difference on the strain placed on your wrists and shoulders.

Quilting your quilt in thirds is another option that can add to your ability to quilt with more comfort and success. The middle of the quilt is the toughest part to quilt because the throat space fills up with bulk from the batting inside the layers of your quilt. You can eliminate that bulk by quilting your quilt in thirds. All you need to do is divide your batting into thirds, and begin with the middle third, then butt the two ends together, zig-zag stitch them together, then proceed to quilt the outside thirds. It works and you cannot tell after the quilt is finished that the batting inside was sewn together. You could also try quilting with the thinnest loft batting possible to try and eliminate bulk, but if you want alot of loft to show off your quilting and give it more dimension, quilting in thirds is a great way to go.

Long Arm Quilting Machine Options
I started this blog to document what I've learned  on how to quilt your quilt on a domestic sewing machine.  However, I have also spent many years doing due diligence on long arm quilting machines.  A few years ago I tried the APQS models, the A-1, the Handi Quilter and the Gammil.  At that time, I found the Gammil to be the worst on my list and the A1 to be the best on my list in terms of being the easiest to use.  However, recently I tried the Gammil again and learned that they had changed their track system and I was amazed at how easy it was to use and have now found it to be the best machine on the market for a long arm machine with a frame (not a sit down long arm).  Here is a video I made showing the model I was able to try at the 2016 Road to California Quilt Show.  I also had the chance to view and record the new Bernina Sit Down Long Arm that debuted in 2015.