Thursday, August 2, 2007

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.

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