Living in a Material World

Today we’re talking everyone’s favorite topic…fabric.

I’ve written some pretty exhaustive blogs on fabric…whether or not to prewash it, how to chose it, where to buy it.  In short, this “Material Girl” has hit the inventory at the LQS, Big Box Store, and On-line Shops pretty hard and in much detail.  However, since this is the Year of Quilting with Excellence, and we’ve had a real emphasis on the basics, I’m revisiting this top to talk about color choices, scale, and volume.

The easiest way to begin to pick out fabric for a quilt is to find a focus fabric and plan everything around it.  This is the easiest way, but not the only way.  As you live your journey as a quilter, you may find you change this up a little.  Sometimes you will find a solid color fabric that your drawn to and plan your quilt around it.  Solids are not always considered a focus fabric in the quilting world, so this is a little different.  At other times, you may find a fabric you’re completely in love with, but not have enough of it to use in the quilt.  You can pull colors from this fabric to construct your quilt out of, and not use an inch of that much-loved material.  In short, there is more than one way to plan a quilt and none of them are wrong.  But if you’re just beginning to quilt (or are still getting your “quilting legs”), having a focus fabric is a great way to begin.

To start, let’s define what focus fabric is:  It’s (generally) a multi-print fabric that has several colors in it.

Focus Fabrics

It’s from those colors you pull your supporting fabrics and plan your quilt.  In the past, the focus fabric was primarily used in the sashing and borders as a way to pull the quilt together.  While that’s still generally encouraged – especially for beginning quilters– I urge everyone to also sprinkle that focus fabric in blocks.  If you’ve quilted a while, you’re pretty comfortable at finding a focus fabric that appeals to you.  However, if you still have “newbie” status, take a look at fabric collections.

fabric family

These are generally all placed together either in brick-and-mortar stores or on websites.  Most of the time these will contain one or two fabrics that can be used as a focus fabric, as well as all the supporting fabrics you need.  This is a great way to begin to learn what makes a good focus fabric and how to find additional material to go with that to construct a quilt.  Kits and precut selections are also wonderful choices to use to get your feet wet in fabric selection.

For those of you that have taken my beginning design class, you may remember that you really only need five fabrics to make almost any quilt. And for those of you who haven’t taken my beginning design class, there it is – the critical information you need.  Five fabrics – that is all.  You need a focus fabric, a neutral, two tertiary or analogous colored fabrics, and a complementary colored fabric.

Since we’ve already defined what a focus fabric is, let’s define the other four categories of colors.

Technically, neutral fabrics are those falling into the color realms of white, black, ecru, beige, tan, or gray.

The neutral fabric is kind of like the mortar that holds bricks or cinder blocks together.  Neutral fabrics don’t really get a lot of attention, but they’re the glue of the quilt.  They make the quilt flow and ebb and allow a resting place for the eyes as they travel over the quilt.  Quilts without these tend to make me a little edgy because I have no idea where to look first.  It is interesting to note at this point, that the definition of neutrals (white, black, tan, ecru, beige, or gray) is changing a bit.  Several quilt designers have opted for other solids as the neutral if it enhances the quilt better.  For instance, I recently completed a quilt that pink was the neutral.  And the pink wasn’t a light shade that trended more toward white, either.  It was a true pink.  If a different color works better than a “traditional” neutral, don’t be afraid to use it.

Tertiary or analogous colors are those colors that are side by side on a color wheel, such as yellow-green, yellow, and yellow-orange.


 Complimentary colors are colors that are opposite each other on the color wheel.  


Within these fabrics (especially if you’re working with material out of one collection), there will probably be several different scales (size of designs on the material).  Generally, these tend to be a large-scale print, a medium-scale print, a small-scale print, a geometric or stripe, random dots (or something resembling random dots) and solids.  Rule of thumb, for variety and interest, you want to choose one large scale print (often this is the focus fabric) and let the supporting fabric be the medium- and small-scale print, geometric/stripe, and solid prints.  Sometimes two large-sale prints in one quilt look too much like they’re fighting each other for your attention.

Now is also a great time to mention the use of low-volume fabric.  Low-volume refers to the color value of a piece of material.  These are generally light-colored fabrics with a secondary design in a different color (so we’re not talking about white-on-white prints, etc.) but the secondary design has lots of space between the designs.

low volume fabric

These low-volumes can make wonderful background fabric for applique designs or can even serve as your neutral.  The trick is to make sure they’re placed near a bright secondary fabric to make sure they don’t look washed out.  These fabrics are used in a lot of modern quilts and are really fun fabrics to work with.  I think they especially work well with half and quarter-square triangles.

The last thought I want to leave you with today is this:  Don’t be afraid to choose your own fabrics.  Starting with kits, pre-cuts, block-of-the-month clubs, and fabric lines is a great place to begin to learn what material will work together to make a great quilt.  But don’t stay there.  Take what you’ve learned and then try out your own fabric sense.  You won’t shoot 100 percent right out of the gate, but over time you will develop your own fabric preferences and your quilts will take on your creative vibe, not some other designers.  And the ability to choose your own fabric will help you wisely purchase for your own stash and use it up.


Next week, a little more about fabric…


Until then, Quilt with Excellence!


Love and Stitches,

Sherri and Sam

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A Pressing Issue

Do you press, or do you iron your seams?

I know I’ve covered this topic before.  We discussed it a few years ago, but that was on an old Blog Spot.  Since we’re hitting the basics really hard this year, I feel like we need to re-visit pressing and ironing, since the difference between the two is very important.

In any quilting area, there will be an ironing board or surface and an iron.  Quilters know it’s important to press the seams as you piece.  This action makes the points on triangles sharper and the block lie flatter.  Overall, it really improves the look of the block, the look of the quilt, and the quilting process.  Quite often, the terms “press” and “iron” are used interchangeably with quilters and quilt instructors.

So which one is right, and what’s the difference between the two?

Ironing is what you do to a wrinkled, already constructed garment if anybody still irons in this day of dryers with build-in steam units.

ironing clothes

Your shirt is wrinkled, you iron it.  You move the iron in a back and forth motion over the fabric, usually using steam and sometimes fabric starch, to get rid of the wrinkles.  Remember: Ironing is a back and forth motion.

Pressing is an up and down motion.


The iron is not moved over the surface in a back and forth direction.  To do so would stretch the fabric and distort the bias.  Pressing is the action used in quilting, even though the terms ironing and pressing may be used interchangeably.

Now that we’ve cleared up the definition between the two terms, let’s ask some pressing questions:  Does it matter how you press?  Which direction should you press the seams?  Is there anytime at all you should iron when you’re quilting?

Let’s answer that last question first.  And that answer is “No, not really.”  Even if prior to cutting, the fabric is wrinkled due to storage or the fact that you’re a pre-washer and you’ve washed your fabric and it’s dried with wrinkles – don’t iron it.  Press it.  The back and forth motion of a heavy iron can pull the fabric off-grain.  It can stretch the bias.  Press it.  Don’t iron it.

Now, for a more detailed topic…which direction should you press the seams?  There are a couple of important ideas to keep in mind with seams.  First, you want them all as uniform as you can get them.  Second, you want them to lie as flat as possible – this makes your block look better and makes the quilting process so much easier.  In order to get the seam to lie flat, press the seam closed first.

First press

This helps to set the stitches and flattens the fabric.

Most quilt pattern directions will instruct you to press towards the darker fabric to prevent “shadowing” – the darker fabric showing through the lighter.  This is usually the process, but there are times you press towards the lighter one.  I just finished a quilt top where this was the case.  Quilt designers may do this so that the seams will “nest” together nicely and  will match up in the block without too much trouble.  “Nesting” is the term used to indicate that the seams are staggered, meaning side-by-side patchwork pieces have seams facing the opposite directions.  This reduces bulk and increases accuracy.


Seams are pressed to the side, towards the darker fabric most of the time.  And the really good quilt pattern directions will tell you which way press your seams.  However, there are times when the seams are pressed opened.  The tip of the iron or a stiletto is used to help open up the seams and then they’re pressed open.


After they are, flip the piece over and press from the right side to flatten out everything nicely.  We will get into when it’s best to press to the side and when it’s best to press the seam open in just a bit.

Either pressing the seams to one side or open work well until you hit intersections, such as the ones in a four-patch.  With those, there is both light and dark fabrics on the diagonal from each other.  Either way you press that seam, either open or to one side, the dark fabric will show through on the light.  When this is the case, it’s best to twist the seam gently so that a tiny four-patch forms in the center.  This allows the fabric to be pressed in opposite directions at the intersection.

Four patch seams

Now we will deal with some details…

Should I use steam when pressing?  There will be as much discussion over this as there is whether you should pre-wash your fabric or not.  Some quilters swear by steam and others swear at it.  For me it depends on the circumstances.  If I’m pressing a seam without a lot of intersections, I generally use a dry iron and maybe a shot of starch.  But if it’s a seam with a lot of intersections, I have found that a shot or two of steam helps everything lie down nicely and reduces bulk just a tad.  It’s a personal preference.  Try it both ways and see which way works best for you.  No quilt police are going to show up and arrest you in quilted handcuffs.

What’s the best iron?  You can spend as much on an iron as you would on a low-tech sewing machine.  And there are some pressing systems that cost hundreds of dollars.  Those systems are generally designed for garment makers or folks that make vinyl designs to go on garments or bags.  They’re not really made for pressing seams.  Likewise, there are some irons out there that cost a couple hundred (or more) dollars.  Some quilters swear by a certain brand of iron – likewise, some swear at them.  My personal preference is whatever is the cheapest at Target.  There is a reason for this – I am hard on irons.  They get knocked off my ironing surface and thrown in a bag to go with me to classes and sewing retreats.  If I abuse it to the point of death, no great loss on the debit card – I just go back and buy another one.  My favorite iron?  My cordless Panasonic.


It has a point on both ends and it heats well.  The only down side is that the water tank is smaller than my regular iron.  My pet peeve with nearly all irons nowadays?  That freakin’ automatic turn-off thing.  I get it.  It’s a safety feature.  But I wish there was someway I could control it so that the iron stayed on longer than five minutes.  I hate waiting for the thing to heat up again.

Why is my seam all wonky?  You’re putting too much pressure on the fabric when you press.  You’re just trying to get the wrinkles out or get the fabric to lie flat.  You’re not trying to kill it.  Or you’ve gotten it off-grain because you’re ironing and not pressing.  If this becomes a frequent problem, and you don’t mind marking on your ironing surface, take a permanent marker, pen, or pencil and draw a straight line down the center of the surface.  Line your seam up with this when you press.  Guaranteed non-wonky seams every time.

Okay…you’ve hinted that there are times we need to press the seams open and press them to the side.  Care to enlighten us a bit more? 

Sure!  Here are some times that you will want to press those seams to one side…

  1. If you plan to quilt your top by stitching in the ditch.  With the seams pressed to one side, when you stitch in the ditch, the needle will go through the seam thread and catch the fabric.  This will protect your seam.  If you pressed them open and stitched in the ditch, the quilting would only catch the thread in the seam.
  2. If you need the seams to nest. Nested seams rest nicely with each other and allow them to match up pretty perfectly.  It provides stability for your seams.
  3. Which brings us to the next point, the time factor. Since the seams are more stable, they tend to hold up longer.

So, what are the reasons for pressing the seams open?

  1. The block will lie flatter.  Not only  will the block lie flatter, but the quilt top will lie flatter.  If there are a lot of intersections in the block and in the quilt, you may want to consider pressing the seams open so that the quilting process will be easier, whether the top is quilted on a domestic machine or a mid- or long-arm.
  2. If there are a lot of points, such as in half-square triangles, the points will be sharper. With points, if the fabric is pressed to one side, it can distort the points because the fabric pulls to one direction.  When the seams are pressed open, this distortion is eliminated.
  3. Again, it makes the quilting easier. I never gave this a thought until I began quilting a lot of my own stuff.  Pressing the seams open reduces bulk and allows the needle (no matter what machine is performing the quilting) to glide over the top with ease.  There are no “bumpy” spots to hang your needle on.

Over time, you will determine which method works best in the situation you’re in.  And sometimes, it’s a mix of both.  But the great thing about this is, if you decide to change it, there are no seams to rip out! Just warm up the iron and press it the other way!

There will be no blog next week, as I will be meeting with 27 of my closest quilting friends for our annual “Drop Everything and Just Quilt!” Retreat.  I promise pictures.

I’ve already started packing!

Until week after next, Quilt with Excellence!


Love and Stitches,

Sherri and Sam



Do You Feel the Tension?

We’ve covered a lot of quilting ground this year.  By now, I hope you’re changing up quilt patterns to suit your tastes or better yet, designing your own quilts.  You’re fearlessly “mathing” the borders and setting triangles and doing all kinds of things that six months ago you never dreamed of.

I can imagine quite a few of you out there are like me.  You work full-time.  As much as you’re dreaming about either A) retiring or B) somehow creating a successful, income-driven profession fueled by quilting, neither of those are happening right now.  Most days I’m doing really well if I can come home, throw something on the table that resembles dinner, do laundry/dishes/some housework, and then spend at least a half an hour in my quilt studio.  That time is something I look forward to all day.

And then my sewing machine decides that it wants to audition for a role in The Exorcist.


You know what I mean…it doesn’t want to sew right, it keeps coming unthreaded, or the stitches are just awful.  When you have a limited amount of time to sew, and your machine is acting like a spoiled brat, it can eat up not only fabric and thread, but minutes of your time.

Yes, I have multiple machines and the easiest thing to do would be to move my chair from one machine to another, but that doesn’t eliminate the problem – one of my sewing machines is still acting possessed.  So, what I want to do with this blog is deal with sewing machine tension and other issues that can seriously impede your quilting time.

The first thing I check if Big Red (my primary machine) gives me issues is the thread path.  Is she threaded correctly?  I’ve sewn on her so long, I can practically thread her in the dark and may have a time or two, but still I check this first because if I don’t set the thread cleanly in the thread take up, it will slide out and cause issues.  Nine times out of ten, this is the problem.  A quick re-thread and we’re ready to go again.  Also, be sure to thread your machine with the presser foot up.  This opens the tension disks you maneuver the thread through.   When the presser foot is lowered, these disks close around the thread, keeping it in place.

If the thread take-up or the tension disks aren’t the issue, I examine the needle.  The needle should be checked for two things.  First, are you using the right needle for the job?  Jersey and knits use one type of needle.  Denim another.  And 100% cotton fabrics another.  Make sure the type of needle used is the right one for the job.  And then check to make sure the needle is in good shape.  Sometimes a burr or a bend is visible to the naked eye and that is the problem.  Sometimes it’s not.  Change your needle (and safely dispose of the old one).  This may solve the issue, especially if the issue is skipped stitches.  An old, dull needle or a needle with a bend or burr can’t penetrate the fabric completely and that will result in skipped stitches.  And FYI, you should be changing that needle after eight hours of sewing, unless you’re using titanium needles, then you can double the time.


If Big Red is still giving me problems, I check the bobbin and bobbin case.  My Janome has a built-in bobbin case with a drop-in bobbin.  I’ve only had issues with my bobbin case once in the 10 years I’ve had Big Red.  But if you use a machine with an insertable metal bobbin case, examine the case – especially if it’s been dropped on a hard surface.  The case could be damaged.  If the case is fine, check the bobbin.  Again, if you’re using a metal bobbin, and it’s been dropped on a hard surface, it could be damaged, so try a different bobbin.  If you use the clear, plastic bobbins like I do, make sure they’re not cracked or chipped.  And with both types of bobbins, make sure the bobbin is wound correctly and evenly.

Use the same weight of thread in the bobbin and on top of your machine.  It can be different colors … even different brands… but sometimes that can be the issue.  The only time I can get away with using a different weight in my bobbin than on top of my machine is if I’m using Superior Threads Bottom Line.  That thread tends to play well with everyone – even Loretta the long arm.  If you’re using cheap thread, try a different brand.  Some machines (well, all of mine) do not like cheap thread.  I can use a spool of one of the brands that’s found at big box discount stores, and all of my machines reject it.  Go for a long, staple cotton or high-quality polyester.  Cheap thread has caused many a machine hiccup.

Next, clean your machine.  Follow your sewing machine manual and clean the bobbin area and any other area that the instruction book directs you to do.  Oil it as directed and then try again.  Also…let me throw in here that when you clean your machine, there’s only so much you can do.  If you’re using your machine several times a week, then at least once a year you should make an appointment with a machine tech who knows how to deep clean and oil your machine.  Sewing machines are like cars – the more attentive you are at maintenance, the few problems you’re going to have and the longer it will last.

But what if you check all of the above and you still have issues?  What if the seam looks puckered or there are these horrible clumps of thread on the back of the fabric?  If either of those are the case, then your machine (and probably you, too) are having trouble with tension.

Balanced Tension

Above is an illustration of balanced seam tension.  The bobbin thread is not seen on the front of the seam and the top thread is not seen on the back of the seam.  Both threads meet and interlock in the middle.  If you’re not sure if the tension is correct on your machine, here’s an idea that I use.  I wind my bobbin with one color thread and use a different colored thread on the top of the machine – anything but white in either one.  Then I place two squares of white material, right sides together, and sew a seam.  By using the two colors of thread, I can readily see if my tension is okay.  No bobbin thread seen on the top?  The bobbin tension is good.  No top thread seen on the back?  Top tension is good.  My machine is working fine.

But what if it looks like this:

loose top tension tight bobbin tension

In this case, either A) the top tension is too loose or B) the bobbin tension is too tight.  When you purchase your sewing machine, the top thread tension and the bobbin case tension are preset by the factory. Most of the time that pre-set tension will work just fine with whatever you’re creating.  But if you’re working with some funky thread or you’re sewing several thicknesses together, this tension issue can happen.  Always try to adjust the top tension first because that’s the easiest.  The higher numbers on the tension dial or LED screen tension screen indicated higher (tighter) tension.  Increase that number a little at a time and try sewing a seam.

If you do this and you still can’t get balanced tension, reset the thread tension back to normal and have a look at your bobbin case (and this is only for the machines that have a front-loading bobbin case).  Remove the bobbin case and make sure it’s threaded correctly.  Holding the thread, release the bobbin case release the case over a padded surface.  If it falls a couple of inches, the bobbin tension is fine.  If it doesn’t fall at all, then the bobbin tension is too tight.  On the side of the case is a tiny screw.  Using a screw driver, turn the screw about a quarter-turn to the left to loosen it.  Reinsert the case and try another seam.

Depending on what fabric and thread you’re sewing with, this may be all that needs to be done.  Sometimes it’s a combination of fine-tuning both the top tension and the bobbin tension to make the seam balanced.


Now….what do you do if your seam looks like this?

tight top tension loose bobbin tension

In this case, the top tension is too tight, and the bottom tension is too loose.  If this is the situation, again, adjust the top tension first.  But this time instead of turning the tension dial or LED tension screen to a higher number, move it to a lower one and try a seam.

If that doesn’t work, try holding the bobbin case by the thread again.  If the bobbin case falls several inches, then the tension needs to be tightened.  Take the screw driver and turn the screw on the side of the case a quarter-turn to the right.  Do a test seam.  And again, you may have to play with both the top tension and the bobbin tension to make everything balanced.


There are a couple of things to remember at this point.  First, if you’ve tried and tried to get a balanced seam and can’t it’s time to take the machine to see the tech.  There are adjustments the tech can make that you can’t.  And secondly, if you have to adjust the top tension or the bobbin tension or both, remember to reset them to the factory settings when you’re through.


Throwing in an FYI here – the times I have to play with the tension the most is if I’m sewing on a densely woven fabric (such as a batik), a loosely woven fabric (such as homespun), or I’m quilting on my domestic machine – batting can add drag to the top tension, depending on the loft of the batting as well as the batting content.  Cotton batting tends to “grab” the thread more than polyester or a blend.


I know I can’t relieve all of the tension in your life, but I at least hope I’ve helped with your sewing machine tension.  To me there is nothing more frustrating than looking forward to spending time in my studio and then my machine starts auditioning for The Exorcist. 


Until next week … Quilt with Excellence!


Love and Stitches,

Sherri and Sam