I have a confession to make. It’s not a particularly ugly one or anything remotely scandalous. And I imagine in the quilting universe there are more than just a few quilters out there who also can testify to this confession:
For years I was a topper.
Yup. That was me. I made quilt tops. I rarely quilted a stitch (unless it was a small quilt). I made so many quilt tops that despite the fact I’ve owned a long arm for three years now and have kept Loretta humming, I still have two bins full of tops. When I began to quilt, the person who taught me only hand quilted, so that’s how she instructed me to complete my quilts. And while I love to hand quilt, the process is time consuming. This, coupled with the fact that I enjoy machine piecing, led to the dilemma to lots of tops and few completed quilts.
Now, many years later, I’m comfortable with machine quilting on Big Red and I’m growing more comfortable with Loretta every day. Of course, the obvious outcome of this is I have more completed quilts, but I will also share with you that quilting my quilts has made me a better piecer. And while I realize that lots of quilters quilt with their checkbooks (pay someone to quilt their tops), I would like to encourage you to quilt at least a few of your own tops. I think you’ll be surprised how much this improves your sewing and piecing.
- When you quilt your own quilts, you have to think about the entire quilt from the beginning.
It’s really easy to become captivated by pretty fabric and equally pretty patterns. However, after you’ve quilted a top or three, you begin to understand that if you have lots of points coming together at one spot, certain sewing and pressing techniques will need to be used to make the quilting process go smoothly. If you’re a novice quilter and your quilt has some quality negative space, you understand that there will be major quilting involved, thus a longer time commitment (so if you’re on a deadline, this pattern may not be the best choice).
You understand that some fabric handles the quilting process better than others. You deal with the fact that if there are lots of colors in the top, you may be changing thread more often. You know that a busy quilt backing hides your stitches and a solid or muted backing emphasizes them.
It’s evident that the more you quilt your own tops, the more consideration is given to each step of the quilting process – from choosing the pattern and fabric to how you piece your top. This overview makes you a better quilter because each step is really perceived as part of the whole and not individual processes. This brings us to the second point…
- You get pretty darn picky about your patterns.
The more I quilted, the leerier I became about pattern designers that farmed out their quilting instead of quilting at least some of their own tops. In my mind, if a designer didn’t see his or her quilt through the entire process (at least at some point), they may not have a grasp on how every choice affects the completed project. You learn quickly that lots of tiny pieces in a quilt means you have to deal with more bulk. And to me, the kiss of death with any pattern is the phrase, “Quilt as desired.” Um. At least give me some suggestions. I may not use your suggestion, but I will have a jumping-off point to dive into the pool of my own creativity.
- Quilting your own quilts makes you extremely aware of what really does and does not work.
Besides becoming aware of what type of fabric can handle machine quilting well, you become equally aware of what type of backing your machine likes, what type of batting gives the desired drape, and what quilting notions are really worth their salt. As far as backing goes, I learned quickly that all of my machines really like the 108-inches and larger fabric backing. They simply quilt better with those. Of all of my machines, Big Red actually handles a pieced back the best. Loretta will hiccup over a pieced back unless the seam is horizontal. See, it’s knowledge like this that helps me make decisions when I’m purchasing fabric. If I’m quilting on Big Red, I can use the fabric requirements on a pattern. If Lorretta will be doing the quilting, I budget and plan to purchase backing fabric – just because I don’t always have time to deal with her issues. I’ve learned Big Red can work with just about any batting. Loretta likes cotton, 80/20, or wool. And my long arm is much more pickier about thread than the other machines.
As far as quilting notions go, the one item that threw me a big-time learning curve was what I used for paper piecing. I really like this product:
It’s kind of like the interfacing used in garment making. The big plus this product has concerning paper piecing is that it’s opaque – you can see through it. In addition, you’re supposed to be able to leave this in your quilt top – which beats the heck out of pulling all those paper pieces out of a quilt top when you’ve finished sewing the center. I used quite a bit of this in my Farmer’s Wife quilt and in the small quilts I made in 2018. I also used it in a 2017 Mystery Quilt challenge I participated in. I quilted my small quilts on Big Red and she gave me nary a problem about the papers left in the tops. I threw the Mystery Quilt on Loretta and she gave me nothing but grief. Moral of the story: If I’m paper piecing and planning on letting my long arm work her magic, all of those papers will have to come out, regardless of what the directions say. That means after I finish designing and appliqueing my Farmer’s Wife borders, I will be spending an evening binging on Netflex and pulling out the papers.
It’s knowledge like this that is gained by quilting your tops yourself. It brings so much information to the table as you’re making decisions about your top.
- You learn the importance of correct pressing.
I have written several blogs on pressing verses ironing. If you haven’t read those, let me summarize here: Ironing and pressing are inherently different actions and pressing is not optional when it comes to quilting. Ironing is the back and forth action used for getting the wrinkles out of clothes. Pressing is an up and down motion used for setting stitches and seam allowances. The back and forth motion of ironing can really do some damage to bias cuts of fabric (it will stretch them), while up and down pressing will not. A quilt that has blocks with stretched bias blocks is difficult to get to lie flat, so that means that no matter what kind of machine you quilt your top on, there is a big chance that you’re going to get puckers and tiny tucks.
In other words: Iron your clothes. Press your quilt blocks.
The next concept you grasp pretty quickly is bulk reduction. And I’m not talking weight loss here – I’m talking about eliminating as much bulk as you can where seams come together. There are certain blocks where this is not possible – like pinwheel blocks. When all those seams meet at the junction of the four half-square triangles, there is a couple of tricks that can be played to help reduce block, such as “spinning the center” on the back of the block.
However, the fact remains that there still is some serious thickness there. You make a plan to quilt around it.
But you learn that it’s important to reduce bulk as much as you can, so that your machine needle doesn’t break as it travels over the quilt sandwich. I’ve learned to press the seams so that they nest.
When I began quilting, pressing seams to either the right or the left was an anathema to me. I had made clothes before I quilted, and in garment sewing, the seams are pressed open. And on occasion, I still press block seams open, especially if there are a lot of points coming together and I can’t spin the seams. The more I quilted my own tops, the more I learned that reducing bulk was sometimes more important than following the pattern pressing directions. However, there’s one instance when your quilt seams should always be pressed to the side: If you’re planning to stitch in the ditch around your blocks or block units. If these seams are pressed open, your quilting stitches will merely catch thread, and not fabric. This weakens all the stitches and they will rip out with repeated use or laundering.
- You learn that “squaring up” is important in each step of the quilting process.
I have probably talked so much about “squaring up” that you’re rolling your eyes and whispering, “Not again!” under your breath. However, as a former teacher, I will tell you the same thing I told my students, “If I say it more than three times, it’s really important.”
So, folks…squaring up is important. Every step of it is important.
If all your blocks are the same size, that means your quilt center will come out as true to size as possible. And if the borders are put on correctly (I have several past blogs that deal with the correct way to put on borders), then your quilt will lie perfectly flat. It will be a beautiful thing to behold – no ripples, straight and even borders…it will be lovely.
When it comes to quilting it, it will truly be a thing of beauty and a joy forever. It will lie flat as it’s quilted – no matter if it’s quilted on a stationary machine or a movable machine. And I probably don’t have to tell you that if you’re quilt lies flat, you’ve reduced your chance of puckers and tucks on the front or back to almost zero.
Unless you’ve quilted a top that isn’t square, you may not appreciate what a fine thing a truly squared up quilt is. Those quilt like a dream and when the quilting is done, the completed project looks awesome. Plus, it’s given you no trouble. Easy-peasy.
If you’ve never quilted one of your own tops, I hope this blog encourages you to try it. Start small…work into larger tops. When I began to machine quilt, I quickly grew to love seeing the texture come into play and watching secondary patterns emerge. You can have a great deal of fun with the quilting. So add another layer of quilting knowledge and fun to your adventures. Just …. Quilt it!
Until next week, Quilt with Passion!
Love and Stitches,
Sherri and Sam