Lower Those Feed Dogs and Proceed with Confidence!

Last week we discussed how important quilting some of your own quilts can be — how that really increases your skill level as a quilter. And we focused primarily on using the walking foot. However, as much as you may love quilting with your walking foot, there may come a time when nothing but lowering the feed dogs and free motion quilting will do.  There are no instructions in this blog about exactly how to do this, as it varies from machine to machine.  Big Red works differently than my commercial Juki. 

What I can emphasize to you is this technique talks practice and patience.  If you want to learn how to meander the life out of a quilt or use one of those wonderful new ruler feet and quilting rulers, it takes practice.  Sewers in general get used to the feed dogs doing the work.  We simply guide the fabric as the motion of the feed dogs move it under the needle and out the back.  When a quilter free motions, the feed dogs are dropped, and we have to be in charge of moving the fabric.  The results are uneven stitches and even some skipping.  This is normal.  However, like most everything else in life, the more you practice, the better you get at it. 

And you have to be patient with yourself while you learn.  If you’ve sewn for any length of time, it’s easy to get used to sitting down at your machine and whipping something out.  It’s easy to get frustrated with yourself as you’re trying to get this technique down pat.  Go easy on your machine and easy on yourself.  You’ll get better at it the more you do it.  Meandering, stippling, or simple wavy stitches are great for the beginner.  As you get used to the feel of dropped feed dogs and can control your stitches, try the harder techniques, such as dot-to-to quilting, spirals, using rulers, etc.  Draw or trace a design on a scrap quilt sandwich and see if you can follow the lines. It’s come to the point where I honestly can’t tell (unless someone tells me or there’s information pinned to the quilt) if some quilts have been quilted on a long arm or a domestic machine – that’s how far the quilting process has come. 

The statement that commonly comes up at this point is I’m afraid I’ll ruin my quilt if I try to quilt it myself.  I know the feeling.  I felt the same way.  And if I have a quilt I truly believe I will enter in a show, nine times out of ten I won’t quilt it myself.  At least not yet.  Not unless it’s a small one that I can do on my commercial Juki or Big Red.  I don’t feel I have the chops as a long arm quilter yet to do a show quilt justice.  There are some ways to overcome this, with the first one being simply practice. Make some small quilt sandwiches out of a solid fabric, no bigger than 18-inches square.  Thread your domestic machine with a contrasting thread.  Practice on one of these sandwiches every day if you can.  The more you practice the better you will be. If you’re low on batting or don’t have batting scraps, unthread your machine, drop the feed dogs and practice on a piece of paper.  Just know that after several of these paper practice sessions, you will probably want to change your needle, as paper will dull it faster than fabric. 

Try quilting a few charity quilts.  If you belong to a guild or a bee, they may have an organization they make quilts for.  Most of the recipients of these quilts don’t know a thing about quilting, they’re just grateful to receive a quilt.  The little mistakes you make won’t matter to them.  And most of these quilts are not really large ones.  It won’t take you forever to quilt them and it is a much-needed gift not only to the person that receives the quilt but also to your quilt group – most of which are constantly needing folks to quilt tops. 

Join an on-line quilting group that emphasizes the quilting processLeah Day’s website is chock-full of patterns and ideas.  Angela Walters has a Facebook Page called Build A Quilt that is a wonderful resource for domestic machine quilters (I think this is also on her website if you don’t Facebook).  She also has some great YouTube videos under the title The Midnight Quilt Show.  These are not only instructive, they are hilarious.  Each of these ladies generally has some type of quilt-along that I would encourage you to join. 

Make sure you baste your quilt sandwich wellThis step, although not needed when a quilt is long armed, is a necessary process when quilting with a standard home machine.  It keeps the quilt sandwich from wiggling out of place.  Some folks baste their quilts with needle and thread.  Some use safety pins.  Some use basting spray.  If you pin or use thread, make sure the stitches or pins are fairly close together – no more than an inch to an inch-and-a-half apart.  Personal observation here about basting sprays.  I love this product for small quilts, but anything much bigger than a twin-sized quilt has always caused me issues.  Over a  period of time needed to quilt a larger quilt, the “stickiness” seems to wear off and then I’m dealing with a shifting quilt sandwich.  And I usually must change my need after quilting a top that I’ve spray basted.  The adhesive rubs off on the needle shaft and that causes problems with the next thing I sew.  I’ve tried cleaning the shaft with rubbing alcohol, but that does not work as well as simply inserting a new needle.

Try to change top thread as few as times as possible.  I have found that unlike the long arm, I can have a different colored bobbin thread and top thread in a domestic machine.  In this aspect, a domestic machine is really easier to deal with than a long arm (more on why this is so in a follow-up blog).  Sometimes it’s necessary to change thread to match fabric, but it’s much easier to find a thread that will work over the entire quilt.  My favorite go-to thread color to use over an entire top is a light yellow.  And as with piecing, make sure you use quality thread.  You may want to even purchase a thread stand so you can use thread cones instead of spools.  These not only save money, but also time – less of a chance you need to change spools as your quilting.  Another time saver for me is to purchase pre-wound bobbins.  I do this for piecing and quilting.  These bobbins come with more thread on them than I’m able to get on the bobbins I wind.  Superior Thread is my favorite resource for these (they have alllllllllll the bobbin colors that match their spools and cones).  For me, having to stop and re-thread my machine or change the bobbin breaks my quilting rhythm. 

Thread Cone and Holder
Prewound Bobbins

Speaking of thread, make sure your needle works with the thread you’re using.  This seems like a little thing, but it’s not.  If you use a fine thread, such as a micro-stippling thread, in a too large of a large needle, it will constantly break.  Most thread will come with some information about what size of needle is best to use with it.  Personally, my favorite quilting needle is a new top-stitching or leather needle.  These have a sturdy shaft and a super-sharp point that will easily penetrate all the layers of my quilt sandwich.  Always use a new needle when you start quilting.  And if it’s a large quilt that’s being quilted, you will probably want to toss that needle after you’re finished.  It’s fulfilled its life expectancy.

When you’ve finished quilting the quilt, wash and block the quilt before you stitch on the binding.   This is a step which many quilters omit.  And I’ll be honest, if it’s a cuddle quilt for me or a play quilt for a child, I will forego this step.  However, don’t be deterred from performing this.  It makes all the difference in the world in the way the quilt lays or the way it hangs on a wall.  It’s easy to do.  After you’ve rinsed and spun the quilt on a delicate cycle in the washer, remove it and lay it flat.   The surface needs to be one that you don’t mind getting a little damp and don’t mind sticking pins in.  A bed really doesn’t work well for this – it’s too soft.  Pin the quilt down, step back and take a look at it.  If the corners aren’t square, begin manipulating the fabric and re-pinning it to get perfect 90-degree corners and straight edges.  Then allow the quilt sandwich to dry completely before binding.  This one step improves the appearance of a quilt and helps mask any quilting “goofs” pretty darn well.

I hope that this blog encourages you to begin quilting some of your own tops.  Start with small ones and work your way to larger tops.  Trust me, this process makes you an all-around better quilter.

Until next week, Quilt with Passion,

Love and Stitches,

Sherri and Sam

6 replies on “Lower Those Feed Dogs and Proceed with Confidence!”

All good points. I didn’t know the one about washing and blocking before binding. But so far I’ve only made one quilt. And now I am more educated to work on the next quilt.

The best pieces of advice I can give anyone is practice, practice, practice and be patient with yourself. Dropping those feed dogs is a different kind of feeling and you have to give yourself the time to get used to it.

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