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Finished is Better than Perfect

Okay, last blog about machine quilting, I promise…

The last basting method I want to discuss is thread basting.  In the past … in the days before nifty ideas like using safety pins or the invention of spray adhesives, everyone thread basted.  And it works pretty much the same way it sounds – you baste the sandwich layers together with thread.  You begin much the same way as if you’re pin basting.  You lay your back out and tape it down, then add the batt, and then your top.  However, this is where the similarities end.  At this point, you’ll need a sharp needle (a long one works best), a spoon, and some thread.  Personally, I use hand quilting thread.  Working from the center out, I stitch from the middle out to form a vertical line from the top of the quilt to the bottom.  Then I stitch another line across the middle.  My stitches range from 1- to 1 ½-inches in length and when my fingers begin to get sore, I use the spoon to help me push the needle from the quilt back to the quilt top.  Be aware whatever surface you use may get scratched from the needle.  If the quilt is larger than a wall hanging, you may opt to continue to stitch horizontal and vertical rows across the quilt sandwich to form a grid. 

I have never thread basted anything larger than a wall hanging.

And with the small quilts, instead of a grid, I “spider web” the thread basting.  I stitch my vertical and horizonal lines and then stitch diagonal from corner to corner, adding more diagonal lines as needed.  Just like with pin basting, the idea is to keep all three layers together, so you may need to have your stitch lines no more than 3-inches apart and certainly no more space between the stitch lines than the width of your hand. 

I only use thread basting if I’m hand quilting a quilt and the quilt sandwich is in a hoop.

Pins would only get in the way of a hoop and any of the fusible basting methods are hard to push and pull a needle through.  I remove the basting stitches as I quilt.  Let me also add this helpful hint: If you really like thread basting but don’t want to go through the process by hand, quite often a long arm quilter can thread baste the quilt for you. This can be a huge times-saver if there’s a big quilt involved.

Now, as promised last week, we’ll cover moving the quilt through the harp, practice, posture, speed, finishing, and stress.

Moving the Quilt through the Harp

To refresh your memory on terminology, this is the harp of a domestic sewing machine:

Big Red has a large harp, plus the lady is on the hefty side (she weighs a bit), and she has an extension table.  This makes her ideal for free motion quilting.  However, even with the extension table, it can be a challenge to move the bulk of a quilt through the harp.  Some quilters “puddle” their quilt:

Some roll it up:

Try both ways to see which one works best for you, especially if you have a standard harp width.   Personally, I’m a “puddler.”  If your sewing machine is a portable or simply doesn’t weigh a lot, you may find the machine wants to move out of place when you shift your quilt.  Some  rubberized shelf lining placed under the machine may help keep it from moving.  

Successful domestic machine quilting begins with the batting.  Whether or not you have a large harp, the space between your needle mount and the right side of the machine is limited.  This size limitation must be taken into consideration when you chose your batt.  A super-fluffy batt would just add more bulk and make it difficult to maneuver the quilt as well as get it under your quilting or walking foot.  A thin batt works best.  I use either a cotton batt or 80/20. 

A smooth, slick surface is also pretty important.  You want to be able to move your quilt sandwich without it getting caught or have any drag.  There are a couple of ways you can make this happen.  Some domestic machine quilters use this:

Silicon spray.  Let me be perfectly clear at this point:  I have never used this.  I understand from other quilters who have that this is a wonderful product.  However, Big Red is highly computerized, and I don’t even used compressed air to clean her because I’m afraid moisture will from the spray can will find its way into the nooks and crannies of her inner works.  If you have a basic sewing machine, this product may work fine.  If you have a sensitive machine like mine, I might avoid it.

However, I do use this: 

This is the Supreme Slider, and it fits over your needle plate and feed dogs:

It has a tacky back, so it sticks to your machine surface (although as mine has aged, I’ve used a piece of painter’s tape here and there).  The front is smooth and slick, making a perfect surface for you to use to quilt your quilt.  This product comes in two sizes (medium and large-ish).  What I like best about this product is it allows you to still keep your feed dogs up as you free motion because the Slider covers them.  This isn’t such a big issue for me now, but when I began to free motion quilt, I was really antsy about lowering my feed dogs.  I had a hard time getting used to the feeling of not having the dogs engaged.  To be able to keep them up (at least for a few days) was extremely helpful.  

Practice

If I could change one thing about how I was taught to quilt, it would be this:  Someone needed to pull me aside and make me start quilting my own quilts way earlier in my quilt journey.  My first quilt teacher hand quilted everything, and this was the way I was taught.  However, I worked, had two small kids, and had a husband who worked out of town.  The thought of hand quilting my tops was frustrating because I didn’t have the time.  Then I learned I could pay someone to quilt my quilts and that’s how I operated for years.  So, when I finally bit the bullet and decided to learn how to quilt my own quilts, I was met with this equally frustrating realization:  I had to practice.

This doesn’t sound like a bad thing, right?  After all, practice makes perfect.  But if your quilting time is limited and you’re already good at applique and piecing, the thought of starting over in some quilty area from scratch can be daunting and, well… frustrating.  If I had been taught (or urged to learn) how to take care of this step at an earlier point, I probably wouldn’t have fought it so hard.  Or have taken so long to learn it. 

However…no matter where you start or how you start, you’ll have to practice.  When you free motion, the dogs are dropped, and you are in control of your stitch length.  It takes a bit to learn how to keep this mostly consistent.  I suggest two plans of attack for your practice strategy.  For both, you’ll need to make some quilt sandwiches.  I made a stack of sandwiches out of the same batting, no larger than 8-inches square.  I did this because I knew anything much larger would be intimidating.  I was determined to at least practice every other day, so this size square was “doable” for me.  And if you have any orphan or left-over quilt blocks, this is a great place to use them.  For the first plan of practice attack, unthread your machine and lower your feed dogs.  Then move the sandwich back and forth and up and down to get used to the feel of not having the dogs engaged and to determine if you have more control moving the sandwich up and down or side to side. For the second plan of practice attack, thread your machine and repeat daily for a couple of weeks.  You may want to start by free motioning your name.  Remember, over half the battle with learning how to free motion is muscle memory.  You’ve been writing your name for years. 

I want to add at this point, every sewing machine is different.  Understand you’ll have to play with the tension to get the stitches to look like this:

And not this:

Or this:

Each sewing machine comes with its own set of feet.  Typically, most come with a darning foot, which is what the majority of quilter use when they’re learning to free motion.  Big Red came with these:

Which really gave me a good variety to start out with.  Later I purchased this:

A ruler foot.  Now, thanks to technology, most domestic machines can perform ruler work just like long arms can.  If you’re interested in that I strongly suggest you point your web browser to Westalee Rulers or Angela Walters.  In my opinion, they’re the best in this field.

As you begin to free motion, there are a couple of websites which will prove to be extremely helpful, informal, and encouraging.  The Midnight Quilter with Angela Walters is fabulous.  She is wonderfully entertaining as well as so informative and helpful. She has all her videos on YouTube. Leah Day (Leahday.com) is just as informative and helpful.  Both of these women are excellent free motion quilting teachers.  And personally, I think learning free motion quilting via video is so much easier than trying to learn it through a book. 

Posture

I went over sewing posture in a lot of detail in this blog: https://sherriquiltsalot.com/2020/12/09/my-space/

There really isn’t a lot of difference between sewing posture and quilting posture.  The one item which changes is our hands. When you free motion, your hands are positioned similar to this:

What you don’t want to do is let your hands get too far ahead of your quilting area (so you’re moving your sandwich with your elbows) or remain too far behind.  They both should remain parallel to the area you’re quilting.

Speed

Speed – no matter how slow or how fast you move through the quilting process – is a very personal thing.  Some quilters feel they have more control moving a bit slower and others seem to be true speed demons.  Much of this has to do with experience.  The more you machine quilt, the more you become aware what is your most comfortable pace.  And, if you’re like most of us, certain types of quilting work better at a slower rate and the simple designs allow you to move quicker. 

What I really, really don’t want you to do is compare your speed to how quickly the domestic machine quilters are moving on their YouTube channels. I’ll let you in on a little secret about that – most of those videos are sped up.  Why?  Well, the quilting process takes time and to have a video of someone spending long minutes quilting would be…well… boring.  So, many of these videos are fast-forwarded during the quilting process when they’re edited.  Sometimes this effect is obvious and other times it’s not.  Just don’t be intimidated into thinking, “I’m not a great quilter because I can’t stitch that fast.”  Chances are, the quilter in the video isn’t quilting that fast in real-life, either. 

Eyes on the Finish Line

I love the quilting process.  I mean, I really love just about everything concerning making a quilt.  I’m not crazy about cutting the top out, but I’d still rather be doing that than say….laundry.

Joking aside, I love adding the texture quilting brings to a quilt.  For me, the piecing or applique (or both) can be picture-perfect, but it’s the quilting which adds the soul and personality to a top.  The quilting stitches can add anything from a touch of whimsey to a formal atmosphere to a quilt sandwich.  Truthfully, I’m always kind of sad to see the quilting process end.  However, I also realize not every quilter enjoys this as much as I do.  For those of you, I offer a couple of suggestions.  First, I still think you should learn to quilt your own tops, but you may only want to quilt those quilts which won’t require a great deal of “fancy” work.  You may want to stick to cuddle quilts, play quilts, or those quilts on the smaller size range.  Let your checkbook quilt the larger quilts or the ones which require a bit more workmanship than you care to get into.  Second, remember once the quilting is done, all that’s left is the binding.  You’re nearly finished with your quilt!  And sometimes that though is enough to spur you on to the finish line.

Stress

I’m really talking about two kinds of stress at this point.  The first is the kind you carry in your shoulders, down your arms, and to your hands as you’re hunched over the sewing machine, trying to get all those stitches in your quilt just right.  To begin with, don’t hunch.  Keep your posture correct.  However, if you find yourself putting the death grip on your quilt, let me offer this suggestion:  Relax your hands and try moving the quilt with only your fingertips.  It’s very, very difficult to keep tension in your arms and shoulders when only the fingertips are used to move the quilt.

The second kind of stress is what I call “regular” stress – the pressure you put on yourself as you try to make sure all your stitches are the same length, and the tension is perfectly balanced.  You know… the kind of stress carried when you want everything about your quilt to be perfect.  Let me offer this piece of advice:

Honey, no one has ever made a perfect quilt.

Few quilters have come close, but most of us have learned how to emphasize our strengths, minimize our weakness, and how to hide our mistakes.  This kind of stress can suck the joy out of everything – including quilting – and that’s not why we quilt.  We quilt to be creative, make something beautiful, and to relax.  Don’t let the stress of perfection ruin your quilting journey.  I learned a long time ago to give it my best, but finished is so much better than perfect.

Until Next Week, Quilt On!

Love and Stitches,

Sherri and Sam

6 replies on “Finished is Better than Perfect”

This post is great and very helpful. If I may add one more piece of advice: Some machines have a speed control button. Once I discovered that I could reduce the speed on my Bernina, my machine quilting got a lot easier.

I highly agree with you about how the quilting adds the personality to the quilt. And I do just what you recommend, send the bigger quilts out to be longarmed, and some smaller projects I domestic machine quilt and/or hand quilt. I sometimes like to combine machine and hand quilting.
But for hand basting, I use a padding stitch with two strands of floss. This holds very well.

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