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Machine Quilting 103

Last week we talked about how to decide what to quilt on your quilt. Now with motifs and design out of the way, let’s talk about the actual quilting process.  What follows are broad generalities.  Each sewing machine is different.  Each one comes with different feet.  Sometimes the feet needed are included with the machine and sometimes they’re a separate purchase.  What I do advise is to read your sewing machine manual thoroughly before starting.  Most machines – even those not made specifically for quilters – will at least have a small section on setting the machine up for free motion (dropping the feed dogs), and how to use and install the darning foot and walking foot (if they’re included with the machine).  Become familiar with these sections because it will make trouble shoot much easier. 

Step One:  Consider the thread

I’ve covered thread before and it may be a good idea to re-read my blog https://sherriquiltsalot.com/2021/05/26/thread-the-stuff-which-holds-it-all-together/

to get a good overview of thread.  When you’re machine quilting there is only one question you really need to ask:  Do I want my thread to show or not?  That’s pretty basic and easily answered.  If you want your stitches to become as much a part of the quilt as your piecing, or if you want the thread to be a co-star in the quilt, you probably will want a thicker thread.  If you want your stitches to kind of melt into the background, you will want a thinner thread (my favorite is Superior Threads Micro Quilter – it’s 100 weight) or a polyester monofilament thread.  Don’t use nylon.  Over time nylon monofilament can become brittle and will break. 

Step Two:  Consider the needle

Sewing machine needles for quilting. Notice the groove down the back and large eyes to accommodate 30 or 40 weight thread without shredding.

My usual quilting needle is a 90/14.  This is a good, all-around needle size to start with.  As you become more proficient, you may want to go with a smaller needle, especially if you develop a fondness for quilting with the Micro Quilter thread.  And if you’re going big and using a 30-weight, you may want to up one more needle size.  Regardless, you’ll want a needle designated as a quilting needle.  These needles have larger eyes so they don’t shred the thread, a groove in the back, and the needle tapers down into a point (which may be slightly rounded).  These needles are made to take the abuse quilting a quilt sandwich will bring to it.  I’ve also found needles labeled as “Top Stitching” work really well, too.  And per usual, start with a new needle, and after eight hours sewing (16 if it’s a titanium needle), change it out.

And remember this picture?

The left is a brand-new sewing machine needle. The right is one after eight hours of sewing.

I had this at the bottom of a blog several weeks ago.  The needle on the left is a new needle.  The needle on the right is one after about 8-hours of quilting.  Start with a new needle, and keep a running idea of how many hours you use it.  Unless it’s a titanium, toss it after 8-hours and insert a new one.  You’ll be surprised at how much easier this will make the quilting process.  If the needle is titanium, you can double the time to 16 hours.  After you’ve quilted long enough, your ear will become attuned to the “pop, pop” a dull needle makes as it goes through the sandwich, and you won’t need to keep up with the time.

Step Three:  Consider the feet

Walking foot

If you’re just beginning to straight line quilt, you may want to keep the feed dogs up and use the walking foot.  Some machines come with a walking foot, and some don’t.  Some machines offer the walking foot as a separate purchase and with others you have to order a generic one. If this is the case, read through your manual or Google your machine and model number to find out if it’s a high shank or low shank machine.  Then go to Amazon and search for a walking foot with the shank needed. 

Darning feet

In addition to the walking foot, you will want either an open-toe or closed-toe darning foot for free-motion quilting.  Personally, I prefer the open toe because I can see my stitches better. 

Step Four:  Consider the accessories

These are optional, but they can make your quilting life so much easier. 

  • Quilting Gloves – These have a tacky surface which helps you grip the quilt and move it.
  • Tomato Pincushion – I know there are thousands of cute pincushions on the market and at least an equal number of patterns for pincushions, but this red tomato one fits a quilter’s needs. 
  • The tomato pincushion is divided into sections.  Label each section with a needle size and keep the needles in the appropriate section.  A flower pincushion works equally as well.
  • Supreme Slider – This wonderful notion has a slick surface which helps you move the bulk of your quilt under your needle pretty effortlessly.  The top surface is slick and has a cut out for your feed dogs.  The back of the slider has a sticky surface which adheres to your machine bed.  Over time the stickiness wears off a little and you may have to use some additional tape to keep the slider in place.
  • Bobbin Genie – These are thin, plastic “washers” which fit under your bobbin and allow it to spin more freely and quickly.  I haven’t seen the need for them in my Janome Continental M7, but I always used them in Big Red when I free-motioned. 

Step Five:  Consider the tension

If you’ve pieced or machine appliqued prior to beginning to quilt, chances are good you may need to adjust your stitch tension a bit when you start quilting.  Here’s where a scrap quilt sandwich can come in handy.  Set the scrap sandwich under the walking foot or darning foot and quilt several areas.  Now check the stitches.  You may decide you need to lengthen the stitches, but you also need to check the stitches to see if the bobbin thread is showing up too much on the top surface.  Then you need to flip the sandwich over and look at the back to make sure the top thread isn’t showing up too much on the back of the quilt.  If either scenario is the case, adjust the tension until the stitches look right.  When you have the correct tension settings, it’s good to write down those numbers somewhere (I have mine in my phone and written inside of my sewing machine manual) in case you forget them.

Step Six:  Anchor your quilt

The dotted lines show where you need to stitch in the ditch (sew super-close along the seam) to anchor a quilt to keep the sandwich layers from shifting.

There is no “consider” with this step.  You have to do this.  This can be done with a walking foot, although if you get pretty comfortable with free motion, you may just want to use that in this step.  Anchoring your quilt means you literally tack down certain areas of your quilt through the top, batting, and backing so nothing shifts as you quilt your quilt.  This is done with the “Stitch-in-the-Ditch” method.  Your primarily concerned with anchoring the seams between the rows and columns of your quilt.  It’s important to get as close to the seam as possible.  Stitch all the vertical columns in your quilt, from top to bottom.  Then rotate your quilt and stitch all the horizontal rows.  This stitching should include any inner borders.  Granted, if your quilt is small – such as a wall hanging – you may can get by with minimal anchoring.  The larger the quilt, the more it weighs, and the more likely it will shift. 

With those details out of the way, let’s talk about how to start and stop quilting.  Keep in mind, there are several different ways to do this.  This is the way I do it.  If the procedure doesn’t work for you, Google some other methods and find the one which is right for you.

  1.  Reduce the stitch length down to almost zero. Don’t set it at exactly zero, but almost there.  Slide the quilt sandwich under the needle and position it in the spot you want to start quilting.  Lower the presser foot.  Hold on to the top thread and lower the needle and raise it – but don’t raise the presser foot.  This should bring up the bobbin thread.  Pull both threads several inches behind the presser foot.
  2. Lower the needle back into the exact spot you first inserted it.  If you want to lower your feed dogs, now is the time to do that.  Take a few stitches.  With the stitch length at zero, it will look as if you’re stitching in place.  Make sure the top and bobbin threads you pulled up in step one are kept to the side. 
  3. Begin quilting and gradually increase the stitch length until you get it to the full stitch length.  Continue to quilt until you get close to the point where you need to stop. 
  4. The stopping process is pretty much the reverse of the starting process.  As you get about six to eight stitches from your stopping point, begin to gradually decrease your stitch length.  By the time you’ve reached the stopping point, the stitch length should be almost zero.  Take one or two more stitches, and lift the presser foot.  Slide the quilt sandwich out from under the needle, leaving long thread tails.
  5. Now we have to deal with the thread tails.  There are two schools of thought about this.  The first being you can simply cut the thread close to the surface of the quilt.  This should be done carefully and on a slant, so you don’t accidently cut the quilt.  The stopping and starting stitches are so small and close, they should hold the quilt together and not come undone.  The second school of thought is to tie the tails together in a simple knot and then bury the thread tails in the quilt by inserting them in a hand sewing needle and then sliding the hand sewing needle through the batting for several inches.  When the needle emerges, cut the threads (again on a slant). 

I’ve always found it’s a good idea to warm up before I put needle and thread to my actual top.  I don’t quilt every day.  In fact, I may go several days or even weeks before I quilt anything.  I will make a scrap sandwich and practice for at least a half an hour before my actual quilt is under the needle.  To me, this practice session is priceless.  A mistake on a scrap sandwich is a lot easier to deal with than a mistake on your quilt!

I’d like to leave you with two thoughts on machine quilting.  The first one is don’t fear it.  For whatever reason, many quilters are super-apprehensive about trying free motion quilting.  Yes, it feels different.  The feed dogs are dropped, so it’s you who’s actually controlling the stitch length.  You will not break your machine.  It just takes some time to get used to the feeling.  Which brings me to my second thought:  Practice, practice, practice.  I mentioned this in my Machine 101 blog, too.  Make some small quilt sandwiches and try quilting them a few times each week.  If you have a stack of them made, it’s easy to just grab one and spend fifteen to thirty minutes trying out different motifs.  And this is the way you’ll find what motifs are your favorites.  Eventually you’ll discover you’ll make them quickly and well. 

I find myself breaking my quilting world into parts.  My big quilts – double, queen, and the occasional king (I’ve quilted one king – and vowed I’d never do that again) – are quilted on Leanne the Longarm.  My smaller ones – miniatures, small-to-large wall hangings, and twins – are quilted on my domestic machine.  I get more aggravated loading small quilts on my long arm and to me, they take more time than loading a large one.   So yes, even though I own a long arm, I still quilt on my domestic.

Make some sandwiches and practice.  Don’t be like me and wait too long to start quilting your own quilts.  It will truly make you a better quilter.  Trust me.

Until next week, Quilt On!

Love and Stitches,

Sherri and Sam

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