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Care and Feeding of Power Tools and Other Assorted Expensive Quilting Notions

It dawned on me that we’re halfway through the calendar year now.

Wow…where did the time go? 

We’ve spent a good deal of time discussing tips and techniques about how to make each quilt you construct your very own – how to change blocks, add details, and swap out negative space.  All of these little details enable you to take a pattern or a picture of a quilt, keep what you like, change what you don’t, and make that quilt uniquely your creation.  I hope all these ideas have kept your sewing machine humming and your rotary cutter cutting and your iron hot.  However, since I’m writing this blog on July 17, 2022, I think it’s time we give our equipment a thorough look over to keep it in great working order.  In this blog, I will talk about some of the more expensive, non-consumable sewing notions and tools and how to take care of them. 

The Sewing Machine

I think I can safely say, your sewing machine is the one item in your quilt studio which holds the most investment – both in time and money.  Most of us don’t purchase machines every year or so, but only when our present machine dies from overuse, or the newer models have features we simply can’t live without.  Some of my really long-time readers remember when I purchased Big Red.

I bought her in 2008, and she was only the third machine in my quilting career.  I didn’t purchase Dolly (my New Horizon M7 Continental) until April 2021. 

I wasn’t dissatisfied with Big Red, it’s just the M7 had so many new features she didn’t – such as multiple choices for quilting with rulers and a larger harp.  Big Red, despite the thousands of hours sewing and millions of stitches stitched, still runs like a top, because I take care of her. 

If you perform basic maintenance on your sewing machine, there’s no reason it won’t sew for years on end.  Your first point of reference on machine care should be your sewing machine manual.  Each brand of sewing machine is different, even if they’re made by the same manufacturer.  If you’ve misplaced your manual, don’t fret.  Google your machine’s brand, make, and model.  More than likely, your sewing machine’s manual is online and all you need to do is download it.  In your manual, you need to find a section on Care and Maintenance.

All the instructions about what to clean and how to clean or if to clean are here.  Some of the new models request you do no cleaning or maintenance, but bring the machine into the dealer once a year.  Be sure to read this section before you perform any cleaning or maintenance on your machine.

Generally there are a few things each sewing machine needs in order to keep it in tip-top working order (again, read your manual first).  And be sure to unplug the machine before doing anything.

  1.  The needle plate and bobbin area – Remove the needle plate according to your manual’s directions and gently brush the lint off the backside.  Remove the bobbin and brush the lint from the bobbin case (either the drop in bobbin case or the front-loading kind).  I have found cotton swabs, a soft toothbrush, or a clean mascara wand work super-well here.  These allow you to get in the tight spaces to remove the lint.  Be sure to clean the teeth on your feed dogs, too.  Please, whatever you do, don’t use canned air.  I caution you on this for two reasons.  First, instead of blowing the gook in your machine out, it can actually force it into some tighter spaces, which may require a sewing machine tech to remove.  Second, most canned air has some kind of moisture content which can be equally harmful to sewing machines – especially today’s computerized ones. Likewise, I don’t recommend any type of vacuum cleaner, either.  The suction may be too strong and can damage your machine.
  2. Oil your machine if required — Again, this is a consult-your-sewing-machine-manual thing.  Many modern machines (like my M7) do not require me to oil it.  All the areas which need oil are inside the machine, so my sewing machine tech must do any necessary oiling.  If your machine requires oiling, oil those areas highlighted in your manual.  However, there is one area every sewing machine can use a drop of oil, and it’s here:

On the needle bar.  A drop of oil on the needle bar helps everything run smoothly.  Apply one drop, then sew out several inches of stitches on some scrap fabric to help distribute the oil. 

Lastly, only use oil specifically designated for sewing machines.  If your machine requires oil, most of the time a small bottle will be included with your notions when you purchase your machine.  However, when this runs dry, or you misplace it purchase only sewing machine oil.  Other types of oil can harm your machine. 

3. Clean the exterior – I try to do this weekly, but sometimes I don’t, especially if I’ve got a project under my needle with a firm deadline.  Again, don’t use canned air, because it can harm your machine.  If your machine is dusty enough it requires a damp cloth, make sure to dry it down afterwards and avoid any mechanics or points where moisture can enter.  Usually, a dry, soft cloth is all that is needed. 

It’s important to clean your machine on a regular basis.  If you’re sewing several times a week, and all you’re putting through your machines are quilting cottons, a once-a-month cleaning may be all you need.  If you’re working with fleece, paper piecing, fur, wool, flannel, or are quilting all three layers of your quilt, you will want to clean your machine as soon as you’re through.  These are notoriously lint-producing and can clog up your machine.  Your manual may give you a general guideline on how and when to clean your machine.  However, the more time you spend sewing on your machine, the better you’ll become at discerning the different sounds your machine makes – like the ”thunk” mine makes when it needs a cleaning. 

A few final ideas before we move away from sewing machine care.  If there will be several days between sewing sessions, cover your machine.  Most sewing machines come with either a hard cover or a soft one (some have both).  Covering your machine helps keep it clean inside and out.  Second, no matter how diligent you are about cleaning your machine, plan on having it serviced every 12 to 18 months.  A sewing machine tech will clean and oil all the areas you can’t get to, as well as troubleshoot any potential problems.  If you purchased your machine from a local store, chances are they have a tech you can use.  If your machine was some sort of an on-line purchase, Google the brand and find a local dealer.  They also will probably have a tech you can use.  If push comes to shove, or you’re unhappy with your present sewing machine tech, consult a local quilt guild.  Most quilt guilds have a website or Facebook page.  Shoot them an email or post the tech question on their page.  If the name of the same tech keeps appearing, this is more than likely a good person to take your machine to for some in-depth maintenance. 

Third, be careful about the type of cotton thread you use.  I realize some machines aren’t picky about thread – they will sew with any brand, from the cheapest to the most expensive without a hiccup.  However, this doesn’t mean you should sew with all of them.  Some cotton thread brands are notorious for producing lint around the bobbin and needle plate area.  Look for long staple cotton thread.  The long staple thread generally is not as linty as the other types of cotton thread.

Rotary Mat and Rotary Cutters

Most quilters have a couple of rotary mats – usually one to take to classes, bees, and workshops and one to use at home– as well as several different sizes of rotary cutters.  These were introduced to the quilt world in the 1980’s and completely flipped quilt patterns on their heads.  We went from having quilt instructions given with templates to directions with templates and rotary cutting.  Finally at some point in the late eighties, templates just disappeared, and all quilt instructions took for granted you were using a rotary cutter and mat.  The rotary cutter not only changed quilt patterns, but also reduced quilters’ reliance on scissors.  As a result, scissors became less expensive.  Use of the rotary cutter took off like lightning, but the cutter never had quite the same price points as scissors. 

On average, the quilter reaches for her 45 mm cutter the most.  This is the medium-sized cutter and can glide through a few layers of fabric without a lot of fuss.  The second most-used rotary cutter is the 60 mm.  This cutter can cut through multiple layers of fabric with one stroke.  Then there are the 28 mm and smaller cutters.  My favorite – if you’re asking – is the 28 mm cutter.  It’s small and can be easily controlled.  It can zip around plastic templates and small rulers.  It makes trimming dog ears off  half-square triangles a breeze.  There are also 18 mm rotary cutters, which I also like, but finding blades that small can be challenging. 

Rotary cutters can vary in price from around $4 to $20, depending on the size and brand.  And while this isn’t a great deal of money for a cutter, most quilters have several of them (I have eight) in total, so the possibility of having over $100 invested in rotary cutters is a very real one.   To protect that investment, you need to know how to take care of your cutters.

  1.  Change your blades regularly – If you have to push down unnecessarily hard or re-cut several areas the blade didn’t slice cleanly through, it’s time to change the blade.  The blade may be dull or nicked.  Rotary cutter blades are one of those things I like to buy in bulk, because you always need them.  Each cutter works a little differently when it comes to changing the blades. I always lay down the parts in the order I take them off the cutter.  When I need to put everything back together, I begin with the last thing I took off and work backwards.  Most cutters do have YouTube instructions if you get hopelessly lost.  While the blade is off, take the time to wipe down the handle and inside cavity of the cutter.  More likely than not, these may be pretty linty. After the new blade is installed correctly, put a drop of sewing machine oil on the center.

Most rotary cutter blade brands are interchangeable – in other words you can use Fiskar blades on an Olfa cutter.  The only cutter brand I’m aware of which may not have interchangeable blades is Martelli.  The holes are a bit different.  However, I have three Martelli Rotary cutters and they are my favorite.  I like the ergonomic shape of the cutter – it takes a lot of strain off the wrist. 

2. Wipe down your cutter and blade after use – Most of us don’t use our cutters a lot on a day-to-day basis.  We may use them to trim squares or cut off dog ears, but we don’t cut out quilts every day.  Those days when you put your rotary cutter through the paces – such as you cut out a quilt or trim lots of squares – take the time to wipe the lint off the blade afterwards.  Remember the blades have oil on the surface to keep the lubricated and you don’t want to remove all the oil.  You simply want to remove the lint.  If you have some canned air and are dying to use it, this would be a good place to employ it.  Afterwards, add a drop of sewing machine oil to the center. 

3. Keep the surface of your cutting mat clean.  Don’t roll the cutter blade over any pins, needles, or anything else other than fabric and your mat.  Items with a hard surface (such as needles and pins) can put a nick in the blade.  Also be careful not to use the rotary cutter on a worn mat with lots of grooves and never use the cutter on anything but a cutting mat — which brings us to taking care of your rotary mat.

Rotary mats can run the price point gamut of $10 to over $100.  The cost depends on the size, brand, and if the mat is self-healing or a regular hard surface.  Most quilters have a couple of these mats – one to use outside their quilt studio and one to use in the studio. My personal preference is the self-healing type.  If taken proper care of and stored correctly, these mats can last several years before needing to be replaced. 

  1.  If you must store your mat – even for a short time – store it flat and in an area away from heat and cold.  Keep them out of direct sunlight. 
  2. Clean your mat regularly —   Since you’re cutting fabric, you’ll find threads on the surface of the mat.  If you’re mat is still fairly new, it’s easy to use a soft cloth and wipe these off the surface.

However, the more you use your mat, the better the chances you’ll get grooves in it, even if it’s self-healing.  These grooves appear in the most-used cutting segments – such as in 2 ½-inch, 3 ½-inch, and 4 ½-inch increments.  This is just a fact.  You can delay groove-making by using a sharp rotary blade, but eventually, just like those crow’s feet by your eyes, they’re gonna show up.  When they do, threads and small bits of fabric inevitably find their way into the grooves.  I’ve found using a white eraser (the other kinds seem to leave a residue) or a bit of tulle over the surface will dislodge anything in the grooves. 

3. Wash your mat – Some warm water and mild dish soap really help extend your rotary mat’s life.  Besides thoroughly cleaning it, if the mat is self-healing, the warm water will help the grooves fade away.  It’s best is you have some where (such as a bath tub or shower stall) where the mat can be laid flat to soak in warm water.  No matter how the mat is washed, lay flat to dry.

4. Flip the mat – Some mats are marked in 1-inch increments on both sides.  Every few weeks, flip the mat over so both sides wear equally.  If you have a large mat which covers a cutting table like this:

Rotate your mat every month so that what was the top of the mat becomes the bottom.  This will also help the mat wear evenly. 

Irons

In this category, I’m only discussing this kind of iron:

Not any of the smaller irons or mini-irons used in applique.

I have my own take on the irons I use to press seams, quilt tops, and borders:  I use the cheapest I can find.  This is because I am notoriously hard on them.  They get knocked off my pressing station, ironing board, and any other surface I press on.  They generally die an ignominious death and I simply make another Target, Walmart, or Thrift Store run and purchase yet another cheapest-in-the-store iron.  I rarely…rarely…spend more than $20 on an iron…except for this:

My Panasonic Cordless Iron with the Dual Pointy Ends.  I cannot tell you what a great iron this is when you have to press your quilt top, borders, or any other large fabric surface.  There is no cord to get in the way, it stays hot for several minutes, and when returned to the base, reheats quickly.  This is the only iron I will pay top dollar for and treat with newborn-baby-care.  Needless to say, I want to take the very best care of it I can.

Other quilters I know invest good money in their iron and have all kinds of bells and whistles on them.  No matter what kind of iron-consumer you are, it’s good to know how to take care of them. 

  1.  To steam, or not to steam, that is the question – By this, I mean do you put water in your iron?  Personally, I don’t put water in my iron because I feel it shortens its life (even if it doesn’t die a cruel death by being launched from your pressing station).  If I need steam, I spritz the fabric with some water from a spray bottle and hit it with the hot iron.  However, there are quilters who like to use the steam feature on their iron.  If you’re one of them, be sure to read the manual which comes with your iron to find out what kind of water should be used.  Some irons are fine with tap water, but others will use distilled.  Be sure to use the type of water your iron requires.  Tap water can have heavy metals in them which will affect the way your iron heats and steams. 
  2. Do not over fill your iron.  The water reservoir generally has a “fill to” line.  We usually pour water in our iron when it’s sitting vertically.  Quite often, we think this fill line is too shallow, and the iron can hold and ounce or two more water.  However, when the iron is using steam, it’s not in the vertical position, but the horizontal one.  If the iron is over-full, it can sputter and spit out the extra water.  Just fill to the line marked on the reservoir.  It’s there for a reason. 
  3. After every use, unplug the iron (even if it has an automatic turn-off feature).  If you’ve used the steam feature, empty the water reservoir.
  4. Clean your iron frequently as needed.  When the iron is unplugged and cool, rinse out the water reservoir with hot water.  Wipe the entire iron down, including the cord, with a damp, clean cloth.  Use a second clean cloth to dry the iron.
  5. Clean the water reservoir to help avoid hard water build up.  Pour white vinegar into the water chamber, turn the iron on high, and let it sit for about five minutes.  Turn off the iron and unplug it, then empty the vinegar out of the reservoir.  Rinse the reservoir with clean water. 
  6. Clean any residual starch or dirt on the soleplate with a clean cloth dampened with white vinegar.  For stubborn residue, mix baking soda with warm water and give it a good scrub.  Wipe the paste away with a clean, damp cloth and air dry before using.
  7. Be sure to check the holes on the soleplate.  Sometimes if the iron isn’t steaming correctly, it’s because these holes are plugged.  Use a thin piece of wire (such as a straightened paper clip) and clean the ports by poking the wire in the holes.
  8. Fusibles require they’re own special treatment—When you’re working with heat sensitive fusibles, it’s easy to accidentally touch the wrong side of the fusible to the hot surface of the iron.  And when this happens, you’ve got a sticky mess.  The trick is to work quickly, while the iron is still hot.  Once the iron is cooled, the fusible is harder to remove.  While the iron is warm, try rubbing the surface over a dryer sheet.  Sometimes this is all you need to do.  If that doesn’t work, try dampening a piece of fabric and pressing with the still hot iron. 

If neither of those work, or if the fusible covers most of the soleplate, try Goo Be Gone or a Magic Eraser.  Usually one of those works pretty well.  If you do use either one of these (or both), be sure the soleplate is clean before returning to pressing and fusing. 

Wool Pressing Mats

I love my wool pressing mat.  It retains heat and makes pressing wrinkles out of fabric, seams to the side, or pressing fusible webbing onto applique pieces a breeze.

I have a couple of these mats.  One lives on my ironing board, the other on the pressing station near my sewing machine and the tiny one in the box with my applique supplies.  This one is my go-to when I use my small applique iron in classes. 

Wool mats can range in price from $15 to nearly $80, making it a pricey pressing notion.  And in my opinion, these are worth every penny, but they’re certainly not an expense you want to deal with frequently.  It’s good to know how to take care of these mats in order to make them last as long as possible.

  1.  It’s best to store them flat – Just because they can curl up, doesn’t mean they should.  Storing them flat keeps the fibers intact and the corners down.
  2. Be cautious about using steam with them – If you have a wool mat, you’re more than aware of the slight odor they give off when used.  Steam amplifies this smell just a bit.  However, steam also does something else.  Wool mats retain heat very, very well, which means they also will retain the hot steam.  And this means the surface under your wool pressing mat can get wet due to the steam.  If you use steam with a wool mat, just be sure there’s a towel beneath it to absorb any residual water. 
  3. Starch can discolor the mat – Starch will leave brown-ish residue on the mat.  A starch substitute (such as Best Press) will not.  The residue doesn’t hurt anything, but it does discolor your mat. 
  4. A clean mat is a happy mat – A lint roller can be used to pick up strings and small pieces of fabric left on the mat’s surface.  If the mat is super-dirty, it can be washed.  Fill the kitchen sink or bathtub with warm water and add soap.  Soak the mat flat, and lightly scrub the surface on both sides.  Rinse well and hang to dry or lay flat. 
  5. For stubborn stains, such as built-up starch residue or fusible webbing, I’ve found this little tool is a great thing to have:

This tool has rows of tiny teeth.  When you run this over badly stained areas of the mat, it gently picks up the stained fibers, making it look like new. 

I hope the information in this blog helps you to take the best care possible of your more expensive power tools and notions.  While, yes, even in the best of circumstances these are all consumables, most of us don’t switch them out for several years (unless you’re like me with irons, and then heaven help you).  Remember to consult your manuals for specific instructions before using any of these instructions.

Until Next Week, Make Your Quilt Yours!

Love and Stitches,

Sherri