Division in the Camp

Basically, there are very few things capable of driving a wedge in quilters.  We may disagree over favorite colors, applique or piecing, or hand quilting verses machine quilting.  Overall I’ve always found quilters quite an agreeable lot of folks and that’s one of the reasons I became a quilter – in a universe of diversity, here was a group of people who celebrated it. 

However, there are two items which have brought division into the camp:  Frixion Pens and Digitally Printed Fabric.

Okay.  Maybe I am exaggerating just a tad.  However, these two items have been used by quilters (including myself) with varying degrees of success.  This blog will serve two purposes. First, it will give you a little science behind both Frixions and DPF (digitally printed fabric).  Secondly, it will give you some options about how to use both in your quilting universe (because both of them are here to stay – at least for now).  We’ll start with Frixion Pens.

Frixion Pens

Frixion Pens are produced by Pilot and “erase” with a heat source.  There are other heat erasable pens on the market (Madam Sews produces their own line), but Frixions are the best known.  Frixion Pens come in a variety of colors and leave crisp, clear lines which are easily seen.   Then once you’re through with the quilting process, a quick press with a hot iron seemingly makes the lines disappear.  Easy, quick, and they seem like a wonderful addition to your quilting notions.  However, it’s important to note the pens may leave “ghost marks” on your fabrics (especially dark fabrics) and they will re-appear if the quilt gets too cold.  Add to this some quilters have had serious issues with Frixion Pens and then there are those of us who have never had problems with the pens (I’m in this camp).  First, let’s take a look at what a Frixion Pen is made of, because this will give us the reasons why some quilters have problems with them, and others don’t.

Frixion Pens are comprised of two liquids – gel ink and thermo ink.  It’s this thermo ink which makes the ink “disappear” from a surface.  When you iron your fabric it looks as if the ink is gone, but it’s the thermo ink which makes it appear to be gone.  In all actuality, the gel ink is still there, which means under the right circumstances, it can and will reappear unless you take additional steps to remove the ink.  In my quest to understand the pen, I read in a couple of quilt blogs that the key to the ink not “ghosting” was to prewash the fabric.  Since I’m a dedicated prewasher, I had no issue with this.  I grabbed some prewashed fabric from my stash, wrote on the surface, and pressed the fabric. Then I allowed it to sit for in the freezer on top of my bagels for about a half an hour (note I used a light, a medium, and a dark fabric for this experiment).  When I re-examined the fabric, I had mixed results.  Some of the fabric did show a ghost mark.  Some did not. 

The Frixion Pen re-appeared strongly on the light fabric and on the dark. The medium fabric escaped the ghosting.

At this point, let me remind you I am a former science teacher.  When you test a hypothesis, you perform more than one experiment to validate it.  I wondered if only the Frixion Pens left ghost marks?  What about the heat-erasable pens produced by sewing notions manufacturers which also purported to disappear with the touch of a hot iron?  I grabbed my set of these pens from Madame Sew and tried the experiment again on a light, dark, and medium prewashed fabric. Guess what?

This time the Madame Sews faintly re-appears on the medium fabric and more visually on the light, but not on the dark fabric.

They also left ghost marks. 

All of which tells me more than likely all heat erasable pens have some sort of thermo/gel ink mix and more than likely all of these pens are capable of leaving ghost marks.  According to Pilot, the manufacturers of Frixion Pens, the ghost markings are from the thermo ink, not the gel.  “And,” the nice person from Pilot explained to me in an email, “it’s important to remember, our pens were never made for marking fabric.  They were made for writing on paper and erasing with the heat caused by the friction of an eraser rubbing them out. In order to remove the thermo ink, you need to wash the fabric with a stain remover specifically made for ink.”

There are two ink-stain removers suggested specifically for heat-erasable pens:  Amodex and Mötsenböcker’s Lift-Off 3. 

I have used the Amodex and it has worked really well.  The price of this product ranges from $9.81 for the Amodex wipes to $24.99 for the full kit (solution, wipes, brushes, etc) on Amazon. 

The Mötsenböcker’s Lift-Off 3 is around $16.00 on Amazon and comes in a spray bottle.  I have not used Mötsenböcker’s Lift-Off 3, so I personally cannot attest to its effectiveness, but it gets a 3.6 out of five stars on Amazon.  One complaint came from a quilter who was not impressed with its ability to remove ink.  However, what kind of ink was not specified. Another complaint stated it had little effect on Sharpie ink. 

The one step both the Amodex and Mötsenböcker’s Lift-Off 3 both mentioned is you may need to scrub the surface of whatever it is you’re trying to get the ink off of.  In our case this would be our quilts – either blocks or the finished, quilted product.  If you use it to mark your quilt for quilting, this means you may have to scrub the entire surface of your top, block, or quilt.  Can it stand up to this kind of abuse and maintain its look?  This is a question you’ll have to consider if you freely use heat-erasable ink across the surface of your quilt.

Regardless, Frixion Pens and their clones are here to stay, if not forever, at least for a while.  And they’ve made their way into our quilting world.  I even put them in some kits for quilt classes I teach.  So, I do think we can safely use these pens for some techniques.  Allow me to share how I handle them.

  1.  I use them to make dots ¼-inch away for Y-seam intersections or partial seams.  It’s only a dot.  And if it does “ghost”, the dot is in the seam allowance and won’t be seen by anyone.
  2. I have used them to mark applique placement, but only if the applique pieces will fully cover the mark so any ghosting will not be noticeable. 
  3. I have used them to make quilting reference points.  Again, these are dots.  If they ghost, it’s not noticeable.

And finally, yes, I have used them to mark quilting lines, but only in specific quilting circumstances – such as a small quilt I don’t mind taking the time and energy to wash down with Amodex or a quilt I know has a definite shelf life and will, at some point, be tossed.  However, there are also two very specific times I will not allow a heat-erasable pen to touch my quilt:

  1.  If the quilt is an heirloom piece, such as one for a christening, special baby gift, bridal gift, etc.  Frixion and other heat erasable pens have not been around long enough to determine their heirloom capabilities.   They are not acid-free, so years from now we have no idea what they may do to the surface of a quilt.
  2. If the quilt will be entered into competition.  Even if I have washed and scrubbed the quilt with Amodex or Mötsenböcker’s Lift-Off 3, there is no complete assurance all the ink is gone.  If the quilt gets cold during transport, or when it’s hung, there’s a chance the ink marks will return.  And that would be embarrassing. 

So yes, I do think Frixion Pens can happily exist with our other quilting notions.  And just like with our other quilting notions, we need to be cognizant of the appropriate times to use them and how to use them.

Digitally Printed Fabric (DPF)

First let’s define what DPF is.  According to Kornit Digital, Digital Textile Printing is a process of printing on textiles and garments using inkjet technology to print colorants onto fabric. This process allows for single pieces, mid to small-run cycle production and even long-runs as an alternative option to screen printed fabric.  This may sound a tad detailed, but it’s kind of the same process some of us use to print photos onto fabric or make quilt labels – just on a larger scale.  As a matter of fact, if you’ve ever used Spoonflower to create a piece of fabric, you’ve already dipped your toe into the seas of DPF.  With Spoonflower you simply upload a picture, graphic, or some other piece of artwork and they can reproduce it in wallpaper, fabric, or other home décor.  This is done on-demand and with digital technology.

However, I think there were some unspoken expectations with either Spoonflower or our own digitally fabric-printed photos.  With either one, we know the yardage produced would be limited.  It’s fairly easy to work with something a bit different from our quilting cottons if it’s only a fraction of our quilt fabric.  We also are aware (from our own ink-jet printed quilt labels if nothing else) that the quality of our DPF may not be as good as our quilting cottons, either.  But technology continued to push DPF forward and eventually Red Rooster, Hoffman California, Elizabeth’s Studio, Robert Kaufman Fabrics, and Benartex were producing digitally printed fabrics. 

The manufacturing process is fairly simple.  Regular quilting cottons are screen printed using a different screen for each color. This process requires careful registration and limits the number of colors that can be used to 16-20, depending on the manufacturer. Digitally printed fabrics can have as many colors as there are dyes. It’s potentially limitless. A design could easily be made with 30, 50 or 100 different colors and it would not affect the ability to print the design. Unlike screen printing, resolution is perfect every time and you’ll never get the halo that often occurs when two screen printed, complementary colors bump into each other. Digitally printed fabric is also a bit more of an eco-friendly process, since there are no screens to rinse out.  Another good thing about DPF is that is far easier to reproduce than standard cotton fabric.  We know that once manufacturers have sold out of a popular line of fabric, it’s nearly impossible to get them to reprint it.  Digitally Printed Fabric is much easier to reprint, since it’s highly computerized and doesn’t require screens.

No screens also means you don’t have to have a repeating design. Normally at the end of printing a screen, the screen is realigned, and the design is repeated.  Since DPF uses no screens, it’s possible to have multiple yards without repeating the same design.  This allows fabric/graphic artists tremendous flexibility for artwork and is perfect for panoramic/photo prints. 

Digitally printed fabric sounds perfectly wonderful and something which has enormous creative potential.  But like with everything else, there are some drawbacks.  Primarily two large ones:  Cost and color. 

Digitally printed fabric is expensive.  Because of the specialized nature of digital printing, including base cloth preparation, limited runs, dyes and machines, the cost per yard for the manufacturer is higher than traditional screen printing. This cost, naturally, gets passed on to the consumer and digital prints are typically a few dollars more per yard. The more limited the run, the higher the cost. Hoffman California generally prints a few thousand yards of each design, whereas Spoonflower prints designs as they are ordered.

The other complaint – color – has to do with saturation and fading.  The black never seems to be dark enough and the fabric fades at the folds and loses color with every wash cycle.  This seems to be a problem with the small printing houses.  Large manufacturers, such as Hoffman, don’t appear to have this issue.  Digitally printed fabric also feels kind of different, but once it is washed, it does have a nice hand. 

More than likely, at some point, you may decide to add a DPF to a quilt.  And just like with Frixion Pens, there are a few pointers to keep in mind. 

  •  Beware of the “runs.” 

For those of us of a certain age, we remember what it was like to wear panty hose.  Personally, I hated those things.  It was like owning disposable clothes.  Put them on wrong, let them snag on a ring, or get caught on a desk drawer, and the nylon would run all the way up your leg, rendering them useless.  There was nothing to do but toss them and bewail your hard-earned money.

I am so thankful I don’t have to wear them anymore. 

Digitally Printed Fabric can also run just like a pair of 1980 L’egg panty hose.  These runs show up as tiny, white runs, especially noticeable on dark fabric.  The white runs happen when the sewing machine or long arm needle hits and pulls the warp or weft of the fabric.  The needle pulls, rolls, and then breaks the fiber or simply rolls it.  This doesn’t happen with regular quilting cotton because even if those fabrics have a 60-thread count, there’s still enough room between the cotton yarns for the needle to have plenty of room to insert, make the stitch, and come out of the hole.  The fabric for DPF is more tightly woven than the quilting cottons.  In addition, the inks and dyes are mixed in such a way that the fabric is considered to be a painting, not a piece of woven and dyed quilt fabric.  The whole manufacturing and composition of DPFs are different. 

I have sewed with DPF and have long armed DPF.  And both times it has nearly driven me crazy.  I read everything I could find about how to prevent the fabric from running.  Someone said prewash the fabric and this would prevent it from running.  I tried this, and it did help a little.  I think the prewashing removes some of the excess ink and other chemical treatments which may have been used on the fabric. 

  • The type of needle used is important. 

With regular quilting cottons we tend to use a size 80 in our sewing machines.  This may differ every now and then as we employ different weights of thread or if we’re machine appliqueing a specialty fabric.  We may use a universal or a needle labeled especially for piecing.  With our long arms, we lean towards an 18/4.0 for most quilts. Most long arms come from the factory timed using an 18/4.0.  We don’t tend to consider (or may not even have in our possession) a ball point needle.  Those are used primarily for knit fabrics – instead of the needle tip being sharp and pointed, a ball point needle’s tip is slightly rounded, allowing it to slide through the loops of knit fabric without piercing them (and causing the knit fabric to run). Many of the sites I researched about DPF recommended using a ball point needle in the thinnest size our machines will tolerate.  With most sewing machines and long arms, you can go up or down one size without serious tension issues.  Keep that in mind if you do decide to toss in some DPF in your next quilt.

Notice how sharp the universal needle is compared to the ball point, which is slightly rounded. Just a FYI here, I have also pieced and quilted with a microtex on regular quilting cottons and it works wonderfully.
  • You’re Gonna Need to Toss the Cotton Thread.

Thinner, slicker threads work better with DPF.  This thread glides through the fabric without the friction which cotton thread causes.  Part of the reasons quilters like to sew with cotton thread (or at least cotton wrapped thread) is the fact it kind of “grips” the fabric to help keep your stitches firmly in place.  Digitally Printed Fabric is a totally different animal than quilting cottons.  You will want to use a thin needle with a thin, slick thread – such as a polyester, silk, or some other 100 weight thread.

  • Be careful how you quilt.

Many long arm artists have stated that quilting too near a pieced seam can cause runs in the DPF.  It’s also been found that pays to be careful loading the quilt sandwich on the long arm. Don’t load it too tight, as this kind of hinders the needle being able to push the fibers out of the way as it sews.  And regardless of whether you’re quilting on a long arm or a domestic sewing machine, lengthening the quilting stitch has proven to be helpful. 

  • A bit of silicone on your needle (not the thread) may be your BFF.

Sometimes a drop or two of a silicone (such as Sewer’s Aid) on your sewing machine or long arm needle may be helpful.  This ensures the needle can easily slip in and out of the DPF without issues.  This has worked with varying degrees of success.   Sewer’s Aid isn’t expensive (it’s $7.09 on Amazon) and if you’re really having issues, it can’t hurt to try it.  There are silicon sprays, but generally these must be sprayed directly onto the fabric and that makes me a bit antsy.

I hope this blog helps you with any relationship issues you may have with Frixion Pens or Digitally Printed Fabric.  They are both tools we can keep in our Quilting Toolbox and pull out to use on occasions where they’re needed.  They’re really not any different than anything else we use.  We just to know when and how to employ them.

Until Next Week, Remember the Details Make the Difference!

Love and Stitches,


6 replies on “Division in the Camp”

Thanks for such in-depth information, Sherri. I remember when Frixion pens were first marketed to quilters. I was ready to buy a whole pack, then stopped myself. I think I purchased one, but never used it on a quilt.

On another blog, I had read about using a ballpoint needle on digitally printed fabric. Though I have some of the fabric in my stash, I haven’t used it yet. I appreciate your tips for when it does get used.

Sherri, you write the most informative blogs, and I love reading them, especially your past ones as all are filled with such good advice. This DPF was extremely welcome information. I have DPF in my stash, but as another quilter wrote, I’ve not used any of it. I always prewash my fabric so step one is behind me, and I have a ton of various domestic machine needles so I’ll be practicing to see if I get a ‘run’. I think I’ll try my 100% cotton Aurifil, as this thread seems to be much thinner than other threads, and I also have Glide polyester. I am not a fan of The Bottom Line, and my lone spool is collecting dust. I used to do a lot of machine embroidery and have an embarrassingly amount of thread so I will try that. I do not make heirloom anything – just use it up, folks!

Thanks for taking the time to read. I have some lovely DPF in my stash, but I really have to question myself before I use it — am I ready to make adjustments or do I just want to sew? I have tried Aurifil with DPF and it works decently. I’d go with a 60 weight or above, though.

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