Monday, 1 February 2016

Guide to Practicing Your Free Motion Quilting Skills

'Housewarming Bouquet' detail

Guide to Practicing Your Free Motion Quilting Skills

Terry's Tips For Your Best Work

Welcome!  Settle in for a long read.  Troubleshooting tips are in the last half of this post.  

Preparing Your Machine For A Good Day:
Remove the bobbin plate and the bobbin case and clean out all the dust bunny lurkies using your pointy thing, Q-tips, brushes, and forced air. Use a little machine oil on your fingertip to oil the sides of where the bobbin case sits and inside the bobbin case. Replace the bobbin case. Wax your machine bed. Insert a new needle. Oil your machine if it requires oil (not all machines do).

Having a Smooth Surface To Work On:
You can buy a teflon sheet to place on the bed of your machine. These are very expensive however. An alternative is to use a very thin layer of car wax on the bed of your machine and then buff carefully. Don't leave any residue behind. I have used the green liquid turtle wax to good effect and it lasts a long time.

Threading Your Machine:
As in your manual's instructions. Problem areas can be around tension discs, hook-lift levers, and bobbin cases. Your presser foot must be in the UP position when threading; this keeps the tension discs open.

Spool wound threads should 'spin' off the spool. Cross wound threads should come off the end of the spool. But which way up? Cones are obvious – you can't put one on upside down. Others? Well you can test.
How to test your thread for twist: Place your spool vertically in front of you. Cut off any thread that has previously been unwound from the spool. Now have the thread coming off the back right hand side of the spool. Holding the spool on the table with your left hand, pull an arms length off the spool in the upwards direction with your right hand. Now lift the spool and bring your hands together in front of you and note the loop of thread hanging down. Does it twist up? If it does you have added twist to the thread by pulling it off the spool. Now turn the spool over and have the thread coming off the back left hand side of the spool. Holding the spool with your left hand, pull an arm length off the spool in the upwards direction with your right hand. Bring your hands together in front of you as before. Does it twist up? If it doesn't, you have not added any extra twist to your thread and this is the way it should be loaded onto your machine. Note that brands may differ.

Which way up for Batting:
All needled batting has a best way up and that would be the way it was needled in the factory. Look for the holes going into the fibres (that is the top) and look for the little puffs of batting on the rougher looking side (that would be the bottom). Why is this important? For one reason, the batting will stitch easier when you go with the direction of the fibres. For another, you will avoid or minimize little cotton “pokeys” that come through the backing (especially noticable with a dark backing fabric). It's not the end of the world if your batting is upside down though.
Make sure your batting is relaxed and not full of creases. A tumble in the dryer with a damp cloth, or a steam with the iron will help. Preshrinking your batting is a personal preference.

Planning Your Quilting:
Strive to have your quilt as evenly quilted as possible. Sketch out your designs first. Practice on a piece of scrap. Plan to have a minimum of cut threads by planning your starts and stops. It is OK to travel over previously stitched lines (try to keep this to a minimum though). If you are planning a lot of backtracking you could consider using a thinner thread that will not build up a thick layer. Start in the centre of your quilt and work outwards. One idea is to divide the quilt into areas by stitching in the ditch, then tackle each area separately.
Try not to start stitching in a corner. For ease of everything from tying in loose ends, to looks. Start about ½” away from a corner. Not always avoidable though. Try to plan for the most sewing with the least number of stops.
Make sure you quilt out to the edges of your quilt. Some motifs (like feathers) you don't want to cut off though, so keep these within the borders of your basting, and within where your binding would go.

Marking your Quilt top:
Water soluble pens.
Air erase markers
Aqua pencils
Chalk pencils
Fine Wax pencils
Pounce powder and stencils.

Using The Best Gloves For Machine Quilting.
Machingers are the best I have found as they are thin and have grippy fingertips. They are also expensive and can leave your fingers hot and sweaty. Others that will work in a pinch are the thin garden gloves with coated fingers. Or the white cotton painters gloves. If your hands get claustrophobic in gloves try using squares of non-skid table mat; one 5” square for each hand.

Don't Forget To Drop Your Feed Dogs! Or Not!
Can't tell you how many times I forget to do this, and the quilting looks just fine. Sometimes you might feel like you have more control with the feed-dogs up. And the stitch quality may be better for you with the feed-dogs up. Trial with your machine to see which way you like better.
Also your machine may have a setting for FMQ; check your manual. With non-computerized machines this may mean setting the stitch length to zero and dropping the feed-dogs. For older machines, look under the 'Darning' heading in your manual.

Use Lots Of Light:
This keeps you from peering at your work. Prevents neck strain and dry eyes. At home I use two extra lights coming from different directions to minimize shadows. (One is behind the machine pointing down, one is just in front of my head pointing at the machine). Use eye drops if you are forgetting to blink! Get a pair of glasses dedicated to focusing on this distance if you do a lot of sewing/quilting. (No, seriously. Sewing is farther away than reading and you could be craning your neck to see clearly. Talk to your optometrist).

Use Your Best Posture:
Try to keep your neck in line with your spine. Lift your sternum. Lower your shoulders. Blink lots. Raise your chair or lower your chair to get the best for you. Stop every 10 – 20 minutes for a walk around. Stretch. Laugh!

Here are some good exercises for easing your muscles while quilting:

What The Best Tension Should Look Like:
The best tension will have the top and bobbin threads meeting in the middle of your work. From the back, you will not see any top threads showing through. From the top, you may just see a hint of bobbin thread 'down there in the hole'. (Especially with a larger needle). This hole will close up after the work relaxes a bit and then no bobbin thread should show. For best results use the same colour top and bobbin thread.

Here is a video of how a stitch is formed with your sewing machine:

How to decide on a stitch length:
Of course, this is determined by how fast you move your hands, and how much you step on the gas pedal. Maybe you like the race track and maybe you drive the horse and carriage. No problem either way; consistency is the key. Larger motifs can look great in 8-10 st/inch. A smaller stitch length like 10 – 12 st/inch will look better going around tight curves and spirals. And an even smaller stitch length looks best for micro-stippling. Your thread type can help you decide; fat thread = longer stitches, thin thread = smaller stitches.

Getting in the Groove:
Listen for an even chug-chug-chug-chug of your machine. Hum along. Pull just the right amount for the speed of your machine when moving your work around. A combination of the two that is just right for you will feel like ZEN. Stitch from 'point-to-point' in an even motion. Choose the point as a target destination and pay less attention to the path in getting there. Stop for a second at the target before choosing a new target. Keep your eyes about an inch or more ahead of the needle, and keep your eyes moving. It's a bit like driving your car; you focus on the middle distance and chances are your car will stay on the road.
When doing long lines and curves there isn't a 'target' and you may need to stop part way along to reposition your hands. Think ahead, then stop. Reposition your hands. To start your next section take the first stitch in exactly the same hole – it will keep you in line.

Tying In Loose Ends.
To Begin: After your machine is threaded and you've chosen your start position then needle down and up. Pull on the end of the top thread until a loop of bobbin thread appears through the hole. Hook the loop with your pointy thing and bring the bobbin thread to the top. To begin stitching anchor the ends with your fingertips to avoid thread snarl and take your first stitch in the same hole.

To End: After your last stitch make sure your needle is up. Lift presser foot and pull your work about 6 inches away (usually backwards for the smoothest thread pull). Lift the excess top thread with your left hand and place the work back under the presser foot. Carefully use the hand wheel to turn the needle down into the exact last thread hole. Needle down and up. Pull on the loop of top thread until a loop of bobbin thread appears through the hole. Hook the loop with your pointy thing and bring the bobbin thread to the top until you can cut leaving at least a 2” tail. You now have your start threads and end threads coming to the top and they should be coming through their respective thread holes. If you are starting another thread at the same spot (as in you just ran out of thread at your end spot) then follow step one for beginning through the exact same hole. You now have 4 threads coming through the same hole. Continue stitching your design.

To Tie Off: Take the two pair of threads and make sure the stitches are snug but not bunched. Tie one overhand hitch just loose enough that you could trap a needle underneath. Tie a second overhand knot a little snugger. Tie a third overhand knot the snuggest yet. To hide the knot: Place a self threading needle into the hole* and run it into the layers of the quilt for about 1”. Make sure the needle didn't go through all the layers of the quilt (Look, feel underneath). Place the thread ends through the eye of the needle, grip tightly and gently pull the threads through the hole. Carefully pop the knot through the hole. Restore the surface with your thumbnail and voila! You can't tell where one thread ended and the next one began. Trim the thread ends close to the surface and use a needle to bring the cut ends underneath.

*Self Threading needles have an opening at the top of the eye so you can snap the threads into the eye without having to thread it through the eye.

Ending for the Day:
Finish off a section while you are in the groove. You don't want your mood to affect those swirls in the sky!
Make a plan for the next day's stitching so you know exactly how and where you are going to begin again.

Troubleshooting Guide

In General:
Using a NEW, high quality needle with a large eye size 14 – 16 will prevent many problems; from snarls, broken needles, skipped stitches, seam puckering, loops, and broken threads. I like to use the Superior Titanium size 14 – 16 Topstitch needle for quilting. They have eyes about twice the size as other brands. Save the sizes 10 – 12 for piecing only, or for fine work with fine threads.

Tension Issues:
Top thread too tight. This looks like a railroad track on the top. If you run your fingernail along the stitchline you feel the dat-dat-dat of the bobbin thread. Tips: loosen your top thread. Choose a larger eye needle. Choose a larger needle. Is your machine threaded properly? Did the bobbin wind properly? Is the bobbin case clean?

Bobbin thread too tight. This looks like a railroad track on the bottom. If you run your fingernail underneath along a stitchline you can feel the dat-dat-dat of the top thread. Tips: tighten your top thread. Loosen your bobbin thread tension. Is your bobbin wound too tightly? To test this use your thumbnail on a wound bobbin. The threads should move apart easily and the surface should be slightly spongey, not loose though. You can probably adjust your bobbin winder if you think your winder tension is too tight.

Your top and bobbin threads should have the same amount of 'pull' after correctly threading your machine. Give them a tug together to test if one is tighter or looser.

Thread Snarls Underneath:
This can happen when the fabric bounces up and down with each stitch. This pulls extra bobbin thread up and subsequent stitches get tangled. How to avoid this problem: Use a larger needle (14 – 16) with a larger needle eye (Superior Titanium Topstitch) so there is more room for the thread to travel through the hole. Loosen the top thread if you have to. Increase the weight on the presser foot to keep the work down. Use a thinner top thread if you have to. Make sure you thread your machine with the presser foot UP; this way the tension disks are open. Have you got the correct bobbin size for your machine? Is the bobbin inserted correctly? Is the bobbin wound properly?

Top Thread Breakage or Shreddage:
Are you using a spool cap and/or a thread net? (try one or both). Is your tension too tight? Are there burrs on the needle plate?(Smooth with an emery board). Is your thread of a high quality? (Try a different thread). Are you stitching too fast? (Try slowing down). This can cause the thread coming off the spool to 'whip' and touch itself after the first guide. (Try moving the thread spool farther away, or slow down). Are the top and bobbin threads at equal tensions? (Test this by pulling both threads together after correctly threading your machine. On a home sewing machine you should usually only have to adjust the top tension).
If a particular spool of thread always shreds then it could be too dry. First remove a few old yards from the outside of the spool, then run a few finger-drips of water along the spool and let is sit for a bit in a plastic bag. Old or dry thread will benefit from this. (Store your thread in tubs, drawers, or bags that keep the air out.)

Sometimes, even with your best efforts the thread gives you headaches. I see thread shredding with polyester or rayon embroidery threads. Experiment with different needles, or silicone. Or sometimes this can happen when the needle comes down on the top thread, piercing it and shredding it. It often breaks after that, or ruins the thread so you have to stop and fix. When does the needle come down on the top thread? Often when you're changing directions, like sewing backwards (ie pulling the work towards you) or to the left. Try using a thread spool CAP to keep the spool from jumping up and down on the thread holder. Try using a thread silicone lubricant (Like liquid Sewer's Aid) to keep the thread from coiling. (using the tip of the bottle, draw a vertical line on the spool of thread). This works well for difficult threads like metallics. Try a thread net over the spool (cut a piece of nylon stocking and tie gently over the spool. This keeps the thread from jumping off and coiling/kinking. Try placing the thread spool in a tub some distance away from your machine.

Sometimes shredding happens when stitching through fusible applique. The hole is tight around the needle and thread and stops the proper stitch being formed. If you are stitching through fusibles or glue then the needle can gum up and disturb the regular stitching motion. Try cleaning the shaft of your needle and lubricating it with some Thread Heaven (silicone).

Sometimes shredding is simply the dye lot of that thread – some colours (or brands) break more easily than others, like dark colours.

For 50 tips on how to cure a 'Shredding Threadache'

To confirm or dispel all those thread myths try Superior Threads comprehensive education section. go to:

To subscribe to the Superior Threads educational newsletter go to:

Problems Stitching Backwards Or Sideways:
More thread breakages occur stitching backwards and sideways. This is for two reasons: one, because the thread is pulled tighter than in the normal sewing direction. Two, because the needle shaft flexes when you move your work around. Again, the problem is usually solved by using a stronger needle and a larger eye.

Sometimes, but rarely, these problems stem from the machine and there is nothing you can do about it entirely. (For example, in my experience, bobbin cases spinning on the flat horizontal do not do a perfect straight line the same way bobbin cases spinning on the vertical do).

If your Thread Breaks:
Unpick enough stitches backwards so that you have 2” of tails. Then begin sewing again in the last hole. Tie and sink the knot as per instructions.