One of the joys and satisfaction of longarm quilting is in seeing the end result, a beautifully quilted quilt. Regardless of the amount of quilting, or the complexity of the quilting, the quilting is like frosting on a cake. It adds the final touch. The quilting adds definition to the quilt piecing or creates a whole top design, adds texture and interest to take the quilt top from a piece of fabric to a composition where the piecing and quilting work together complimenting each other. And, as much as there is to learn to become an excellent quilter, the quilting is not the biggest learning curve.
What is the biggest learning curve?
Having worked with new quilters for a number of years teaching them the fundamentals of hand guided quilting, I can say with assurance that almost anyone can become confident with hand guided quilting. Some have more creativity, savvy, and desire to push their hand guided skills than others who prefer to stick with pantos. That being said, I would point out that starting with pantos does help the quilter develop muscle memory for the fundamental quilting “moves.” It is a great way for new longarm quilters to become confident in operating their machine, developing muscle memory, and ending up with a nicely quilted quilt. By far, however, the biggest learning curve for longarm quilters is becoming comfortable adjusting the tension.
Poor tension can be problematic. Even more, hesitation to touch the tension dial and lack of knowledge on what to look for when adjusting tension is a bigger problem. That is why, as a Nolting longarm dealer, I spend time working with my new Nolting owners on tension. When they come for their free class, I have them bring something they recently quilted so I can see how the tension is and work on that, if needed. When I receive calls for help from Quiltmagine or IQ computer guided system owners, very often tension is also an issue. I even have quilters stop at my booth at shows with tension questions. There is no magic solution, wish there was, but there are principles on balanced tension to know and techniques that will work. And sometimes tension problems can’t be solved by adjusting the tension dial but are the result of other machine or frame issues. It is a learning curve, but one that must be mastered to achieve excellent quilting results.
How shows look at tension.
I attended MQX New England in Manchester, New Hampshire a few weeks ago. I went as a participant, not a vendor, which was a real treat. One of the “classes” I signed up for was “Why Quilts Win, a Private Winning Quilts Tour with Kathy Beltz.” Kathy is a quilt judge, but did not judge at MQX. She, however, was in the judging room during the three days of judging. I found her tour of the show’s winning quilts very informative and extremely interesting. MQX is a juried show, every quilt is judged on a numerical scale of twelve criteria, each worth a total of 10 points. Ribbons and prizes are awarded based on the score. The judges work together on each quilt during the judging process.
Kathy began our walking tour by telling us what the twelve judging criteria for MQX are. Besides those you would think that included composition, use of color, and other things relating to the visual impact of the quilt, binding is a category. That’s right, a whole category just for binding. The binding is a frame and really important, it is not something to just cover the raw edge. Because MQX is a machine quilting expo, about two thirds of the judging criteria are on the machine quilting. Choice of thread, how the quilting enhances the quilt piecing or quilt design, and tension are three of the seven “quilting” categories. Yes, a whole category just for tension. Judges look at this with a critical eye. They look at the front and the back of the quilt. Tension must be perfect to achieve a high score in this category.
Why is tension a problem?
The question is, why is tension the biggest learning curve for longarm quilters? It has to do with the variables each quilt project presents. The combination of fabrics, cottons, batiks, thread count, printing or dying method, the type of batting used, the backing fabric, thread, and even the weather are all factors. Even quilting with a computer guided systems throws another factor into the mix. Each plays a part in the overall equation and every quilt is a different combination of those factors. Because these factors are changing with each quilt, there is no one perfect tension setting. Quilters must understand what excellent tension looks like and become comfortable in adjusting the tension on every quilt.
A longarm quilter should not be discouraged when presented with tension issues because they will occur. In fact, they should take it as an opportunity to become educated on tension and the techniques used with longarm machines to manage tension properly.
This blog has addressed the issue of tension a number of times. Please use the links below for help to learn more about longarm tension.