Computer Guided Quilting – Is It Cheating?

Certainly computer guided quilting (robotic quilting) is a long way from hand quilting, but is it cheating?  Even in the years since I started quilting a lot has changed, and certainly in the years since when my Grandmother quilted.  The antique quilts I own that go back to the late 1800’s were hand pieced and hand quilted.  The binding on one, however, was put on with machine stitching.  As women in the 1900’s began using their sewing machines for everything, piecing by machine became common, however, quilts were either tied or hand quilted.  I have a lovely old baby quilt from the 1930’s like this.

antique quilts delightful quilting & sewing

Antique Quilts 1880-1930

History of the Longarm

The longarm machine as we know it today was developed by Fred Nolting in the 1980’s.  Displaying his longarm at the Houston Quilt Show, he soon realized that many felt it wasn’t “quilted” unless quilted by hand.  Never the less, Fred was encouraged to go forward with longarm development.  When longarm machines were available, the original Gammill machines were actually made by Fred Nolting.  After Gammill decided to go on his own, Fred Nolting continued to manufacture under the Nolting brand.  Besides being the original longarm, Nolting was the first to offer stitch regulation.    Since those days, of course, machine quilting, either on a home machine or a longarm, has become a perfectly acceptable method of quilting.

Nolting NV delightful quilting & sewing

Nolting’s newly released NV model with touch screen tablet operation.

Fast forward into the 21st century and we are seeing mostly machine quilting, home machine, hand guided longarm, or computer guided quilting with very little hand quilting.  Some feel that computer guided quilting is cheating, that all you have to do is program a pattern and press “start.”  They feel it is unfair to compare hand guided quilting, which requires dexterity and skill, to precision computer guided quilting.  I once felt this way, too, but no longer.

Journey To Computer Guided Quilting

My quilting journey began with hand quilting, then machine quilting on my home machine, then longarm quilting on my Nolting Longarm.  I was one of those who felt computer guided quilting was cheating and it was unfair to compare my hand guided quilting to something done with a computer system.

Several years ago, because I am a Nolting Longarm dealer and Nolting releasing a computer guided quilting system, I felt obligated to know how Quiltmagine (Nolting’s computer guided system) worked.  After all, how could I represent a product I knew nothing about.  After installing Quiltmagine on my Nolting machine, I learning how to use it, and have since done an about face on what I thought about computer guided quilting.

computer guided quilting with quiltmagine from Nolting delightful quilting & sewing

Quiltmagine home screen.

Yes, computer guided quilting is precision quilting.  Yes, you can stitch beautiful blocks and pantos. It is interesting because with home machine quilting, hand guided longarm quilting, and computer guided quilting, beautiful quilting depends on the very same thing, pattern or design selection and execution.  It doesn’t matter which quilting method is used, as in all methods, home machine, hand guided, and computer guided, poor pattern or design choices and poorly executed placement and stitching can ruin an otherwise nice quilt.  The bottom line is the skill.  It takes skill, regardless of the method to tastefully choose patterns and to stitch them neatly in the spaces.  So, can you just pick a pattern on the computer (tablet) and press “start?”  NO.

Computer Guided Quilting Is Not Cheating

In my adventure learning how to use Quiltmagine, I learned about placement methods, fill methods, and how to alter the pattern, design, or panto to make it look best in the space.  I had to use all of the same skills I used with hand guided quilting (pattern or design choice and execution), but with the additional challenge of working with a computer program and making it do what I envisioned.  Sometimes that was possible, and sometimes, because the software just can’t do it, it wasn’t possible.

quiltmagine delightful quilting & sewing

Easy block placement with Quiltmagine.

What I have learned about computer guided quilting since those early attempts is that a lot is possible, you need to think like the computer thinks at times, and, if you are up to the challenge, you can go way beyond simple.  I often will quilt patterns and designs that are complex or dense, something I would find difficult, if not impossible to do with hand guided longarm quilting.  I have learned that it is often faster to hand guide some things, like background fills, rather than use computer guided which requires more setup.  I have learned to step out of the of the quilting “box,” too.  Taking a cue from the modern quilting divas, I have learned to not just think of placing patterns in blocks, but to create whole designs in spaces.  Whatever you can dream up and quilt with hand guided is probably possible with computer guided.

quilt delightful quilting & sewing

Joseph’s New Coat, made and custom quilted (Quiltmagine) by Joyce Blowers

About two years ago my business, Delightful Quilting & Sewing, was asked to become a dealer for IntelliQuilter, a well known computer guided system that works with most major longarm brands and models.  Computer guided systems are not all the same and have a wide range of price points and features.  You basically get what you pay for.  If you want to do the fancy stuff, you must pay more.  IntelliQuilter costs more than some of the other systems, but it can also do more.  Since becoming an IQ dealer, my computer guided quilting skills have soared even more because IQ can do more, especially with custom quilting.

Thoughts On Computer Guided Quilting

The bottom line is this.  I love quilting, I enjoyed hand guided quilting and continue to grow those skills, but I love computer guided longarm quilting.  I love the options open to do more, much more than I would have dreamed of doing with hand guided longarm quilting.  And, I love the challenge that comes with working with a computer, that of making it do what I want it to do.

computer guided quilting with intelliquilter delightful quilting & sewing

IntelliQuilter tablet

Is computer guided longarm quilting hard to do?  No.  But it does take time to learn, just like any skill takes time.  Is there a learning curve?  Yes.  When we sell either Quiltmagine or IntelliQuilter, we train and teach our customers in the fundamentals of computer guided quilting, how to place blocks, pantos, how to work with their particular system to get the best results, and so much more.  There are even more online helps through video tutorials.  Is computer guided longarm quilting cheating?  For me, that answer is NO.  Is computer guided longarm quilting fun and rewarding?  YES, YES, YES!!!

More on computer guided longarm quilting.

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The Biggest Learning Curve for Longarm Quilters

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.

quilt winnter MQX April 2019

“Featheration 2 Blu” by Lyn Crump, Custom Our Daily Bed category, MQX New England, April 2018

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.

quilt, MQX april 2018

“North Country Girl,” by Karen Terrens, shadow trapunto, custom Our Daily bed category, MQX April 2018

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.

Walking tour of winning quilts by Kathie Beltz, a Studio 180 instructor, teacher and judge. It was very interesting to learn more about the judging process and criteria used for judging. It is a 120 point score.

Posted by Delightful Quilting & Sewing on Thursday, April 12, 2018

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.

Kathie Beltz, MQX april 2018

Kathie Beltz, walking tour of winning quilts, MQX April 2018
Quilt: “Diamond Effervescence” by Beth Nufer, Custom Our Daily Bed catefory

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.

See these blogs for more information on tension.

Not All Tension Problems Can Be Solved By Adjusting The Tension

Yikes! Terrible Tension – What Do I Do?

Is Perfect Longarm Tension Possible?

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The Enjoyment of Quilting Really Lovely Quilts

Taking in a customer quilt a few days ago, I was reminded once again why quilting for others is enjoyable.  Certainly not everything about quilting for others is enjoyable, such as those wonky quilts or quilts with wavy borders.  But, I do have the opportunity to quilt some really lovely quilts.  Quilts I would never think of or have the time to make.  Quilts made of fabrics that are over the top beautiful, fun, or even from another part of the world.

The most recent quilt was made by the Mom of a student I had a number of years ago when I was teaching high school science.  When she called the other day to make her appointment I never gave her name a second thought, that is, until just before she arrived.  Then I began wondering if she was who I though she was.  It was a pleasure to see Carol again, find out how the family was doing and where her son was today.  As teachers we remember our students as they were as kids.  It is often hard to picture these kids as grown up adults, off on their own, working, married and with children of their own.

Carol’s African Theme Quilt

Carol’s quilt is interesting, made for her daughter-in-law with fabrics her daughter-in-law purchased when she was on a mission trip to Africa.  Although we spent some time talking family, we did finally select an appropriate quilting pattern and thread to compliment the African fabrics.  It will be fun quilting an all over African type pattern and leaving a no-sew zone around the elephant.  The elephant needs custom quilting to emphasize its features.  I enjoy working with my customers and prefer to have their input into pattern design and thread color rather than just have them tell me to do what I want.  After all, it isn’t my quilt.  They should see what they would like.

Carol R quilt top

Quilt made by Carol R.

Interesting and Unique Customer Quilts

Thinking back over customer quilts, there are several that stand out because of the interesting quilt design which gave me the opportunity to quilt using fun techniques like echos, unique borders, fun fills, and even hand guided feathers and fill techniques.  Yes, this is all custom quilting.  And yes, you must charge more for it because it takes more time.

Abby’s quilt was made by a quilt club friend for her granddaughter.  Marcia designed her own applique and did a lovely job making the quilt.  Marcia picked out the wide border quilting pattern, butterflies, along with the thread.  The butterfly border is just a whisper on the quilt so it doesn’t detract from the applique.  The applique areas were lots of fun, echoing around each and filling in the background with fun fills like bubbles and clouds.  Each applique area has a different background fill.

Another friend I have known for many years made an applique quilt for her granddaughter, too.  This one, however, had very large applique flowers nearly 12″ across.  Patty’s instructions were no quilting over the flowers.  Again, echo around the flowers.  But, because of the large size, they did need quilting just to keep the quilt layers stabilized.  A spiral was quilted in the center of each with some detail in the petals, enough to hold the quilt together and add interest.  The highly patterned fabrics in the border and center was quilted with an edge-to-edge pattern.

Some quilts are just way too much fun to quilt, like Cindy’s octagon quilt.  This quilt was such a bright, cheerful quilt that she named it “Amusement.”  It needed a lot of fun quilting.  Planning the quilting for Amusement took quite a lot of time and several sketches of the blocks on my tablet using a sketching app before I finally decided on how to quilt the blocks and space between the blocks (sashing).  Cindy’s favorite color is orange, however when I told her I had selected purple to quilt the blocks, she decided on purple thread for everything.

Another more recent quilt, made by Norma, was a wall hanging.  It is a Judy Niemeyer paper pieced pattern with very large leaves in the center.  This quilt has a combination of batik fabrics that are interesting and fun to look at.  The border fabric is especially interesting with bubble filled paisley and, I thought, needed a really fun border treatment.  This quilting was a combination of both computer guided and hand guided quilting.  Although Norma doesn’t like a lot of heavy quilting, or the quilting to be too prominent, she was very happy with the quilting choices.

I am glad to have these interesting customer quilts come through my studio door.  They give me the opportunity to be creative and try different techniques.  It often takes time, sometimes days, to develop a vision for the quilting design I work up.  Once I have a vision, I am ready to get started.  And, depending on how much detail goes into the quilting, it may be several days, or more, before the quilt is finally finished.  For example, I worked on “Amusement” for well over thirty hours, just quilting.

Fortunately most of my customers piece their quilts very well which makes the job of quilting both easier and more enjoyable.  I enjoy the quilting even more when the quilts are interesting, have beautiful or interesting combinations of fabrics, or are unique in some way.  Although I can’t keep any of these beauties, I have enjoyed putting the finishing touches on them.

 

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It Costs WHAT!!!!

When we purchase a product or even consider a quilting class or workshop, we have an idea in our mind what it should cost and we would like to spend.  Of course, we would always like to spend as little as possible.  On the other hand, even when we pay little, we want high quality and value.

Why is it that sewing machines, embroidery machines, longarm machines, and even some classes and workshops cost so much?  Are they really worth that much?

Cost vs Value – Machines

Sewing machines have a very long history going back to 1846 with Elias Howe’s patent ofantique sewing machine the first practical sewing machine.  These machines were revolutionary and a huge improvement over hand stitching.  Can you imagine creating the wardrobe we enjoy today stitching all of those garments by hand?  Or even hand stitching the long dresses worn in the 1800’s? When sewing machines came out, women immediately could see their value.  They were a huge time saver allowing them to be much more productive making more clothing, giving them more time to work on other necessary tasks,or even allowing time to enjoy craft sewing.

Although the first machines were expensive at $300 ($10,000 in today’s money), Merritt Singer perfected the sewing machine and began selling them for $125 ($4,166 in today’s money). Singer offered the very first “buy now and make payments” ever was on any product.  What a novel and savvy business idea so that women could benefit from the use of the sewing machine while paying for it, possibly by making things for others.  Regardless of the cost of the sewing machine, it was worth the purchase because of the value it brought.

Fast forward to today’s sewing machines.  Quality sewing machines have many features that we enjoy, zig-zag stitching which offers many specialty and decorative stitches, needle down, scissors (we do love those!), a longer sewing bed, and more.  Could we do without those features?  Of course, but do we want to do without them?  NO, we love those features because they make our sewing more pleasurable, even easier and more productive.  Sewing machine manufacturers have noticed and designed machines with features we WANT.

How many of us have an embroidery machine, or a sewing machine with an embroidery

Nolting Longarm System with optional light bar

unit?  These machines are not cheap.  In fact, many cost more than most mid-range longarm systems, including the Nolting longarm CLX model I sell.  At quilt shows prospects are often shocked to find out that they could actually purchase a full longarm system (machine and frame) for what they paid for their embroidery sewing machine.  Are these machines and systems just expensive, high mark up, high dollar items, or is there more to the story?

Every product on the market, including sewing machines, embroidery machines, and longarm and computer guided systems have evolved from their simpler and less expensive counterpart, to what we see for sale today.  Over the years there has been a lot of changes, improvements, additions of features, and incorporation of electronic technology replacing mechanical in the product.  The total product costs include design and development, purchasing the raw materials, manufacturing costs, labor, overhead, transportation, and a little profit for manufacturer and seller.  This all add up.  The question is, do we find value and benefit in these improvements?  If the answer is “yes” and we want those improvements, then we must pay the price to have them.  In fact, to be truthful, our machines today are a value.  Based on pricing in the 1800’s converted to today’s dollars, many of these machines would cost between $30,000 and $40,000 for the basics!

Cost vs Value – Classes and Workshops

Now, what about workshops and classes?  A half day longarm hands-on class at a national quilt show will cost $200 or more.  Other classes will cost from $50 to $125.  Why so expensive?  (1) The show must cover its costs, venue, overhead, and profit.  (2) The teacher has expenses that include travel and lodging at the show and he/she expects to earn some money, not just cover expenses.  In fact, for some of these teachers, this is their only income, while others teach in addition to quilting, digitizing, or making show quilts.

Hands on technique workshop at Genesee Valley QuiltFest 2017

When you take any class or workshop, what are you really paying for?  Experience and knowledge.  That teacher has spent a lot of time, often many years, acquiring knowledge, practicing the skills, and developing techniques that they are willing to share with you.  You are actually buying years of experience.  Perhaps with time, a lot of time, you might stumble onto the techniques, and with a lot of practice get sort of good.  But, by taking a class and learning up front what works well, you can shave off years of trial and error and frustration.

Buying Years of Experience

Years ago I owned a carpet cleaning business.  Because my background is in education, naturally I felt learning everything I could about my business would be helpful.  My husband and I took 25 certification courses which were costly, included travel, often long distances to where they were offered, but in the end were the equivalent of a college education.  Because of what we learned, I built a high end, well respected business in our area.  What was more beneficial to my business than even the knowledge and techniques we learned on cleaning and restoration was the value of the experiences shared by our instructors.  We learned so much from our instructors, not only knowledge, but the valuable information they shared on their bad and often costly mistakes.  These were experiences we definitely did not want to repeat.  As a result, we were much smarter and more profitable in business early on because we didn’t make those same mistakes ourselves.

The same is true of the value of classes and workshops for quilters, regardless of the class or workshop.  It may be a class teaching a different technique, hands-on class, computer guided workshop, longarm class, or even an introductory how to use it class.  There is something to be gained from every workshop or class.  When you pay for that class or workshop, you are buying the years of experience of that teacher.  That knowledge and experience took time, often a long time and expense for them to acquire, and it can be valuable to you.

So, how do you justify that expense?  There is value and benefit in everything we learn.  I have always felt that no education is ever wasted.  It may not have immediate benefit, but at some point there is an “aha-ha.” moment and you remember something you learned.  When you think about your investment in your sewing “tools,” your sewing or embroidery machine, your longarm, or computer guided system, the cost of the workshop or class is a relatively small investment in its proper use, techniques that could save time or frustrations, or techniques that could expand your skill, capabilities, creativity and enjoyment.  If you own a business, continuing education can be written off as an expense.  And, regardless of whether you own a business or not, the value of what you learn, may in a very short time, have its own rewards.  A new skill or technique correctly learned will offer its own rewards, and for a business owner, it may very shortly return its value with increased efficiency or a new “service” to offer the customer.

It costs WHAT!!!  Don’t count the cost, look at and count the benefits and value.

 

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Free Motion Quilting Tips

Whether you are free motion quilting at your home machine or at your longarm, the same tips apply.

Overwhelmed by Free Motion Quilting?

quilt by Merilee MacWilliam

Made and quilted by Merilee MacWilliam

Looking at the whole quilt can be intimidating and overwhelming.  It is large, there are many spaces and blocks, and may even have sashing and borders.  Avoid becoming overwhelmed and intimidated by dissecting the whole into small chunks.  Develop a plan looking at the smaller chunks, perhaps just the blocks, then expand outward into the sashing.  Patterns may be stand alone in each space, or you might think out of the box and integrate the block patterns out into the sashing for a different look and secondary pattern.  Think about breaking up the parts within a block with different patterns and fills.  For example, one pattern in star points, another fill type in the corners of the block.

In the quilt above, Merilee placed a larger design within the ray of this star point.  Smaller designs were across the flying geese and in other areas.  A mixture of large scale and smaller scale designs adds interest to the overall appeal of this quilt.

Adding Interest

Looking at a quilts at shows, quilts that stand out have elements that set them apart.  Texture adds dimension and depth to the quilting.  Build a “catalog” of a few texture type patterns to use in spaces, such as borders, sashings and blocks.  Don’t be afraid to mix and match designs for added interest.  For example, use patterns that are flowing and organic along with patterns that are more defined and geometric in shape.  The contrast between these types of patterns adds interest.

In the quilt below, notice how Vickie has taken the “white” space and divided it into block areas which she repeated between each of the star points.  These spaces have the appearance of a “block” with a pattern with both free flowing, organic designs and other more curved defined elements.  It is the mix of defined shapes and background fills that give this very large quilt the pop it needs and why it won Viewer’s Choice. (Genesee Valley QuiltFest, 2015)

free motion quilting

Made and quilted by Vickie Coykendall

Tips for Getting Good at Free Motion Quilting

Getting good at free motion quilting boils down to practice, practice, practice.  Developing muscle memory can only happen when you practice.  But, who wants to practice on the “special” quilt?  The solution is to do small projects, such as table runners, baby quilts, or to volunteer to quilt charity quilts.  These are not large projects, won’t take a lot of time, and offer the opportunity to try many different techniques on a smaller scale (fewer repeats).  Try a variety of patterns, add texture for interest, get creative.  Try different thread colors and see how that affects the overall look and appeal of the quilting.  Experiment without worrying about the outcome.  You will learn a lot about color, contrast, and quilting density, along with getting plenty of practice.  Best of all, these projects won’t take a long time to quilt.

Keys for successful free motion quilting are to relax, stop worrying, and to let your brain take over.  Create a sample of different designs.  Load a practice quilt on the longarm, or baste a quilt sandwich to use at the home machine.  Divide the space up into 6″ x 6″ spaces and fill each space with a different design.  Leah Day has many, many design ideas for this.  Another great resource for quilting ideas is Pintress.  Find what works for you and what you like to quilt.  Save this sample to refer to.  Don’t ever feel that your quilting needs to look like another quilter’s.  Like hand writing, every quilter has their personal style.  Develop your own style.

Finally, you will be the most critical observer.  Others will look at your quilting and love what you have done.

LONGARM TIP

Load several table runners horizontally next to each other on one backing and batting.  It is a time saver and offers many free motion quilting opportunities.

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It’s The Little Things That Really Count

I recently taught longarm quilting and computer guided classes two days in Iowa. The thought occurred to me during one of the classes that what I was trying to get across was that successful quilting is the result of doing many little things right. Quilters often wonder why the quilt is a little askew, the blocks are not quite square, the panto isn’t quite straight, or the tension is not quite right. The results they had hoped for were not quite there.

What are the little things that count? After careful thought, here is my top 10 list of things to pay attention to for an outstanding quilt.

  1. Choose quality fabric for both top and backing. Yes, there is a difference in fabric. You do get what you pay for. I prefer to prewash my fabric tossing in a color catcher to capture any fugitive dyes. I don’t like finding dyes bleeding and even color fast fabrics may have a little color loss in the wash. The color catcher captures the dyes keeping them from migrating and attaching to the fabric in other locations.
  2. Besides careful piecing using a consistent 1/4 inch seam allowance, trim subunits and blocks to size before piecing into the next larger unit. Because I like to trim, I always cut patches slightly oversize. In fact, I use Studio 180 cutting rulers that start with a slightly oversize measurements to allow for trimming to size. The subunits and blocks come out perfectly sized, points in tact and look awesome when sewed into the quilt.

    careful piecing

    Flying Geese units trimmed with Studio 180 Design’s Wing Clipper ruler.

  3. Learn the correct way to add borders to a quilt top. Borders when properly applied will “square up” the quilt. Both top and bottom border should be cut the same length, even if the length of the top and bottom of the quilt are not quite the same measurement. Ease in any fullness, but always cut the borders the same length. The same is true for the side borders. Cut both of them the same length. Ease in any fullness. Sew top and border together with the fullest one on the bottom where the feed dogs gently pull the fullness evening it out for a perfect look.
  4. Spend the few extra minutes it takes to load the quilt correctly on the longarm frame. Always square up the top and bottom of the backing piece so that the backing is square. If you try loading backing with an uneven top and/or bottom, scoops of backing may develop on the sides of the backing, which when quilted may pleat the backing. Even with squaring the top and bottom of the backing, it is best to roll and smooth the backing onto the take up roller, then, transfer the backing from the take up roller to the belly bar roller holding onto both rollers keeping tension on the backing.  Stop rolling periodically to smooth out any little wrinkles in the backing as it rolls onto the belly bar roller.

    loading a quilt

    Transferring quilt backing from take up roller to belly bar roller keeping tension on the backing.

  5. Use quality batting. Quality batting has a consistent thickness throughout and has nice even edges that are not warped. The batting is very important in the quilt, not only as a filler between the top and backing, but it provides the place for the top and bobbin thread to meet when the knot is formed. When batting is poor quality with thick in places and thin in other places, it is impossible for the tension to be adjusted to create a perfect stitch every time.  In places where the batting is very thin, there is no hiding place for the knot to form resulting in what looks like poor tension with the top thread pulled to the bottom or the bobbin thread pulled to the top. You only cheat yourself by using poor quality batting.
  6. Open the batting and let it relax for a few hours before using it. If that is not possible, put the batting into the dryer on the no heat cycle for about 10 minutes to fluff it up and help remove the folds.
  7. Baste the batting to the backing with the vertical channel lock engaged to create a basting line that is perfectly parallel to the rollers. Use this basting line as a placement line for placing the top. Your quilt can’t possible end up square if you don’t load it square with the frame.
  8. Center the quilt top with the center of the frame.  Use a zero center tape mounted on the frame to reference when loading the quilt and each time the quilt is advanced to keep the quilt top tracking squarely centered on the frame. The quilt top should be smooth, but never distorted or pushed to one side or the other and the sides always kept at the designated measurement regardless of variances in width of the quilt.

    zero center tape

    Using a zero center tape to keep the quilt top square with the frame.

  9. Train your eyes and your fingers to recognize quality tension. You should see defined stitches, not the thread as a flat line or pokes of the bobbin thread on top or top thread on the bottom. Your fingers should feel the thread pulling into the batting on both the top and bottom. Physically check the tension by looking at the stitching, especially on the bottom if you are not sure.

    quilt sample

    Flat line thread and “pokies” where the batting is very thin.

  10. Use thread that is engineered for machine quilting.  Machine quilting thread is stronger and designed to work at the higher speeds longarm quilting machines
    quilting thread

    Quality machine quilting thread available in a wide array of colors and sizes.

    operate.  Machine quilting threads come in all weights, #, and TEX, fiber content, and a huge selection of colors.  Yes, it is a little more expensive than regular sewing thread, but the total cost per quilt would only be from a few cents to a few dollars more.  Don’t forget the machine needle.  Size the needle to the thread.  It is the groove that carries the thread below the quilt where the top thread loop can be picked up by the hook and bobbin thread.  If the groove is too small, tension problems result.

Are there more?  Yes. Each of these might seem like such a little thing.  But the sum total of the little things done right result in an all over top quality quilt.  Just think about it.  If you purchased a new car that had just a few little things not quite right would you be happy with the product?  It’s only one tire that is just a little out of round, a little scratch in the door paint, one tail light that is dim, the cup holder not quite large enough, and a little stain on the seat.

Resolve to do the little things.  You will be happy you did.

 

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Don’t Be So Hard On Yourself – We All Start At The Same Place

I was cleaning out a notebook that was turned in with a traded in longarm machine recently.  Nearly everything had something to do with the machine, maintenance, how to use it, our troubleshooting issues.  There was one paper, however, I came across that I decided to keep because it reminded me of where I was a few years ago when I first started to longarm quilt.  It was the same place that all longarm quilters start, at the beginning.  Below is the content of that page written by Carrie Dugan in 2004.

Beginning Longarm Quilter Oath and Rules

Please remember these things when you get your longarm machine and start quilting.

  1. When I was learning to tie my shoes, I made a knot.
  2. When I was learning to write, no one could read it.
  3. When I was learning to ride a bike, I fell off.
  4. When I was learning to cook, I burnt the dish.
  5. When I was learning to drive, I landed in a ditch.
  6. When I was learning to piece a quilt, my seams were not always 1/4 inch.

I will repeat the Beginners Longarm Oath Each Day for the Next 3 Months. (or longer if I need to)

  1. I am learning, so, it is OK if I make mistakes.
  2. I am learning, so, NO Longarm Quilting Police will be at my door for at least 1 year.
  3. I am learning, so, my circles may look like squares.
  4. I am learning so, my feathers may look like chicken scratch.
  5. I am learning, so, my quilts may not turn out square.
  6. I am learning, so, my threads may break, I will figure out how to adjust my tension.
  7. I am learning, so, my pantos may not line up correctly.
  8. I am learning, so, my quilt may not win an award.

I am learning!!

I will Practice!!

I will improve!!

I am having fun learning.  I will become a confident and proficient longarm quilter.  It will take practice, practice, practice and more practice.  I will be patient and not hard on myself.  I will love the process.  I will reach my goals.  I will be happy with the rewards.

!!!I will become an excellent longarm quilter!!!

Learn, practice, and you will improve.  Take classes, read books, watch videos and practice some more.  You will improve.  Perfection comes with time and experience.  None of us are born with experience, we all travel the same road to become confident and proficient.  Have fun and enjoy the journey.  Thank you Carrie for this important reminder.

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Listening To The Heart Of The Quilter

If you quilt for yourself, you can do whatever you want with the quilting with a panto, your own edge to edge designs, free motion quilting or templates.  After all it is your quilt and you can do whatever you want.  If you quilt for others, however, it is not your quilt and you need to listen carefully to the quilt maker to catch their vision for the quilt.
For quilts that come to my studio for quilting, I have questions I always ask the quilt maker:
  1. Who is the quilt for?  I am not being nosy.  A quilt for a young child to use and love really doesn’t need custom quilting like a wedding quilt might.  Some quilts will be washed many times, other quilts, seldom, if ever.  Knowing the purpose of the quilt can be important in guiding the quilting decisions that include type of batting, the style of quilting and perhaps, even the selection of thread.
  2. What is the quilt maker’s vision for the quilting?  Although quilters that bring a quilt to be quilted don’t want to do the quilting, they often have a vision of what they would like to see.  They may not personally like feathers all over, they might think the recipient of the quilt would love geometric patterns, they have likes and dislikes and know the recipient best.  It is important to do what the customer wants, if at all possible.  It might not be what you would do if the quilt were yours, but remember, the quilt is not yours.

Once I have a good feel for the purpose, use and quilt maker’s vision for the quilt, I offer

quilting

6″ floral pattern compliments flowers in 1930’s print.

possible options.  For example, if they think a floral panto would be nice, I show the customer pantos I think would be the right scale for the quilt and with a pattern that would look nice with the quilt pattern and fabrics as illustrated in the photo above.  For custom quilting, we talk about possible design options for the blocks, sashing and borders and I show the customer samples of what is possible so they can see if it fits with their vision for the quilt.  Most people like options to choose from.  That is why we have shelves of cereal, soda, cookies, and everything else in our stores.

Hunter's Star blocks quilted.

Custom quilted – Hunter’s Star blocks, feathered block treatment with separate “circles” stars in the stars. Simple piano keyboard in the border, stitch in the ditch along inner border.

Finally, after deciding how the quilt will be quilted, my client helps select the thread.  We talk about the “star” of the quilt.  Is it the quilt pattern and fabrics, or the quilting, or a balance of all?  Based on that decision, I start pulling out thread color options.  Variegated, solid, poly, cotton, puddling the thread across the fabrics to see how each looks.  Some are taken off right away as they are too light, too dark, too prominent, or fade away and not even visible.  Looking at what is left the customer, sometimes with a little guidance, is able to decide which color and type of thread really looks the best.  A slightly off white thread, King Tut, was chosen for the 1930’s quilt to highlight the quilting without over powering the fabrics.  The Hunter’s Star quilt has pale blue thread.  Testing white thread first I found too much contrast, however the pale blue offered just the right amount of contrast on both the white and blue in the quilt.

As a quilter, you have that vision.  You made the quilt and you, either consciously or subconsciously, have made these same decisions.  However, if you quilt for others, or even allow friends to use your longarm, you need to remember, it is not your quilt.  I even have a couple of clients that came to me because their former longarmer did what she wanted on quilts rather than what the customer wanted.  Help your customers (or friends) make the right choices to enhance their quilt in the best way possible with quilting suitable for the use and intent of the quilt, and the vision of the quilt maker.

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Yikes! Terrible Tension – What Do I Do?

Some days just don’t go as planned with Longarm quilting and you have to stop, step back and analyze what the issue is and what to do about it.

The quilt I was working on was made of excellent quality quilting cotton, 1930’s reproduction fabric.  The batting was top quality Quilters Dream Blend 70/30 (select, mid-weight) and the thread was top quality Superior Threads King Tut and So Fine 50, both designed for Longarm machine quilting.  I used the Towa Bobbin Gauge to set the bobbin tension at my normal setting of 200 for the M-hook on the Nolting Pro.  I was using IntelliQuilter computer guided system for this quilt and the machine and bobbin were correctly threaded.

The problem: Regardless of how carefully I adjusted the tension, the bobbin thread either pulled to the top or the top thread pulled to the bottom railroading, inconsistent tension.  Some places looked wonderful, others not very good.

poor quilting tension

Inconsistent poor tension.

I can say that I have not had any tension adjustment problems in several years since starting to use the Towa Gauge to adjust the bobbin tension at the same setting regardless of the thread.  So, why now?  Was it just a bad day, careless top tension adjustment, the weather, the particular computer guided pattern, one which I had never stitched out before, or some other issue.  I continued to adjust the tension on the “fly” as I stitched out two rows of the pattern.  Not having much success I decided to quit for the day.

The next day after taking a really good look at the back of the quilt, I had to make the

poor quilting tension

Inconsistent poor tension.

dreaded decision to totally take out all of the quilting.  The inconsistent tension was in too many places to even consider repairing the spots.  More importantly, I had to figure out why it was happening and fix the issue before working on the quilt again.  I talked with a friend who also had a Pro (now upgraded to the Nolting NV) and IQ to see if she had any suggestion.

I could rule out some things as they were not a factor:

  • I ruled out any mechanical issue as this machine is only a few months old.
  • I ruled out any problems with IQ as that also is only a few months old.

    terrible quilt tension

    Really terrible tension!

So, that left me with the quilt sandwich, thread, and adjustment.

Here is now I solved the problem:

  • I could not change the quilt sandwich, however, part way through quilting I realized that I had loaded the backing incorrectly with the scrim side up rather than down as it should be. I feel that this was a factor to some extent because the “fluffier” side was down toward the backing rather than up touching the back of the top.
  • The pattern was a medium density pattern with quilting less than 3” apart, sometimes 2” apart, many curves and points which probably caused a lot of needle flex as the machine moved back and forth around the pattern. I made sure I had a stronger, thicker needle in the machine and used the MR 4.5/19 for the M-hook in the machine.  Even using a size 20 needle might have helped even more.
  • Because of the denser pattern, the very inconsistent tension and trouble fine tuning the tension, I reasoned that the So Fine 50 (poly) thread in the bobbin was not a good match for the heavier #40 King Tut (cotton) on the top. I switched bobbin thread to Robison Anton 50 cotton.  And, if that had not worked, I would have used the King Tut in the bobbin also so that the threads would be evenly matched as far as strength and elasticity.
  • I slowed IQ down so that there would be less needle flex and have more time to precisely place the stitches. The settings I used were 1.3 Speed and 1.1 Detail.  These slower speeds also meant that I needed to slow the machine speed down.  If this speed had not worked, I would have slowed IQ and the machine down even more.  If I had been hand guiding this pattern and experiencing the same issues, which quite possibly could happen, I would need to slow down my hand guiding speed.  With a denser pattern, hand guiding the machine slower would probably happen anyway.
  • I warmed up my machine for at least five minutes, perhaps even more. Over the years I have discovered that if the machine’s internal parts are well warmed up, along with the bobbin case, adjusting the tension takes less time and takes fewer adjustments after starting to quilt on the quilt.  Remove the bobbin from the bobbin case and put the empty bobbin case into the machine for the warm up.  Don’t forget to remove the thread from the top and out of the take up lever.  Warm up using a medium speed.
  • Use the Towa Bobbin Gauge to set the bobbin tension. I checked the bobbin tension on every bobbin and set to 200.  Experience has taught me that this is the best setting for my Nolting Pro with the IQ.  When I use the Pro with Quiltmagine (Nolting’s computer guided system), I set the bobbin at 175.  Each computer guided system, because it so precisely moves and places stitches, places a different amount of stress on the thread.  By experimenting with different settings, I have found these setting to work for me.  Longarm machines run best with a looser bobbin tension as that gives much more flexibility in adjusting the top tension.
  • Once the bobbin tension was set correctly, I spent time adjusting the top tension. My method for that is to tighten the top tension until I see the bobbin thread starting to poke out of the top on my test sample at the side of the quilt.  Then, I start backing the top down until I can only see the tip of the bobbin thread down in the needle hole.  I feel and look at the back to make sure there are no top thread pokies.  I always test using the same setting (stitch length or motor speed) I will use on the quilt, stitch little circles, curves, straight lines and points to see how the machine tension responds as I am adjusting the top tension.  When I am satisfied, and only when satisfied, I started the pattern.
  • I decided to adjust the pattern size a little larger to give a little more gentleness to the curves of the pattern. This slight adjustment was still within the scale of the quilt top design.  With a paper pattern and hand guided, you don’t have this flexibility, so you simply have to work with what you have.
  • Once I started IQ stitching the pattern I stopped several times within the first several inches to check the tension top and bottom and made little refinements to the tension. I did not want to make any assumptions and I did not want to spend any more time ripping out machine quilting stitching.  If I had been hand guiding this pattern, I would have done the same, stop a number of times as I started stitching the pattern to check the tension top and bottom.   As the pattern continued to stitch out, I checked periodically across the row, and across every row.
  • Because I had started quilting this in the early afternoon, I kept at it until it was finished. When success presents itself, I did not want to stop until completed.

Problem Tension Solved!

You might be asking if every quilt is such a struggle.  The answer to that is, no.  My normal setup does involve sufficient machine warm up, using the Town Bobbin Gauge to set the bobbin tension, testing and adjusting the tension on a test strip at the side of the quilt, and stopping frequently when I start quilting to make fine top tension adjustments.  Normally I do not have problems and am able to work through the project without any issues.  Just why this quilt was a problem, other than the factors I mentioned before, it is hard to determine.  Perhaps each of the variables contributed something to the problem.   Situations like this are frustrating and for new Longarm quilters, almost overwhelming.  Rather than fret and stress, it is best just to step back, look at the whole quilting picture, analyze the problem and the variables involved, and even check the simple things like thread path.  Even with my experience, I am happy that I had a Longarm friend to bounce ideas off and that the problem inconsistent tension was solved.

1930's quilt

Beautiful Quilt, Beautiful Quilting – Job Well Done!

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What’s Special About Egyptian Cotton Thread?

Perhaps in quilting circles you have heard that the best quilting thread on the market is made of Egyptian cotton.  But what makes it better than cotton grown in the US, China, India, or other countries and why should quilters look for Egyptian cotton thread?

“Dr Bob” of Superior Threads explained more about Egyptian cotton in a September 17, 2017 educational post.  There is also a short video below where “Dr Bob” explains and demonstrates more about cotton thread and answers questions about the differences between short, long and extra long staple thread, coated thread and thread “memory.”

Dr Bob writes, “Last week both Walmart and Target announced that they were pulling sheets branded as Egyptian cotton from their shelves because they “suddenly discovered” that they are not Egyptian cotton. We’ve been fighting the Egyptian cotton mislabel battle for years, knowing that Egypt does not grow enough cotton to make all the Egyptian cotton sheets, towels, clothing, and thread that is sold. Our cotton threads really are made from Egyptian-grown extra-long staple cotton.

Here are some interesting cotton facts from a recent year:
A standard bale of cotton weighs 480 lbs.
In one year, the world produced 114 million bales.
The top five cotton-producing countries:
1. China (26% of total)
2. India (23% of total)
3. United States (16% of total)
4. Pakistan (8% of total)
5. Brazil (7% of total)
Egypt ranks number 15 among cotton-producing countries and produces only .0005% of the total amount. That is one-twentieth of one percent. If Egypt is such a tiny dot on the cotton-growing map, why is Egyptian cotton so prevalent? Why is there so much Egyptian cotton clothing, bed sheets, towels, and thread? The truth is, there isn’t. The label may say Egyptian Cotton but the contents are not. Whether it is due to false advertising, misunderstanding, or ignorance on the part of seller, the fact remains that it is incorrect. There is not enough Egyptian cotton in existence to produce all the products labeled as Egyptian Cotton. It would be safe to say that there is 10,000 times more Egyptian cotton sold than is grown.
Does it really matter? Those who know cotton quality obviously understand that it does matter. Otherwise, many companies would not be falsely claiming that their cotton is ‘Egyptian Cotton’ when in fact, it is not. There is something about the climate, soil, water, and minerals in Egypt that is ideal to grow the highest-grade cotton. It is not possible to tell the origin of cotton fibers by examining them. But you and your machine will know the difference. A high-grade cotton with advanced processing will be clean, smooth, and consistent.
What about Superior’s MasterPiece and King Tut cotton thread? As far as I can tell, we are the only thread company that can honestly say this: 100% extra-long staple Egyptian-grown cotton. Our factory buys cotton from Egypt, transports it by ship to Japan for spinning, twisting, gassing, finishing, mercerizing, dyeing, and winding, and then ships it to us in Utah, USA. And it is guaranteed to work in your machine.”   From Superior Threads.

From personal experience, I use both Master Piece for all of my piecing and King Tut for longarm quilting.  I have found they are excellent, low lint cotton threads that are strong and perform to my highest expectations.  There are many colors available to blend with any quilt.  Although they are more expensive, they are higher quality than regular cotton thread and I know they will last and I won’t have problems with breakage, knotting, or bird nests.  Inexpensive thread is never worth the aggravation.  For the few pennies extra per project, I find using top quality thread is always the best decision.

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