Solving Longarm Backing Issues

Nothing is worse than taking the quilt off the frame and discovering problems on the back

problem quilt

Notice distorted sides and wavy bottom on this quilt.

of the quilt, such as puckers or tucks, or getting to the bottom of the quilt and find dog-ear borders.  It is very discouraging after spend a lot of time to make the quilting design look so nice.  Who at this point wants to do reverse stitching (pick out stitches)? Perhaps, even by removing the stitching, there may not be a good solution to fix the issue.

Reasons that may result in puckers, tucks, backing that drapes on the sides and dog-ear borders:

  1. The backing is loaded too loosely.
  2. Backing is pieced with a vertical seam
  3. Improper clamping
  4. incorrect technique for adding borders

Because of inexperience, new longarm quilters often have backing issues, even I did.  All of these issues are caused by incorrect methods.  Change your methods and you immediately change the outcome.

The best solution to “fixing” these issues is prevention using techniques that will eliminate the problems from the start.  In fact, prevention starts even before you start loading the backing.    Over the years I have refined a procedure that totally eliminates all of these issues.  If you follow these steps, you can eliminate these issues.  Best thing is that these same procedures and techniques work with all brands of machines and frames.

Techniques to eliminate puckers, tucks and dog-ear borders.

Method for adding borders:

Dog-ears result from the border being longer than the quilt top or being stretched during quilting.  “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”  In this case, add borders correctly.

  1. Never add a border by laying the strip on the quilt, stitching it on and trimming it off.  Because the sides of any quilt will distort easily, opposite borders will never end up being the same sewn on this way and you end up with opposite borders all different lengths distorting the outside edge of the quilt.  Borders added correctly will square up a quilt.
  2. Correct method:
    1. Measure across the quilt top in two or three places (not at the top or bottom), use the average of the measurements or the smallest, cut both top and bottom border at the same time, the same length.
    2. Pin border to quilt easing in any fullness of the border or quilt.  Best way is to quarter both the quilt top and border, pin together at the quarter marks, then ease in fullness.
    3. Always stitch with the fullest piece on the bottom where the feed dogs will evenly pull it through without creating any puckers.
    4. Using the same method, measure the other direction across the quilt, cut both border strips the same length following instructions in steps A-C.

Loading Procedure:

  1. Backing (and batting) must be 8” longer and 8” wider than the quilt top.
  2. Square the top and bottom end of the backing so that they are perpendicular to the sides. Fold backing in half lengthwise, fold again making sure there are no puckers and the folds and side lay on top of each other with no ripples or puckers.  Use a long cutting ruler and line up a cross mark along the folded edge and trim the top (and bottom) edge.  Cut will be perpendicular to the length of the backing.  Your backing will NEVER work properly without squaring with this method.  Even tearing along the grain line does not work because all fabric is distorted during the manufacturing and winding process.  You must square by cutting.
  3. Make sure the backing is pinned evenly to the canvas or zippers, or with the same amount folded over the rod if using leader grips. Any amount that is off by more than ¼ – 3/8” here can distort the backing.
  4. Always roll ALL of the backing onto the take-up roller first (roller under the machine arm). Stand at the back of the frame, roll a little, then, SMOOTH the backing from the center outward in each direction.  This does not stretch the fabric, it smooths it out to remove little puckers and ripples.  Keep rolling a little and smoothing until nearly all of the backing is rolled onto the take-up roller.
  5. Roll the backing from the take-up roller to the belly bar roller. Again, roll a little, walk
    loading quilt backing correctly

    Controlling transfer of backing from take-up roller to belly bar roller.

    over and smooth from center outward in each direction (belly bar), roll a little more, smooth more, until the backing is transferred to the front belly bar roller.  When transferring from take-up roller to front roller, keep tension on the backing by keeping a hand on each roller (see photo).  Something magical happens during this transfer – the backing straightens itself out, drapes along the side disappear.  YES, this method takes a little longer, but it eliminates the problems.

  6. What about a backing seam? Unless the backing is directional, always seam backing fabrics so that the seam is a horizontal seam and not a vertical seam.  If you must have a vertical seam see my YouTube video below on how to roll the backing.

More Loading Tips:

Once the backing has been transferred to the belly bar roller, the batting and top can now be loaded.  Do not put clamps on the quilt yet as this distorts the backing.

  1. Batting must have a straight edge at the top perpendicular to the sides. If it does not and/or is distorted, square up the top edge of the batting.
  2. Baste the batting to the backing with the horizontal channel lock engaged. This is very important as the basting line becomes the placement line for the top.
  3. Using the basting line (step 2) as the placement for the top edge of the quilt matching the center of the top to the center mark on the roller.  The quilt top will be perfectly aligned parallel to the rollers and square with the frame. Baste less than ¼ “ from the edge of the quilt top.  When basting less than 1/4″ from the quilt edge, there is no need to remove the basting as the binding will cover the stitching.
  4. Using a zero center tape installed on the frame, baste the sides of the quilt top at the same distance from the center as the top edge of the quilt. Using a zero center tape every time the quilt is advanced assures the quilt will be square at the bottom.

After the top is basted to the backing, attach the clamps only to the backing.  Backing clamps are used only to stabilize the sides of the quilt and are only attached to the backing.  Side leader grips can be used as an alternative method of stabilizing the quilt/backing sides.  These are 10-14 inches long with the ribbon on the side leader grip held by a frame side clamp.  They do a great job of stabilizing a longer area than just a narrow clamp.  DONOT pull tightly on the clamp straps as that distorts the backing.  Because of this distortion, when the clamps are released after quilting, the quilt will pucker.

One final tip.  Before starting to quilt the new area, take a quick look under at the backing.  Make sure that it is smooth with no ripples, folds, or areas of distortion.  If it looks smooth, you are good to go.

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Call For Entries – More Than A Ribbon

As we enter a new year, 2017, you may be thinking ahead to quilt shows this year and entering one or more of your quilts.  In fact, some shows like Genesee Valley QuiltFest, Rochester, NY, are already accepting quilt registrations.   Because I am planning on entering several quilts in this show, I thought it best to think about what judges might be looking at in the judging process.

Can a quilt be ruined with quilting?

Some time back I read a blog by Lori Kennedy entitled “6 Ways to Ruin a Quilt with Quilting.”  Since we all think that quilting should enhance the quilt, in reality, it is not always the case.  Continue reading

Is Perfect Longarm Tension Possible?

Learning to adjust the machine tension is the biggest learning curve in longarm quilting.

perfect longarm tension

Perfect tension looks as good on the back as on the front.

Quilters often become more comfortable with quilting pantos and free motion quilting before they are comfortable adjusting the tension.  We aren’t used to adjusting tension as most sewing machines today rarely, if ever, need the tension adjusted.  Longarm machines, however, DO need the tension adjusted, usually with every quilt and every thread change.

Let’s take a look at why tension must be adjusted, then how to do it successfully.

Why does tension need adjusting?

  • Each quilt is different – different fabrics, different backing, perhaps different batting, and different threads in top and bobbin.  Each of these variables will affect the tension.
  • Today is a different day than yesterday.  Even high humidity can affect cotton causing it to absorb moisture from the air.

How to adjust tension successfully:

  • Accept the fact that tension must be adjusted and checked frequently and re-adjusted if necessary.
  • Use top quality batting that has a consistent thickness.  It is impossible to adjust tension when batting is thick in places and thin in other places.
  • Use top quality thread that is designed for machine quilting, especially longarm quilting.  Longarms operate at a much higher speed than home machines and operate best with strong machine quilting thread.
  • Use a Towa Bobbin Gauge to reliably and consistently set the bobbin tension with
    towa bobbin gauge

    Towa Bobbin Gauge

    every new bobbin.  Nolting L-hook set at 100-125 and M-hook set at 200-225.  Once the bobbin tension is set, you do not touch the bobbin again, only the top tension will be adjusted.

  • Use space at the side of the quilt, the backing and batting placing a strip of fabric on top to test and adjust the tension.
  • Always use the same color thread, or nearly the same color, in both top and bobbin. It does not need to be the same thread, different weight threads are OK.   Using the same color thread will “hide” the places where there are slight inconsistencies in tension.
  • Always adjust the tension using the stitch length or motor speed you plan on using when quilting the quilt. Changing the stitch length or motor speed will usually affect the tension.
  • Tighten the top tension until you see the bobbin thread poking or nearly poking out the needle holes on the top of the quilt.
  • Now to balance the tension, loosen the top tension until the bobbin thread is back
    thread tension

    Thread Tension

    down in the needle hole. You want to barely see the bobbin thread down in the needle hole.  The bobbin thread should not be visible on the top and the top thread should not be visible on the bottom.  When you can still see the bobbin thread down in the hole, you know the top and bottom thread will be forming the stitch in the batting.  This way you should not have to look at the back of the quilt very often.

  • Once adjusted, feel of the stitch line on the back of the quilt. It should feel depressed into the batting.
  • Once the tension is balanced at the side of the quilt, you can start quilting on the quilt. Be vigilant when you start quilting the panto or blocks, stop and check the tension frequently at first and tweak if needed.  Because the quilt top is not the same as your test strip at the side, you may need to make a little adjustment to the tension once you start quilting.

For more on tension see “Guide to Quilting with Your Nolting.”

Yes, you can achieve perfect longarm tension.  It takes time, patience and practice using the technique described above.

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Safety in the Quilting Studio

Nothing can put your life on hold like an injury.  It is unexpected and unplanned.  Depending on the severity of the injury you can have daily activities and hobbies upset for a few hours, a few days, or even weeks.

After my husband sliced the skin off the tip of his finger yesterday with a box knife, I wasinjury clipart reminded even more of the need to be careful in the sewing room.  In the sewing room we work with rotary cutters that are equally as sharp as the box knife.  It doesn’t take much for an injury to happen, a careless (or not so careless) placement of the ruler, not thinking about where we place our hand and fingers, or even not thinking and leaving the safety off and the rotary cutter blade exposed for “just a second.”  There are even other hazards, such as pins and needles, sharp scissors, and electric cords running in different directions.  Although you may feel you have everything under control, if you have young children, grandchildren, or pets that roam through your quilting space, rotary cutters, pins and needles and stray cords are tempting, hazardous, and potentially deadly.  Pets are even attracted to things that adults and children would ignore.  For example, one of my Longarm customers needed a switch replaced on her Longarm because the cat, who liked to jump up on the frame and lay on the quilt, chewed the cap off the machine switch.  Fortunately for the cat, the machine was unplugged.

think safety first posterAlways think “Safety First.”  Whether you are cutting, sewing, pressing, or any other task, always think about your safety and the safety of others, including your pets.

Cutting Safety:

  • Replace mats that have grooves and marks that have not “healed.”
  • Replace the blade in the rotary cutter regularly. Dull blades do not cut well, need more pressure to cut, and may slip out of the fabric causing a wrong cut, damaging the ruler or hurting you.
  • Purchase rulers that have a non-slip surface, such as Creative Grids rulers,
    non-slip cutting rulers

    Creative Grids non-slip rulers and InvisiGrip non-slip static cling sheets.

    including the Stripology Ruler, or place InvisiGrip™ on the bottom of rulers. This clear static cling film provides a non-slipping surface on the bottom of the ruler.  Slipping or sliding rulers not only result in poor cuts, but can contribute to damage to the ruler from the blade and possible danger to the quilter from a cut from the rotary cutter.  After testing InvisiGrip™ on my 24” cutting ruler I have decided to put it on all of my clear rulers.  I have been very impressed that is really does provide a non-slip surface.

  • Use an elevated cutting table to work at a comfortable (and safe) height. A cutting table can easily and inexpensively be made from a short folding banquet table and lengths of PVC pipe cut 10-12” long and put under each leg.
  • Make sure the cutting area has good lighting and is clear of stray pins.
  • Keep your non-cutting hand behind and away from the direction and angle of the rotary cutter.
  • Always close the cutter after every use.

Quilting Room or Studio Safety:

Think "Safety First"

Think “Safety First”

  • Work in a well-lighted space.
  • Always use a pin cushion or magnetic pincushion to keep pins and needles secure. Invest in a magnetic wand to swipe across the floor to pick up any stray pins that have fallen.
  • If children or pets frequent the area, make sure dangerous items like pins and needles, scissors, and rotary cutters are put away. It isn’t a matter of organization, although that helps, it is a matter of “safety first.”
  • Never use an extension cord with the iron. Most extension cords are not heavy enough for the wattage draw and it could cause a fire.
  • Even if unplugged, a dangling electric cord from the iron can be a temptation to children and pets that might pull on it causing the iron to fall off the ironing board and onto the pet or child causing injury.  Always place the unused iron in a safe location.
  • Avoid running cords across traffic lanes. Tripping and falls are the number one cause of injury in adults ages 65 and over.  Even if you are younger, it is still dangerous to have cords across the path.
  • Always unplug the iron and sewing and/or quilting machines when not in use. Who knows what else could happen, but most have sensitive electronics in them that could be damaged by power surges or lightning strikes.  This type of damage is never covered under the product warranty.
  • Pets are attracted to dangling thread, thread spools and cones. They are wonderful toys!  But, they can be dangerous and deadly to your pet.  Make sure thread is put away and not a temptation.
  • Longarm owners with pets – the dangling quilt top and batting seems to be a wonderful place to play hide and seek, a great place to sleep, or claw. Dogs seem to especially like to chew the batting.  Cats also seem to like to jump up onto the frame and sleep on the quilt, like a hammock.  The Longarm is such a temptation.  You could close the door to the studio, put a shower curtain (plastic) over the quilt, or use strips of aluminum foil to reduce the temptation.  If you have other great solutions, please post them below in comments.

injury prevention planSafety first is a habit.  Take a critical look at your quilting area, make provision for safe, but convenient, storage for dangerous items, develop a procedure for putting things out of harm’s way and shutting things off when you leave your space. Get into the habit of always thinking about and doing the “safe” thing.  It may take a few seconds longer, but a careless unsafe move can cost hours, days, weeks or more of pain and the inconvenience of not being able to enjoy your time sewing and quilting.

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Trouble Shooting Longarm Issue – Long Stitch

Yesterday we delivered a longarm to a customer upgrading from a 17″ throat to a 24″ throat machine with more options and ergonomic, adjustable handles front and rear.  The machine used, only a few years old, but I had sent it back to the Nolting factory to have them go through and make sure everything was as it should be.  When the machine arrived back from the factory I put it on a frame and stitched with it to make sure I was satisfied with everything.

At the delivery we replaced the short frame arms and short carriage rails with longer ones (an easy upgrade with Nolting frames) to accommodate the 24″ throat Pro and put the machine on the frame.  My customer had practice fabric and batting ready to load so that I could train her in the use of her “new” machine.  We basted the batting and top onto the backing and started stitching.  The basting stitches worked well, but when we started sewing we occasionally got a long stitch, sometimes half an inch long, other times much longer.  In addition, we noticed that it always seemed to be a vertical stitch (front to rear).

towa bobbin gauge

Towa Bobbin Gauge

Before we started we used the Towa Bobbin Tension Gauge to set the correct bobbin tension for the M-hook (200 to 225 for the Nolting machine), then adjusted the top tension for a balanced tension.  As the tension was OK, we knew we could rule out tension as the problem.  The clue we focused on was the vertical long stitch.  Skipped stitches vertically could indicate a problem with the encoder on the side of the machine, so we replaced the encoder and made sure that the encoder wheel made good contact in the carriage rail.  Hoping this would solve the problem we tested again, and again the same long, skipped stitch.

Use a List

Working through a list of possible causes for skipped stitches we (1) changed the needle, but that didn’t correct the problem.  (2) Made sure the quilt sandwich was level and only a finger width of space under the take-up roller, and loosened the quilt sandwich slightly as both of these could cause skipped stitches.  Again, same problem of long, skipped stitches.  Knowing that this machine had stitched perfectly several months ago when it came back from the factory, we had to look at other possible causes.

Again focusing on the long, skipped stitch, we realized that it only happened when the machine was moving away from the front of the frame toward the back of the frame.  It is important to slow down and analyze everything carefully when something like this is happening.  The customer had put a fine thread in the top, something to consider.  But, the key was moving the machine toward the back.  Needle flex will happen with longarm machines, even with a larger, sturdier needle.  The machine had a MR 4.5 (size 19).  But the other factor was, one of the fabrics was a batik which, because of its high thread count, can be challenging to stitch.

What we observed was excellent stitch quality except in one direction with needle flex a

Nolting Pro owner Carol

Carol enjoying stitching with her “new” Nolting Pro 24

possibility, so we decided to check the timing.  After taking off the throat plate and rotating the hook to the correct position we found the timing position correct, but the hook was a tad too far from the needle.  We are talking a very small distance too far away, but enough to see day light between the needle and hook.  We adjusted the hook distance, put everything back together and tested stitching again.  SUCCESS!!  The machine stitched beautifully and there were no long, skipped stitches.

Diagnosing and trouble shooting issues with longarm machines can sometimes be challenging because there are a number of variables involved.  To diagnose, find the root problem, and solve it, each of those variables must be considered and evaluated.  When diagnosing, rather than jumping to a conclusion, I think it is important to consider every possibility and to work through those, starting first with the things that can easily be checked and changed (changing needle, adjusting tension on the quilt top, etc) and moving to other possibilities until the cause has been found.  For these reasons, I have included a comprehensive chart type trouble shooting guide in my book, Guide to Quilting with Your Nolting.  Although written for Nolting owners, this guide provides helpful information on the various aspects of longarm quilting (beneficial to all longarm quilters), free motion and template quilting, a maintenance and repair guide for Nolting machines, the trouble shooting guide which covers issues common to all longarm machines, and many tips, hints, and resources.  Click to buy the Guide now.

Don’t Panic

Issues like this are inevitable.  Rather than panic, analyze carefully what is happening, when it happens, take into consideration the thread, batting and fabric you are using.  Then, go through a list of possible causes checking out each one until you find the problem.  Often there is something you can do to correct the problem, but if not, you can tell your dealer or the company tech what you have already tried as they work to solve the problem.

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Bleeding Fabric – Saving Quilts from Disaster

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Patriotic color quilts for Veteran Quilt Project

The last few weeks I have been completing and quilting three 48×60 inch quilts for a veteran project for our local quilt club.  A few years ago the club decided to honor each veteran in the town with a quilt.  Although a small town, there are a couple of hundred veterans from WWII, Korea, Vietnam, through recent deployments to the Middle East.  The club has already given quilts to WWII veterans and the goal now is about 120 quilts for Korean, Vietnam, and other veterans.  Did I mention the club only has about 25 members?

After making and quilting the quilt, we wash the quilt and stitch on the label which will include the name of the recipient and that it is given by the club to honor them for their service to our country.  All of the quilts in any pattern are shades of red, white, and blue.  The club has a block of the month activity which supports our quilt efforts.  Each month those participating make a r/w/b block or blocks.  Whoever “wins” the drawing gets to take the blocks home, assemble and quilt the quilt. In addition, we have a couple of sit and sew days during the year to work on more quilts.  Members are always welcome to make quilts on their own, too.

Today I washed the three quilts that I had been working on, two quilts made from a Jenny Doan pattern (info below) and one from block of the month blocks I had won several months ago.  Since the quilt fabrics were not pre-washed before making the quilt, I decided it might be a

Color Catcher sheets to catch fugitive dyes.

Color Catcher sheets to catch fugitive dyes.  White sheet shown below the box.

good idea to put a “Color Catcher” sheet ($5.29 for box of 24) in the washing machine with the quilts.  The color catcher sheets pick up fugitive dyes released from the fabrics that would otherwise migrate to other fabrics in the quilts.  A red to blue, or blue to red migration might not be very noticeable, but certainly either of those colors to white would show up.  I am very glad that I put the color catcher sheets (2) in the washer as they both captured red dye and some blue.  The quilts look fabulous with no evidence of any dye migration.

What happens if you do not use color catchers in the washing machine and the dye

Center color catcher with red and blue dye captured. Right color catcher before. Left color catcher with little dye as it got caught in the washer drum.

Center color catcher with red and blue dye captured. Right color catcher before. Left color catcher with little dye as it got caught in the washer drum.

migrates?  Is the quilt ruined, or is there hope?   Because the dyes migrated once, they may still be unstable and able to be released from the fabric and “caught.”  I found additional help from another  blog post that offers several solutions and shows testing of several methods that can be used to try and capture the fugitive dyes from fabrics.

Although there might be hope to capture the fugitive dyes after the fact, using color catcher sheets the first time fabric is washed is probably better.  When I pre-wash my quilting fabrics (before making the quilt), I always toss in a couple of color catcher sheets.  Because my two quilts were made with strips, they were not pre-washed.  As a result, it was very important to capture any fugitive dyes during the wash using the color catcher sheets.  If little or no dye was released during the wash, great!  At least I was taking preventative measures just in case there were fugitive dyes.

quilts

Pattern: Jack and Jill by Jenny Doan

Quilt pattern called Jack and Jill by Jenny Doan.  Pattern directions using jelly rolls make a quilt 73″ x 83.”

 

 

 

 

 

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How Cotton Fabric Is Made Ready for Your Quilt Shop

We all use it, cotton fabric.  In fact, most quilts are made of cotton fabric.  Years ago fabricfabric was manufactured in the United States from cotton grown in the US.  Today, although the US grows cotton, nearly all fabric is manufactured outside of the US.

After the cotton is harvested and woven into the fabric called greig (pronounced gray) goods (unprocessed woven fabric), there are many steps that it must go through before it is ready to be dyed and shipped to your local quilt shop.   This video, filmed in a fabric plant in Hong Kong and Zhejiang, China takes you through the many steps needed to prepare the fabric, then dye, set the dyes with chemicals and heat, and finally wash and prepare the fabric for shipping.  I think you will find it interesting to see all that goes into making the beautiful and colorful quilting fabrics that we enjoy using in our quilts.

As you watch the video, remember that this was filmed in China.  China does not have the same standards of safety and cleanliness in their factories that are required by OSHAH here in the US.  For example, wet floors, the haze in the air from the chemicals and dryers, and even allowing long hair on workers would all be violations, each occurence of each violation with a $5,000 fine here in the US.  Our OSHAH inspectors would have a heyday writing up violations in a factory like this one.  However, because the labor is cheap and there are few, if any, work safety standards to worry about, we benefit by being able to purchase a huge variety of fabrics at a relatively low cost.  If fabric were manufactured in the US with our much higher labor costs and cost of compliance to regulations, we would be paying much, much more.

So, please take the video at face value and appreciate all of the work that goes into creating our wonderful quilting fabrics.

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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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Practice Quilting Without Wasting Fabric and Batting

Yes, we all know that practice makes perfect.  Practice develops muscle memory which is used to repeat the movements needed to free motion quilt (both on the home sewing machine and longarm) or to follow a panto smoothly with a longarm.  But, how can we practice without feeling like we will spoil a nice quilt or charity quilt, or without wasting fabric and batting?

The “Strokes” of Free Motion Quilting

Although cursive writing is no longer being taught in schools, back in the day when it was, students took a class called penmanship.  In that class they traced the letters and repeated the strokes needed to create beautiful hand writing, or at least legible writing.  This usually started in late 2nd or in 3rd grade.  Learning to free motion quilt is very similar to penmanship class.  There are only five strokes you need to practice which are the arc, “s,” loop, hook or point, and straight line.  Unlike penmanship class, however, these strokes (movements) need to be practiced and mastered working in all directions, not just left to right.  Like penmanship, mastering the strokes first before applying them to a design is helpful and actually shortens the learning curve of free motion quilting.

Practicing Free Motion Strokes

Practicing Free Motion Strokes

One quick look at a panto will confirm that all free motion quilting designs are a combination of two or more of these strokes (movements).  So, how or where does a quilter practice to become proficient and confident?

Practice Without Wasting Fabric and Batting

The good news is that it is not totally necessary to practice at the machine or longarm.  Simply moving the hand and arm through the strokes builds muscle memory.  As a result, the quilter can create a series of exercises making these strokes on a whiteboard with a dry erasable marker, using a pencil on paper, or even following a panto pattern with your finger.  Remember that these strokes must be made in all directions, R to L, L to R, top to bottom, bottom to top, diagonally, etc.  Although these exercises are a wonderful place to start and practice to remain proficient, at some point it is necessary to work at the machine.

Practice At The Machine

For longarm quilters, pantos are a great place to start.  The design is already there, the strokes pre- planned, and the results should look very nice.  And remember, no one knows whether your laser was on the line or not.

If you feel you are not ready to tackle one of your quilts, or even a charity quilt, the next

Cat Crate Pads from Practice Quilts

Cat Crate Pads from Practice Quilts

best option is to purchase inexpensive fabric and batting (neither recommended for quilts you cherish or give) and simply practice the strokes over and over again.  Then begin to build the strokes into simpler designs at first, progressing to more complicated designs.  If you are feeling wasteful in doing this, know that veterinary offices usually welcome things that can be used as mats in the pet crates.  Our local vet has crates that are 14″ x 18″ for the cats.  Because I use a lot of practice fabric and batting on the frame at quilt shows (about 5-7 yards per show), I always “recycle” or re-purpose the “quilt” into cat crate mats.  I cut them to size and either zig-zag or serge around the edges before giving them to the vet.  They do appreciate them, use them, may even wash them a number of times until they are no longer usable.

If you want to learn a new design, learn feathers, or improve the designs you already do, practice them before you start quilting on the quilt.  Use the whiteboard, paper/pencil, trace with your finger, or trace the design with the machine not running, or keep a practice “quilt” ready.  Even when I free motion quilt a small project at my home machine, I always have a practice piece ready to get warmed up on.  For larger projects I plan to longarm, I always have a large practice “quilt” ready to zip onto the longarm.  Practice is never a waste of time or materials.  It is the best, and only way, to improve your quilting skills.

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I’ve Heard, “Don’t Touch That Tension Dial!! “

With sewing machine advances in the last 20 years or so, we have come to rely on the machine’s automatic tension setting.  Because the machine has a preset automatic tension setting, we assume that the tension will always be perfect.  This is not necessarily the case.  This question was posed to Superior Threads wondering if machines with a preset tension ever need the tension adjusted, this is their response.

This is a big YES! Newer machines come preset with faster speeds and tighter top and bobbin tensions designed to sew with a 50 or 60 wt. polyester thread. Factory preset tension (usually set at 5.0) is too tight for most quilting and embroidery applications. Automatic tension does not know if you are using a very delicate thread, sensitive thread, or heavy thread. It does not know if you are using cotton or poly or metallic or monofilament thread. Learn to override the automatic tension setting and adjust it (usually loosen) to the point where you get the perfect stitch. Knowing how to adjust the top tension will open up your thread choices so you can use any quality thread without frustration. On most machines, we set the top tension between 2.0 and 3.5 (see Home Machine Thread Reference Guide). When using metallic thread, we go all the way down to 1.0. The tension concept is explained on our Tension Tug-O-War diagram. (Superior Threads)

What about longarm quilting?

Because we are used to the preset tension on our home machines and our fear of messing things up by adjusting tension, many longarm quilters are hesitant to adjust the tension on their longarm.  And, Once they get it adjusted, they don’t want to touch it.

Stitching with a longarm system presents several variables which are likely to change from quilt to quilt, or even within the same quilt, such as the type of batting, various types of fabrics with different thread counts, and the thread.  From one quilt to the next, changing just one of these factors is likely to change how the machine stitches and as a result, the tension may not be as perfect on this quilt as on the last one.The solution is to become comfortable with adjusting the tension on the longarm.  Regardless of whether you want to or not, get over it.  You must become comfortable and confident in adjusting the tension on a longarm.

thread tension

Thread Tension

What is balanced tension?  The tension is balanced when the top thread and bobbin thread form the knot in the middle between the quilt top and quilt back, in the middle (batting).

Adjusting Machine Tension

Tension on a longarm has to be adjusted for each quilt you are working on.  The over-all tension of the machine starts with correct bobbin tension.  Rely on your machine manufacturer for guidelines in setting the bobbin tension.  Nolting longarm machines, for example, prefer a loose bobbin tension, usually around 100-125 on the Towa Bobbin Gauge for the L-hook or 200-225 on the Towa Bobbin Gauge for the

towa bobbin gauge

Towa Bobbin Gauge

M-hook.  Once the bobbin tension is correct, then you only change the top tension to achieve a balanced tension.  If you change to a different thread in the bobbin, the bobbin case tension must again be adjusted to the same settings (as used for your specific hook) before adjusting the top tension to achieve a balanced tension.

By far, the biggest learning curve in longarm quilting is becoming comfortable adjusting the tension.  Find out what bobbin tension your longarm will operate best at, use a Towa Bobbin Gauge, if necessary, to make sure the bobbin tension is consistently the same with each type of thread, then adjust the top tension until the top and bobbin thread are in balance.

The video below offers more information on why a bobbin gauge should be used and how to use it correctly for best results.  Order the gauge.

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