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!

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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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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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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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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Border Options with Robotic (Computer Guided) Quilting

Quilting edge-to-edge designs or blocks with robotic (computer guided) quilting is relatively easy to accomplish.  Creating a “custom” border treatment can be accomplished, but it is necessary to think out of the box.  We tend to think of stitching borders like we did when hand quilting or quilting on the home sewing machine.  For best results with a longarm, we need to begin thinking out of the box, diving the space into smaller, manageable stitching areas, or using techniques that achieve the results with less effort.

Most robotic software gives you the option of rotating and flipping which can help in designing and executing border treatments.  Here are a few ideas to try.  If you have never stitched a border treatment, start with one of the simpler ideas before trying something with a more complicated layout.

Six Border Treatment Options

  1. Dead end borders. Choose a border pattern or squared off narrow panto.  Stitch from one edge to the other edge of the quilt top and bottom.  Rotate the quilt 90 degrees, load, stitch the same pattern in the border space between the top and bottom border.  Don’t forget to flip the pattern to stitch the bottom row.  This pattern can be setup in the panto portion of the software and is usually defined with height and width of the pattern.
  2. Offset dead end borders. Choose a border pattern or squared off narrow panto.  The
    Offset Dead End Borders Quilt by Joyce Blowers

    Offset Dead End Borders – Quilt by Joyce Blowers

    border will be stitched as in #1, but on the top border will start at the inside seam line on the left and stitch to the edge on the right.  On the bottom border the stitching will stitch from the inside border seam on the right and stitch to the edge on the left.  Rotate the quilt 90 degrees, load, and stitch the pattern in the border spaces.  Don’t forget to flip the pattern to stitch the bottom row.

  3. Out of the box thinking border. Break the border into manageable stitching areas.
    quilt border cornerstone

    Cornerstone Border – Quilt by Sally Mowers

    These can be separated by “corner stones” stitched between the border pattern either using sashing junctions or creating your own separations.  Because the stitching is accomplished in smaller stitch outs, the quilt does not need to be rotated.  Rotate the pattern to stitch vertically on the side borders.

  4. Dead end borders with cornerstones. Similar to #1, but place a different pattern in the corners.  The border stitching would dead end at the cornerstone.
  5. Border and corner patterns. Many border patterns are also available with a corner connecting pattern.  Place the corner pattern first into the corner space and stitch.
    quilt border

    Border and Corner Pattern
    Sample by Joyce Blowers

    Using the panto setup of the program, create the border using the repeating pattern elements to fill the border space (height and width).  Save the design, place it and stitch.  Many programs have the option of placing the first and last stitch (connecting to the corner designs), as well as sizing the pattern exactly in the space.  Use these options to get the perfect fit.  The sample illustrated the corner and border pattern connected just to the right of center in the photo.  The corner pattern wraps around the corner while the panto portion simply goes across the border joining the corner on both ends.  This method would require the quilt to be turned to stitch the side borders.  It also takes more skill in working with patterns and using the placement features available with the program.  Practice this technique before trying it on a quilt.

  6. Create a unique border using triangles. Triangle patterns can be used to create interesting borders.  When linked together, like panto repeating elements, they can
    Border from triangle patterns. Quilt by Sally Mowers

    Border from triangle patterns – Quilt by Sally Mowers

    be sewn like a panto.  Select triangle patterns that start stitching on one side of the base of the triangle and stop on the other end of the base.  Do not use patterns that start and stop in the same point.

    quilt border

    Border created with triangle patterns.

    Use two rows of triangles, one row pointing up, the other pointing down to fill in the space and leave the end with a mitered corner.  Offset one row from the other and combine the rows so the two rows fit together.   This new panto of triangle units can be quilted onto the top and bottom border.  Remember to flip the border on the bottom.  The triangles create a beautiful complex looking border and may be easier than other methods of stitching a border with a computer guided system.    The quilt could be rotated 90 degrees to quilt the sides (create a new border if the length is different from the top and bottom).  Or, although fussy, the triangles could be placed one at a time to complete the side border.  Caution doing this.  Make sure you measure carefully when setting the individual triangles so that they will fit exactly in the side border.

Stitching borders using a computer guided system can be done.  Think about what results you want to see, then, challenge yourself to think outside the box to create it in a simpler way using the features and options available in your robotic software.

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