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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Is Your Thread Unwinding Correctly?

It seems fairly easy. Put the spool on the spool pin and thread the machine. This simplethread selection task, however, may be the source of thread issues if you have not first noticed how the thread is wrapped on the spool.

How Thread Is Wound On The Spool

You have probably noticed that thread is wound differently with some thread wrapped around the spool in parallel winds (stack wound) while on other spools or cones the thread is cross wound creating the “x” signature.   How the thread comes off the spool or cone does make a difference in how it sews. In fact, some thread may actually kink up or twist as it unwinds.

Position the Spool/Cone Properly

Spools with thread that is stack wound or parallel wound should be positioned so that the thread will unwind straight from the side of the spool. On your home sewing machine the spool should be placed on a vertical spool pin so that the thread can unwind off the side of the spool as the spool rotates. For cones or spools where the thread is cross wound, the thread should come off the top of the cone/spool rather than the side. On a home sewing machine, these small cones or spools would be placed on a horizontal spool pin where the thread pulls off the top of the small cone/spool.

Longarm quilting machines typically use cross wound thread on large cones which unwind from the top of the cone when sewing. The cone holders are vertical pins near the back of the machine where the thread unwinds up off the top of the cone and up through a thread guide above the cone as the machine is threaded. Sometimes Longarm quilters want to use specialty, decorative threads that are usually used on a home sewing machine. Often these threads are stack wound (parallel wound). To use these threads successfully on a longarm, a horizontal spool pin must be used to prevent these threads from twisting and knotting. Additionally, because a Longarm machine stitches so much faster than a home sewing machine, the twisting and knotting can be very frustrating with many stops and starts to try and remedy this situation. Horizontal spool pin adapters are available and may be made of plastic or metal. Some of these adapters screw into the machine and others clamp onto the existing spool/cone pin.

Cone/Spool Adapters

The video below from Superior Threads below illustrates the two different types of thread wrap as well as how to use the Superior Threads thread stand for use with either type of wound thread. I have one of these stands and use it at my home sewing machine when using the large cones of thread I might use at my Longarm. These cones, of course, are too large to mount on my horizontal spool pin in the top of my Janome Horizon. Other times I might use a decorative stack (parallel) wrapped metallic thread. These threads are known to have kinking and twisting problems. The only way to successfully use these threads is with a side delivery method. The Superior Threads thread stand can be set up for this use, too.

Another spool pin adapter system is called “Specialty Thread Spool Pin Adapter,” www.thethreaddirector.com. This has a sturdy post adapter with a spool pin that is perpendicular to the post adapter. Depending on which way you attach it to a vertical or horizontal post it can be used for either stack (parallel) wrapped or cross wrapped thread.

Although you might “get by” positioning a spool incorrectly, using the correct thread delivery method for the cone or spool allows more successful stitching. While a stitching issue might look like a tension issue, it may really be caused by how the thread is coming off the cone or spool. Remember, when thread is manufactured, parallel wrapping goes on from the side and must come off of the side. Cross wrapped goes onto the cone from the top and must come off of the top.

 

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Binding Tips Part 2

framesLike a frame is designed to complement a photo or painting, a quilt is not complete with out its frame, the binding.  Binding nicely applied is even, has sharp mitered corners, and the quilt fills the binding.

In The Quilt Show video below, Julie Cefalu demonstrates a technique to make sharp mitered corners and another technique for a nice finish.  Add these techniques to her previous video and you are all set to perfectly bind your next quilt.

Although the video is made demonstrating the techniques on a domestic machine, the same techniques can be used when stitching the binding to the quilt using a longarm.

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What Quilters Should NOT Do

If you have made a New Year’s resolution to work on your quilting skills, congratulations! There are a lot of opportunities out there to do that from guild workshops, quilt shop classes, and even online classes. There are also a few things as a quilter you should not do. Angela Walters, Longarm quilter and author, has words of wisdom that are important for all quilters regardless of skill level.

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Selecting Thread for Machine Quilting

Why Machine Quilting Thread

Whether you are a Longarm quilter or quilt at your domestic machine, it is important to choose a thread designed for this type of work. Longarm machines operate at higher speeds than domestic machines. Also, stitching through the three sandwich layers of a quilt cause more wear and tear on thread than ordinary sewing. Fortunately thread manufacturers understand these demands and have designed thread for machine quilting.

Machine quilting thread can be found in both cotton and poly and is available from a number of manufacturers. Because of the larger volume of thread required in quilting a quilt, machine quilting thread is available on cones that hold 2500 yards or more. Although we may balk at the price of machine quilting thread on cones, we need to remember that they hold several times as much as a standard spool of thread. When compared to the price of the spool, this thread really does not cost that much more and often costs less per yard than spool thread. It is important to know that hand quilting thread should never be used on a Longarm or domestic machine as the glazing on the thread will gum up the machine.

Considerations for selecting quilting thread:

  1. It is designed for machine quilting
  2. Choose a fiber type
    1. Cotton – select long staple cotton for the least amount of linting
    2. Poly – usually is low lint
  3. The look wanted on the quilt
    1. Dull look to the thread or shiny look of the thread
    2. More visible – select thicker thread, less visible – select a thinner thread
  4. Color
    1. To blend with fabric color but show quilting texture, select a couple of shades lighter or darker rather than the exact color of the fabric.
    2. For contrast, select a totally different color than the fabric.

Angela Walters is a Longarm quilter and author of several books on quilting. In the video below from her blog, she answers the question, “What are your favorite threads?” As she notes in the video, these are her opinions and she is not promoting any particular product.

 

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Learn To Quilt Feathers

Feathers are a traditional and beautiful way to embellish a quilt.  Many quilters, however, shy away from them because they seem hard to do, don’t turn out “right” or look uneven.

Have you struggled trying to make feathers on either your domestic or Longarm machine?  The good news is that there are a few guidelines, but there are really no rules.  Feathers are as individual as handwriting and that is OK.

If you have struggled with feathers or feel you could use help in improving your quilted feathers, Lisa Calle’s video starts with the basics and walks you through feather techniques and several feather designs.  She then demonstrates how to stitch feathers on both a domestic sewing machine and a longarm.

Stay tuned – although the video is long, by following and practicing her suggestions, you, too, can make beautiful quilted feathers.

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