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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Borders Can Make or Break the Quilt – Do It Right

Quilters often take a lot of time piecing their blocks and square them up before assembly.  The body of the quilt looks wonderful, color choices are excellent, and the quilt has the potential to be beautiful.  That is, until the borders are added.  As a professional Longarm quilter, the borders are where I often see many problems.  Incorrectly applied borders often lead to puckers, pleats, wavy borders and dog-eared quilts.  All of this can be avoided.

Although you may not realize it, one of the functions of borders is to stabilize and square up a quilt.  Throughout the body of the quilt are cut (unstable) edges around the outside of each of the blocks  Even though the patches may be cut on grain, the cut edges can stretch easily.  When borders are added correctly to a quilt top, the edges of the body of the quilt are contained and restricted within the new measurement.  The key word here is, applied or added correctly to achieve this.

problem quilt

A quilt that could use borders to stabilize and square it up.  Notice distorted sides and wavy bottom on this quilt.

Incorrect method for adding borders

Cut or make a long strip, stitch to one of the sides of the quilt and cut off the extra.  Because no measuring is done with this method, you have no idea how long one side of the quilt is compared with the opposite side of the quilt.  If one side stretches out a little more when the border is stitched on, that side will be longer leading to a dog-eared quilt.  Do not use this method to add borders to any quilt.

quilt by Sally Mowers

Quilt with correctly applied borders hangs straight.
Dresden Plate, designed, made and quilted by Sally Mowers

Correct method for adding borders

Even though it takes a little longer, the correct method for adding borders involves measuring, using a little math, and perhaps easing in fullness.

  1. Measure across the area in three places, near the top and near the bottom, but never along the edge, and across the middle.
  2. Average the three measurements and use the average as the measurement to cut the length of both borders.
  3. Quarter the quilt top marking with pins. Quarter the border strip marking with pins.  Align the quarter marks and pin the border to the quilt.  Pin between the quarter marks distributing any fullness evenly.
  4. Placing the fullest side down, stitch together. When the fullest side is down, the feed dogs on the machine gently pull the bottom through a little faster than the top.  There are no puckers or pleats on the top or bottom.
  5. Press the border seam outward toward the border.
  6. Measure across the quilt and borders in three places, similar to #1, average the measurements as in #2.
  7. Follow steps #3-5 to add the other border.

For a visual of this technique, see the video below by Dee Christopher.  Video also demonstrates a bonus no math method for determining size of a pieced border.

Whether you quilt your quilts yourself or have them quilted professionally, by taking the extra time to add borders correctly, your quilts will look much better with square corners and straight sides.

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Squaring Up Flying Geese Units

Regardless of the technique we use or how carefully we work with fabric patches, there are bound to be slight irregularities in seam allowance or minor distortion in the fabrics.  To correct these problems, it is a good idea to start with slightly oversize patches and square up the subunit to the correct measurement.  I usually start with 1/8th to 1/4th inch oversize patches.  Once constructed, there is a little to trim off when squaring to the correct measurement for the subunit.

Flying geese units often have more issues with construction than other units, especially if made with the traditional method using triangles.  Newer techniques help minimize the problems, but it is still a good idea to square up the subunits.  (See “The Best Flying Geese Technique I Know!)

There are several rulers on the market designed to easily square up flying geese units.  All will help preserve the ¼” seam allowance and keep the points from being trimmed off.  Some, however, only work with one or two sizes of flying geese.  Studio 180 Design, however, has, what I think, is the best flying geese ruler on the market.  It is called Wing Clipper.  With it you can square up flying geese units from 1”x1 ½” to 5 ½” x 10 ½” in half inch increments.  There is also Wing Clipper II for squaring in ¼” and ¾” measurements.

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

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

I have used Wing Clipper for a number of projects and really appreciate how easy it is to use and how beautiful the flying geese units looks when squared up correctly with this ruler.  Click to see a video demonstrating the Wing Clipper.  If you can’t find this ruler at your quilt store, you can order it on line from Studio 180 Design.  The ruler comes with excellent directions for both left hand and right hand cutting and a chart with cutting instructions for all of the sizes you can trim using the ruler.

 

Correct Method for Adding Borders to a Quilt Top

The Problem

As a professional Longarm quilter I have the privilege of seeing many lovely quilts.  There is, however, a problem that can occur when borders are not correctly added to a quilt top.  Many times a strip of fabric is laid on the quilt top, sewn from one end to the other and then cut off.  Unfortunately, this results in wavy borders and dog eared corners.  No amount of awesome quilting can change the look of an out of square quilt.

Regardless of the precision taken during the piecing process, because of the nature of fabric, the cut edges and sometimes bias edges, a quilt top will not be perfectly square.  As a result, by adding borders correctly, you can square up the quilt top so that when quilted it will look much better, lay flatter, or if a wall quilt, hang straight on the wall.

The Solution

The correct method for adding borders starts with measuring the quilt top in three places, just in from the top and bottom and across the middle.  Two strips are cut the same length for the opposite borders using the middle measurement easing in the fullness, if any.  The same steps are repeated for the other two sides. Although this method takes a few minutes longer, you will be more satisfied with how your quilt looks when completed.  The video below walks you through the steps to correctly add borders to any quilt top.

Sewing Tip

If there was any fullness that was “eased” in by distributing the fullness and pinning as illustrated in the video, always place the eased or fuller side down (next to the feed dogs) when stitching.  The feed dogs will evenly pull the fullness through.  If you try to stitch with the fullness on the top, the presser foot will push the fullness along and make little pleats.  Always stitch with the fullest side down.

If you have never added borders using this method, I encourage you to try it.  You will be love the results.

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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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Quilt Binding Part 1

This past summer I had the opportunity to be the scribe for quilt judges at a local show. Having this responsibility opened my eyes to what the quilt judges look at as they make their decisions on each quilt. Judging criteria varies considerably depending on the quilt category (art, traditional, etc), but one thing that is consistent across all categories is the binding. Judges look with a critical eye at the binding. They look at how even the binding is applied, is the binding full (of batting), are the corners nice miters and flat, are the seams diagonal and pressed open. The binding is the frame for the quilt and if the binding is done well it nicely frames the quilt and makes the quilt look good. Poorly applied binding can diminish the affect of even the most beautiful quilt and quilting.

Part 1 of this series on binding from The Quilt Show teaches how to construct the binding strip, how to apply the strip to the quilt to get the best mitered corners (I learned a new technique), and a quick method for a mitered finish.

Note that in the video she uses a 2 ¼” strip. This width works very well with thinner batting. If using a slightly thicker batting, a 2 ½” strip would work better.  Binding is usually stitched from 1/4 from the edge of the quilt sandwich.  All of the techniques in the video are the same regardless of the width of the binding strip.

After viewing this video on binding, you should be able to make your bindings shine in the eyes of any quilt judge.

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