Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Remember the Alamo: Why Your Longarm Quilter Won't Let You Use a Bed Sheet for Quilt Backing

Oh my gosh, you guys -- this "easy pantograph" charity quilt is finally done and off my frame.  I'm battered, bloodied and traumatized, but I learned a lot and I survived.  Let's call that a win.  ;-)

"Remember the Alamo," 60 x 80 Charity Quilt Finish

Why Bed Sheets, Drapery Panels and Shower Curtains Make Bad Quilt Backings

I used to think that longarm quilters who refused to accept bed sheets as quilt backings were just being picky quilt snobs, but now I totally understand why a longarmer would have that rule.  The backing for this particular quilt was a cotton/polyester blend, either a sheet or an unlined readymade drapery panel.  It was a tighter weave and a heavier weight than quilting cotton, and no amount of changing tension settings, different size threads, different size needles, begging, pleading, or cursing could coax this fabric into cooperating for consistently balanced stitches.  What's more, the quilt top itself is comprised of lots of different types of fabric, with many of them a heavier weight and tighter weave as well.  If I managed to get the tension looking good on one patch of fabric, it would be off again as soon as the quilting stitches traveled onto a patch of a different kind of fabric.  

Directional Tension Trouble on Bed Sheet Backing: This Is the Best Stitch Quality I Could Achieve
I spent days fiddling with settings, trying to get decent stitch quality with the combination of fabric challenges in this quilt, and I was never able to get something I was truly happy with.  I ended up just doing the best I could, and hopefully that will be good enough.  

Here's The Skinny On Directional Tension Trouble:

Here's what I learned this week!  When your tension looks great in some directions but you have unbalanced tension only when stitching in certain directions, that indicates that your needle is flexing -- bending as the stitch is formed, so the top thread is not meeting up with the bobbin thread in exactly the right place to form a good lock stitch.  What causes needle flex, you may ask?

  • The needle is too small.  Thicker needles bend less than skinny needles do -- which is why longarm machines quilt with larger needles than you might use to quilt on your domestic sewing machine.
  • The quilt sandwich is stretched too tight on the quilting frame.  This is a common newbie mistake -- the quilt shouldn't be flat and taut like a drum; it needs to drape down around the machine bed and, as you move the machine around on the quilt, it should look like a critter is tunneling around under there.
  • The quilter is trying to quilt way too fast and needs to slow down.
  • Stitch length is too long.  Longer stitches allow the needle to bend more than shorter stitches.
  • Thread Composition: The APQS article I found on directional tension says that cotton thread pulls harder on the needle than a smooth polyester thread does, especially if it's also having to pull through cotton batting.  My So Fine thread is a lint free 100% polyester thread with a matte finish that looks like cotton.  My batting was polyester, but my atypical fabrics were giving resistance to the needle already -- perhaps switching to the slippery-smooth Glide polyester thread would have helped the needle "glide" through this challenging quilt more easily, with less flexing? 
  • Batting: Again, according to the APQS article, very dense, like a 100% cotton, is more difficult for the needle to penetrate, and if the batting doesn't have enough loft, there isn't much room for the longarm machine to form that locking stitch.  I don't think my Fairfield low loft polyester batting was a contributing factor this time around, but that's definitely something I'll keep in mind when I'm selecting battings for future quilts.  
  • Fabric type and thread count -- this is what was killing me on my charity quilt!  The needle just had to work too hard to punch through that thick, tight fabric weave.  Bed sheets have a much higher thread count and tighter weave than quilting cottons, but beautiful batik quilting cottons have a tighter weave than regular cotton prints and they can be challenging, too.  APQS suggests trying a smaller needle and/or a slippery polyester thread in this situation -- again, maybe the smooth and shiny Glide thread would have been a better choice.  Then again, I was dealing with a very tight weave/high thread count, AND a heavier fabric weight overall with my backing, as well as a quilt top that had some dress weight, bed sheets, and even drapery fabrics.  So a smaller needle would have a high risk of BREAKING, especially since I was quilting "blind" from the back of my machine and couldn't see whether I was approaching bulky seam intersections...    

I chose to use So Fine thread for this project because I thought the matte finish would make my beginner quilting stitches more inconspicuous than the shiny, showy Glide thread, and because I don't happen to have a nice neutral shade of Glide on hand that would have complemented this particular quilt top.  I am realizing that there is more that goes into selecting the best thread for each quilt than just the aesthetics of color and sheen preferences!  Even monopoly invisible thread would have slipped through these tight weaves better than the thread I used.  I'm learning, so it's all good -- and when you look at it from a distance instead of sticking your nose up to the bobbin stitches like you're the Chief Inspector for the Quilt Police, this quilt looks fine:

Floral Meander Pantograph, Front of Quilt
I feel like I did a good job of spacing the pantograph rows so they blend together into one overall pattern instead of quilted "stripes" with obvious demarcations between each pass of stitching.  The back looks okay from a distance, too:

Backing (Bed Sheet) Side of Floral Meander Charity Quilt

It Had To Be A Solid Color to Show Every Imperfection, Too...
This pantograph design is called Floral Meander.

Smoother Curves Than My Last Hand Guided Pantograph Attempt
I do like the way the neutral colored Superior So Fine #50 thread I used blends with most of the fabrics in the quilt top, and I'm getting much better at quilting round shapes from the back of the machine than I did on my first pantograph attempt back in January.  

This charity quilt is only my second try at a hand guided pantograph, and I can see that I'm getting better at staying on the design lines -- the round parts of the design are starting to look rounder and smoother and the "ogre toes" are going away, and as Martha Stewart would say, that's a good thing!

First Pantograph Attempt.  Compare Oval Inside Hook to More Rounded Shape In Prior Photo
Incidentally, the above photo is of a Popcorn LG pantograph that I stitched on a quilt made of all quilt shop cotton fabrics with Quilter's Dream Poly batting.  It's a very similar pantograph pattern to the one I used on the charity quilt, yet you can see in this backing-side photo that I was able to stitch the design with beautiful, balanced stitches in ALL directions with my APQS Millenium without any of the directional problems I experienced on the charity quilt.  (The tiny dots of black between stitches are the black batting showing at the needle holes, by the way -- the holes closed up when I washed the quilt).

And so, in my own mind, I have named this charity quilt "Remember the Alamo" because it was a bloody battle (figuratively!) but I fought a good fight and even though I wasn't successful, I never gave up.  Also I will REMEMBER my Alamo and never, ever load another bed sheet/drapery panel/shower curtain on my longarm frame EVER AGAIN!

So I have one more of these charity tops waiting to be quilted that was pieced by the same church group.  It has the same 1/2" seam allowances and the same variety of fabrics in the top, and I'll be using the same low loft poly batting.  However, for this top, I purchased a length of cotton quilt backing from JoAnn's with a nice, busy paisley print to camouflage any oopsies from the back side.  My wonderful APQS dealer suggested that, instead of following a paper pantograph from the back side of my machine, I quilt this one with a freehand allover meander from the front of the machine instead, so I can at least avoid stitching through bulky seam intersections and see what's happening while I'm quilting.  I think that's a great idea.  What I have NOT yet decided is whether I'll tackle the second charity top right away.  I might decide to load up a sample quilt with just plain muslin top and backing, "normal" batting that I would typically use for one of my own quilt projects, and use that practice piece to get my tensions tweaked again just so, practice that allover meander a little bit, and rebuild my confidence after my Battle of the Alamo...

Meanwhile, I'm linking up with:
Let’s Bee Social at 
Midweek Makers at
WOW WIP on Wednesday at 
Needle and Thread Thursday at  
Finish It Up Friday at 
Whoop Whoop Fridays at 

Finished Or Not Friday at 

Monday, September 17, 2018

Taking a Break From Longarm Tension Tantrums -- Because I Needed a Win

I needed a break from playing Sherlock Holmes with the longarm machine over the weekend, and APQS Tech Support was closed anyway, so I dug around my studio looking for a small victory, something I could cross off my list easily without pulling out any of my hair or screaming profanity.

Remember This Quilted Machine Cover for My Bernina?
I started this quilted machine cover for my Bernina 750QEE back in 2014, and you can read about how I made it in this post.  The fabric was heavily free motion quilted on the Bernina (this was before I was even considering purchasing a longarm machine), then the monogram was machine embroidered on the Bernina.  I added some bead bling by hand.  Unlike the (boring gray) cover that came with the machine, my cover was designed to fit the machine when it's recessed into my cabinet, and I incorporated a cutout at the back to slip around my multiple spool holder.  

No, This Is Just Not Cute Enough For Me
But I didn't like the way it gaped at the back opening, so I ordered a vintage 1950s frog closure from an Etsy seller...  and, when it arrived, I realized I had NO IDEA how to attach it to my sewing machine cover!

Well, after four years of not using this machine cover at all because it wasn't finished, I decided to go ahead and just DO IT on Saturday afternoon.  First, I hand basted the edges of the opening together with huge slipstitches, plain old all-purpose polyester thread, and then I basted the two halves of the frog closure in place with the same thread, using big, ugly stitches and trying to keep them away from where the "real" stitches would go.

Tacking the Frog In Place With Embroidery Floss
I found the right shade of turquoise DMC cotton embroidery floss in my stash, and just tacked the frog in place at the inside and outside points.  Two strands of floss at a time, three stitches at each point.  It's not going anywhere.  It sure felt good to FINISH SOMETHING!  

YAY!  I Finished Something!!!
You know, there are so many people who love to sew but shy away from trying any kind of hand stitching because they think it's too hard, it takes too long...  Well, when your machines are throwing tantrums and you're contemplating chucking them out the window just to watch them smash when they hit the lawn, there's nothing like the total control of hand stitching to clear your head and fill your confidence bucket again.  The needle goes exactly where I want it to go, every single stitch.  The tension is perfect, every single stitch.  No thread nests.  The worst thing that can happen in hand stitching is a knot, and the solution to that is simple -- cut a shorter length of thread next time!  

Yes, It Matches My Chair...
I also cut, joined, and pressed binding strips for my Paint Me A Story bear paw quilt over the weekend. 

Binding Ready to Go For My Bear Paw Quilt
After pressing the binding in half lengthwise, I wrapped it around one of my acrylic rulers before sliding it into a zippered plastic storage bag that came with a set of pillowcases.  I also included the binding thread spool and bobbin, because why hunt around for it later?  Now I've got the top pieced and pressed, the backing pieced and pressed, and the binding all ready to go for that project, all hanging neatly together in the guest room closet until I'm ready to quilt it.  That feels pretty good, too.

See How I Label Things Now That I'm Organized?
And remember how I told you all that I've joined the Charlotte Quilters' Guild?  Well, I noticed at the September meeting that everyone was wearing a handmade fabric name tag, so I've been thinking about making one for myself before the October meeting.  I have a few orphaned sawtooth star blocks made from beautiful hand marbled fabric that I was unable to use in my bear paw quilt because the red fabric was bleeding horribly, but I couldn't bear to toss them because I love the fabric so much...  Well, armed with the knowledge I gained from the Victorious Bloodbath of my Jingle Blocks, I decided to try soaking out the excess dye with hot water and Dawn dish washing liquid.  It worked!  

Bloody Orphan Blocks, Rescued and Redeemed
Aren't they cute?  The two larger blocks are 4 1/2" with seam allowances, and the smaller block is 3 1/2" including seam allowances.  Of course I like the baby-sized block the best, but if I'm going to hand embroider my name in the star I'm better off with one of the larger blocks.  Too bad my name is REBECCA instead of ANN or PAM!  

My plan is to baste additional fabric strips around the star block so I can hoop it properly and embroider my name, probably in white perle cotton.  Then, depending on my mood, I may or may not add some bobbinwork, additional hand embroidery, beading or whatever.  There needs to be some kind of batting and stiffener.  And I want to poke around Michael's and see if I can't find those super strong magnets for pinless badges, because I don't want my name tag to hang around my neck on strings like a feed bag.  But at least the blocks are ready to play with now.  Another itty-bitty win!

Pinned and Ready to Sew
Oh, and the other thing I got done over the storm weekend was pinning two more sets of pineapple blocks together, ready for machine stitching.  OH MY GOSH, pinning all those seams is a pain in the arse!  None of the seams nest and it takes me three or four tries to get each pin right through the seam line of both blocks.  I am starting to wonder whether it wouldn't be faster and more accurate to tack those seam intersections together with hand stitches.  What do y'all think?  I only have three out of six rows stitched together, and then there will be just as many seams needing to match when I join rows together.  This top would be done by now if the pinning wasn't so tedious!

Well, it's Monday now, the skies are Carolina blue again and the sun is shining.  APQS Tech Support is open and my APQS dealer has reached out to offer her help as well.  It's time to confront my enemy!  Wish me luck.

Today I'm linking up with:

Oh Scrap! at Quilting Is More Fun Than Housework
Design Wall Monday at Small Quilts and Doll Quilts  
Main Crush Monday at Cooking Up Quilts 
Monday Making at Love Laugh Quilt 

Moving it Forward at Em’s Scrap Bag: 

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