Triumph Over Tension Headaches!

September 28, 2011 at 12:26 pm 2 comments

As I’ve posted repeatedly here, I’ve been having a great deal of difficulty over the last year and a half with skipped stitches and poor tension in my free motion machine quilting. I’ve had my machine serviced repeatedly, adjusted tension, changed needles, changed threads, changed feet, and tried every trick in the book, and I was still getting repeated problems with skipped stitches on the top resulting in big loops of shredded thread, and knots of thread on the back of the quilt. These recurring problems had really put me off of quilting my projects, especially as I had limited time to pursue my hobby in the Age of Ronan.

Captain Literacy

"Mommy, how about you stop quilting and read me a story?"

I wish I could tell you about the single wonderful product that changed all this, or the secret button I found on my machine that cured everything, but instead, as with so many of life’s problems, it took several small incremental areas of change rather than one big revelatory one. The closest things I can identify to magic buttons were threefold: receiving Barbara Shapel’s “Art of Machine Quilting” DVD for my birthday, reading the entire Education section of the Superior Threads website, and absorbing every scrap of information I could from Leah Day’s website.

I had never heard of Barbara Shapel before I put her DVD on my Amazon wishlist, but the reviews were positive and it was the only quilting DVD listed on Amazon that I was interested in (and didn’t already own.) Since watching the excellent DVD and seeing her beautiful quilts I’ve started learning more about her; her blog only just went live, but I look forward to future posts. She makes art quilts, many of them double sided, and frequently incorporates painted fabric and heavy threadwork, so her quilting style is very different from my own. However, she quilts in a very organic style with little to no marking, and as she is self-taught, she brings a different perspective to several aspects of free-motion machine quilting. I haven’t adopted all her techniques, of course, but on her recommendation I have switched to a Schmetz Jeans/Denim needle for machine quilting, and have raised my feed dogs and set my stitch length to zero.

When Diane and I attended the Ricky Tims Super Seminar in Richmond, I enjoyed the privilege of getting to hear Bob Purcell from Superior Threads give his Threadology lecture. He did a very entertaining, audience-participation demonstration of how sewing machine tension works. He also stated what I’ve heard many quilting educators reiterate, that sewing machines simply aren’t designed for what we’re doing with them when we free-motion quilt. Even longarm quilting machines are based on the original technology for sewing two pieces of fabric together in a straight line with a dual-duty type thread. So we have to deviate pretty significantly from “factory settings” to accommodate this utterly different method of sewing. However, recently just playing with the tension (top and bobbin!) hasn’t been enough. I was really getting to my wits’ end.  I studied everything I could on the Superior Threads website and gained further insight into the problems I was having, such as paying attention to whether the knots of thread on the underside of the quilt were top thread or bobbin thread. I also realized that I was using the HandyNets Thread Socks incorrectly: I was using them for storage, but taking them off when sewing. By leaving them on, I eliminated the occasional problems I was having with thread getting snagged on the base of the cone.

But it still wasn’t enough! Thank goodness, enter Leah Day. I found her website last spring when I did a Google search for “skipped stitches quilting Janome.” As it happens, one of her machines is the same as mine, a Janome Memory Craft 6500, so her advice was particularly applicable to my situation, although it is general enough to suit any domestic machine quilter.  From there, I discovered her amazing Free Motion Quilting Project, in which she posted 365 free online videos of filler patterns, an absolute inspiration to anyone who’s struggled to find alternatives to just stippling. In July I was thrilled to see her listed among the winners at the AQS show in Knoxville. Based on her advice, I am using the Supreme Slider on my machine bed, a Little Genie Magic Bobbin Washer in my bobbin case, and have changed how my free motion foot sits on the quilt surface.

With all these individual “tweaks” to my quilting setup, things were improving dramatically. The cherry on top was my realization that my stitches were too short for the thread I was using, so I decreased the speed on my machine so that “flooring it” with my foot pedal resulted in better control. With almost no skipped stitches or thread snarls, I was able to finish this:

Minkee Dragons: I promise it looks better in closeup

Minkee Dragons, 37" x 45": I promise it looks better in closeup

Detail, Minkee Dragons

See? Detail, Minkee Dragons

I had started a version of this project last fall before Ronan was born, shortly after blogging about it here, but the mottled dye pattern on the Gelato Minkee was too distracting. I bought the solid Minkee in early spring, but the “quick project” I was expecting turned into anything but, when my thread kept snarling. I’d had this project set aside in a big guilt pile in the corner of the studio ever since. It was supposed to be my warmup for quilting Ronan’s quilt, and instead just set me despairing of ever doing quality free-motion machine quilting again. But now the cloud has lifted! I was able to quilt the remaining 7/8 of the pattern in about the same amount of time as it took to quilt the first 1/8 with all the tension problems. Quilting on the Golden Threads paper for this project was rather delightful. I found I didn’t need to use my Machingers because my bare fingers were quite grippy on the paper. The lines were extremely easy to follow, since they were Sharpie lines. Once the quilting was complete, removing the Golden Threads paper was nowhere NEAR as arduous a task as I was expecting it to be. So in short, I would absolutely do this again. If Meadowlyon Designs is a vendor at Quilting with Machines again this year, I look forward to buying at least one more of these “pictogram” designs, if not more.

My first attempt at Minkee Dragons

My first attempt at Minkee Dragons: poor contrast and big thread knots

This was a fairly short-term UFO, but it is nevertheless finished and out of my physical and psychological space. As such, it deserves a happy dance. We’ve been watching a great deal of Star Trek: The Next Generation on Netflix streaming lately, so this clip immediately sprang to mind. It’s not from an episode (too silly!), but was filmed as a birthday surprise for Gene Roddenberry. Thanks to YouTube, we all get to enjoy it:


Entry filed under: Review, UFOs. Tags: , , , , , , .

Back to the Studio! I’m Down with EPP (English Paper Piecing)

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Classes at Quilting with Machines 2011 « Sarah Loves Fabric  |  October 12, 2011 at 12:06 pm

    […] the quilting center of my brain is just vibrating with new ideas, skills, and motivation. Finishing Ronan’s Minkee Dragons quilt was a real confidence booster going into it, and I’ve got four quilt tops basted and ready to […]

  • 2. Finished! Spumoni Spring « Sarah Loves Fabric  |  May 17, 2012 at 10:02 am

    […] quilts:  Welcome Ronan, AKA Ronan’s Quilt; The Very Hungry Caterpillar; Dragons Galore, AKA Minkee Dragons; Halloween Buzz Saw; Spumoni Spring, AKA Pink and Brown; and the shop hop sampler quilt. That final […]


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