Posts Tagged ‘Batiks’

Recently, I was free motion quilting a baby quilt and I was interupted by skipped stitches. Everything would be perfect for a few inches and then I’d have to stop and rip. Since quilting is supposed to be fun (and this wasn’t), I did some research, started experimenting, and finally fixed the problem. Here’s what I learned – along with some words of wisdom from a few of my quilting friends.

What are Skipped Stitches?

The needle holes show where the stitches were skipped.

In free motion quilting, skipped stitches are when the needle carries the top thread into the quilt sandwich, but the thread does not form a stitch. The needle may leave a hole when it pulls out of the quilt, but the top thread also pulls out of the hole. Skipped stitches can come one at a time or several in sequence. I have a tolerance for one here and there, but groups look bad and I rip them out and try to figure out what’s causing the problem.

What Causes Skipped Stitches?

Skipped stitches are caused by incorrect timing in the stitch formation process. For stitches to form properly, the hook and needle’s bottom position must be timed just right. There are factors that can affect this:

  • How you prepare your sewing machine for free motion quilting
  • Thread size and quality
  • Needle size and type
  • Presser foot choice
  • Presser foot pressure
  • Your free motion quilting technique

As you make adjustments to solve the skipping problem, remember to change one thing at a time and test on a quilt sandwich that matches the quilt you’re working on.

Machine Preparation

Everything you need to clean your machine

  • Make sure the machine is threaded properly. This sounds simple, but a small oversight can cause big issues. Michele Scott, quilter, author, teacher, suggests turning the machine off and back on to restart or reboot to reset anything that may have become “goofy.”
  • Michele Scott also suggests trying a single hole or straight stitch throat (stitch) plate. The smaller opening leaves less room for the quilt to flap as the needle punctures the quilt sandwich, pushing it down and pulling it back up.
  • Reduce the top thread tension. Start with small changes, but don’t be afraid to approach zero. Just keep checking where the stitch locks (top thread with bobbin thread) to make sure you’re fixing your skipping problem and not causing a tension problem.
  • Make sure your feed dogs are down. I know, but check anyway. If you can’t cover them or lower them, then set the stitch length to zero to keep them from moving.
  • Make sure the needle is inserted completely and properly.
  • Clean the bobbin area and make sure there are no errant threads hiding there. Oil, if appropriate.
  • Victoria Findlay Wolfe, artist, quilter, and owner of Bumble Beans, Inc., suggests getting rid of all those dust bunnies hiding under your throat (stitch) plate. You may be surprised by how many you find!
  • Shannon Shirley, an award-winning quilter, says she gives her machine a good cleaning. Sounds like a great idea!


Successful combination of thread for this baby quilt

  • Use quality thread. This will cut down on lint (bonus!) and make a nicer stitch.
  • Try a different size thread. Sometimes really small threads can be too small to be caught by the hook. If this is consistently a problem, take your machine in to be serviced and explain the problem. This is an easy adjustment.  Try a thread that’s one step larger to see if this is the issue.
  • According to Kathy Lincoln, who teaches machine quilting, some batiks grab the thread fiber, interfering with good stitch formation. If batiks are giving you trouble, trying a finer thread could be the solution.


  • Dull or damaged needles can cause skipped stitches. Change your needle.
  • Use the right needle for your machine. I like Schmetz for my Bernina.
  • Microtex/Sharp needles work well with tightly woven fabrics, like batiks.
  • Topstitch needles have a bigger eye, which can be helpful if you are using larger thread.
  • Needles that are too small can cause flapping (why do they call it flagging?). Start with 80/12 and move up from there.
  • Kathy Lincoln says this about needles: It may seem counter-intuitive, but try going from a sharp point to a ball point needle. The ball point will separate the fibers instead of cutting through them.

Bernina presser feet, left to right: #15, #44c, BSR with clear plastic sole

Presser Feet

  • Start with whatever foot your machine manufacturer recommends. Generally, a darning foot is fine.
  • My Bernina foot #15 is my go-to foot for free motion quilting.
  • If flapping (flagging) becomes an issue, go for a foot that has more surface area, like Bernina’s #44. If you’re using the Bernina Stitch Regulator (the BSR), use the clear plastic sole. The idea is to provide as much coverage around the needle as possible to cut down on flapping.

Presser Foot Pressure

  • If the skipped stitches are caused by flapping, then increasing presser foot pressure can help reduce the flapping. While the presser foot does not actually ride on the fabric while you are free motion quilting as it does in regular sewing, increasing the pressure can limit the space within which the quilt sandwich can flap up and down.
  • Change presser foot pressure in small increments (On my Bernina, I change in increments of 5, starting with the default 50 setting) and test, test, test. For the batik baby quilt, I finally fixed the problem with a presser foot pressure set at 85.


  • Don’t push the fabric too fast. If you can’t slow your hand speed, then increase the machine speed.
  • Use your hands to keep the target section flat and firm (but not stretched or tight). I keep my hands flat, fingers at 12:00 and thumbs pointed toward each other at 3:00 and 9:00. Think of the stereotypical film director framing a shot with his hands. The area between my hands is where I stitch. Yes, you have to reposition your hands pretty often and, yes, it’s worth it.
  • Try to keep a steady, consistent speed.
  • Make a test sandwich out of the same materials you are using in your quilt. Test before you move to the quilt. Seriously. I like to skip this, but it’s best to play it safe. Use it to test tension and stitch quality.
  • I have an anonymous quilting buddy who says she switches off her machine and heads to the kitchen for an adult beverage. Hmm. That sounds like a plan. Take a break and start fresh later.

If nothing here works, then your machine timing may be off. You may need to take it in to your machine tech for service. Be prepared to sew at the shop and demonstrate the skipped stitches. Take your quilt or the test sandwich with you to the shop.

My baby quilt has a batik top, batik backing, and thin cotton batting. I was quilting on my Bernina 820 with Superior Threads’s King Tut (cotton 40-weight thread) in the top and Aurifil Mako (50-weight cotton thread) in the bobbin. The winning combination was a 90/14 topstitch needle, 1.25 top thread tension, the Bernina Stitch Regulator with the clear plastic sole set on BSR 1, and the presser foot pressure set at 85.  Now I just need to finish the binding!

For more information about this quilt, read my previous blog entry.


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Finally Ready to Quilt

Finally Ready to Quilt

I’ve had quilter’s block before. I’ve had dry spells, but I’ve never had a quilt fight me.

Here’s the deal. I have a deadline.  Tomorrow. I’ve been thinking about this quilt and planning it in my head. Trees. Trees in winter. I have this amazing midnight blue batik with irregular white dots that look to me like snow at night. I pictured pale tree trunks — just a few — in the nighttime snowfall. Easy enough? Not when the quilt fights back.

I took everything I thought I’d need to my quilt guild’s fall retreat this past weekend.  There, in the company of supportive friends and quilters, I planned to create this 24″ x 24″ quilt based on a pattern I created. Easy. Or at least that was the plan. The center panel was easy. Light grey and white batik with a subtle pine pattern for all three trunks. Simple. Elegant, I hoped.

Problem Child with Original Borders

Problem Child with Original Borders

The borders were the first hint of trouble. I needed a narrow stopper border that would define the center panel, stopping both the dark background and the light trees. That sounds way easier than it actually was. Since I was working with blue rather than my old friend black, I had to find a grey with just the right amount of blue in it. None of my greys worked. Neither did the greys my table buddies packed. When Capital Quilts (Gaithersburg, MD) showed up as our visiting quilt shop, they had just the right one! Susan Fernandez snatched it up (I was down the mountain fetching tasty coffee drinks) and presented it to me upon my return. Thanks, Susan!

The second border defied me. I had several fabrics, but nothing was great and I was away from my studio where I could continue to rummage and, perhaps, create the perfect candidate. In desperation, I added more of the snow fabric. Mistake. I put it up on the design wall and tried to get to to talk to me. All I got was the silent treatment. And so, I took it down and tried to forget about it. It seemed like this quilt did not want to be made.

Once I got it home, I tried again. My friend Mary Kerr put her finger on the problem. It’s too matchy-matchy.  If this quilt was supposed to represent what I do as a quilter, I had failed miserably. Off came the outside border! I found what I thought was the perfect fabric at Judy Gula’s Artistic Artifacts Annex, but it didn’t make me happy once I got it home and on the wall. After much experimentation (When I should be finishing the quilting, not the piecing!), I came up with borders I like.

Now I’m looking for quilting inspiration. Nothing. Again, the quilt’s giving me the silent treatment. And so, I’ll start with what I know. I’ll do all the ditch work (stitching in the ditch) and hope that something comes to me before it’s time to freemotion. Wish me luck! Tomorrow’s coming faster than you think.

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Mother and Daughter Working Together
Mother and Daughter Working Together

This week, I drove to Pittsburgh to meet the ladies (and gentlemen!) of the Quilt Company East Quilt Guild. What a great group! They are friendly, cheerful, and talented. On Monday night, I gave one of my favorite lectures, Fabric Acquisition 101. We talked about what fabrics to buy, how much to buy, and what to do with it once you get it home.

Tuesday was an action-packed day. We started out with my Trees Workshop. Setting up in a spacious and well-lit space, we all shared fabric and ideas as we created our own personal forests. I was so happy to watch these ladies approach this new technique with such open minds. The technique uses freeform rotary cutting (much like Ricky Tims with his Caveman Quilting) and lots of steam. Each participant gets a pattern, but I always hope that every quilter will create her own trees in her own way. The pattern is there for when they go home without me.


What I love about teaching Trees is watching each quilter “get” the concept. They each bring lots of fabric and a vision. As the workshop progresses, many of the quilters abandon their original vision (some more willingly than others) in favor of following the creative process. More than one quilter remarked that the trees they created were not the ones they had planned when packing for the workshop — but in a good way.

Lots of Steam!

Lots of Steam!

After we were finished with the workshop, we were off on a road trip! Elizabeth and Charlotte took me to a favorite quilt shop in Finleyville, PA, called Quilters Corner. What a great shop! They have a little bit of everything. Looking for a nice Moda selection? Got it. Batiks? Um hmm. Black and whites, Anna Griffin, Lonni Rossi, Lakehouse, you name it. Books, magazines, notions, even a corner for holiday fabric and projects. The most striking samples, however, were the applique pieces designed by shop owner Mary Beth Hartnett. From design to fabric choices to execution, the applique work was exquisite. Do you hear me, Book Publishers? Hurry to sign Mary Beth before your competition does. These patterns have universal appeal.

Afterward, we drove through Pittsburgh so that I would have a sense of the city. It was beautiful! We drove on some very scenic roads and saw some amazing vistas. We saw the pink water in the fountains (for Breast Cancer Awareness month), lots of twinkle lights, and diverse architecture. And now I understand why the Steelers do so well. I’d hate to be a warm-climate football team and have to come play in that giant open stadium!

I’m not sure how we packed so much into two fabulous days, but we did. Now I have just enough time to rest up before I leave for the IQA Festival in Houston!

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In all projects, art included, I’ve followed the same path: start with what you know. Ironically, I’ve heard the same advice from several other sources in the past month.  It’s funny how things circle around.

Design Wall Ready to Work on Fabric Choices

Design Wall Ready to Work on Fabric Choices

And so, what do I know and how will that help me choose my fabric? I know that the hat is orange. I also know that the picture has dark backgrounds. The lightest spots are the hat, the hands, and part of the wheel. I’ll start with the hat. I’m choosing a light orange and yellow batik.

At this point, I need to think about construction. Briefly, here’s the plan. I flipped the cartoon face down and traced some of the pieces onto Wonder Under. Since I used a Sharpie and thin exam room paper, it was easy to see the lines. Then, when I fused the Wonder Under to the fabric, everything was facing in the right direction.

What I Know

What I Know

After the hat is in place (temporarily, basted on a muslin background with a glue stick), I choose fabric for the hands and face. I’m thrilled with a black/grey/white batik that looks like tread and I use it for one of the tire surfaces. The rest of the tire should be darker than the tread fabric, but not darkest. The batiks are giving me the movement and illusion of tread that I want without being literal. The hands should be light, but not pale. That’s all that I know. Now I need to stop and think.

As I begin to pull fabric for the ground, I realize that I can narrow my choices by ruling things out. I don’t want to use any fabric that has a distinct-or even subtle-print. It’s distracting and I think I want the tread to be the only print. I think. I want the value to be about the same as the trees, but with brown replacing the green as the main color. Now I’m in trouble, because I’ve invented this “perfect fabric” in my head and I’ll never find it.

I’m back to the very first trees-in-the-background piece I pulled. And I have a placeholder black batik for the shirt. The shirt color will be my last decision, because I’m comfortable changing it from the original. I’m having a really hard time finding the right ground fabric. In my experience, when things are this difficult, it’s time to take a giant step backward and think. Have I followed a path too far? Did I make a bad decision upstream? And so I go back to what I know and start again, questioning the assumptions I made about background fabric. 
There are two rules of thumb fighting it out in my brain. First, darker colors recede and lighter colors advance. Second, darker colors on the bottom tend to ground a piece, and lighter colors seem to float. So, do I want the trees to be darker (recede) or lighter so that the ground fabric can be darker and anchor the piece?  
Original Tree Fabric, Darker Ground


I think #1’s too dark all around. It’s in keeping with the original photo, but I’m fearful of the contrast. That said, I do want the foreground to pop.

#2 is currently my favorite, but I’m not convinced. I like how the hat fabric plays with the tree fabric, but the ground fabric may be too busy.  Not sure.

#3 is just too busy. Too, too busy. Distracting.

I’m going to let this stew while I work on something else. Thoughts? Please share them.






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Okay, I want you to picture your favorite quilt shop.  Got it? Now, imagine two inches of water on every floor with more cascading down the walls from a broken water pipe.  Awful, right? Well, that’s what happened to the shop where I teach art quilting, the Quilt Patch in Fairfax, Virginia.

The Batik Room at the Quilt Patch

The Batik Room at the Quilt Patch

I’m thrilled to report that the shop is back up and running after less than two weeks! The floors have been refinished, drywall has been replaced, walls have been painted, and the fabric and notions have been restocked. Wow! And not a single batik was lost…

Of course, not all the repairs are complete, but the shop is open for business. The classes are still being held next door (check www.quiltpatchva.com for details) and the upstairs office space leaves a lot to be desired, but the basics are in place. You can fondle fabric, choose thread, browse patterns and books, and take the Berninas for a test drive.
The Bernina room at the Quilt Patch
The Bernina Room at the Quilt Patch

The Berninas remained dry and the Bernina Room looks as if nothing unusual happened.  There it sits, waiting for the new 830s to arrive.

Leslie (the owner) and her crew have done an amazing job of pulling everything back together and reopening the store — brighter and better than ever.
No one ever expects major damage like this shop has seen. We take a lot for granted. We assume that we’ll get up every morning and things will be as we left them. We assume that we make plans and we’ll be able to keep them. I’m glad the shop was able to reopen so quickly. 
Welcome back, Quilt Patch! 

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