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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!

Thread

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.

Needles

  • 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.

Technique

  • 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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I don’t know what the scariest stage of a quilt commission is: getting the work, doing the work, or delivering the work. I think perhaps the delivery is the toughest part.

Steve's Photo

Untitled by Steve Alterman

Longer ago than I’d like to admit, some former neighbors decided they wanted me to make them a quilt. Steve and Lynne are avid art collectors and possess an unerring sense of style. I was particularly inspired by one of Steve’s photographs and the commission took shape from there.

As an artist, I sometimes need a shot of confidence. The idea of creating an art quilt to hang in this wonderful house on the beach was, well, intimidating. I had the concept, but I didn’t know if I could take the quilt from concept to reality at the level I felt they deserved.  Finally, I made them promise to tell me if they didn’t like it so that we could work together toward something they did love. That promise helped unstick my quilter’s block and I was able to complete the quilt.

GQH wielding a level

My GQH working on quilt placement

On the appointed day, my husband (GQH, see previous post) and I packed our tools, the quilt, and the dog and headed to the beach. The quilt was designed to be hung above a set of stairs, which created its own logistical challenges. Two ladders, a strong board, and a bunch of bungee cords later, we had a makeshift scaffolding that was more than up for the task.

Eric marked the placement with tiny bits of masking tape until we all agreed that we had found the perfect place for the quilt. He fine-tuned the arrangement with a level and a tape measure and then we (he) drove two anchors into the wall to support the surprising weight of the quilt.

Dressing the Quilt

Dressing the Quilt

Once he finished securing the quilt, I picked my way along the scaffolding and dressed the quilt, removing any lint or dog hair or stray threads and straightening the quilt on the hanging rod. (Did I mention that five dogs supervised this process?!)

The quilt itself is quite heavy. The “swoosh” down the length of the piece is comprised of stones and glass and shells and beads and silk scraps. The embellishments are piled and layered for a lush effect but the added weight posed structural problems. For added stability, I incorporated a layer of buckram behind the quilt top. Then, to encourage the quilt to hang true and straight, I added a second rod pocket, this one along the bottom, for a flat metal slat. This plan worked and the quilt hangs better than I could have hoped.

The Finished Quilt in Place

"Windswept" hanging in place

The result is a quilt that pays homage to Steve’s photo and incorporates the colors and textures they have used to decorate their home.

Windswept (the quilt)

Windswept

Okay, if you’re a quilter, you may want some detail:

  • The border fabric is Dupioni silk, channel quilted to mimic a gallery frame
  • The background fabric is a hand-painted cotton piece I commissioned from Mickey Lawler of Skydyes.
  • The “swoosh” is made up of glass, Swarovski crystals, pearls of all shapes and sizes, amethyst, Peruvian opal, and a variety of other beads. There is one shell that came from their beach and one black pearl to honor Lynne’s love of pearls.
  • The soft texture that is especially evident along the left of the swoosh is silk “Frazzles” purchased from Judy Gula’s Artistic Artifacts.

The clients are happy. My GQH is happy. I am…thrilled. The stress of creating art for friends was almost my undoing. I probably won’t do that again, but I’m so glad I had the opportunity to make this quilt for this couple.

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Have I mentioned that I love to teach?  Truly, I do.

Trees Workshop with the Richmond Quilt GuildHere’s a class picture from the workshop I taught this weekend for the Richmond Quilt Guild in Richmond, Virginia.  These ladies bravely wielded their rotary cutters without the aid of rulers to “draw” trees and then created their very own forests.  I am so proud of their work!

I created the original Trees quilt as a timed exercise.  TreesA very talented art quilt instructor, Judy House, challenged us to prepare the design and materials for a landscape quilt and then do the actual work in one hour.  Yes, one hour. 

 The trunks are pieced into the background, even though it looks as though it’s appliqued.  I believe this quilt is a perfect example of letting your fabric do the heavy lifting.  This design is more simplified than my original plan, but I also think it’s better. At the end of the hour, the center panel was pretty much done.

Trees hangs in my studio and reminds me to keep it simple.  In 2006, it brought home a second place ribbon from the New Jersey State Quilt Convention.   

To see more Trees workshop pictures, visit my website www.MoonlightingQuilts.com.  If your guild would like to learn to make their own Trees, contact me at Cyndi@MoonlightingQuilts.com

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