The Free Motion Quilting Project: Question Thursday #4

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Question Thursday #4

It's another Question Thursday day and I have a wonderful term from MC at Slair's Lair for the perfect scale to stitch with. You know you've found the perfect scale when it's not too big, not too small, but it's just the right size - the Goldilocks Zone!

I've seen lots of wonderful stippling from everyone that has linked up so far to yesterday's post! It's so exciting to see your progress in just 4 weeks of quilting together.

Now let's see if I can answer some of the questions that have come in this week:

To paraphrase what Mimi said in the comments earlier this week:

Do you take notes of tension changes / machine adjustments to help you remember how to get the machine back to normal?

This is a great question because many quilters are afraid to touch any part of the machine for fear of not being able to get it back to normal.

The best solution for this is to keep a small notebook or journal close by your machine and jot down where your tension, stitch length, stitch width, and even the pressure of the foot, if you have that knob, each time you fiddle with your machine.

Personally I keep notes on what I change the machine to when I do something different, and especially when I'll need to return the machine to this exact setting again in the future.

For example, I often applique with a blanket stitch set at 2.0 stitch length and 2.0 stitch width and use the open toe applique foot. Would I remember this if I hadn't written it down? Absolutely not! I can't keep specifics of stitch length and width in my head so it really does help to write it down.

When it comes to tension, it really is different with each machine. On my old Juki, I was fiddling with that tension knob every single day, on the Janome Horizon the tension is set on "auto" for piecing, applique, and free motion so I never have to worry about it.

It's totally different with each machine so figure out if you can either leave your tension alone, or if you can set in one place for FMQ and leave it there. If so, make a note of it so you'll remember!

Next let's hear from Mrs MomMegan Craftsalot (love your name by the way!):

How do you properly finish the ends of thread when are quilting and back yourself into a corner? Please tell me when you "break your thread" are you suppose to hand sew it in? Can you just cut it off and move on?

I showed this just a bit in yesterday's video, but this is such an important question, I have a better video to illustrate what to do with your loose threads:

Just in case you can't watch the video: To properly finish off your loose thread ends, first tug on the top thread to bring the bobbin thread up to the same side of the quilt. Next take a cheater needle and pop both threads in the top of the needle. Then run the threads into the middle layer of the quilt for around 1 inch or so, then cut them off.

I keep my single cheater needle on a Pin Place so it doesn't get lost in my big magnetic pincushion.

Please, whatever you do, don't just cut off the thread tails and move on. Many teachers will show you how to build up the threads to "lock" them in place at the beginning and end of a line of quilting. The only thing this does is puts a knot on your quilt and a potential for your stitches to come unraveled.

If you're in a big hurry, just leave your thread tails long and pull them all to the top of your quilt where you can see them. As you quilt your quilt, just shift them out of your way and only after it's done, sit down with a cheater needle and hide all of the threads within your quilt. Your quilts will thank you!

Pat from Color Me Quilty asked:

When quilting with a good quality cotton such as Aurifil, is there a way to keep it from breaking?

If you're using a high quality thread and it's breaking constantly, something is obviously rotting in Denmark.

First look at the way your top thread is being fed into the machine. Tug on the thread a bit. Does it glide off easily or is the spool sticking and not turning easily?

If your thread isn't gliding easily, chances are that is the problem. Unlike piecing where the thread is slowly unwinding from the spool, free motion quilting uses thread a lot faster and requires the thread to feed much more quickly off the spool.

So a thread like Aurifil's awesome 100% cotton, which never breaks for piecing, might suddenly start breaking when you quilt with it.

What is the solution here?

It's simple really - fix the way your thread feeds into the machine.

free motion quilting | Leah DayOne of the best possible tools you can buy is called a Spool Stand. I don't carry these right now because the ones I like are way too heavy and huge to ship, but they're truly awesome:

I keep a spool stand next to every one of my machines. The Janome Horizon even has a spool stand attachment that you can screw onto the back of that machine so it takes larger spools.

Even when piecing and appliqueing now, I always put my thread on a spool stand because it will feed much more evenly and effortlessly into the machine, which in turn reduces thread breaks and issues that happen when the spool doesn't glide easily.

Of course, your thread could be breaking for another whole set of reasons. When I buy thread, I always write the month and year on the side of a spool when I buy it. This helps me remember how old a spool of thread is because thread can actually go bad.

Recently I was piecing a quilt and my thread kept breaking even though I was using high quality Gutterman 100% cotton. What is going on here? Then I remembered back to when I bought that spool of thread - James was 6 months old! No wonder it was breaking - it's at least 4 years old and has been stored unprotected in my basement - all things that could weaken the fibers enough to cause frequent breakages.

The lesson here is simple: if you're getting frequent thread breaks try to ask questions and diagnose the problem. It might be as simple as your thread is too old or it's not happily feeding into the machine.Link
The next question is from Karin from the Quilt Yarn:

When I did a workshop on FMQ we were advised to start the stippling from the bottom up so that you could see how far apart from the preceding lines you were. Is there a right way of doing this or is it a matter of personal preference?

Karin, have you ever met someone else named Karin? Did they sign their name the exact same way you did? Chances are your signatures might have looked similar because you were writing the same word, but you definitely had your own unique touch to your name.

I use this example because it's the best way I can illustrate that every single person will stipple differently. You will start in different places, you will move across your quilt differently, you will fill the quilt itself in different ways. And that is OKAY!

There are MILLIONS of ways to stipple your quilt. Each teacher teaches this a little differently. Every quilter will learn and apply those lessons differently.

So the best thing you can do is focus on what works. Always move to what is easier, to what feels most natural for your brain and your body. If starting at the bottom and working upwards feels natural for you, do it!

I hope it's clear that everything I post here are IDEAS. It's not a scientific law or a rock solid fact. These are all ideas which means some work and some don't. Just keep moving to what works and what feels right.

In the comments of yesterday's post DrMary asked:

I've noticed that you are using a new type of pin set-up to baste your quilts?

Yes, I'm now using Pinmoors and simple flower head straight pins to baste my quilts. This is a new product developed by Loretta Ivison that works by locking the sharp end of normal straight pin so you can now baste with the normal pins you already have around the house.

I've started using Pinmoors to baste my quilts because they're a lot easier and faster to use than safety pins, tear my hands up far less, and are easier to take out, especially when I'm filming a video.

You can learn more about this cool item right here in the Quilt Shop!

Helen and Tsigeyusv both asked pretty much the same question in the comments of yesterday's quilt along post:

I noticed in this video, when you paused in your quilting, that in one part the needle stopped in the up position and in another part it stopped in the down position. Do you have a preference and is it different based on quilting a straight line as opposed to a curved line?

If I have the option on the machine, I will always end with my needle in the DOWN position.

This makes almost all aspects of free motion quilting much easier:
  • When shifting and squishing the quilt, you won't lose your place if the needle is down.
  • When stitching on a line, you can always stop with your needle down on the line to stay on track.
  • When quilting a filler design, stopping with the needle down makes it much less likely for the stop to show.
I could go on, but I think you get the point. If you have the option, always set your needle to the DOWN position.
The thing is, not all machines come with this function. Right now I'm quilting on the Janome HD1000 which is a $300 machine and has almost no special features.
It doesn't have a button to select to put the needle automatically in the down position so in order to get the needle down, I either have to carefully tap the foot pedal or move my hand to rotate the hand wheel.
So sometimes, as in the case of yesterday's video, I forget to do either! I apologize if it was confusing, but for the record, I usually stop with the needle in the down position every time I stop.
But this just lets you know how easily you can learn how to use a machine with fewer, or no, special features! Once you get comfortable always taking one hand off the quilt to rotate the hand wheel, it will become a habit that you don't even think about.
Never let the limit of special features make you think you can't free motion quilt on the machine you have right now. Chances are it will work just fine, but only if you put some time and effort in playing with it.
Finally Brenda K asked in the comments of yesterday's post:

Where do you look when stitching?
When stitching a normal straight line I tend to look about half an inch ahead of the needle. But when the line curls around and to the side and behind the needle I tend to lose the line and start looking right at the needle. Then I hesitate and wobble as I search for where I'm going. Any advice?
This is a great question Brenda! I'm like you - I tend to focus on the area I'm stitching INTO, not right at my needle.
When you lose the line, the best thing to do is either shift the quilt a bit or move your head slightly so you can see where you're going.
Sometimes I'll lean forward and tilt my head to the right to keep a line of sight on the line I'm stitching on.
The trick is just remembering to sit back up when you're out of that area so you don't get a backache!
Whew! That's it for this Question Thursday! It's high time I shut up and go quilt that little Sawtooth Star quilt so I'll have something to show you next week!
Let's go quilt,
Leah Day


  1. my straight-line practicing went well today and i also traced rather successfully along a marked motif - something i've struggled with! the stitches were pretty small but i adjusted and they turned out pretty well. i was surprised you keep the horizon on auto. do you fmq with the single hole plate engaged? thanks!
    - angie

  2. Thanks so much for answering my question. I had tried a few ways to hide my threads and they were time consuming and not pretty. That video really clears it up. You are quickly becoming my best friend.

  3. Hi Leah, after watching your video on cheater needles and hiding your threads, I feel a little confused. I was taught that when you begin and end a line of quilting, you use very tiny stitches at first and then work your way up to the size you want to lock your stitches and prevent them from unraveling (or in the case of the walking foot and straight line quilting, quilt in reverse a few stitches then proceed forward to lock stitches.)

    But are you saying that you can just begin and end your quilting with your stitches the size you want them right off the bat, and without reversing, and just hide the tails in the quilt and that will hold them in place? And if so, will this be enough even for quilts like mine that are used daily and washed/dried regularly in a machine?

    Thanks so much Leah! You have been a blessing to me (and my quilting!).


  4. Great Q&A today! I'm going hunting for a cheater needle tomorrow! I hate threading my needle so many times when burying threads.

  5. Sue - As I said in this post - everyone learns something different. What I learned is to start stitching as normal, then tie a knot in the threads and bury them in the middle layer of the quilt. What I learned and have experienced is that taking small stitches at the beginning and end is not nearly as secure as burying the thread tails.

    And yes, I have tried this on quilts that have been washed 100s of times with no threads coming loose.


    Leah Day

  6. Two great tips here for me today, both about dealing with thread ends - the cheater needle and the simple way of bringing your bottom thread up with a little tug. Thanks!

  7. Thanks for providing information about Pinmoors - very helpful. In reading through the other questions, I was reminded that I suffered from frequent thread breakage once upon a time, especially when sewing through fusible web. Use of sewer's aid completely fixed the problem. Although it seemed like a miracle, it's really just a silicon based, non-staining lubricant. Now when my thread breaks, I go through all the things you suggested as causes (great suggestions btw), but most often find it's because I forgot to add those few precious drops of sewer's aid to my spool before I started sewing.

  8. I just free motioned quilted a white boarder strip with a bright blue. Looks great but what can I do to secure and hide the thread ends? It is a baby quilt and will be washed. Love your site and am inspired daily!


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