The Free Motion Quilting Project: Question Thursday #3

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Question Thursday #3

We're moving right along with our free motion quilt along and it's super fun to go through all the linked up blogs to search for questions to answer here on Thursdays.

And I'm seeing loads of beautiful stitching! It's so wonderful to see your progress after just two weeks of working on stippling.

We have a wide variety of questions to answer today so let's get going! Pat at Color Me Quilty asked:

I was wondering what do you use in the bobbin when you use special threads on the top, such as metallic or some of the heavier weight threads?

This is a great question because very rarely will we put a specialty thread in both the top AND bobbin of our machine.

So here's my opinion when it comes to metallic and specialty thread:

Metallic - I mostly use Yenmet metallic thread which was designed to be used with Isacord thread. Because the two were designed to be similar, it's easy enough to use Isacord in the bobbin and the Yenmet metallic on top and find a balance between the two.

But here's another, slightly weirder, opinion: why not stitch with the same thread in the bobbin?

Seriously, what is the problem or issue with that idea? Mismatching thread causes enough problems on its own, maybe matching specialty thread will make using it easier? It's worth at least TRYING this idea.

Invisible thread - I'm not a huge fan of this stuff, but I have been known to use it. When I do, I use it in both the top AND bobbin of the machine.

Why in both places? Because if my tension is off slightly, who cares?! I can't see it and neither can you!

Heavier Weight Thread - I haven't had a ton of experience using heavy weight threads in the TOP of the machine. I did use quite a lot of Razzle Dazzle in the bobbin for Emergence and found the most important thing was to use a color in the top of the machine that matched well with the color in the bobbin.

It was also important to crank up the tension on the top to really pull that thick bobbin thread down onto the quilt. The top thread will end up showing up a bit no matter how high you set the tension, so just make sure the colors are somewhat balanced.

And this leads to one more important point:

Always match colors on the top and the bobbin.

You will do yourself the greatest favor in the world by just picking one color and going with it on both sides. Small tension issues, hiccups in the stitch quality, and other small details will be much less noticeable if the colors are the same.

I once got an email berating me over this opinion because I obviously didn't understand that the her quilt was red on one side and yellow on the back, and it wasn't a solution, in her opinion, to just tell her to use the same color thread on both sides.

I replied gently that it wasn't my fault she didn't make a good choice with the color of her backing fabric, and that this really is my solution to 90% of thread tension problems.

Which leads to another good point: PLAN AHEAD!

If your quilt is mostly red, plan to quilt it with red thread, and buy more of that red fabric to use as the backing. It will save you time, money, stress, blood, sweat, tears, and possibly your sanity!

Since we're on this subject of thread and stitch quality, let's go next to Tammy's plea for help:

I don't know if my hands are going to fast, my feet or if the tension is off. Please help Leah!!!

Tammy posted this picture of her stitching:

I see several things in this photo.

Right here in the blue circle, I see loops pulling much longer and tighter in a deep curve than in other places. This tells me maybe Tammy maybe needs to stitch a bit faster in these areas.

But I also see some stitches that are more balanced in the red circle.

Which means that something might have happened to the thread in her machine. It sounds crazy, but I can't count the number of times I've hit my spool of thread and knocked it sideways causing my stitches to go crazy.

I also can't count the number of times my bobbin has suddenly become possessed by demons. It stitched fine 5 minutes ago, but suddenly it's making a CLACKETY CLACKETY CLACKETY noise that's loud enough to wake the devil.

So here's a simple checklist if your stitches go suddenly, inexplicably ugly:

1. Rethread your whole machine. Take out the bobbin, take out the top thread. Start over from scratch and don't rush through it. It's really easy to miss guides when you're in a hurry and getting frustrated.

2. Change your needle. Chances are this wasn't the issue, but it never hurts. A bent or dull needle can wreck havoc with your stitches so it's always a good idea to change it when things get ugly.

Try stitching again after completing #1 and #2. Don't stitch anything super complicated - just try straight or slightly curvy lines.

Then try a deeper, stippling wiggle. Did the issue come back again? If you saw long loops pulling up in the deep curves, try speeding up your machine in these areas.

If the problems persist, try this:

3. Return to Piecing. Change all the settings of your machine back to how you have it set up for piecing and actually piece a few scraps together. Are you still having issues?

If you suddenly stop having issues chances are you are doing something - dropping your feed dogs, changing thread, changing feet, changing tension, changing SOMETHING that is screwing things up.

If your machine is still having issues with piecing and you CAN'T get the tension corrected by any means, chances are your machine is actually broken in some way and the best solution is to see a repairman.

However, most often your machine is NOT broken. Most often there's just a single issue stopping you from finding good looking stitches.

You'll need to begin the process of diagnosing the problem step by step.

The most important thing is to keep quilting. Don't let the loops beat you down! Don't let eyelashes best your spirit! Just keep trying it, keep playing with it, keep working at it until the pretty stitches surface.

One more note about stitch quality: I received this question from Kitty May on facebook:

Why don't my bottom stitches look as good as the top ones? I'm using the same thread, Aurifil.

This is a great question because the fact is - even my stitches look better on top than they do on the bottom. Seriously, out of all 365 of my little design squares, even the ones stitched on black fabric on both sides, I could flip it over and look at it closely and see which side faced up while it was quilted.

So this leads to another point: Stitch quality is always a work in progress.

Everyone is always working to have better looking, more balanced stitches, but it's not going to happen overnight, and it shouldn't be something stopping you from quilting your own quilts.

Please keep in mind that it is SUPER easy to obsess about tension issues, a wobbly stitch in the sea of perfect stitches, a slightly longer string of stitches - but think about when and where you're doing this obsessing: you're sitting at your sewing machine, with your face about 5 inches from your quilt, with bright lights all around so you can see every issue in clear focus.

You're going to see every mistake, but you really shouldn't berate yourself for them! Just keep quilting.

This is the main reason why I beg you to match your thread colors. It's really difficult, if not impossible, to get absolutely 100% perfect tension all the time while free motion quilting.

If you have red thread on top and yellow thread in the bobbin, chances are some of that is going to show on either side and it will drive you crazy. Do yourself a favor and:

- Match your thread color - save your sanity!

- Give yourself a break about thread issues - it's not worth agonizing over!

- Ignore the issues and GO QUILT - thread issues WILL become less, but ONLY if you keep quilting.

I really hope you don't take this as a flippant response. This is my truthful solution to 100% of small thread issues, even the ones I see in my own quilts. Perfection does not exist in free motion quilting, and you can drive yourself crazy searching for it.

One last note and I really will shut up about this:

There is a way to hide 90% of your thread issues, 100% of small line wobbles and noticeable starts and stops, and 80% of massive tension problems. It's a really simple solution:

Wash your quilt!

Seriously, you're agonizing over your quilt when it's flat and perfect and fresh off the machine. Of course the thread issues are going to be noticeable! All that thread is still sitting slightly on the surface of the quilt. It's not yet gotten happy and soft with the other fibers of the quilt.

So throw your quilt in the washing machine, crank the temperature up to HOT, then dry that sucker on the hottest setting in your dryer, and I bet you'll have to SEARCH for those issues you were so upset about when it's finished.

And we have time for one more question from Sisbabestitches about quadrant quilting:

I do have a question- if you start in the middle in the quandrant, where are you supposed to end? Are you supposed to join up with the beginning again? I kind of improvised an extra row and swung back to the middle cos my start line was just hanging there by itself in the center looking really obvious. Though maybe it was just me!!

This might sound a little crazy, but I SO understand where Sisbabestitches is coming from!

For all those type A personalities out there, the idea of a random loose end hanging out in the middle of a quilt is just...well...uncomfortable.

free motion quilting | Leah DayWhat if someone sees that starting point? What if they see how the quilt was quilted in rows? What if they see other starts and stops and pick apart the whole quilting experience bit by bit?!

This might sound crazy, but I DO THIS ALL THE TIME to myself!

I once decided not to add a border to a quilt because I didn't know how to miter the corners and thought everyone would look at the squared off corner and think it looked weird. I've killed quilt ideas because I didn't know how to piece it or applique huge pieces without seamlines. I've not quilted in certain areas for fear of covering up piecing lines, even if that line was joining two pieces of the same colored fabric. It's enough to make a person crazy.

For the record: no one really cares. If anyone even SEES that starting point of your line of stippling, they're not even going to look twice.

But if you really, really absolutely MUST know what to do with that starting point, here's a few solutions:

#1 - Join up with the starting line when the quilt is 1/2 way quilted.

free motion quilting | Leah DayBasically you'll start in the center of the quilt (red dot), and stitch rows to fill one quadrant, wiggle with more rows to fill the second quadrant, then connect your line of stitching to the starting point.

Break your thread, then start again along the edge of your quilt (blue dot). This new starting point will be cut off when you square your quilt and attach binding so no one will ever see it.

#2 - Split the quadrants and then join up:

free motion quilting | Leah DayThis is a slightly different way to quadrant quilt because you first stitch rows from the center to each side, then back into the center to break your quilt up into 4 equal pieces. Because you're able to quilt to each side of the quilt, the center section will be knocked out quickly and you can easily join back up with that starting point.

Again break thread here and start stitching again on the edge the quilt, stitching a row back into the center of the quilt to fill each quadrant. This way the loose end will be on the edge of the quilt and visible in the center.

#3 - Disguise the Starting Point:

free motion quilting | Leah DayYour starting line doesn't have to just start and wiggle straight into stippling. You could stitch a loop or a tear drop shape instead and this will hide the starting point a bit better in the rows of quilting.

#4 - Show off your starting point:

free motion quilting | Leah DayThis is the exact opposite of #3. If you're going to quilt your own quilts, why not get credit for it?! Start with a giant spiral, a massive ripple heart, a cluster of pebbles, or big grinning smiley face to add an element to your quilt that no one else has.

Think of it like your signature - your own unique way to start your quilting process, and something your kids and grandkids will look for with fondness on your quilts.

Ultimately I hope you can see that there's really no wrong way to do this!

Quadrant quilting is meant to make quilting your quilts easier and less time consuming or confusing. It's not meant to cause more stress or frustration!

But if it seriously doesn't work for your brain - if you really like quilting in circles or quilting randomly - keep doing it!

There's really only one rule this year:

Find what works.

And I guess that means there's also a second rule this year:

Go DO it!

If something works for you, shut up and go quilt that way. If it doesn't work for you, keep asking questions until you find something that does work.

It's time for me to shut up and quilt!

Leah Day


  1. More sound advice. Thanks for sharing all of your knowledge and experience!

  2. This is one of the most valuable posts I've read. Thank you!

  3. Wonderful post! I love how much you stress "stop stressing"! I do quilt with white in the bobbin and just let the little dots show on top. I figure if washing doesn't get them out then a heat set fabric marker will cover them right up! Now I have to go quilt! Thanks for all the advice.

  4. Wonderful information. Took your Quilt Along #2 and went to town on a quilt I had pieced and tied years ago and have finally quilted! With all the quilting time I didn't take time to post but will soon! Looking forward to Quilt Along #3 - Thanks Leah!!

  5. Doreen Says: You are so right when advising the use of the same color top and bottom. Am about to start a quilt I was going to use burgundy/wine in the top and pale yellow in the bobbin (cuz, of course, each must match the respective color palettes!) and was fiddling with tension dials to get that perfectly locked stitch so the top wouldn't have that barely there pin point of color on the back! Oh my!! Well, I am going to do it that way knowing that the finished quilt, once washed and dried, will be wonderful, as you said! Have done this before with very good results and have always told myself:Next time....... Some of us never quite totally learn, ha! Thanks for all the wonderful advice and encouragement!


  6. Thank you for taking the courage to go back to basics. For me it is wonderful. I have been stuck in a rut love quilting but fed up with quilting in the ditch. I tried free motion quilting before but gave up after several disastrous efforts. I am now taking it one step at a time and enjoying it.

  7. I mainly free machine embroider, but use stippling etc a lot - although in the UK I know it as Vermicelli. I love all the advice here cos its transferable for any free motion stitching. I do use metallic thread on top and in bobbin, Btw invisible thread... need to wind this slowly onto the bobbin, otherwise it will stretch.
    Oh... always buy the rights bobbins for the machine, the exact size and weight of them can be important, so using cheap plastic when your machine should have metal, can cause issues....

  8. I love that last part. As someone who's quilted several of my own quilts by now, I love sewing the recipient's name into the quilt (great for kids... they love this!). I like to "hide" little doodles here and there too. For me, this is one of the best parts of learning FMQ-ing... making an entire quilt myself, and being able to make the quilting uniquely mine!! You've helped me a great deal over the last year or so! Thanks!!

  9. Leah - good answers to so many concerns. Thanks.

    Advise the person with tension problems - rethread the machine with the presser foot UP. Nothing can mess up stitching on anything more than retreading with the foot down. I'm always amazed how many people complain of problems with the thread when the problem was the threading.

  10. I have taught Beginning Machine Quilting classes for many years and I really appreciate the posts that you are presenting this year. They are informative, helpful and encouraging!!!

  11. More great info, Leah - thank you :) You are amazing!
    As a trained vintage sewing machine tech, I agree w your advice about using the same color, same brand thread for the top & bobbin. Following this suggestion will definitely lead to fewer tension headaches!

  12. I really like the quadrant concept of quilting and will adopt that in my next small quilt.

    As for joining the starting point I like #3 i.e. disguise it. A nice little loop will do great! However I am uncertain about #1 and #2 because you will encounter almost all of your quilt being shoved into your machine throat space. Nightmare for me with my small machine :(

  13. Got to add one more thing... I took a FMQ-ing class, and one great piece of advice our teacher had was to use a really busy print on the back of your quilt to camouflage the stitches :-).

  14. Thank you. I teach free motion quilting and I include your blog address in my handouts. There is no way I can cover all of the questions and concerns in a 2 hour class. You approach the subject in a very clear and common sense way. I love the new direction that you have taken with your blog.

  15. Hi Leah. Once again great article. I always see soooo many questions on tention. I too, get tention issues from time to time. I had a heck of a week last week. But I think I figured it out. Check out my blog entry if you want to learn more!

  16. Leah,
    Love you girl, you talk good plain common sense about all these things. I've been using a sewing machine since I was 10 years old, and its a joy to 1. learn nwe things from you and reminded of things I need to remember. so wish i could meet you in person. Thanks again.

  17. Leah: "I also can't count the number of times my bobbin has suddenly become possessed by demons. It stitched fine 5 minutes ago, but suddenly it's making a CLACKETY CLACKETY CLACKETY noise that's loud enough to wake the devil."
    You made my day! Its so funny, my pleasure. I will not create 12 Godess' but I think, my FMQ - Godess is miffed and is cutty waiting to come out (will sew her). She has whispering: 'I will help you and blow the devil throughout the window if you give me a riht place near by you and give me some chocolate and fruits each day. :-)))
    You are great, Leah, I love you.
    Greetings from Nuremberg

  18. Leah,
    I have been following all of your free motion advice on various places for quite some time. I just want to say that your teaching is the most helpful and thorough I have found! I have been quilting for a while, but trying to learn fmq for only the last year or 2...I have been so frustrated, and even in tears over how I just cannot get the stitching to turn out; which I must add it takes a lot for me to cry over quilting!! So, today when I checked my e-mails, and found this link, and saw the pics of the stitching that is not right (and really looks like mine..) I was elated! I can hardly wait to follow along...and hopefully conquer fmq! I can't tell you how much money I have spent on things trying to make it all work. My wonderful husband is even building me a quilting frame for my Singer PQ1500; but I haven't been too excited about it because so far my fmq with that machine, and my Brother PC-420 has all been awful. Sorry for the long post, but I just had to tell you how much I appreciate you taking your time and offering all of your knowledge FREE to us!

  19. Leah. Thank YOU! I changed my needle and rethreaded my machine and it worked out great. I can't believe a dull needle and bad threading would cause this. But I am totally elated. I started quilting on my big quilt and it looka great....woohoo. Thank you so much for all your informative videos and just being down to earth. Love that about you.

  20. I was wondering, but need to mention - I have not read all the posts in this new project, so item might already be covered - you talk about just continuing the quilting and trying different things... tension changes implied. How much writing down of what you have done do you do? When I get messing with tension if I don't write down what and how far I have moved things.... it only gets worse in the end. You seem to have such a great presence of what happens so much of the time, I was wondering if you "take notes" of what you help you remember?

  21. 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?

  22. Here's a question for you. I love free motion quilting and have done quite a lot. Have only just discovered your blog and have practiced on paper and now with my cotton thread on a practice piece. All going swimmingly. Now have changed to the thread I wish to use in my quilt and here's the question.
    I read about using the same thread in bobbin as top. Have used rayon embroidery thread in top before but now trying to use in bobbin as well. After about a minute the bobbin thread breaks. Tried loosening top and bobbin tension with no change at all. The stitching looks fine just suddenly breaks. I might be going too fast but find it hard to stay even and smooth in my spirals if I slow too much. Might just need more slow motion practice.?? Comments??

  23. As usual, this message from Leah is right on and awesome and informative. She knows how we all make ourselves crazy. She hit upon all my crazy thoughts that frustrate me at 1am in the morning. So I'm gonna shut up and quilt.


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