The Free Motion Quilting Project: Sensitivity and Free Motion Quilting

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Sensitivity and Free Motion Quilting

I've been working on my little sawtooth star quilt this week and got a big reminder of an important detail of free motion quilting - sensitivity.

While this might not sound like a big deal, being able to look, listen, and feel both your quilt and your machine while free motion quilting is extremely important.

This is an ability to:

Look - Know what your machine and especially the area around your needle LOOKS like when it's working properly. If you see thread tugging in a weird way, stop and check what's going on.

Listen - All machines make noise when they run, and usually make MORE noise when there's something wrong. What is that weird chugging noise? It sounds like the thread is caught on something. Oops! It is caught on the back of the quilt.

Feel - You're hands are right on top of the quilt, responsible for moving it, but they can also be mini radar detectors for any issues going on with the machine. Tugging or resistance from the quilt are two sure signs that something is very wrong.

The quilt should always be easy to push around when the needle is up - if it's not, stop stitching and check. This sensitivity to changes in your quilt or machine can save you a lot of time and headaches if you work on developing it, and if you listen to what your intuition is telling you.

Here's a little case in point:

While quilting the stars of this quilt with stippling, I noticed that on about every other star I'd experience a weird tugging / pulling feeling coming from the machine.

The quilt was still moving smoothly as ever and I didn't see it hooked to anything, and the resistance was slight, but still present in the movement of the quilt under the needle.

This feeling wasn't very noticeable when stitching simple curves, but as soon as I began moving the quilt more quickly, I felt a constant tug and resistance against the quilt.

Rather than continue to stitch this way, I stopped and took the quilt off the machine and flipped it over. Lo and behold, my stitches were looking pretty bad on the back, almost as though I had a major tension issue going on with the machine.

But here's another plus for developing a sensitivity to free motion quilting - you'll be much more likely to diagnose the right problem and fix it easily.

Logically if your tension worked fine on that setting yesterday, chances are unless you changed thread it shouldn't be wildly different today.

So I took a look at the bobbin area instead. It's always a good idea to check your bobbin thread first when dealing with a funny running machine because a lot of thread issues stem from this area.

A simple tug on the thread told me loads about what was going on - the thread was literally STICKING as I pulled it from the machine.

Bobbins are designed to do one thing - spin and unwind thread.

I use little genie magic bobbin washers in my bobbin cases to make the spinning of the bobbin smoother and more even, which reduces bobbin issues and thread breaks so an issue in this area is pretty noticeable.

If I tug on the bobbin thread coming out of my machine, I expect it to smoothly spool out.

I know there's a problem when I tug on this thread and the thread comes out in fits and spurts, feeling as though it's sticking as it unwinds from the bobbin.

So I pulled the bobbin out and checked that I had wound it properly, then I checked the bobbin area - is it full of lint or stray threads? Time to brush it out!

After replacing the bobbin and bringing the thread up to the top of the machine, I gave the thread another tug - smooth sailing once again.

While it may seem a crazy simple fix, all my machine needed was a quick brushing out.

As you quilt this week, keep an eye and ear open for the way your machine sounds and feels when it's stitching nicely. Try to develop a feeling for the good stitches so when things go weird, you know what to do, or at least what is the most likely culprit.

Time to shut up and go finish this quilt!



  1. Thanks, Leah. I think I needed to hear that today. While quilting this morning, I heard just the faintest hint of an unusual sound. I should have checked it out and didn't. But, I will be tonight. Lane

  2. And sometimes it is just gremlins. Just a few days ago I was quilting nicely and stopped for the night. The next morning I took up where I had left off, and quilted several inches of loopy fringe on the back. The only thing I had touched was the power button. And, yes, it was the bobbin causing the trouble.

  3. Thanks for this post! I'm fairly sure my bobbin area needs cleaning. It's been awhile.

  4. Always such good counsel from you.

  5. Excellent post today Leah!

    Weather and our heating systems also affects our quilting and we have adjust our tension accordingly. For instance, on warm, humid days, I have to adjust my upper tension by making it a bit looser as the thread seems to absorb moister and become "fatter". When the heat is on and the air is warm and dry, I might have to lower it a bit. So each day I do a few sample stitches on a practice 'sandwich' before beginning the real deal just to see where my tension needs to be that day.

  6. .... and intuitive mindset in sewing....

  7. Thank you Leah for touching on this topic this week. I have been having this very issue of needing to brush out the lint in the bobbin area.

  8. I quilt everyday for other people. So I change the bobbin many, many times a day. I brush it out every time I change it. It's open, your there, you might as well. You're quilting through cotton fabric, cotton batting with cotton thread, (most of the time), that's a lot of cotton to leave a lot of lint. I find there is always something there. And don't forget a drop of oil every few bobbins if your machine calls for it. Check your owners manual. Mine does every few hour of sewing.

  9. Leah, this is so true. I clean out the bobbin area and under the stitch plate frequently, 2-3 times a day at least. Plus I put one drop of oil every 3 bobbins. I have a Bernina 440 QE and this makes a world of difference. Plus I change needles if there's any weird squishing sound when the needle goes in, and change it anyway every week or so, and also when I change thread sizes.


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