The Free Motion Quilting Project: Question Thursday #6

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Question Thursday #6

Super thank you for all the well wishing this week! It's certainly felt weird to be stuck in bed for two days, unable to eat anything, and unable to get to my sewing machine, but it seems the worst is over. The one nice thing about Josh installing Wi-fi is that I can lay in bed and still read everyone's linked up blogs!

And what amazing work you've all done this week! Everyone interpreted the project a bit differently: some stitched on plain fabric and marked the star, some worked on a project they already had in progress, and some pieced an entire sawtooth star quilt!

Everyone is doing very well and it's wonderful to see that many of you are already using Stippling in real quilts as you are more than ready!

It's funny, I guess I'm not the only one feeling this more like a weekly quilting class. ToniJ decided to deviate from my directions a bit and fill only the points of her star with stippling, which was awesome, but she was still a bit worried about being "told off" for changing things up.

I had to laugh because who's going to tell you off in this class? Me?! Heavens no!

Please feel free to take the week's lesson and play with it however you see fit. It won't always be realistic to follow along exactly with what I do, and you should always follow the directions of your own inner designer.

What is your Inner Designer? This is the little voice in your head that nudges you in certain directions with quilting. Should I piece this with red or yellow? Definitely red. Should I ignore these piecing lines or pay attention to them? Pay attention to them!

It's important to listen to this voice because it can help you develop your own unique style and comfort zone with quilting. You won't feel quite so overwhelmed by the millions of choices of thread color, design to use, motifs to mark, and HOW to quilt it all on the quilt if you have worked on developing your Inner Designer.

Once you feel more confident, this voice will help guide you into more challenging projects. It's easy to get stuck in a rut of what you know how to do well, and you inner designer will help nudge you in the right direction when things start to feel dull and boring.

So rest assured that I will never, ever yell at you for being creative and interpreting these lessons in a different way!

The point is to practice, have fun, and learn about free motion quilting. It's not a competition or even a graded lesson, though we have started to talk about bonus points for extra effort!

Now it's time to get to the questions for this week! Pat from Color Me Quilty asked:

Is there an "easy" way to pick out all of these stitches?

Yes, there is! Free motion stitches tend to be a bit smaller than piecing stitches which can make them a real pain in the &$$ to pick out.

Having a very small seam ripper is a must. My favorite is the Clover Seam Ripper because it has a nice tiny ripper on top of a comfortable handle. I also use Alex Anderson's 4-in-1 tool and the tiny Bernina seam rippers because they're equally small and I seem to lose these less often.

The main thing that needs to be small is the little metal bar that slips under your stitches. This needs to be really small and thin so it can slip in easily and you can quickly rip through every 4th stitch in a line, then pull from the back to rip out the thread in one solid piece.

It's easier to see this technique than to describe it, so here's a video I created last year when I was working on Hot Cast:

Click Here if the Video Does Not Appear

So yes, seam ripping can be easier, but no, it's always going to be a time consuming process. It's a good idea when you sit down to start quilting to stitch for a minute on a small scrap quilt sandwich. This way if your machine is doing something super funky, you'll get forewarning of it before those stitches end up on the front or back of a real quilt!

The next question is also from Pat from Color Me Quilty:

Why am I all of a sudden getting skipped stitches?

I changed the needle right before the green block above. I was using good quality cotton thread. Any suggestions to fix this?

This might sound crazy, but some needles are bent when the come out of the package. You put them in and suddenly your stitch quality goes out the wazoo!

Because you only mentioned changing the needle and you changed it RIGHT before the problem started, try changing needles again and see if that clears it up.

Any issue that suddenly happens with your machine when it was previously stitching fine should be easy enough to diagnose. Always ask yourself: what did I just change?

If you have to, keep a little note pad next to your machine to keep track of any changes you do, even things as minute as thread, needle, or bobbin changes. This way when you start stitching and everything is going wrong, you can look down at that note pad and remember what was changed and what could potentially be going wrong.

This is one of the underlying frustrations of free motion quilting: unpredictability.

When you're piecing cotton fabrics together and you change bobbins or needles, generally your stitch quality doesn't go crazy. Even when appliqueing, your machine probably doesn't show signs of being a precious toddler with every needle change.

But with free motion quilting it really pays to take notes and watch everything like a hawk.

The most important thing is to find what WORKS, and what works consistently.

You need to try to create as much predictability as possible, and the only way you can do this is by eliminating all the unpredictable elements from the equation.

So instead of changing your bobbin out with just any ole' bobbin you wound recently, take a look at the thread in that bobbin. Is it the same as you're using in the top of the machine? If not, that's probably not a good choice unless your goal is to get thread nests on the back of your quilt.

I know for a fact that my life and my quilting was transformed when I stared using only ONE TYPE OF THREAD for quilting, along with only ONE TYPE OF NEEDLE in my machine (more on needles below).

Why did this make such a big difference? Because it eliminated two major unpredictable elements.

Instead of walking into a quilt store or shopping online with a whim and a wish for thread that worked, I now knew with 100% certainty that THIS thread worked and it worked great with THESE needles and that eliminated all my frustration and questions in one feel swoop.

Will this work for everyone? I have no idea. I can't promise with 100% certainty that my advice will work for 100% of quilters. There are just too many variables for that kind of certainty.

All I can say is this: finding what works and sticking with it is a good idea.

Next a question from Hema's My Quilting Journey:

What type of needle do you use in your machine?Since, you have mentioned that you always use the Isacord threads. Did you ever have to use different weight needles? If so, why and when?

I use Universal 80/12 needles.

All the time.

Every day.

For every project.

No matter whether I'm piecing, quilting, appliqueing, or sewing a shirt.

Only for metallic threads will I switch to a Schmetz metallic needle.

Other than metallic thread, I don't change needles for different threads. I also don't change needles for different fabrics. Some quilting teachers do this and I'm sure there's a ton of information from Schmetz about this, but I just don't bother with it.

This is really a continuation of the rant about thread above - find what works for YOU and stick with it.

Now for Hema's next question:

When we have motif in the center of a block, which do you do first?
Do you stipple the block first and then the motif? Or do you finish quilting the motif first and finish the thread. And then stipple or quilt the block?

Great question! For the most part I usually stitch in the ditch and around ALL motifs in a quilt first. If it's convenient and I'm filling with the same color thread, I will usually go on ahead and fill small sections of a motif as I reach them so I don't have to travel back into the area later.

For the most part it absolutely doesn't matter what order you do this in.

You really can fill the block, quilt around the motif, fill in the motif, etc all in whatever order you want to work in.

Generally I would advise at least stitching the outer shape (the block, star, etc) in the ditch first just to get it stable so you can take the pins out. It's simply more convenient that way.

Please understand that sometimes I have to show you things in video in stages, so it's not always in the order that I would normally quilt it on a real quilt, but in the end the quilt looks the same no matter what order it's quilted in.

For example here's how I would normally quilt the center block:

1. Stitch in the ditch around the star.
2. Stitch a short run of stippling to the center motif.
3. Stitch along the lines of the motif.
4. Fill inside the motif.
5. Travel stitch outside of the motif.
6. Fill in the background between the motif and star.

Why would I do it this way? Because it would minimize thread breaks and be the fastest, most efficient way of filling the block.

Does that mean it's the ONLY way to fill it? Absolutely not!

Remember this is all just thread going on top of blocks and marked lines. You really can quilt this in whatever order you want to, whatever order feels most natural and efficient for YOU!

Finally one last question from Karin at The Quilt Yarn:

Do you usually anchor your quilts (when they are larger) with a basic grid before free motion quilting?

Here's what I do to prepare any quilt, whether it's a practice piece, a bed quilt, or a show quilt:

1. Clean off my tables
2. Starch the backing fabric
3. Spread it out on the surface of the table.
4. Secure all the edges and sides TIGHT so the fabric is quite stretched.
5. Spread out the batting and smooth it out flat with my hands.
6. Spread out the quilt top and smooth it out flat with my hands.
7. Pin baste (safety pins or straight pins and pinmoors) around every 4 inches apart.

I don't usually hand baste or stitch machine baste stitches into the quilt, though a lot of quilters like that method.

I also don't use basting spray because I have a strong aversion to sticky, smelly, flammable things coming into my sewing room, though again, a lot of other quilters like this method too.

The real trick with basting, in my opinion, is to get the back TIGHT. If the back is tight and the top and batting are smoothed on evenly, then the layers shouldn't shift as you quilt it.

Okay, that's it for this week! I'm finally feeling well enough to get downstairs in my sewing room, though I doubt I'll do much more than fold fabric and clean the place up!

Let's go quilt!

Leah Day


  1. Great post! I'm having a horrible time with skipping stitches too. My big variable is a new machine. I'm just about to get rid of it and get a new one :(. Thought I'd share how I like to layer the quilt together, using binding clamps to get that back (of the quilt, not the sewist) nice and "tight".

  2. Hi Leah,
    I'm glad to see that your feeling better.
    Thank you so much for answering all my questions. Great post on threads and needles. It does make a huge difference.

    Take it easy this week.
    take care!

  3. Hi Leah,
    thanks to you I found the Isacord Tread and it works absoutely perfect for me after I brought a treadholder too. I looks beautiful and it never breaks ☺
    I´m very thankful to you, you do a great work!!
    Liebe Grüße
    Bente - Germany

  4. Hi I just awarded you a versatile quilters award here

  5. I just wanted to add a comment to the "picking stitches" question. I've found that if you give the end of the thread a sharp tug upwards, it pulls the bobbin thread up just a little making more room to get the seam ripper in. I've used this hint way more than I care to admit.

  6. Leah - Wonderful that you are feeling better- and thank you for visiting my blog! I'm wondering for that design last week - were you able to do it in one pass or did you break thread? I know it wasn't the real point of the lesson but it was so attractive I had to try it out!

  7. Thank you for sharing so much on your blog! We love reading it! You've been chosen to receive a blog award. Go here to check it out!!

    Thanks for blogging! Polly

  8. Careful, though, about getting the back fabric too tight. I would maybe say taut instead of tight. One of my backs was so tight that when I untaped it and it relaxed, the quilt top looked puckered--even though it was already pin basted by that time. I went on and quilted it, thinking it would "quilt out" (why do we always think that?). It never really did, and the quilt doesn't look horrible, but it could sure look better.


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