The Free Motion Quilting Project: Question Thursday #11

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Question Thursday #11

Yay! It's Question Thursday again and it's time to answer many questions about our Heart and Feather wholecloth quilt!

Now the first thing I've noticed from many posts is the prevalence of Frixion pens, which are heat or friction erasing pens launched by Pilot last year. I didn't realize these had gained so much popularity so quickly, otherwise I would have posted a warning in Quilt Along #10.

Why a warning? Because these pens disappear with heat, which Kingman Quilter found, doesn't have to be applied heat from an iron - the marks can disappear simply if it's a hot day in your sewing room!

Also I have a person bias against any "disappearing" pen simply because it's a big load of BS - the chemicals in that pen are still in your quilt, and while they might "disappear" with heat or air, given a chance and the right situation those marks can reappear whenever they like. If you don't believe me, check out the results from Monica, the Quilting Climber's test of these pens.

I also don't like the marketing pushing with these markers because it makes you think it's okay not to wash your quilt after quilting. You NEED to wash the quilt to get the marks, starch, and other chemicals (spray baste), etc out of your quilt. No if's, and's or but's about it!

It's pretty obvious that these are my opinions and personal biases here, but I can't stress enough the importance of TESTING your pens before tackling a real project with them.

What if this Heart and Feather Wholecloth had been 40 inches instead of 15? What if it had taken 8 hours to mark instead of 1? How would you have reacted to disappearing/reappearing marks then? The point here is to always test, test, test before trying something on a real project, even if that project is small.

If you happened to use Frixion pens for your project, please don't feel like the project is ruined - if the marks disappear, put the quilt in the freezer and they'll reappear again. Once the quilting is complete, be sure to soak your quilt once it's quilted and double and triple check the marks aren't going to come back every time the quilt gets cold.

My general rule for any liquid marker - frixion, fine line, etc. - is the quilt MUST BE SOAKED in order to remove those chemicals from the fabric.

For dry markers - sewline pencil, fons & porter pencil, soapstone, chalk markers etc. - erasing is the first step with these pencils, then soaking to remove any remaining traces of the marks.

These markers are chemicals and they will continue to react with your fabric and the air continually unless they're removed. I've written more about chemicals in quilts right here if you're interested in hearing more of this rant!

Now let's get to some questions!

I received basically the same question from Sewhappy and Malini in the comments to yesterday's post:

What thread color would you recommend for this wholecloth project?

Traditionally wholecloth quilts match thread to the color of the fabric.

A white wholecloth is usually stitched in white thread, which makes it nearly impossible to photograph, but gorgeous when you look at it in person!

Of course, you don't have to go with traditional matching thread. In fact it will definitely help you to pick a contrasting thread color so you can SEE where you're stitching as you quilt this quilt.

Personally if I have a choice of contrast, I prefer to use DARK FABRIC and LIGHT THREAD simply because the thread really shows up on the surface of the dark fabric and I can clearly see where I'm going.

Now the opposite combination - light fabric and dark thread, I'm not a huge fan of simply because the lighter fabric seems to shine a light right through the thread, highlighting any mistake.

Of course, if you've already picked a lighter fabric and are agonizing about the thread color, consider stitching the quilt in white thread. If the fabric has any color to it at all - pink, yellow, blue, the white thread will still show up nicely and contrast slightly.

Now the next question is from Anne at Anne's Threads:

How do you baste bigger quilts with your elastic method?
Anne's full question: Leah, your suggestion for using the elastic strips to hold the backing in place when putting the quilt together was brilliant - it really helped. Sandwiching a quilt is one of the things I struggle with most, as I don't have any very big floors, walls or tables to do it on - do you have any suggestions for dealing with a bigger quilt in a limited space? Can the elastic method be used with a quilt that's bigger than the table? I have such problems getting the backing really smooth and free of wrinkles.
This is a great question! Unfortunately I think the elastic basting method is really limited to the size of your table surfaces. I've played with the technique enough to know that you really need a large flat surface that's slightly bigger than your quilt.

If you don't have a table this big, or even the space to set one up, look around your community. I'd bet there's a quilt guild or church or quilt shop that has large tables set up together which you can baste on.

If you happen to have the space to set up tables, consider investing in a collection of folding tables. 6 ft folding tables that fold in half are very common, and I've seen a new, thinner variety sold at Lowes. 2-3 of these tables will run you around $150 and when you're not using them, they can easily be tucked away in a closet or attic.

Folding tables are a good investment because they can come in handy for many things. I never realized how helpful they would be, but now regularly bring them out for holidays and big meals, yard sales, outdoor dyeing days, etc.

Now for a question about light boxes from Pat at Color Me Quilty:

What type and size of light box do you use or suggest?
Does it work with dark/black fabric? If you are marking a larger quilt (larger than the light box) do you add registration marks on quilt and pattern so you can line it up properly?
This is a great question because light boxes are a tricky investment. I'd hazard the guess that more than 80% of light boxes sold are never used. Why? Because they're not set up to be used easily!

For quilting, we obviously need a lightbox to be flat and flush with the surface of our tables or other work surfaces. Having a taller or shorter box is highly inconvenient and makes marking quite difficult.

I did quite a lot of research when I got into making bigger wholecloth quilts way back with The Duchess and I found a surprisingly small number of table light boxes (boxes with legs to set at the same surface as a table), and those I did find were SUPER expensive ($700 plus).

So rather than keep searching in vain for the perfect light box to fit my studio (which I likely wouldn't be able to afford anyway) I simply built one myself:

free motion quilting | Leah DayA lightbox is a very simple device: it's a box with lights inside with a translucent covering that allows the light to shine up through the top of the box.

My first lightbox came first from my grandfather who'd built the outside frame. I modified this and added an extra sheet of acrylic plexiglass to stiffen the surface. Truthfully, this has never been quite enough and the surface still bows considerably when pressure is applied.

Then using simple Waddell hardware and legs from Lowes, I turned the box into a table!

free motion quilting | Leah DayUsing only this single lightbox, which is 42" x 22", I marked The Duchess in 4 sections. Here's how that worked:

I taped the pattern to the tables (the pattern was only 1/4 of the quilt) and folded the fabric in half lengthwise, widthwise, and diagonally and pressed to create guidelines for marking. I then centered the quilt up on the pattern and began marking from the center.

To secure the fabric, I literally used 3 rolls of masking tape to hold it securely in place for each section marked. Each time a section was completed, the quilt was picked up, rotated, then taped back down exactly to fit the markings.

Yes, this was challenging and yes, it took a very long time, so after creating this quilt I designed and built another light box:

free motion quilting | Leah DayThis box is built on top of a simple craft / hobby table that happens to have the ability to angle to create a drafting table. Drafting table light boxes typically run around $1500. I built this one for under $350 using 1 x 4 boards for the sides of the box and plug-in undercabinet lighting for the lights.

The most expensive element to this project was the plexiglass which I found on Ebay and the seller cut it down to size. This is super expensive stuff, but it's around 1/2" thick and forms a SOLID surface for marking.

The one downside with this table is the hobby table it was built on turned out to be too cheap and weak to hold the weight of the light box and plexiglass. I really need to take this table apart and throw away the base frame and rebuild the box on legs from IKEA.

So basically to answer Pat's question - I recommend building your own light box. It's far more economical and easy to build, and you can customize it to the exact size you want.

As far as size goes, I would recommend making your light box as big as you can possibly fit it in your sewing room. I'm in the process of designing a new lightbox that will cover my entire large table surface which is somewhere around 65 inches x 80 inches. I'm planning to build this box using tempered glass so I can iron over the surface without worrying about melting plexiglass.

Of course, I'm a bit obsessive about this ;-) I realized a long time ago how helpful lightboxes are and I've built my sewing room to accommodate them. This tool is helpful for far more than just quilt marking - I use them for applique, designing motifs, even designing wholecloth quilts like our Heart and Feather Wholecloth couldn't have been done without a light box.

Seeing how much I have to write about these makes me think I should build one on video to teach you how to do's on my list of things to do!

So that's it! We've had a lot of great questions today and I hope I haven't been too opinionated. Keep in mind that quilting is a very opinionated hobby which is why I always encourage you to test and try things for yourself.

Also don't let travel stitching scare or intimidate you! Just go do it and don't judge the experience. No, it might not look great the first time you try it, but you will get progressively better with each try.

Now it's time to shut up and go quilt!



  1. Leah- I just wanted to comment and add my thanks. You are amazing. Thank you for sharing your knowledge with us.

    I plan to do this wholecloth project- but I have to finish another quilt first. I'm using it as an opportunity to make a free motion sampler, since my idea for quilting was to fill lots of spaces with lots of different colors, so I'm also doing lots of different designs. I learned the dark thread, light fabric lesson the hard way on this one. It looks fantastic on the designs I did well, but not so great on the designs I did poorly. Also, I can't do paisley. And pebbling takes forever. But practice makes progress for sure!)

  2. Thanks for the link to the test of the Frixion pens. In a class I am taking they were just discussing these pens and everyone was wanting them. I am chemical shy when it comes to my quilts and skeptical of what the ink might be doing to my fabric. I appreciate the heads-up.

  3. Thanks for all that extra information about quilts and chemicals! I worry about this, and also environmental sustainability, so I normally don't use starch, marking pens, or fusible interfacing. Luckily I got a fabric marker as part of a class kit a while ago that I was able to use for the wholecloth design. Of course, it occurred to me when I was 3/4 done tracing that I had forgotten to test the water solubility aspect of it... Oops!

  4. Hi Leah read your Q#11. Wanted to share this link from Patsy Thompson's site. She uses a wall in her sewing area for basting. She uses spray but I think you could use the pin method as well. What do you think?
    She shows her technique in the second video. Dont know if this is helpful at all but thought you might want to look. Not everyone would have a spare wall, that is for sure! My daughter's old room is empty:( She flew from the "nest". so i am blessed with the floor!
    Thanks again Leah for all your hard work to make our quilting experience a fun one!

  5. Mi caja de luz casera es la mesa de cristal con una lámpara pequeña de pie debajo. No tengo cuarto de costura y la utilizo poco. Para lo que la necesito es suficiente pero no sé qué pasará si un dia tengo que hacer algo muy grande. Un abrazo.

  6. We're talking about you & this site at the sewing & quilt expo in Chicago today!

  7. I started quilting my wholecloth project today. I was nervous but I'm happy to say that I'm not nervous anymore. I've decided this is my first attempt at wholecloth quilting. I'm used to meandering all over quilts. It's so new to me to follow an actual pattern. My lines are wavy. I've run off course. However, I'm better than when I started. I expect to be even better when I'm completely done. I'll be even better for my next project!! Thanks, Leah. I'm learning so much from you!

  8. Just a warning about the Frixion pens--the chemicals don't seem to wash out. I tried this pen on a scrap of fabric. The ink disappeared with heat but when I got that piece of fabric cold by putting it in the freezer all the marks came back. Then I washed the fabric scrap and the marks were still there.

    Thanks for all the fantastic info on your blog Leah. It is wonderful of you to share so freely all these inspiring lessons.

    1. just wondering... why you would put it in the freezer?

    2. You might not put a quilt in a freezer, but you might carry it outside to a cold car, or ship it to a quilt show in an unheated truck - many ways a quilt could get cold enough for the marks to reappear.

  9. Just watched the video...Wow!, what an experience! So much great info. I just bought some Superior Vanishing Lite. Have been using the YLI and like it. Will see how my Juki2010TL likes the Superior. Thanks for all your sweet sharing! Really like Jessim's line: "practice makes progress". Hugs,

  10. Commenting a second time... Originally, I was planning on still using the Frixion pens. I'm making a practice piece, not an heirloom- so the chemicals didn't bother me.

    But on my test piece, in all the colors I tried (dark and light), on my blue fabric, when I put the heat on it, the ink disappeared but the word "test" stayed. The ink bleached out the fabric. The thread isn't as thick as the ink line (nor is my accuracy that great)- so it would never disappear.


  11. Leah: I didn't get your micro-stippling message until today so I hope it's not too late to ask a question. I understand about turning your project so that you can see what you're stitching - but what about a much larger project than this 20x20 square? Do you turn larger quilts so that you can see where you're stitching? I just joined up with you for the last 2 lessons (I have done a lot of all over FM but really wanted to learn more and especially about feathers). I've learned a lot about traveling and feathers so far and am feeling more confident. Kitty

  12. I would love to see a video on how to make a lightbox. I have a small one I bought, but it's really only big enough to do appliqué pieces. I'm loving the quilt-a-long!

  13. Hi I do not have a light box either, but what I found helpful, was to use a small glass table with a smooth top. I just put a small table lamp underneath it and when the paper pattern was taped on top of the table, the light did not bother my eyes. Of course it is not as good as a box light, but when I needed to, I just moved the light around as I was drawing the pattern whenever it was needed. It worked out great.

    1. Thank you!!! Why didn't I think of that?


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