The Free Motion Quilting Project: Question Thursday #13

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Question Thursday #13

It's Question Thursday again and I have to say - clicking on each linked up quilt and seeing so many beautiful Heart and Feather Wholecloths is just making me feel WONDERFUL!

You are all doing such an amazing job!  I feel like a mother duck who's ducklings have all learned to fly - I'm just so very proud of every single one of you!

What strikes me the most reading through all the many posts shared for Quilt Along #12 and for this week, is seeing just how much you've all grown with free motion quilting in just 14 weeks.  Now rather than being too afraid to try polyester batting, you're giving it a try.  Instead of saying "I can't microstipple" you're jumping in with both feet and giving it your best shot.

That's the most wonderful thing about teaching this Quilt Along - seeing you all learn each week, master this design, and even play and riff on these ideas and to create your own variations.  Both MC from Slair's Lair and Mary at Can't Stop Stitching changed the original pattern and created totally unique awesome quilts!

We're also learning alternative methods to many of the steps within this process.  Angie So Cal from Quilting Reader's Garden shared a great step by step tutorial on marking with freezer paper.  Check out this tutorial right here.  This is definitely an awesome way to mark a quilt if you don't have a lightbox or the quilt is too big to hang in a window.

So EVERYONE, please give yourselves a great big giant HUG from me!  

Now let's answer some questions to make sure we're all still on the same page.  A pretty important question came from MC in the comments of yesterday's post:

If I cut through the areas that are microstippled to square up my quilt, will this make the stitching more likely to come apart? Is it best to cut outside the quilted area?

To square the quilt, you will most likely have to cut through some of your microstippling area.

No, this shouldn't make your stitching come apart. Microstippling is a dense design and isn't likely to come unraveled. I've left sliced quilts (lots of threads cut) unbound and the stitching hasn't come out.

Keep in mind that you're cutting the quilt down and immediately binding it, which will send a line of stitching right over the stippling, locking it in place. If you're concerned about stitches coming out, just cut it down and bind it all in one day.

The only way your stitching could possibly come out is if you sliced the edges of the quilt, then washed it, dried it, slept under it, gave it to your dog to play with, then washed and dried it again and THEN decided to bind it.

Going back to Quilt Along #12, Candy from Buried in Scraps asked:

Would leaving the feed dogs up help with this tension issue?

Candy's full question: The stitches on the top of the quilt  look pretty darn good but the back…not so much.  I have not been able to wrap my mind around leaving the feed dogs up.  I guess my question to Leah would be — would leaving the feed dogs up help with the “pokies”?

This is a significant reason why I quilt with the feed dogs up, so yes, I believe it will definitely help you stop seeing pokies (I call them dots) on the back or front of your quilts.

Our machines are mechanical wonders of engineering, but keep in mind that the machine is built with the intention of the feed dogs working and feeding fabric forward.  That is a core function of a machine - for the needle to drop, the bobbin to spin, and the feed dogs to move all in harmony together.

So I believe that when these teeth are dropped into the machine, or disengaged in some way, this changes a necessary mechanical function in most machines.  Most machines will show a difference in stitch quality with the feed dogs down.

This change can be as subtle as tension dots showing on your quilt, or as extreme as giant loops and birds nests.  By leaving the feed dogs up, the machine is still functioning as it normally functions, therefore if wild thread issues aren't happening when you piece, they shouldn't be happening when you free motion quilt.

Keep in mind, setting your stitch length to 0 and / or covering the feed dogs with a Supreme Slider or piece of paper will achieve exactly the same point - getting them out of the way so you can quilt in all directions.  Dropping feed dogs is definitely NOT a requirement for free motion.

Also Candy - it's good to keep in mind that little dots are going to be something you deal occasionally, no matter whether the feed dogs are up or down.  It could be the weather, or the alignment of the planets, or the way the wind is blowing, but it's very rare to stitch a perfectly balanced stitch (no dots on either side) all the time.

This is why it's essential to match the color of your top thread with your bobbin thread.  It saves you many headaches of trying to balance your thread perfectly, which can sometimes be impossible.  Minor dot or pokie issues like the one in the photo really can be hidden completely with matching thread.

The next few questions are about feathers from Karin over at The Quilt Yarn:

Do you always quilt a feather spine first? 

Would you mix feather techniques in a design or do you stay with one particular technique for the entire design?

Feathers are a one of those things that can be stitched a million ways. If it's a marked feather, however, I generally start by stitching the spine just so I have a line to HIT when I come around with the feathers.

When it comes to how you stitch them - either the bump bump or travel back methods - I pretty much use whatever techniques feel the best for the area. On the wholecloth I created to test the pattern, I used a mix of both methods, depending on the angle of the feather and what felt most natural.

If I'm being super picky, I'll use only the travel back method simply because I like the effect of all the travel stitching showing in between each feather.  It appears more consistent to me at least, and I find it easier to stitch. 

We'll definitely learn more about feathers as they come up.  Heck, we might even spend a whole year playing with them!  They're a fascinating design and the possibilities to stitch them are absolutely endless.

One last question from Karin that seems to be coming up quite often:

Should one aim for a particular stitch length or is it more important to be consistent?

Because we're not using our machines in a traditional way, it's impossible to "set" a specific stitch length. The best thing to do is aim for consistency.

No matter whether your stitches are tending to be small or tending to be large, if they're all around the same size, you're definitely on the right track.

Generally as you gain more skill and practice with free motion quilting, your stitch length will get smaller.

Even when you sit down at your sewing machine, you might find in the beginning your stitches will be bigger, but as you warm up, your stitches will get smaller.

It's not something to obsess about, it's not something to pull out a ruler and measure.  Just quilt and aim for your stitches to be roughly the same size, even if that size looks "too small" or "too large" for you right now, and accept the fact that this will change.

Consistency is key because a single GIANT stitch is very noticeable in the middle of a sea of little stitches. Just work for evenness and go with what length feels comfortable for you.

Many quilters seem quite stressed out by their stitch length.  Please stop obsessing about it!  There isn't a "wrong" length any more than there is a "right" length with this.

Stitch with the length that makes the design you're stitching look good.  For Microstippling, that will be a smaller stitch length than Stippling stitched on a 1/2" scale because the stitches need to be tighter and more compact in order to create a tiny design.

Still on the subject of stitching, here's a question from Danielle at Fresh off the Spool:

How long did it take YOU to micro-stipple this??? 

Full question: Did your hands get cramped? Do you quilt micro- stippling at a VERY slow speed?

I quilted the red Heart and Feather Wholecloth over two evenings, so I'm estimating 4 hours total for microstippling.

My hands didn't cramp up, but I didn't stitch all 4 hours in one go.  I split it over 2 nights, which is a great idea, particularly if you're not used to stitching in long sessions yet.  Remember how I curl my index finger around my foot while I'm stitching?  I've built muscles in that part of my hand that are finely tuned to steer the quilt and make those tiny stitches.

I also have to credit the Machingers quilting gloves I've worn since I started quilting, and I still wear every time I quilt.  I just don't have the control and precision over the quilt without gloves.

As for speed, no, I don't stitch very slow, but I do stitch slower than when stitching bigger Stippling.

Keep in mind that I don't just put my foot down and stitch a constant speed.  My speed changes according to what I'm stitching.  If I'm entering a tricky area or needing to travel stitch, I automatically back off on the foot pedal because my hands are moving slower.

When I leave that tricky area, I speed up my foot and hands again to a comfortable cruising speed for whatever I'm stitching.  At any point in time, I'll need to apply gas or let off on it, depending on what's going on in the quilt.

This also ties into stitch length: consistent stitch length comes from being able to slow down and speed up evenly throughout your quilt.  It's a balancing point that takes practice to find, but once you find it, you really can't lose it.

Now let's finish off with one last question from Pat at Color me Quilty:

Is there any other quilting design/stitch that can be used in place of microstippling? 

Full question: When I say that I mean a stitch that just kind of blends into the background and lets the rest of the quilt shine?

Yes!  I'm so glad you asked this, Pat, because it's a sure sign that we're ready to move beyond Stippling and start playing with the whole family of Independent Designs!

It's hard to believe we've spent 3 solid months just working with one design, but it's been a terrific study of Stippling in all her various forms.

And the most wonderful thing about taking so much time on this one design is we've worked together through many interesting projects and ideas, learning techniques like travel stitching that will come up time and time again.

But now that we're finishing up with our Heart and Feather Wholecloth Quilts, it's definitely time to start investigating more designs that will challenge us in new ways, produce new interesting textures for our quilts, and open doors for design and creative possibilities for all our quilts.

Off the top of my head, 4 designs really stand out as awesome alternatives to Stippling, designs that will fill the exact same shoes as this titan design, but with slightly different texture and finish that set them apart: Sharp Stippling, Zippling, Circuit Board, and Loopy Line.

I call these four designs the Sisters of Stippling and we're going to start learning each of them next week!

So if you're ready to start stitching new designs and ready to challenge yourself to quilt REAL quilts, even some BIG quilts on your machine, then make sure to follow along next Wednesday for Quilt Along #14!

Now let's all go quilt!

Leah Day


  1. I have to heartily agree with Leah about matching thread on the top and bottom.

    I used to teach a beginner level free motion quilting class years ago at a local fabric store (when I only had one child and more time, LOL!) I would always recommend this because it was the only way to make sure the threads looked good. However, I could never find an "authority" on this to back me up - so thanks for confirming that one for me Leah!

    I also loved stitching with my feed dogs up and covering them with the Supreme Slider. It made such a difference. It took my quilting tension from looking good to looking perfect!

  2. Well, I was going to write you today anyway to say 'yay'...I think I'm getting it...just like you said! :) But wow, I don't see anything wrong with that lady's stitches (in the 'dot' photo!)...looks pretty good to maybe mine ISN'T that good after all! lol! But feeling much better about it all now that I've begun microstippling and even going over the lines has improved! My stippling outside the design is a little larger but I guess that's ok. Can't wait to 'erase' the lines and see how it looks finished. It won't ever see the light of day but it was a great learning tool and I got better with practice AND became a pro at burying my thread tails! Thanks again!!!!!
    - Angie

  3. This is a question only semi-related to this post, but if you ever have the time, I would love to see a video in which you stitch some designs on your various sewing machines and record the sound of each machine as you stitch. This could give some of us out here in internet-land an idea about how different machines should sound when they're operating smoothly in free-motion mode. I know that the acoustics in everyone's individual spaces will not sound identical to your studio, but it could still be very useful! You could also point out noises to keep an ear out for because they signify possible trouble brewing.

  4. Stella - That's a terrific idea! Sound is definitely an important factor with quilting because you can often hear problems before you feel or see them. I'll definitely try to capture some sound next week and include it in the video. The hardest part will be finding a time when the house is quiet enough so no background noise gets in the way!


    Leah Day

  5. I've found that my machine changes its sound a lot. I can definitely tell when it wants oil and I can almost always tell when my bobbin is half full and almost empty. The purring of a just oiled full bobbin machine is SO different from the clunk of a needs oil, bobbin low...

  6. Funny this issue is brought up...I was watching another tutorial about paper piecing and when the person sewed her stitches I was horrified at the sound her machine made! I don't know how she could stand sewing with such a high-pitched machine! lol! I'd be interested in 'hearing' those vids too, Leah! Definitely to guage the speed you sew at for fmq would be interesting!

  7. Leah, I would like to have the pattern for "Batik Beauty" but I am already signed up for the newsletter
    so how do I go about getting it? Jackie

  8. Hi Leah, My husband just purchased a Baby Lock Tiara quilting machine for me. Such a wonderful gift!! However I spent 3 hours trying to get a balanced stitch. I became so frustrated that I haven't touched the machine in a week. I saw your comment that it is impossible to always have a balanced stitch. I can definitely attest to that. I can sew some areas and it will look great and then in another section it goes sour. Could this also be my abilities at FMQ? I also used scrape samples using scrape batting would that also effect the stitch results?

  9. Hi Linda - It certainly could be just that your speed / movement ratio is off and as you move, you may be moving faster or slower on this machine and you need to speed up or slow down the machine to balance this out. Also when practicing - take it seriously! Don't use junk fabric or junk batting unless you want junk results. Practice on real quilts so you will take the quilting experience seriously and try your best. Good luck!



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