The Free Motion Quilting Project: Question Thursday #25

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Question Thursday #25

It's time for Question Thursday and boy do we have loads of awesome questions to answer today!  Let's first get started with two great questions I'm going to answer at the same time.

The first question is from Donna from Canada:

I understand the practice practice method of learning, however do you practice one design at a time or just doddle?

Second question is from Karin Mills:

One crazy reason I have holding me back from practicing more is all that fabric I'm "wasting". Weird??

These two questions are fairly inter-related because I've repeated over and over and over millions of times that the only way to master anything is to practice it often.  Of course, all this practicing on machine quilting is going to use up quite a lot of fabric and batting, which creates practice sandwiches that might just end up in the trash.

It all seems a bit pointless really, and it's totally understandable if you've found it impossible to practice just for the practical implications alone: practice is boring and seems wasteful and pointless.

So what is the solution here?

The solution is simple: don't practice.  Don't create waste quilts.

Wait!  What am I saying?!  Isn't this the exact opposite of what I've preached all year?!

Hear me out: instead of "practicing" and stitching out designs on quilt sandwiches that just end up in the trash, and seem like a pointless waste of time, let's try a new idea:

Challenge - To learn something new within an actual real quilt.

This is a little different idea.  With a challenge you will get loads of practice quilting designs, but you will also be working on a real quilt, so you're no longer wasting anything.

But the feel of this is also different.  Suddenly you're working on a REAL quilt which means you're going to be a lot more conscious of all your mistakes.

So a challenge is automatically more terrifying, but the benefit of working on something REAL means you will care far more, you will give the project more focus and attention.

Here's a personal story to illustrate this: way back in 2000, I was in the marching band and played a base drum.  The drum core had to be able to play together seamlessly so we would constantly play a warm up routine that was both technically complicated, but also easy to memorize.

That routine was very annoying to learn and play because it was utterly pointless.  The only purpose it served was to warm up - not actually accomplish anything else.  It didn't even sound good to listen to.  Soon it became obvious that we all needed more of a challenge so we began warming up with cadence - the song we'd play and march at the same time.  Here we were playing something that would both warm us up, but also was actually entertaining and had a point to play. 

Now let's apply this back to quilting: the truth is I never really practice.

When I want to learn something new, I design a quilt around it.  I might practice the technique a bit on something very small to make sure I don't make a giant mistake and ruin the quilt, but for the most part my learning is done on the real thing.

Of course, this is a challenging way to learn.  There have been times that I've challenged myself beyond my capability, made enormous mistakes, and paid the price by learning the lesson with a ruined quilt.

But for the most part, this is the way I like to learn because it's thrilling.  It keeps me excited about the project from start to finish because every time I sit down to work on it, I have to be focused on what I'm doing.  I can't just zone out into la-la land, I have to be actively engaged with every step of the process.

No, this is not something that I do all the time (that could be overwhelming and intensely frustrating), but it is the way I learned how to free motion quilt.  Back in 2006, I didn't have ANY extra fabric to practice on.  It just wasn't an option to buy fabric to waste with ugly stitches.

So my ugly stitches were mostly hashed out on real quilts.  I was challenged to the point of tears at times because it looked like hell, but I also quickly learned what worked and what didn't.

Even at the start of the Free Motion Quilting Project in 2009, my stitches weren't perfect.  At that time, I did begin to use practice sandwiches - just 6 inch squares - but these were always quilted with the idea that they would be eventually used: put into a book, collected into a quilt.

Each one was a challenge until at some point my skills turned some invisible corner and suddenly I could quilt anything I wanted.  I can't say how many designs that took - maybe 120 - 150 or so.

Up until that point I had always questioned my ability.  I'd doodle a design and think "Can you quilt that?" and some designs I couldn't quilt at that time.  At some point in 2010 I stopped having to ask that question because I'd built enough skill and exercised those areas of my brain that it had stopped being hard.

So if practicing feels like drudgery and the most boring thing in the world, stop practicing.

Instead CHALLENGE yourself to quilt a real quilt, the way you really want to quilt it.  Don't worry about it being perfect, instead fill yourself with the excitement of doing something fun and amazing and exciting!

How many people go through their whole life and never master anything, never accomplish anything because they're too afraid of making mistakes?

Mistakes happen.  Get over it.  Keep moving.  Find a challenge and stitch it out until it's NOT challenging.  Then find something else, wash and repeat.

And more than anything else - have FUN!

Now let's answer a question from Pat at Color Me Quilty:

 How do you FMQ on different machines?

Full Question: I know that you have FMQ on many different machines. Do you have a checklist of things to try when you get/use a new/different machine and have problems? I know it took a long time to get my Babylock to stitch well, but I put that down to learning FMQ. Any suggestions? This probably isn't a fair question to ask, since you can't be here and actually see what I'm doing. But thank you so much for all you do to help, you are my hero!

Hmm...this is a really interesting question and one that made me stop and think for a bit this morning.  Here's my personal experience:

Yes, I do have 3 machines set up right now (Bernina 1230, Bernina Activa 210, Janome Horizon 7700).  Out of the 3, I only ever use 1 for quilting (Horizon).

Here's the reason why: each sewing machine is set up to do a specific task.  The Janome Horizon has a supreme slider on the surface, tons of bobbins filled nearby, a cup for my pins and pinmoors, and my homemade camera support.  It's the machine I film on, so it's pretty much stuck in place and the only time I move it is if it needs to be taken to Greensboro for servicing.

The other machines are a bit more flexible as to the tools and supplies around them, but I never use them for free motion quilting.  They're set up to piece, and (rarely) to applique.

Why?  The main reason is I get used to having a specific set of tasks to get started quilting on the Horizon.  I know how to make that machine produce beautiful stitches in a short amount of time.

To switch gears and try quilting on the other machines, I'd have to move tools and thread around the room, switch out thread, change cameras, etc.  While this might not seem like a big deal, it's time consuming and I'd always end up forgetting something and spend half the day wandering around collecting tools and getting them in place.

I believe firmly in having my machines set up so I can get started quickly and easily with very little work involved.  I can sit down and stitch and don't have to spend time fiddling with anything.  If I've free motion quilted on the Horizon last night, left the machine ready to go for the next morning, then it will be a simple process of just turning on the machine and getting started again.  The foot hasn't changed, the thread hasn't changed, the bobbins haven't changed.  With all those things kept constant, the chances for issues are far diminished.

The quicker and easier you can get started, the more likely you will be to quilt daily.

Now for the second part of the question: when it comes to being in class with 20 students and possibly 20 different sewing machines, I've definitely learned how to make many different machines quilt nicely.

Here's a rough checklist of what I work through with a student if she's having trouble with her machine:

1. Diagnose ugly stitches - are the stitches ugly throughout the piece?  If yes, chances are there's an issue with tension or thread.  The feed dogs might be dropped.  Change one aspect at a time - first the thread (make sure it's wound through the machine properly), stitch, if problems continue, try feed dogs up (if they were down) or feed dogs down (if they were up).

If the stitches were ugly only through certain sections (the same curves over and over) the problem is NOT the machine, but the speed.  Increase speed through those areas to fix the issue. 

2. Skipping stitches - change needle first, re-thread machine second, try different thread third.

3. Breaking thread - change needle first, re-thread machine second, try different thread third, adjust the foot lower on the machine fourth.

4. No amount of adjustment fixes the issues - check the fabric the student is working with.  It might not be 100% cotton which can create issues.  Next change the machine completely back to piecing (piecing foot, thread, fabric, etc).  Piece two pieces of fabric together and see if tension and balance return.  If they do, the culprit is in whatever changed between piecing and free motion quilting.  Make a list of what changed and find the problem step by step.

5. Student complains she can't see where she's going / travel stitching is impossible - break her foot open so she can see the needle properly.

There may be more steps to this, but usually this is all I deal with in class.  The most common issue is thread: if it's breaking constantly, chances are the student is using 100% cotton thread which is too thick and too weak to take the heat of free motion quilting.

But a lot of student issues are caused by speed and movement which can sometimes appear as a tension issue.  That isn't the machine's fault at all, but simply a matter of more practice at free motion quilting.

Yes, all these different things have an impact on free motion quilting and yes, it can be overwhelming to run through so many possibilities every time you sit down to quilt!

Going back to the way I personally set up my machines, this is why I'm not constantly changing things out or switching machines that I quilt on.  It's simply not practical when so many issues have to be taken into consideration.

It's also so much faster to sit down and get started once you get to know your machine and know what it needs / doesn't need in order to quilt beautifully.  This simply comes with experience.

The longer you have your machine, Pat, the better you will get to know it and be able to deal with these issues.  I know it's frustrating right this second, but give it some time (3 months or so) to adjust to the new settings and features and learn what it likes and doesn't like.

Now let's answer another machine question from Cinder Gal Quilts:

Is it okay that my machine is running hot?

When I have done FMG for a long time and run out of a bobbin or top thread I notice the top of my machine is hot.  It has been running pretty much non stop but I'm wondering if the heat is normal or if I should be concerned about what's going on with my machine.  I sew with a Bernina 1130 S.

Hmm...this is a really hard question to answer because I'm not hanging out with you and can't feel your machine and judge it one way or the other.

Personally I'd say if the heat is hot enough to alarm you, you might want to take it to your dealer to be serviced.  With the Bernina 1130, that's an older machine anyway and you really don't want to burn any part of it out if there is an issue, and continuing to quilt on it might make the issue worse.

I once had a Bernina 830 which had a foot pedal that overheated constantly.  It would get so hot the machine would cut off after about one hour of heavy sewing.  It was annoying and frustrating, not to mention dangerous because the pedal was hot enough to burn the skin when it really got going.

Buying a new foot pedal was expensive, but ultimately worth it because the machine no longer cut off in the middle of a seam.

One more general tip: never use the can of air to blow the lint out of your machine.

This probably isn't the root of your problem, Cinder, because your machine is older, but it's an important point for newer machines.

Most often blowing can of air will blow the lint more firmly INTO your machine.  The deeper it gets, the harder it is to get to and dig out.  Deep in your machine and against the moving gears, it could easily heat up and ignite.

So next time you open the bobbin case of your machine, BRUSH out the lint carefully.  Take your time and rotate the hand wheel to uncover other areas of the bobbin case and dig in with a little brush until it's entirely cleaned out.

Finally one last question from Suzanne:

Why are my stitches doing this?

Full question: (paraphrased for length) - I'm using the Janome Horizon, isacord in the top, and a size 75 (or sometimes bigger) quilting needle or sometimes one called Microtex sharp or something like that. I can see little dots of the top (beige)thread on the back and on the top I get dots of black (from the back)showing up at my "points" in the pointy quilting I've done. I imagine it is bobbin tension or top tension, but I'm not really sure how to adjust the bobbin or which way I should dial the top tension, if at all. I have tried it with dropped feeddogs and with feeddogs up - no difference. My bobbin thread isn't Isachord, it is a polyester and thin, like Isachord, but I made a mistake and bought some prewound bobbins and it wasn't I don't know if that count.

AH!  That is really all you have to say Suzanne and you've diagnosed your own problem!  You're using Isacord thread in the top of the machine, but an unknown thread in the bobbin.  You've attempted to balance the tension and nothing has worked.

So what is the solution?  My first temptation is to tell you to chuck those prewound bobbins in the trash (I really, really hate them).  But you may not be ready to do that yet, so here's two options:

1. Wind 1 bobbin with Isacord thread (or whatever thread you're using in the top of the machine).  Make sure with 100% certainty that you're using the SAME THREAD in the top of the machine as the bobbin.  Stitch and see if your issues continue.  I'd bet that they will stop.

Why?  Because the simple fact is you will have far fewer headaches if you're using the same thread in the top as in the bobbin.  These threads are the same weight, they will balance against one another easier and without constant fiddling and adjusting of your tension dial.

Yes, there are many professional quilters that advise using different threads in the top and the bobbin.  They've all had years to play with these adjustments, and just like I illustrated with Pat's question, probably memorized the steps to using these combinations to such a degree that they don't have to think about it anymore.  For them, it's easy and intuitive.

The problem is, if you're not used to finding this balance, if free motion quilting is a brand new skill you're working at, mismatching threads is going to feel like wearing a high heel on one foot and a bedroom slipper on the other.  How much adjustment would your body have to go through in order to walk a mile with that combination?  Is it really a good idea?

Save brain space, save time, save stress and headaches by matching thread.  Your machine will love you for it!

2. Continue to use the prewounds, but learn to adjust around them.  Personally I think this is a recipe for a lot of screaming and frustration, but if you're really determined to use them up, then use them.

I have absolutely no idea what it will take to make them work.  Try changing one single thing at a time on your machine (top tension, bobbin tension, different top threads, feed dogs up or down) and stitch to see if it improves the stitch quality.

Personally I hate prewounds.  I don't like they because I don't have any idea what they are.  90% of the time you don't know what's been wound on that bobbin, how old the thread was, or even the material it's made out of!

Just in case you haven't clued in on it yet, I hate unpredictability.  It really makes me insane to not know what thread I'm using, if it's going to be balanced or even how to balance it when it gets into my machine.

In the end, there's only one rule I follow: find what works and stick with it.

Yes, it's great to experiment with new things, but first and foremost it's important to know what works, what produces the best looking stitches, and how to make that happen day after day, quilt after quilt in a predictable fashion.

So how does this jive with my advice above to seek a challenge instead of practice?

Every day is a challenge where we learn something new and what works and what doesn't.  Every time you find something that works, that issue stops being a challenge and is just logged into the bank where all your skill and ability is stored.

When you learn something new, remember it, record it, and that little piece of information will make the difference between a challenging issue (threads messing up, tension issues) and knowing how to solve the problem immediately (ah! My machine must be threaded incorrectly!)

Right now, free motion quilting may feel like an impossible challenge.  The more you do it, the more you will figure out and master and the easier it will seem.

Then one day you will sit down at your machine and you will find that you can quilt anything, anywhere, with no issue or problem.  You will have mastered this skill.

And then it will be time to seek out a new challenge!

So what are you going to do today? I know what I'm going to do...

Shut up and go quilt!



  1. How I practice? Since there were couple of people worried about wasting fabric with practice quilt/sandwich. You could buy fabric when it goes on sale or clearance and use them to make your practice quilts and probably donate them to local charity or use it at home. Or use as playmats for your kids and use it when you go out for picnic. For myself I feel this a better alternative for quilting on a high profile quilt. And the pressure if off. At the same time I'm getting my practice done and also making use of the quilt I made.

  2. Great advice as always Leah! Tagging onto your advice to "practice" on a real quilt, being a new FMQ'er like so many I find it hard to start a new design on a quilt I've spent days piecing, so my version of a "real" quilt is a practice piece of approximately 15x24 inches or thereabouts, that I'll do my warm-up practices on, then bind it up and donate it to a local animal shelter for their cat cages. Something to practice on, something real, and a charity quilt to boot! If I find the fabric for 25 cents at a yard sale, so much the better!

  3. I thought "prewounds, how convenient" and bought lots. Brand name, great thread, but guess what - tension issues because the tension seems to change so much from the beginning to the end of the bobbin! So I end up winding my prewounds off onto my metal bobbins. The thread is not the problem in - it's just the winding!

  4. Practice: Hot pads for the kitchen. Placemats. Tablecloths. Doll quilts for children. Blankets for homeless/women's shelters. Lap quilts for the poor elderly. Electronic/appliance covers. Stack'em up and sew a button through for a strange pin cushion. Coasters. Mug rugs.

  5. I get around the 'wastage' of fabric by taking on the challenge of doing it on an actual quilt whenever I can. In order to overcome the common 'fear' factor, I then sometimes declare the quilt a practice quilt, hence it does not matter if it has mistakes in it (when in reality it will become a real quilt). I know this sounds slightly mental, however this little self talk works for me.

  6. I love your advice about just trying a design on a real quilt. I just got my longarm and kept getting bored while practicing, so I would switch from one design to another too quickly. I just did my first FMQ on a baby quilt and while it wasn't great, I felt a huge sense of accomplishment.

  7. Oh yes...for practice I always used real quilts...but they were small, like 2 foot square give or take a little. I learned applique, FMQ, binding, I learned all of it on practice quilts and then donated them all to the local animal shelter....I call them "Table Scraps", and the dogs and cats couldn't care less how they look!

  8. Leah
    Thank you for answering my question. I am quilting on a real's not pretty but my cats won't care. I find that your blog and comments make my brain go off in all kinds of directions ...I like the idea of shelter blankets too.
    I thought I would never be able to do FMQ but I find my fear is decreasing and my skill increasing. Keep leading and I will keep following


  9. I practice on a good size quilt sandwich 15inx15in. I plan to put all of these in a QAYGQ(per your advise). I have been pretty careful while quilting so it will look good when it's all together. But my thinking is, if one looks really bad, I'm only scrapping a 15in square.I'm getting quite a collection and I'd say I'm half way there for a quilt:)

  10. I must admit that I have an issue with "wasting" fabric to practice machine quilting. To be honest, I have been making mug rugs, place mats, table runner/toppers, and small wall quilts for my home and practicing on those. I also have a couple larger quilts (one lap size, one king size) that are for my bed only and I practicing on those (no I am not done quilting them yet). I just figured they are mine, I am learning. I mean how many people am I going to bring into my bedroom when they visit? Ummmm....Next to none.

    I like mug rugs and place mats because they are really small. I can make a set of place mats and quilt in a different design on each. Four place mats, equal four designs practiced.

    When I am making something for someone else, I stick with the designs that I am already familiar with. If it is a gift from me to them, I might practice a design, if it to be purchased, well then it will be a design I can do.

    Walmart has clearance fabric that I use to make practice squared with. at a $1.50 per yard not hard to swallow. As for that batting. I will use my warm and natural, but I use the batting fuse to fuse my little pieces together that I wouldn't use for something else.

  11. Wow~tons of great info! Making sure the machine is lint free is so critical! Some machines are way more finicky about this than others (ex:Berninas). Lint will "eat up" the lube oil resulting on parts riding on parts which will result in expensive service visits in the future!!!!

  12. Leah I love your posts! You could also work with a friend who doesn't FMQ. Maybe they have projects you could quilt. Or there are many sewers that buy that prequilted stuff for making totes or whatever. There is a limited selection of this so you could quilt some cute fabrics together that they bought and will be thrilled with! Soooo much better than the cheap pre-quilted stuff.


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