Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Pitfalls and Pearls of Machine Quilting Part 1

I have been asked to write down some of the ways I approach machine quilting, how I get the ideas for the ways I quilt a quilt. I have a long arm machine, a Handiquilter Avante, that I do machine quilting on as a small business, but this post is about machine quilting on my smaller machine, the one I do all of my piecing and applique on. When I started thinking about doing this post and jotting down some ideas I wanted to share, I realized it will probably be at least two posts. The first on general machine set up and the second on how I decide what to quilt on the quilt.

I am not really a teacher but I am a reader, I have a couple of great machine quilting books that I consider excellent authorities on machine quilting. I have taken classes from both Harriet Hargrave (her book Heirloom Machine Quilting is a must have in your quilting library) and Sue Nichols (her book is Machine Quilting, A Primer of Techniques) Both of these books are excellent beginner instructions. When you are ready to step it up to more advanced quilting there is Diane Gaudynski’s Quilt Savvy. I have not had the opportunity to take a class from Diane Gaudynki but I would love to one day. She is the quilter I most strive to be like, she has an excellent website and blog with lots of tips, there is a link to her blog on my sidebar. These instructors and their books are the basis of how I machine quilt.

I do NOT mark a quilt if at all possible. I have had some terrible experiences (see previous post from Bad Luck Quilt to Blue Ribbon, June 18, 2010) with getting markings off quilts with products that others seem to use with no problems. So what I do to avoid marking a quilt is really the beginning of how I choose to quilt a quilt and it is the start of my tips.

The whole time I am piecing a quilt, and even when I choose a quilt to make, I am already thinking ahead to “how am I going to quilt it“. When I first saw the pattern for YoYoville (a pattern from Anne Sutton, Bunny Hill Designs and the example in many of these photos) I knew immediately how I would quilt the borders and that I could do a good job quilting. It was a large part of why choose to make the quilt.

Before I get to far ahead there are some basic machine set up tips.

*New Quilt, New Needle. I am a needle changer, I like a new needle for every quilt I do. After all the money I have spent on the fabric, batting, and thread the least I can do is give the quilt a new needle - probably the least expensive item used for the construction of the quilt. The needle is also a key part in the machine tension. So start off right, clean and oil the sewing machine and get a new needle.

*Set up your quilting space so there is support for the quilt to your left and behind the machine. I turn my whole sewing room around when I am machine quilting so that I have tables to hold the weight of the quilt. I have used my ironing board in the past but have recently purchased a small folding table that I also take on retreats.

*A quick tip about the layering of the quilt and the batting. If you are machine quilting on your home machine you have limited room, use a thinner batt. I use four different battings depending on what the quilt will be used for, all four are thinner batts and cling to the quilt top and back so there is less shifting (a polyester batt will slip and slide and give you loads of trouble and folds of fabric in your quilting). I use Hobbs 80/20, Hobb wool, or Quilters Dream Select for a quilt that will be used for a bed or cuddling in, they are soft and drapey. I like Warm and Natural for wall quilts or table cloths they are a little stiffer. The amount of quilting will also determine how stiff or drapey the quilt is. I pin baste with safety pins. On some smaller quilts I will iron the quilt sandwich and the batting will cling enough to the top and back that pinning is not necessary.

*When I am layering the quilt I make a small quilt sandwich out of the same batting, backing, and quilt top fabric as the quilt. This is my practice piece to set thread tension, try quilting designs on, and to warm up on when I start quilting. I also have sticky notes is this picture - I am always jotting down quilting ideas as I go.

*Thread Tension - EEK - it has been mentioned twice, we have to talk about it. Tension is one of the most difficult, scary, FRUSTRATING, things in machine quilting and sewing in general (how appropriate that it is called ‘tension‘). That being said, my best advice is “don’t be afraid of it“. There is a tension dial on your machine for a reason, tension changes. I learned more about machine tension when I got my long arm machine than in 25 plus years of sewing on my smaller home machine. My wonderful long arm dealer, Country Traditions in Fremont, NE told new machine owners to remember TNT when dealing with machine tension (you know like dynamite-what I personally want to do with my machine when the tension is acting up). Thread, Needle, Tension. This is the order you should approach when thinking about machine tension. So a few “pearls” for tension:

***Thread - different thread weight, different tension. The thicker the thread (the weight number will go down -50 weight, 40 weight, 12 weight) the looser (or decrease) in tension, There are a couple of other things that can affect thread thickness. Darker color threads have more dye in them so they are thicker, you may be using the same brand of thread but need to adjust the tension because one is a darker color. Humidity swells thread, you can be quilting along happily with your favorite thread and then one warm summer day the tension just will not work, consider the humidity, you may just need to decrease the tension a little bit. Sometimes thread can also just be flawed, a bad batch, your machine tension may be just fine, try a different spool. Make sure you have threaded your machine correctly and wound the bobbin correctly - two of the first things I check when my tension is whacked out.

***Needles - I have already mentioned new quilt, new needle, but also remember thicker thread, bigger needle. Unlike thread weight where the number goes DOWN with bigger or thicker thread, with the needles the number goes UP with bigger needles, 10, 12, 14 (70, 80 etc). So if you have thread breakage try a bigger needle. Make sure the needle is placed correctly in the machine and again, that the machine is correctly threaded. Just like you can have a bad spool of thread, you can have a bad batch of needles, if all else fails try a needle from a different package.

***Tension - okay we are to tension, we have the differences in thread and needle accounted for. We now have to mess with the machine tension. Just to make things a little more challenging there are two places to adjust, top thread and bobbin thread tension. Top thread tension is adjusted on my Bernina (and I believe most home machines) by changing the tension dial, the smaller the number on the tension dial the tighter the top thread tension. The bobbin tension should be set so that when you dangle the bobbin case by the thread it should slide down when you give it a slight jerk.

If it slides down as soon as you pick it up, it is too loose, tighten the bobbin screw. If it does not move with the little jerk it is to tight, loosen the bobbin screw.
Righty Tighty, Lefty, Loosey. Make very small adjustments if you are changing the bobbin screw - think 5 minutes on a clock.

I like to check my machine tension on every new project whether it be piecing or quilting or any time I use a new type of thread. I do a little stitch sample with the widest zigzag and a very close stitch length - a satin stitch (using different thread colors on the top and in the bobbin). This is the front side of the sample only the top thread (the white) shows on the front.

If I am using invisible thread for machine quilting I do this test with the bobbin type of thread on the top also - we will make adjustments for invisible thread in a bit). If my machine tension is correctly adjusted a small amount of the top thread (the white) will show on the back of the sample, there should be no bobbin thread (the black) on the front of the fabric. This picture is the back of the sample, by my finger you see a small amount of white thread on the edge. This is great tension.

Here is another little tip I have written down on a piece of paper on the bulletin board in my sewing room to help me remember and keep straight. " If the top thread appears to be lying straight (not interlocking) on top of the fabric tighten the BOBBIN tension, if the bottom thread appears to be lying straight tighten the TOP tension." Make tension adjustments one at a time, top or bottom tension, so you can tell if the changes have helped.

*Invisible thread - Love It - This is why I still use my home machine instead of the long arm for some of my machine quilting. Some quilts benefit from the beautiful variegated threads or different thread color for the quilting, and some quilts I just want invisible thread - it is a design decision. I adjust the tension for the invisible thread much better on my home machine than on the long arm - the speed of the long arm and the larger needle size make back thread little pokies show thru on the front of the quilt. With invisible thread I set the machine tension by using the bobbin thread and then I just tighten (on the Berninas to a smaller number) the top thread tension a notch or two with the invisible thread (or I place the bobbin thread thru the extra little thread finger on the bobbin case). I test it on my quilt sandwich sample and adjust as needed.

*Machine quilting with different thread color on top and in the bobbin - I do not do it. Again this is one of the decisions I make at the beginning of the quilt process when choosing the fabric and thinking how am I going to quilt this quilt. I don’t care how wonderful your machine tension is, if you have two different color threads you will get little pokies of the back thread on the front of the quilt or front thread on the back. So choose your backing fabric with this in mind. I really do not feel like I have to match the back thread color to the back fabric, it is all about the front of the quilt. So keep in mind when choosing your backing fabric what thread color will be used in machine quilting and just another little tip - choose a busy fabric - it hides a host of error in machine quilting.

So that is it for machine set up , it would be nice if our machine dealers could just set the tension and it would stay and we would never have to touch it, but there are wonderful threads and techniques out there for us to play with and adjusting tension is part of the game. I will continue in my next post with some of the ways I quilt certain areas of a quilt and how I try to keep marking to a minimum.

Happy Stitching,


  1. This is a wonderful tutorial and one I will be bookmarking for when I get enough nerve to quilt my mini quilt. Thank you for all the hard work :0)


  2. Although I have machine quilted for years I can always use a refresher course! Thansk for all the great information!!

  3. So much information. Actually makes me feel like there is more to get wrong. I will just remember "baby steps" because I really feel I am missing out by not being able to machine quilt some of my quilts.