20 December 2012

Free Motion Machine Quilting Tutorial

I'm Sharing this lovely quilt tutorial for a project that has been troubling me for years...perfecting a machine quilting technique.  If any of you quilt and have taken your quilt top and backing to the local quilt shop to be finished {quilted} then you know how expensive it can be and that it can take literally months to get back.  I've found a wonderful site, 'Oh Fransson!'  by Elizabeth Hartman, that has lots and lots of quilting tutorials and more.  Hope you all enjoy it and learn some new techniques!

Free-Motion Quilting Basics

I prepare my machine as follows:
  • Fit machine with darning/free-motion foot.
  • Set stitch length to zero.
  • Lower feed dogs.
  • Fit machine with a new needle (90/14 Universal or 90/14 Machine Quilting).  Free-motion quilting puts a lot of stress on your needle, so using a stronger one is often a good idea.
I've read about lots of ways that people whose machines don't have stitch length controls or lower-able feed dogs work around this.  If you're one of those people and want to discuss how you prep your machine, or if you need tips, check out this thread in the Flickr pool. 
For this quilt, I used Gutermann cotton thread in a light warm tan to match the natural Essex cotton/linen I used for sashing.

Because free-motion quilting takes so much thread, I like to fill a number of extra bobbins before I start.  (For this quilt I went through four.)  I always use the same thread and bobbin color.  It's more forgiving of slight irregularities in tension (i.e. you won't see little dots of the back color on the front and vise versa).
For my scrappy quilt, I used Gutermann polyester thread in white.  I should probably mention again the importance of using quality thread.  I've found that the Gutermann 100% polyester does fine with my machine but, when I've tried to use other poly threads (Dual Duty XP comes to mind) it's been a disaster.  If you're pulling your hair out trying to get a good stitch, try switching to a higher quality or just a different kind of thread.  It might make all the difference.
Here's another example of a quilt where I matched the thread to the sashing used.  I'm showing several examples of this because I think it's a good strategy for choosing thread color, since it keeps the sashing looking plain and sharp.
Here's an example of white thread used over bright colors.  Because the sashing and areas of most of the prints are white, the thread actually blends pretty well with the brights.
The above quilting was done with Coats and Clark cotton quilting thread.  It's not my favorite because I like my stitches to be less pronounced but, if you want your stitches to show, it may be a good choice for you.
Regardless of whether it's the "regular" cotton thread or a cotton designed specifically for machine quilting, I've found cotton to the be easiest and most forgiving thread to quilt with.  If you're a beginner, I would definitely recommend starting with cotton.  Keep in mind that you need to buy thread designed to be used in a machine.  Thread labeled as being for "hand quilting" has a waxy coating that you don't want to put in your machine.
Most traditional quilters prefer cotton because it is the same fiber being used in the fabric and, usually, the batting. This can lead to more even wear over time.
Quilting 027 
I do my quilting in a meandering pattern with no sharp angles and without crossing any of the lines.  Free-motion quilting is sort of like drawing with thread so, if you haven't done it before (and especially if you're not accustomed to drawing) you may find it useful to practice drawing a quilting pattern on a piece of paper first.  
A lot of people refer to the style of quilting I use as "stippling."  As I understand it, stippling means that none of your stitching is more than half an inch apart.  By that definition, what I do could definitely be described as stippling.  None of my stitching is more than about half an inch apart.
Quiltalong 118 
Once you've figured out what kind of pattern you'd like to use for quilting, you may want to practice on a "mini quilt sandwich" before moving on to your quilt.  My mini sandwich is about twelve inches square.  If you're not sure about your thread color choice, making a patchwork mini sandwich with your scraps can be a good way to audition different threads.
Quilting4 (2) 
Because your feed dogs are lowered, the only thing moving the fabric will be your hands.  I described the process earlier as being like drawing.  The twist is that, with free-motion quilting, you move the quilt/paper instead of the needle/pen. 
Begin by manually lowering your needle, pulling the bobbin thread to the top.  Holding the tails of your thread and bobbin, make several stitches in the same place, creating a "knot" of sorts.  Move the quilt sandwich, stitching in your chosen pattern just an inch or so away from where you started.  Pause, making sure your needle is in the down position, and trim the loose threads.
Continue stitching, filling in your quilt sandwich in your chosen pattern.  You'll notice that your hands are not only in control of the shape of your stitches but also in their length.  If you move too slowly, your stitches will be too small and tight but, if you move too quickly, your stitches will be too long and loose.  Part of the reason for practicing on a mini sandwich like this is to get a feel for the right balance between pressure on your presser foot and the speed with which you move the sandwich. 
Quilting8 (2) 
I've seen the suggestion that you should do free-motion quilting "as fast as you can."  While I do find that working more quickly than slowly results in a good even stitch and nice curves, I think it's important to keep your speed in check.  If you start going too fast, your stitches can easily get out of control.  I suggest practicing on mini sandwiches until you've figured out a rhythm that works for you.
Once you're ready to work on your quilt, take a little time to prepare your quilting area.  I suggest using the largest table you can and cleaning it first to make sure no dust or lint gets on your quilt as you work.  One of the keys to moving your sandwich around easily during quilting is making sure that all of it stays on top of the table.  If any of the sandwich hangs off the edges, it can weigh things down, making it more difficult to move.  You can either fold the sandwich, as in the photo above, of just bunch if up in a pile on the table.  I tend to start with the quilt folded and unfold/bunch it on the table as I work.
Quilting 029 
This is a pretty low-tech diagram but, hopefully, you can get some idea from it the order in which I do my quilting.  I find that, with anything larger than a baby quilt, the center is the most difficult part to quilt.  As such, I try to work in a circle around the center.  I find that the trick is to quilt in even swaths across the top.  If I don't make an effort to keep quilting in an even-ish swath, it's much easier to end up with little unquilted nooks and crannies that are difficult to get back to without either stitching over already quilted lines, often bunching the fabric slightly. 
Start quilting the same way you did on your mini sandwich -- by making a few stitches in the same place, quilting for a couple of inches and pausing (with the needle down) to trim the loose threads.
Continue quilting, turning your sandwich over periodically to make sure your stitches look good on both sides.  (You don't want to finish half the quilt before you realize that you have a thread tension problem!)  If you do have a tension problem -- for instance if your stitches are loose and loopy -- take a deep breath, take your sandwich off the machine and pick them out before moving on, possibly with a different thread.
You can see in this photo how I've rolled/bunched the quilt on either side of the area that I'm quilting.
Even after you perfect working on your mini sandwiches, it may take some time to get a feel for moving your whole quilt around.  Some people like to wear gloves (either the kind designed specifically for quilting or just yellow dishwashing gloves) to help them get a good grip on the fabric.  I prefer to work without anything interfering with my hands, so I usually just hold the bottom of the sandwich on the left side of my needle (as shown above) . . .
Quiltalong 178 
. . .and the right side of my sandwich with my right hand.  (Note: I am right-handed.)  For whatever reason, I find it easier to control the sandwich when I have one hand on top and one underneath. 
This is yet another instance where you'll need to figure out what works best for you and go with it.
Unlike with regular sewing, where fabric is pulled away from you as it works its way through the machine, I prefer to pull my sandwich toward me as I quilt.  I'm not sure if this works for others as well, but I find it easier to see what I'm doing if I start at the bottom and work my way to the top, as shown in the above photo.  I talked earlier about keeping the whole sandwich on the table at all times.  The one exception I make is when I'm pulling the sandwich toward me and end up with a lot of it in my lap.
As you're quilting, be sure that you're taking out safety pins before you get too close.  (You don't want any broken needles if you can avoid it!)  I keep a little bowl nearby to collect these as I work.
Depending on the strength of your table, you may find that free-motion quilting causes a lot of vibration and/or movement of items on top of the table.  If you have anything, especially a beverage, in your work area, you might consider placing them on a different nearby surface before they march right off the edge of the table!
If you're doing an allover pattern, you will probably run out of bobbin thread several times during quilting.  When that happens, take your sandwich off the machine and trim loose threads.
Replace the bobbin and return your sandwich to its former position.  Place your needle in the down position within a couple of stitches, but not right at the end, of where your bobbin ran out.
As when you started, make a couple of stitches in place to secure and then quilt an inch or two away.  Stop, with your needle in the down position, trim threads and move on with your quilting.
Be prepared for free-motion quilting to be physically strenuous.  It can take a surprising amount of work to shift your sandwich around just right.  If you get tired or frustrated with it, walk away for a few hours.  There's no reason you need to finish your quilting all at once.
It took me a little less than two hours to quilt each of my mod sampler quilts.  This is a much improved time over when I started using free-motion. 
Once you're finished with your quilting, square up the edges of your quilt using a ruler and rotary cutter.
Don't be discouraged if your first attempt isn't perfect.  Free-motion quilting on a standard machine can be tricky and it will probably take a few projects before your stitching looks exactly how you want it to!
Another thing to keep in mind is that, while you will have been staring at your quilting stitches for hours, the recipient of your quilt (unless he or she is also a quilter!) is less likely to pay them any attention.  I find that, when I'm upset with the way a project looks, walking away from it for a day or two is usually the best policy.  

Happy Thursday Morning to you all!  Time to get some last minute shopping done and mail packages!
Merry Christmas!

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