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Tips & Tricks
 How to Handle the Big Quilts a Little Easier!

    A lot of quilters complain of fatigue and shoulder and neck pain when they sit down   
    at their sewing machine to work on a quilt.  Since I quilt for several hours every day,

    I have  found  that working  in no more than 90  minute increments  keeps me  from
    having my chiropractor on retainer! 

     After  a  maximum  of  90 minutes,   I  get up  and  stretch,  walk around a  little and 
     generally  loosen up.  Then  I’m ready  to get back  to work. Four or  five 90  minute 
     segments  works  well  for  me  as  a regular work schedule.

     A lot of the difficulty quilters experience with large quilts is controlling the weight of 
     the fabric, batting and pins! If your quilt is constantly falling off of your work surface, 
     you are  expending a lot of energy repeatedly lifting it back  up  to the table.    After 
     three years of struggling  with  this  issue  in my  quilting business,  I  finally found a 
     way to “trap” the quilt’s bulk on my table by putting my sewing table in  a  corner so 
     that  the left side and  back of the table are both along a wall: 

Quilt Artist Paula Reid's Quilting Table Layout
     Once you  have hoisted  your heavy  quilt  to this table,  it  can’t fall off.  The weight 
     is supported by the table  and all  you have to worry about is the part  that's in your 
     lap! 

     Another problem with quilting large quilts  is that gravity always seems  to be pull-
     ing your quilt down.   If you keep the quilt fluffed up as you feed it through your ma-
     chine,  you  will not get the loss of control and the little  bitty  stitches caused when 
     your quilt is  “hung up” on  your machine  table  or on  a corner of the platform that
     fits on your machine (if  you are not working on a flush surface).     I demonstrated 
     this technique on Simply Quilts in  Episode 511 —  I  pull the quilt up from my lap, 
     pile it  on my  chest  and  then sew down  from  there rather  than trying  to pull the
     quilt directly from my lap to the machine.  Try it - your stitches will be more even.
A Couple of General Tips

    Are your stitches not as straight and  even  as you would like them to be  —  even 
    when you are using  a walking foot? Two  things help make your  stitches straight: 
    a single whole throat plate for your machine and using the right needle.    It's been
    my  experience that  a universal needle  is too rounded  to stitch perfectly straight; 
    it  merely finds the point of least resistance and stitches there. I find that a denim/ 
    jeans needle (I use a Schmetz Denim/Jeans, size 80/12) will  punch right  through 
    needlepunched cotton batting so that my stitches are straight and even.   Try it! 


    When constructing  a perfectly  flat backing for my quilts,  I always make sure that 
    the lengthwise grain of my  backing fabric  is going up and down the length of my 
    quilt.     Crosswise  construction  may  sometimes  save fabric,  but there is more 
    stretch in the crosswise grain and the backing does not turn  out quite  as nice.   I 
    stitch  my backing  sections together  with about  a  3/8” seam (that's the width of 
    my presser foot) and press the seam open for a nice, flat back.
The "ins" and "outs" of Batting

     When it comes to  batting for my quilts,  I choose cotton batting  all of  the time.   I 
     love  the  “quilty”  look  that  cotton  batting  gives  to  quilts  after they are washed. 
     There are several good brands available and you even have choices in color now 
     that Warm & Natural and Quilters’ Dream Cotton have both  come out with beauti-
     ful white batting.    If you choose to use polyester batting, however, make sure that 
     you are using a very low loft batting.    Your quilt top tends to “float”on top of a high
     loft batting, no matter how well basted, and it's too easy to stitch puckers into your
     quilt.


     There  are occasions  when I want to pre-wash my cotton batting.  If I  am  working 
     on  a  contemporary  quilt  where  I don’t  want  that  old-fashioned  “quilty” look,  I'll 
     wash  the  batting first.     I will also pre-wash if all of the fabric for my quilt  top and 
     back have been pre-washed. I like  everything  to  be  shrinking  at  the same rate! 
     To pre-wash a cotton batt (I have done this with both Warm & Natural and Quilter’s 
     Dream Cotton  with  excellent results in  my  washer),  I put the batting in my wash- 
     er on the SOAK cycle and set the wash action to gentle and the water temperature 
     to  warm.  You want as little agitation as  possible here.   After soaking the batt for 
     about 15 minutes, I set the  machine  to spin.   After  spinning  is complete, put the 
     batt in the dryer with  a couple of towels to absorb the moisture. This helps it dry a 
     little more evenly  so you  don’t have  to keep taking it out,  rearranging it  and put- 
     ting it back in.    Remember to buy extra batting if you  intend  to pre-wash  as  the 
     batting shrinks by about 5%.

     Before basting your quilt top,  it is important to get all the lumps,  bumps,  wrinkles
     and folds out of the batting.     If I have time,  I just lay the batting out overnight,  but
     sometimes I don't have overnight to spare.  In that case, I put the batting in a warm
     dryer (WITHOUT moisture; I don't want to shrink it unintentionally) and run the dryer
     for about 15 - 20 minutes.  This will usually relax the batting and get rid of the wrin-
     kles.     Of course, if you have prewashed your batting, the wrinkles will already be 
     out!
Basting Help

     Basting  your quilt is such an important step in  making sure  your finished quilt  is 
     flat without wrinkles or puckers on the front of the quilt or the back.   The first thing 
     to insure a flat quilt is  to totally immobilize  the back of the quilt before you lay the 
     batting and quilt top on it.    To do that, I use two 30” x 96” tables pushed together 
     to give me a total basting surface of 60” by 96”.       I secure the quilt back,  wrong 
     side up, to my tables by using office binder clips  (there are also clips specifically 
     made for  this use  available  in quilt shops)  all  the  way around  the edges of the 
     tables, making sure the quilt back is taut, but  not stretched.      To do this, you will 
     need about 3 dozen 2” clips to secure the back about every 12”.   If my quilt back-
     ing is smaller than the surface of my tables, I secure two or three  edges (depend-
     ing on the size of the quilt back) with the clips and the other edge(s) with masking 
     tape.


     Basting with safety pins has become the accepted way to get your quilt ready for 
     machine quilting.  Thread basting is not strong enough to hold the layers together 
     through  the machine without  shifting and the  thread can  also get  caught on the 
     toes of your presser foot, creating puckers in your work.
Machine Quilting

     A number  of  people  have asked  me about  the use of  monofilament  thread  in 
     machine quilting.    I use monofilament (which comes in clear or smoke) in the top 
     of my machine when I am doing ditch stitching.     It is unobtrusive, which is partic-
     ularly helpful if the top you are quilting has  not been pieced perfectly.     I also use 
     monofilament in the bobbin if either of  these instances occur:  1)  there is a multi- 
     colored print on the back of the quilt and I have not found  a  thread  that I like with 
     it; or  2) there is a high contrast between the back of the quilt and the front.   If you
     have  a  dark  front  and  a  light back  (or  vice versa),  it can  be difficult to match 
     threads and not have dots of one thread come through on the other side.    In that 
     case,  I will use monofilament on the  back  and  tighten the upper  tension (move 
     to a higher number) so that  the clear comes through to the top rather than the top 
     thread  dotting to the back of the quilt.


     One  of  the  key principles  in machine quilting, or any  quilting  for  that matter, is 
     density.  The density of the quilting must be even over the entire quilt for that  quilt 
     to hang well without  ripples  down  the  sides  and  what  is  sometimes  called  a 
     “wavy bottom”. So, if  the quilting in the interior of your quilt is fairly light and open, 
     then you must choose  an equally open pattern  for your border quilting;    if the in-
     terior of  your quilt  is  heavily  quilted  (i.e., cross-hatched or stippled),  then  your
     border quilting must be equally heavy.

     It seems to  me  that  the best way to assess density  in a  quilt  is  from  the back, 
     where  the  color  and  pattern aren’t a distraction.   Before  I decide  I have finish-
     ed with a quilt,  I turn it to the back to see  if there  are any areas less quilted than 
     the rest.     They will “pooch” out as if to say,  “Quilt me!”     If those areas are then 
     quilted, the finished quilt will always hang better. 

     I am often asked if  I begin my machine  quilting from  the middle of  the quilt and 
     then  stitch toward the outer edges.    The answer to that is no.    If the quilt is pin- 
     basted properly there is no reason to start quilting in the center of the quilt.      In-
     stead,  I stitch all of the  “long lines”  first.    In other words,  I look at  the quilt  and 
     determine which are the longest lines to be stitched.   Usually, these are the long 
     lines  that  run  from  the  top  to  the bottom  of the quilt  and separate the blocks. 
     Keeping in mind that you don’t want to have more than  half  of the quilt under the 
     arm of your machine at any one time,   stitch  all of  these long lines  from start  to 
     finish, both vertically and horizontally.  After all the long lines are stitched, you can 
     go back and  stitch each individual block, either in the ditch or using free motion.

     When stitching sashings, make sure that you  stitch both  sides of  the sashing in 
     the same direction (I.e., top to bottom or left to right).    If  you stitch  each  side of 
     a sashing in opposite directions, you get  “fabric shear”, an unattractive diagonal 
     pulling of the fabric.

     I like to use monofilament  thread (I like Wonder brand  by YLI)  for  all of my ditch 
     stitching. Be careful to stitch a little slower when using  it so that  it will not  stretch 
     as you sew  it into  your quilt.  You should also  be stitching  at a little slower (than 
     piecing)  speed  when you  are  using your walking foot.     It is called a  “walking” 
     foot,  after all, not a “running” foot!

     If you choose  to use monofilament  thread  in the bobbin,   be sure  to wind  your 
     bobbin  at half speed so that  you do not  stretch  the  thread as it winds onto  the 
     bobbin.    Stretching the thread as you wind the bobbin causes the thread to con-
     tract when it comes off the bobbin and thus  puckers when  it is stitched into your 
     quilt.

     Sometimes when you have stitched all  of your long lines  in one direction and be-
     gin  your stitching  in another  direction,  you can see a pleat begin to form as you 
     stitch  toward  a previously stitched seam.     When you  see this happening,  stop 
     sewing with the needle down  in  your  fabric.   Lift  your  presser foot and  insert a 
     straight  pin  from  the  previously  stitched  seam  all  the  way  back to under your
     presser foot. Insert  these pins  at about 1/2” intervals.      This pinning  will  “ease” 
     that  potential  pleating  and  you can stitch  very slowly and carefully over the pins 
     to eliminate that pleat.

     I always complete all of my straight stitching with my walking foot before I start (or 
     mark)  my  free motion stitching.  This gives you some advantages.    One  is that 
     you can look at the back of  the quilt  to determine  the density  of  what is already 
     stitched before  you  start thinking  about  the decorative motifs.  Another is that if 
     your top is difficult to mark for quilting  (scrap quilt or difficult color to see markers
     on),  your areas are already defined.   You  can flip your quilt over to the back and 
     see where to mark your quilting motifs.     Hopefully,  you  can see your  markings 
     better on the back.    You can then mark the back, reverse your threads  (thread to 
     show on the top would be in  the bottom  if  you  are  working  from  the  back) and 
     be on  your merry way!

     Free motion stitching takes practice!      There is  nothing  scary  about  it,  it  just 
     takes  the  time  to  sit down and practice and “acquire the skill”.      I have read in 
     several places that it takes 20 to 25 hours to acquire a skill.     That means that if 
     you practice your free motion stitching an hour a day for 3 weeks or 1/2 hour  per 
     day  for  6 weeks, you will  become proficient.  It’s putting in the practice until  you 
     find  your  rhythm.     Once you find  this rhythm  (or  “sweet spot”, as  I call it),  you 
     won’t  ever lose it.  A few minutes of warm-up and you’re ready to go!
Marking Designs on your Quilts

     Most of the time,  I use the  Wonder markers  by Collins to mark quilting  designs 
     onto my quilts.  These are a bright blue water soluble marker that  is easy  to see 
     on all  light fabrics and some mediums (turquoise and greens being  exceptions). 
     For dark fabrics, I use either a Nonce pencil or the white pencil made by Quilters 
     Resource.    These don’t remove as easily as the blue marker, but  they  do have 
     their place  as  you can’t quilt what you can’t see.    Occasionally,  I have had luck 
     with the old fashioned sliver of soap, but  you really can’t do too intricate a design 
     with that;  it does work well to mark straight  lines,  such as crosshatching, or sub-
     tle curves.  Forget it if you have your heart set on feathers!


     Another marking  tool that  works well  for  designs  that are  not  too fussy  is the 
     Pounce Pad.   It looks like a chalkboard eraser.     It has an opening on the back 
     (with a little plug) that you fill with a chalk powder. To use it on dark fabrics, place 
     place a stencil on your fabric.   You can then  “pounce”  lightly and  the chalk sifts 
     through the pad and through the channels of your stencil to leave a distinct, easily 
     removable design on your fabric. When I use this, I mark one block at a time and 
     then brush the chalk away after stitching.

     I am a total stencil “junkie”!   I can’t draw, so I depend  on stencils  for the  design 
     elements  of the quilts I stitch.  I look  for stencils  everywhere  I  go — quilt shows, 
     new shops when I travel, ads  in backs  of quilting magazines.    I used to also cut 
     my own from plastic until I found Golden Threads Quilting Paper. It is a gold color-
     ed paper that comes in various widths (I have been using the 12”).  You can trace 
     a design  on it  and then stitch  through the paper.    The  paper tears away easily 
     from your quilt top and doesn’t tear your stitches. Also, if you want multiple copies 
     of a design,  you can stack  up several sheets of  the paper,  draw your design on 
     the top sheet and   “needlepunch”   the whole stack  with  an unthreaded machine. 
     What a timesaver!

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