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Tips &Tricks from Paula

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:

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 pulling your quilt down. If you keep the quilt fluffed up as you feed it through your machine, 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 beautiful 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 putting 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 wrinkles. Of course, if you have pre-washed 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 (depending 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.

I've been using the Kwik Klip for many years to help with my pin basting. I have one in my travel kit that I use when I do demonstrations and another at home for when I pin up a quilt. The one I use at home has all the printing worn off it because it's been used so much!

One of the things we learn as kids is to hold tools in our dominant hands, so using the Kwik Klip was a little counterintuitive for me. I'm right handed and I hold the Kwik Klip tool in my left hand, leaving my right hand free to manipulate the pins.

Here's a quick, well, clip to show you how to use it:

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 multicolored 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 interior 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 finished 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 contract when it comes off the bobbin and thus puckers when it is stitched into your

Sometimes when you have stitched all of your long lines in one direction and begin 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 colored 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!