Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Utah block - Building Blocks Tuesday

For Patty - Star of Africa Bee

Here is a block I made ages ago for Patti in the Star of Africa Bee.  We just returned from our trip to Colorado on Saturday, and we drove through a good part of Utah.  It was gorgeous!  We didn't actually stop at Arches National Park, or Zion, or Bryce Canyon, or any of the many other national parks on our route (is the whole state of Utah a national park??) as we were focused on getting to our destination, but I must say the scenery just along the interstate was breathtaking!  The section of I-70 from the I-15 interchange all the way to Beaver Creek, in particular, was amazing.  There were sections that reminded me of the Grand Canyon, and others that looked like the mountains around Lake Tahoe, and others Yosemite.  It was a wonderful trip.  I DO wish we had time to stop at the parks and walk around; perhaps next year.

Our traveling is over for this summer.  It is a mixed blessing.  While we had lots of fun, I am exhausted.  I am really looking forward to a few weeks at home to recover.  The oldest girls are in musical theater camp for the next 2 weeks, and the youngest starts her new pre-school on Friday.  So, I might even be able to get some sewing in next week.  Fingers crossed!

What blocks have you working on?  I would love to see.  Link up your fabulous blocks.  You put a lot of hard work into them - show them off!  This free linky will stay open until the first Monday of next month, but I will repost it every Tuesday until a new month starts.

Quilter in the Closet


1) Please link up only to the page in your blog showing your wonderful blocks, not just the blog homepage.  Flickr pictures are also OK.
2) Make sure to put your blog name as the description so people know where they are going or the name of your block!
3) Please grab my button and post it in your blog post or sidebar.
4) Visit other linky participants!

Thanks for reading!


Monday, July 28, 2014

Free-Motion Quilting Tips, Part Two - a "How I Do It" tutorial

To continue my tips on Free Motion Quilting, this "Part Two" will focus on the stuff that happens during the stitching process.

How I FMQ, part two


You can't have a post about FMQ without mentioning tension.  It can really be nerve-racking trying to get tension right.  Persevere!  Use your practice sandwich to get an initial tension level, but if you are already working on your quilt, check the underside of your quilt frequently AND any time you change a bobbin, re-thread your machine, change a needle, etc.

Here are some pictures to show you what my tension process looks like.

In this case, I started stitching a medium size stipple from the center of one of my sides of the practice sandwich.  Just get going a little ways; two stitches isn't enough to tell you if your tension is right.

start stitching

From the top, everything appears to be going well, but you have to check underneath as well.  This is where most of my troubles appear.

checking tension on the bottom

On this sandwich I am using a yellow thread on top and a red thread underneath.  From below, you can see little dots of my yellow top thread showing on the bottom side.  This means my tension is too loose.  Loose/tight, it is easy to get these mixed up.  I try to remember that I need my top tension tight enough to draw up my bottom thread approximately in the middle of my quilt sandwich.  If it is too loose, my bobbin thread will not penetrate the sandwich.  If my top tension is too tight, it will bring my bobbin thread too far through the sandwich and it will show on surface of the quilt.

Ah, here is my problem today:

auto tension is not great for FMQ

The auto tension on my machine is pretty nice for piecing, but it is NEVER right for FMQ.  I have to manually adjust the tension.  Let's try a tension of 4.

let's try 4

If you are trying to figure your tension out for the first time, I recommend starting in the middle of your tension range and go from there.

Now stitch a bit more.

stitch a little more

see the bottom red thread

This time I can see a tiny bit of my red thread from the bobbin showing on the quilt top, indicating that my tension is too tight.  I still need to check the bottom to make sure there isn't anything strange going on down there too.

tension on bottom

The bottom looks alright.  So, since the bobbin is showing on top, I am going to adjust my tension to 3.

let's try 3

Stitch a little more.

let's try stitching on 3

Now the top looks alright again, but I have to recheck the bottom.

the bottom view of tension setting 3

Oops, a little yellow is showing, so my tension is too loose now.  Let's try between 3 and 4.

Ah just right

Top looks good.  How about the bottom?

let's keep going with 3.5 tension

Bottom looks good too.  Hooray!  Now we know what tension level to use for my quilt.

tension at 3.5, just right

One of the biggest tips I can give someone new to FMQ is to use the same color thread in your top and bobbin.  It won't solve every tension issue (eyelashing for example), but it will give you a slightly wider range of acceptable tension levels.  For example, (usually) my machine likes to quilt on or around 3.5 for most quilts I make.  If I have a different color thread on the bottom (maybe I wanted to blend with my backing), I will need to adjust my tension to find that sweet spot, almost exactly, otherwise you will see little dots of the wrong color either on the top or bottom of my quilt.  Whereas, if I use the same color thread, I could have my tension set anywhere from 2.5 to 5, and you wouldn't see the difference!  That's huge!  Especially for someone just starting out.  I have some pictures below that will  highlight this point.

Getting Started - bringing up your threads

I start by bringing up my threads, preferably in a seam line so I can hide my start stitches.  Why bring up the threads?  Bringing up your bobbin thread to the top will help alleviate those terrible bird nests that can occur if your bobbin thread is just hanging around below your quilt.

I put my needle down in the seam and hold on to the top thread.

bringing up your threads

I then use my hand wheel to put the needle up, still holding on to the top thread.  When the needle comes up, the top thread will have caught the bottom thread.  Just gently pull on the top thread and the rest of the bottom thread will come up.

bringing up your threads

Once you have the bottom thread completely pulled up to the top, just hold both threads over to the left side (because we are going to start stitching down or to the right) so they will stay out of the way.  I like to stitch with my needle down function engaged so that every time I stop stitching, my needle will stop down.

ready to start FMQ

Why is that a big deal?  Well, if my needle is down, it holds my quilt in place.  That way, when I lift my hands off the quilt, it won't shift.  When I was first learning to FMQ, the machine I was using did not have a needle down function.  I finally learned to use the hand wheel to lower the needle in place before I would move my left hand off the quilt.  But that routine didn't start until after a lot of frustrating moments when my quilt would slide and shift.

Quilting by Quadrants

My favorite way to quilt is to quilt by quadrants.  I mentally break up my quilt into four even sections, or quadrants, and I always work on the lower right hand quadrant, starting from the center and working my way to the edge, then down.  Let me show you what I mean.

I bring up my threads, then I stitch toward the right of my quilt.  I don't just make a bee line for the edge.  I kind of go up and down and back and forth about 10 to 12 inches at a time.  Now clearly, this is a practice sandwich, not a king sized quilt.  So, to give you the idea, my stitching is about an inch square and it represents that 10 - 12 inch corridor I mentioned.

start stitching toward the right

stitch all the way to the side
When I get to the edge, I start going back to my center line, quilting in a new 10 to 12 inch corridor.

stitch back towards the center of the quilt

I would go back and forth this way until I finish stitching my first quadrant, but I ran out of bobbin thread (or maybe my thread broke, or worse, my needle (point being you had to stop for some reason before you were finished)).  It happened to be a lucky thing, because I can take a quick moment to show you how I handle a situation like this.  It will also give me a chance to show you what using a matching bobbin will do for tension issues (don't pretend you didn't notice all those little red dots showing on my top).

OK, so in this case I ran out of bobbin, so that thread is rather short to bury.  Luckily, I haven't gotten too far away from my seam.  I would use my seam ripper to gently pull out the stitches (NOT RIP THEM).  The seam ripper is a good tool for this job because it can get under those stitches, but I want to be careful to pull out the stitches, not rip them, because I want my threads long enough to tie and bury.  I would go back far enough to a place where I either crossed a seam line, or a place where my stitches happened to be really close together.

what to do when your thread runs out or breaks

In this case, I crossed the seam line, so I pull out my stitches to this point, tie and bury my threads.  I will probably go back and bury my threads from my initial start too, since I already have my needle out.

tie and bury threads

Now I am going to find a place a couple of stitches from the end of my previous stitching (in the seam is best), drop my needle and bring up my bobbin thread. and start stitching from there.  I will tie and bury those threads when I stop next time.

restarting your stitching

Now I can finish my quadrant.

finishing stitching the 1st quadrant

Then I rotate my entire quilt, and start stitching my second quadrant by heading back toward my center line.

start stitching 2nd quadrants

stitching the 2nd quadrant

When I am done with my second quadrant, I rotate my quilt and start stitching my third quadrant.  You get the idea.

starting the 3rd quadrant

This next picture is a good one to highlight the tension tip I gave you about using the same or a similar color thread in the bobbin.  When I first started this sandwich, I was using up a red bobbin.  You could see little red dots on the surface of my quilt, indicating that the tension was too tight.  It was set a 5.  I left it there, even after my bobbin ran out and I switched to a mostly yellow variegated thread.  Remember I said that if you matched your top and bobbin thread, you would have a wider range of tension you could use?  My machine prefers a tension around 3.5, but here I am stitching at a 5 and because I matched my threads, you really can't tell that the tension isn't perfect.

stitching the 3rd quadrant

One more final tip about the bobbin.  I have found that once I towards the end of a bobbin, my machine will skip a stitch or two, here and there.  I think it has to do with the tension of the bobbin thread when it is first wound onto the bobbin, but I can't be sure.

skipped stitches

Catching these big stitches in time can be tricky.  If I notice a big skipped stitch, and I see the bobbin is almost empty, I pull out my stitches to before the skipped stitch, tie and bury those threads, and restart my stitching using a new bobbin.  I can always use up those almost empty bobbins later on a practice sandwich.

Quilting by quadrants is great if you are quilting an all over design.  I quilted this huge king-sized Impromptu quilt by quadrant.  That way I only had to work on 9 blocks at a time, and the majority of my quilt was on the table behind and to the left of my machine.

Helpers turned models (Gigantor quilt)

Quilting by Blocks

If my plan was to quilt each block differently, then I would probably start with the blocks near the center and work my way out.  It is similar to quilting by quadrant, but modified to focus on individual blocks.

I would start by quilting the block to the right and below the center of my quilt.

block by block - block 1

Then I would rotate my quilt and quilt the 2nd block (now also to the right and below the center of my quilt).

block by block - block 2

I would continue rotating and quilting by block until all the center blocks are done.  Then, I would continue on to the blocks along the edge of the quilt.

block by block - work your way around

Not too tough!

I plan on quilting my Swoon and my Lucky Star quilts this way (if I ever get around to them).

Swoon blocks

Stitching in the Ditch

I glossed over this topic on the guest post for Jess, but I really am a believer in Stitching in the Ditch (or SID) before you start FMQ.  It really stabilizes the quilt.  I think of it as cementing my seams in place so that my blocks look like they are supposed to after the quilting process.

What am I talking about?  I'm sure you have heard it here and elsewhere that the quilting process "shifts" the layers of your quilt around a bit.  That is why basting really well is so important.  Aside from not wanting puckers, you also don't want your blocks to be skewed.  You put a lot of hard work into getting those points "pointy" and those seam lines straight, you don't want the quilting process to make everything look wavy. SID makes sure that all those seams stay exactly where they are supposed to be, and as straight as you can stitch!

Yes, it is an extra step that is going to take some time, but it is well worth it.  Give it a try and see if you can see a difference.

Here's a quick recap of Part Two:

  • Use you practice sandwich to get an initial tension setting
  • Check the bottom of your quilt often for tension troubles
  • Use the same color thread in your bobbin
  • Quilt from the center of your quilt, out
  • Stitch in the Ditch to cement things in place before the FMQ process

I'm sure that I will think of some more FMQ tips in the future.  If there is anything specific you would like me to address, please let me know.

How do you do it?  Link up your tutorials here (on this or any other quilting subject).


1) NO QUILT POLICE ALLOWED! - if you are making a tutorial, keep it friendly, as if you were teaching your best friend.  If you are visiting a tutorial, please remember that the authors are simply sharing what they have found to work for them.

2) Please link up tutorials from 2014 only.  Feel free to point out any previous tutorial in your new post, but let's try to keep the links current.

3) Visit other linky participants to see how they do it.

4) Did I mention no quilt police allowed?

Thanks for joining me today!


Free-Motion Quilting Tips, Part One - a "How I Do It" tutorial

For this month's "How I Do It Tutorial", I thought I would share some tips for Free Motion Quilting (or FMQ).

How I FMQ part one

I was honored to write a guest post about FMQ on Jess's blog, The Elven Garden, a couple of weeks ago during vacation.  When I sat down to write the post, it quickly got out of hand with some tutorial-like photos.  I ended up simplifying the post for Jess, but then I was left with enough pictures and tips to make another whole post, even two!

Part One will focus on the stuff before I start stitching.  Part Two will go through a few tips concerning the stitching process.

First Things First - my set up

Getting ready to FMQ
Quilter in the Closet - my FMQ set up
I quilt on a Janome Horizon 7700.  It came with a nice big extension table and a special foot for FMQ.  My machine is usually set up in my "studio" in the garage, but when I have a larger project to quilt, I like to move upstairs to the dining room table.  The extra table space gives the quilt some support during the quilting process and I don't feel like I have to fight it as much to move it around.

Lighting is very important.  The Janome has a great light underneath in the throat space, but more is better!  I also use an Ott-lite, placed a little closer to me and pointing toward the quilting area.

Depending on the size of the quilt, I usually wind at least 6 bobbins and put them in my little bobbin case.

my set up
Quilter in the Closet - things I keep close by for FMQ
I also have a cup for my safety pins (I pin baste any quilt larger than a mini).  I usually place this cup on the right side of my machine.  If I keep it right in front, I am more likely to accidentally knock it over.

I can't live without my seam ripper nearby.  I try to avoid ripping out stitches, but sometimes you have to.  I am also lazy, and use my seam ripper to clip threads after I bury them.

There are a few other things I do before I get started.  I put in a fresh needle, and attach my open toe quilting foot.  My machine also has a needle plate cover that converts to a single hole.  I think it was Leah Day who first turned me on to this feature, and it does seem to stitch better.

Needle Plate for FMQ

I also reduce my stitch length to 0.00, but I keep my feed dogs UP.  I believe that the machine was engineered to use the feed dogs and that it stitches better and more consistently with them engaged.  With my stitch length set at zero, my quilt is not going to move in any direction without me moving it.

set stitch length to zero

Before I start any quilting, I warm myself up using a practice sandwich.

Practice Sandwiches - practice makes improvement

You may remember that when I was learning FMQ, I chose to make place mat sized sandwiches for the 2012 FMQ challenge at Insights from Sew Cal Gal (some of the lessons are still available HERE).  Place mats were the perfect size, because I needed something large enough to hold on to and give me time to learn a design, but small enough to be easy to manage under the machine (back then I was using one with a much smaller throat space) and not so big that I felt I was wasting fabric if everything went totally wrong.  Plus, place mats are practical and unless your cooking is truly terrible, no one will be studying your place mat in detail.  We still use the ones I created during the challenge.

I now use smaller practice sandwiches.  My standard is a 10 x 10 black layer cake square, 2 layers of batting (because that is what I like to use in my quilts), and some scrap fabric on the back (a great use of questionable quality fabric that you got in a swap).  It is nice to make your sandwiches out of the same type of materials as your quilt.  I'm not saying you have to use the same exact fabric, but if you plan on using a wool batting, make a sandwich with wool batting.  I like to use two thicknesses of cotton batting, so my sandwiches have two pieces of cotton batting.

Practice quilt sandwich

If you have orphan blocks, they are fabulous for making practice sandwiches.

practice quilt sandwich

Before I start stitching on any quilt, I pull out a practice sandwich and the thread I want to use on my quilt and start quilting.  If the design I am going to use is small, I will stitch it on my practice sandwich.   If it is large or complex, I might just stitch my favorite swirls to remind my muscles what to do, get my tension right, and figure out if today is a good day for quilting (some days I'm just plain too tired or distracted).  If all is going well at the end of my practice sandwich, I will move on to my quilt.

Practice sandwiches also give you an opportunity (off quilt) to try out new designs or threads.  I did this one just before quilting this flower design on a commission quilt.  It gave me a chance to remind myself of the design and remember some of the trouble spots where the design runs into itself.

flower practice sandwich

Sometimes I also stitch the outlines of a block from my quilt, so I can practice out some designs.  For example, I've already stitched out the outlines of the Swoon block here, so I can try out some designs before I move on to my actual quilt.

practice quilt sandwich

Practice sandwiches also give you an opportunity to regulate your speed.  Speed is something that will be different for everyone.  Personally, I like to really pedal to the metal; however, it is not the speed that works best for me.  If I quilt too fast, I tend to jerk the quilt around a bit, making large stitches in a sea of smaller stitches.  If I quilt too slowly, all my stitches are super tiny.  I found out through practice that somewhere between medium and high yields my best results.

Practicing on Real Quilts

I feel it is important to note that at some point you have to "just do it" and try your hands on a real quilt.  Practice sandwiches are great, but there is nothing that will build your muscle memory like completing an entire quilt.

I really got good at the paisley design by filling in the background of all these ornaments.

Vintage Holiday close up

When you first get started, you might notice a difference from the spot you start to the spot you finish.  Don't stress though, it is still perfectly normal and acceptable.  I think you really have to be quilting consistently for a long time to resolve this completely.  I can even notice a difference if I take a break in the middle of my quilt and then continue my stitching.  I think this is pretty normal, and I know that no one other than me (and perhaps a quilting judge) could detect those spots.  Starting with a practice sandwich does help work out some of the early kinks before you start on a quilt.

I also recommend looking for ways you can practice multiple quilting designs on a single quilt.

This is one of my earlier quilts.  I tried out several different quilting designs in the background of these applique blocks.  I tried outline quilting, paisley, spirals, pebbles, leaves, and even some geometric meander in this quilt.

Olivia's Quilt front

Those blocks were all pretty small, but here is an example that gave me plenty of room to practice 5 different quilting designs: my Totally Groovy quilt.

totally groovy FMQ

I chose a different design for each color.  By the end of the quilting process, I was pretty good at all of them.

Sampler quilts also give you a lot of space to try out different things on one quilt.  On this quilt from the How Far Will You Go QAL, I just messed around and had a good time!

HFWYG quilt top 1.2

Practicing on quilts also gives you a chance to try out some new things.  For example, on this mini, I tried out FMQ my handwriting.  I felt confident just going for this one without using a practice sandwich, since I was pretty sure I knew my own handwriting.  It turned out pretty neat.

For my Valentine

Don't think that everything you practice on has to be big.  Mug rugs are perfect practice items too.

birthday mug rug

Anything you practice on, will lead to improvement.

Threads and Needles 

I mostly use Aurifil or Superior Threads for my quilting now.  The path to those choices wasn't smooth.  I was trying to finish a quilt up for charity using a simple meandering design and my gorgeous variegated Superior Thread that matched the quilt perfectly, kept breaking.  I am not exaggerating when I say I could only stitch about 6 to 8 inches before the thread would break.  I was at my wits end!  I went through the troubleshooting list:

  • Rethread your top thread
  • Rethread the bobbin
  • Recheck your tension
  • Change your needle
  • Try a bigger needle
  • Try a smaller needle
  • Clean out your machine (surprisingly this is really important)
  • Go back to a practice sandwich
  • Try a different thread (totally defeating the purpose in this case)
  • Take a break, turn off your machine/walk away for a little while  
Nothing really worked.  I finally broke out a pack of Superior needles (that I was saving for some reason) and gave them a try.  No more problem!  Superior Threads even tells you on the bottom of their spools what size needle to use.

Needles and thread

I had a similar problem with Aurifil threads.  I had started using those Superior needles for all my quilting, and when I tried out Aurifil, it kept breaking.  Again, I was at my wits end.  Everyone raved about this thread, and I had bought a LOT of it.  It pieced nicely, but maybe the stress of FMQ was too much??  On a whim, I switched back to the Schmetz needles I had.  No more breakage.  Go figure!  It was only through trial and error that I figured that all out.  -- on a side note, the Gutermann thread I started my quilting journey with years ago, never broke, regardless of the needle used.

I read recently that ball-point needles should be used for quilting.  I haven't had the chance to try them out yet, but plan to.  They might just be what works for you.

Have a Game Plan for your Quilt

All I mean by this is, think about what design you are going to do, and where you need to start your stitching.  In general, it is recommended that you start in the center of your quilt and work your way out.  The reason?  As you quilt along, the layers of your quilt sandwich will shift a bit, even with the best basting.  If you start on the borders of your quilt and work your way in, you will likely have a lot of excess "something" in the center of your quilt.  If the "something" is the fabric of your quilt top, then you will have pleats on the front of your quilt.  If the "something" is excess backing fabric, then the pleats will be on the back of your quilt.  If the "something" is batting, then you are going to have a big lump in the center of your quilt.

Also, if possible, your game plan should allow for the least amount of quilt in your throat space.  You don't want to start on the left side of your quilt and have the entire thing bunched up in your throat space; it's not impossible, just uncomfortable.

Here's a quick recap of the tips from Part One:

  • Wind a bunch of bobbins
  • Have adequate lighting
  • Start with a fresh needle
  • Warm up with a practice sandwich (the same thickness as your quilt)
  • Practice on real quilts too
  • Have a game plan for your quilt

I hope you check out Part Two.

How do you do it?  Link up your tutorials here (on this or any other quilting subject).


1) NO QUILT POLICE ALLOWED! - if you are making a tutorial, keep it friendly, as if you were teaching your best friend.  If you are visiting a tutorial, please remember that the authors are simply sharing what they have found to work for them.

2) Please link up tutorials from 2014 only.  Feel free to point out any previous tutorial in your new post, but let's try to keep the links current.

3) Visit other linky participants to see how they do it.

4) Did I mention no quilt police allowed?

Thanks for joining me today!