On my recent trip to California I stayed on after the 5-day class at Empty Spools and taught a class for the Monterey Peninsula Quilt Guild. The lobby of my hotel had ocean inspired decor including some gorgeous tropical fish in a huge tank.
We learned clamshell quilting and after I explained all the places and sizes and options for this standard design, I did mention it is also called fish scales and could be used on pictorial quilts. When I returned to my hotel there I noticed the clay pot on the table in the lobby, photo above, etched with this lovely design. It's versatile and always works when you need a nice, even texture.
Below is a photo of clamshells quilted with #100 silk thread on a blue hand dyed cotton. It gives wonderful texture but is still an "organized" design, pleasing to the eye. If you find your lines start sinking at one end, every now and then draw a straight line for reference only to keep lines of clamshells level. These are about 3/8" in size. Larger ones are more difficult to keep even.
If you want funky clamshells let them go downhill, change size or shape.
Make them larger at the bottom row and decrease the size to create perspective, nice for pictorials. Always begin at the bottom of the design, and build up, like building a brick wall.
Below are some fast and wicked "relaxed" clamshells, done at top speed, for a very casual look. Don't worry if they aren't rounded, they are supposed to be loose and casual. You could do a nice pine cone with this design too. They would work great on a busy print, providing texture, but not formality.
We learned many things in that 2-day class. One, you must know your sewing machine and be able to adjust it, and get it to work properly.
If you have your machine serviced before any class, when you get it home check it to see it is OK. Sometimes changes are made and you can't get it to free motion quilt correctly.
If you haven't had it serviced, make sure it is working well for class, cleaned and oiled and ready to go.
Bring your free motion feet to class. Bring the foot control. :-)
If you have a new plexi surround, wash it thoroughly first. They tend to be very sticky when new, and quilts will not move well or at all. Warm soapy water, some white vinegar, buff it dry with a clean flour sack dish towel. Over time and use the surround will get better. If it gets sticky at any time, don't be afraid to wash it.
If you are taking a free motion machine quilting class and are a beginner or haven't done much, take some time ahead of the class to practice daily.
Don't try all sorts of complex designs. Instead, simple curved lines, loops, writing, repetitive shapes will help you get nice even hand movements and smooth stitches. Try for consistency and try to get your machine to work at its best.
Start with one even speed on the machine, and coordinate your hand movement to this speed so the stitches look even and a good length.
For practice or learning motifs, I recommend a fine cotton thread in ecru or a very light color, even white, and a #70 Microtex Sharp needle (Schmetz). Threads include Aurifil #50, Superior MasterPiece cotton, YLI Soft Touch cotton, #60 Mettler cotton, DMC #50 cotton. These are all excellent threads for quilting, top and bobbin.
Wash some great quality muslin, layer it with a good batt like Hobbs Tuscany Wool or Quilters Dream Select cotton, and use ecru or a very light color of thread, top and bobbin, and start in the center of an 18" square practice sandwich. Get the feel of it, the flow, attempt nice even stitches.
Even though you do not set the stitch length when feed dogs are lowered, a good looking stitch for this thread would be measured at about 1.7 mm. If you don't know what it looks like, stitch some at this length with your walking foot. Fine threads require a smaller stitch than the default setting.
Try sketching a curved line on your sample, and then quilt it on or close to the line.
Most often I see much smaller stitches when there is a line compared to quilting with no marked line. You should learn to get the same stitch length for both no marked line and with a marked line, and this takes some practice.
Try some echo quilting - quilt a soft curvy line and then repeat it a scant 1/4" away.
Don't "lazy susan" your quilt. Keep it facing the same direction. If you want to quilt to the west, simply do that, but don't turn the quilt. This will allow you to quilt a large quilt in a home machine when you CANNOT turn it.
Play at your machine. Relax, enjoy the process. Don't be hyper critical, this is not the easiest thing in the world to do, but look at what you quilt and decide how to make it better. Take a break, come back and try it again with that in mind. It is a process; it doesn't all come easily, and immediately. But keep at it!
Above, an example of beginning in the center with a simple curved line and then "playing." Echo anything and everything to learn stitch control, visualizing space, and even stitches. Have fun. Remember, smaller, curvy shapes are the easiest.
I learned a lot in my classes, and hope to use the information to make future teaching better. It was a marvelous trip, with great people, scenery, and delicious fresh food. Thanks to everyone who took care of me, and made my trip delightful. It's good to be home again, but I'm already planning my next class.
Oliver helped me unpack from my trip, and has grown since I was away! I think his fur is getting a little longer too, oh no.... We were so enjoying the very short crewcut style he had at first.
He has spent this week following me around, first in love and astonishment that I came back home, then in glee and joy, and now he is doing sneak attacks and flying out of nowhere to land on me. Usually he likes to attack a knee or ankle, but occasionally he lands on my head. I have a few needle holes in me from these attacks, scars of an ecstatic young cat. He naps when he can take no more excitement.
What did we learn in our class last week? Many things, some new to me, some the old familiar discoveries made by students as we progressed through a variety of free motion skills.
One woman said the best thing she learned was to have the quilt move freely, and that was accomplished with a Supreme Slider from Pat LaPierre at http://www.freemotionslider.com/
This tool is invaluable for smooth quilting and even stitches, but be sure and tape even the self-stick ones to the bed of your machine, with at least one piece of tape to the machine itself, not the surround. Plexi surrounds tend to move in class and then the Slider moves, and you are quilting through it along with the quilt. Not good for needles. Or the Slider.
Lower the feed dogs when you use a Slider. The repeat movement if they are "up" can create a dome around the opening that can be permanent and ruin the Slider.
Another thing that is so important is how the thread is positioned on the machine for the best possible delivery, stitch, tension, no breaking needles or thread.
Larger cones or spools need to be horizontal so the tension is accurate. Another good option is a cone thread holder. One student had one, but not the spindle for the thread cone. The result? More problems than one could imagine. As soon as we had one with a spindle and it was set up properly, perfect stitches.
Many times the thread winds around the little end caps that hold a spool on the horizontal spindle. My advice? I never use the end caps and I have never had the thread fall off the spindle. There is no chance of the thread winding around and getting caught, causing tight tension or broken thread or needles or everything.
I fixed many thread pathway "issues" and then quilting can progress smoothly. If you have to stop constantly with problems your quilting will suffer. Being able to have confidence in your machine and the setup for quilting lets you quilt with freedom and you will improve dramatically.
Thread color was such a big quagmire of indecision. The only way you will know what looks right on the fabric you are quilting is to try quilting with the thread on a small swatch/sandwich first. The days of putting a spool of thread on the quilt and saying YES! are over. Since I began using fine #100 silk for quilting, all preconceived ideas of color went out the window as I began to explore what worked.
Yesterday I quilted some samples of a new design for a handout and used bright fuschia silk thread on deep brown/purply/mottled fabric and it looked great. Brown or purple or eggplant also looked fabulous if you want this design to be background and recede around a focal point. Your thread color choices determine what happens to the visuals in a quilt.
I also discoverd that most people do have one "better" side for feathers, and it is usually the left side. Some could do the right side of a vine better than the left, but this was not common. Work until both sides look acceptable, then quilt the same thing horizontally, at an angle, upside down, to increase your skills.
Batting does make a difference. Not only in ease of learning a design, but in the final result. We used wool batting for the extra pouf and dimension, and also were able to flatten backgrounds with more dense quilting.
Leaving areas of puff showcases your designs and draw the eye, creating great visual dimension. Do not quilt the life out of your quilt.
Stencils can work for you! Many who used them had delightful results, a beautiful design and their own freehand work surrounding it or complementing it. The gingko stencil was particularly lovely.
Thread tension changed with the pilot. Many times the way a person moves hands changes the proper tension to bad tension, tight threads. When I quilted at the machine, changing no settings, the right hand movement and stitch length let the tension setting work, do the job, and create lovely stitching.
Larger erratic stitches made for too-tight tension, and diminished any puff in the design. The correct stitch length for the thread type resulted in perfect tension. It also needed tweaking for the type of design. Long soft curves might work at a tension of #3, whereas close small frothy bubbles (in photo below) needed a tension of #2 for the stitches to be perfect.
Remember to reset tension on electronic machines each time you power up.
Smooth, even hand movements are key. That is one thing I can't help you do. You have to acquire the mental discipline to keep hands moving smoothly and evenly to achieve those beautiful stitches and smooth designs.
If you have to lift hands to move them to another area of the quilt, stop the machine, move them, take a brief break for your eyes by looking up and re-focusing, and then begin again with the needle up. Try to avoid"walking" your hands over the surface of the quilt as you run the machine. Many do not realize this is a bad habit until I point it out.
Try and quilt a bit every day. By the end of our 5-day class improvement was amazing and noticeable.
Yesterday I quilted for the first time in a week, and it felt wonderful. I also discovered Oliver can now sit on the back shelf of my sewing cabinet and stare at the moving needle and the quilt and become totally mesmerized, almost in a trance.
Obviously he has never seen this before and is entranced with it. He has quickly discovered sitting on quilts, sleeping on quilts, sleeping under quilts, attacking quilts, but now he likes to see them being quilted.
While I was away for nine days to the Pacific Coast near Monterey, California, spring has arrived here in Wisconsin. The snow is gone, it will be close to 60 degrees today, the grass is showing a bit of green. I leave, and wow, the snow disappears!
I had the most marvelous class at Empty Spools (http://www.emptyspoolsseminars.com/) at Asilomar near Pacific Grove, right on the ocean. It was serene and restful, and my class of 24 motivated women accomplished great things with their machine quilting. If you want to take your work to a new level, please consider this 5-day class with me next year. I'll be there for Session II, March 25-30, and Session V, May 27 - June 1. There are many other great teachers there in each session, it is a feast for quilters. And the food is nice too!
So much has happened while I was away that it will take me a little time to catch up. Meanwhile I will be thinking of some of the things I learned from my classes there and a wonderful 2-day class for the Monterey Peninsula Quilt Guild afterwards. I was inspired by creative ideas and questions, by problems encountered, by helpful suggestions from everyone. I will write about it soon and we can all learn.
My new Gingko design was successful, and Apple Core was a hit and looked stunning when everyone tried it on various fabrics and with thread colors that complemented rather than contrasted. It was FUN. My students worked very hard, put in long hours, and listened and experimented, and the results were worth it.
I've also had requests for a continuation of my monthly quilting tips on my website, which I shall try to do once again, but am fighting the old and slow and temperamental computer used for that. I may have to re-do the website on my new equipment, and if that is the case, it will be a bit of time before the tips re-appear, because I have other commitments right now. Please be patient.
One of these projects is a regular column in American Quilter Magazine, the AQS member publication, but also available on news stands. I will be answering your questions there about machine quilting, so watch for the upcoming first column and email me your questions. I will read them all, choose one topic that recurs, and answer it in the next issue. Hope you enjoy it!
Meanwhile, it is time to unpack, play with Oliver who missed me but enjoyed his time with his cat Dad, and get back into my usual routine. Paducah is right around the corner too.
Get out some beautiful fabric, batt, and thread, put in a fresh needle, and do some play at your machine today and everyday. And keep quilting, your work gets better every day.
I can't wait to sit down by the fire in Phoebe Hearst Hall and relax and watch everyone arrive for classes at Asilomar next week. I am busy packing with an awful lot of help from Oliver, who is making a 2-day process take a week. But gosh it is so much fun, for him at least.
If you don't know about this conference, it is called Empty Spools Seminars, and is held just outside of Monterey, CA right on the Pacific coast, in a state park named Asilomar, or Refuge by the Sea.
Go to http://www.emptyspoolsseminars.com/ to see who will be teaching, read about the seminar, and perhaps sign up for a class with me next year. Class registration opens towards the end of May, and classes do fill quickly.
It is my chance to teach the same group for 5 days. We explore the important basics, and then play with motifs and design on a small pieced project. I don't make one as a sample because in my experience that limits creativity. Here is a chance for you to come up with a plan for quilting, and I will help you and give suggestions constantly.
No two projects are alike, and some who are there to learn choose to not make a project but instead to create a library of samples for future reference.
Whatever your choice I insist on your use of the best tools and materials, the right color thread, the right needle, etc. so even this small library of examples will be done well. If you are unsure about threads and color and have room to bring extra, do that. The Cotton Patch has an on-site shop for purchases of fabric and thread and all sorts of things as well.
Two really helpful items to bring if you can are a small table for your machine such as the Sew EZ, and a Supreme Slider for the machine bed so the quilt will move smoothly.
Our classroom tends to have a few dark areas away from the windows, so an extra light is nice as is a seat cushion. This year they don't want us to have food and snacks in the classroom, so save those for breaks outdoors or at meals.
Kathy was the classroom assistant last year, and she made this beautiful project and quilted it in class, combining various motifs and techniqes we covered to create her own design, a one-of-a-kind.
It looks so wonderful to see long, flowing lines in quilting, by hand, home machine, longarm. But of all the tools we use to create quilting, the home machine is perhaps most difficult to master to get long smooth flowing lines.
In the photo, left, some of the feathers are many inches long, and these, for a home machine quilter, are by far the most difficult to do well. Keeping a smooth line while moving the quilt instead of the machine or a needle is tres difficult.
If you have picked designs that seemed "easy" because they were simple large loops or big floral motifs but found that quilting them was a huge challenge, you will have already experienced the issues involved with larger designs, done with a home sewing machine.
Smaller, repetitive shapes are far easier to do. Circles, rocks and pebbles, small clamshells, 1" or smaller marked feathers, Diane-shiko, stippling---all are easier to do than an 8" 4-petal flower! Yet that flower design looks easy to a beginner, and can result in total frustration.
If you begin with designs that are small and curvy, chances of success are greater. As you get familiar with moving the quilt instead of the needle to draw and design as you quilt, or to follow a marked line, you definitely can add designs that include longer lines.
The most difficult part of an ornate feather design is the central line, or "spine" and many times even as an experienced quilter I choose to do these after quilting for awhile on other easier designs for a good warmup. Then when things are clicking along well I do long demanding lines, especially long parallel lines.
Straight lines as in a marked grid are more difficult than long curved lines.
Diane-shiko (the background motif around the feathers, above, was something I came up with for students who could not follow this design with a marked stencil, or could not easily do a 1/2" marked cross-hatch grid. The small curves are easier by far for most quilters than marking all those curves and staying on the lines, seeing the lines as you quilt, or doing a straight grid.
Doing these long flowing lines is natural if you are moving the machine or the needle, as in longarm quilting or hand quilting. Both of these are an extension of your long years of writing, and quilting with these tools is akin to using a pen and paper.
Home machine quilting throws up huge obstacles to get those long, flowing "ice skating" kinds of designs. We have only a small zone around the needle where we move the quilt smoothly, also a challenge, it's difficult to see around and behind the needle, and we have to move our hands, readjust the bulk and weight of the quilt, and proceed with that smooth design. It's not easy.
Also, if you are quilting freehand feathers, leaves, fronds, etc., the more flowing and smooth they are the better they look. They are more visually pleasing if they naturally emerge from a stem, vine, and so on, rather than look clunky and abrupt as you stop quilting, readjust the quilt and your hands, take a deep breath, look around and behind the needle to see where you are going, and then try ever so carefully to begin quilting and not get a little zig or zag or uneven stitches to mar the "flow." Trying to keep the smoothness is really difficult, and takes practice.
Many times I suggest merging, rather than abrupt turns, as in the feathers above. Try and have one line slide out from another or merge back into a shape smoothly. Learn where it is best to stop the machine so you can readjust your hands and quilt.
Try putting the needle in the "up" position or start very slowly as you resume quilting, rather than starting up quickly with the needle in the "down" position when you stopped to move your hands. This will make less of a noticeable start/stop spot.
Adding long flowing designs takes your quilting to the next level. The smoothness of long curves and soft shapes really defines puff, gives great visual dimension, and looks organic and natural.
Be careful when quilting long lines or big feathers, leaves and flowers, especially central lines as that is when your hands tend to go much too fast for the speed of the machine you are used to using on smaller shapes. Definitely you can let your hands move faster, in fact shapes and long lines tend to be smoother if you do, but you must run the machine faster to keep the stitches consistent. If you have stitches in these long designs that are much bigger, speed up your machine. You can run it slower when doing smaller designs.
I use different speeds all the time to adjust to the speed of my hands, rather than doing it all at one speed. I quilted that way from the very beginning.
Contrast shapes like this with smaller ones, and with geometric ones like straight lines, or chevron quilting.
Quilting on a home machine is a big challenge, but sitting at your own machine, hunkered down around your quilt, listening to music, hearing the sweet sound of the motor purring along as you work, is so worth it. Getting better takes work, and thought, and planning. Each skill adds to one you already know.
Keep quilting! Your work gets better every day. Diane
I have two books about machine quilting on your home sewing machine, published by AQS.
Here is my first book, giving you an overall guide to quilting on your home machine. It helps talk quilters down from the ledge, jump in and quilt their tops successfully. Soon to be "out of print" - thanks for keeping it alive for so long.