Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Little Houses in the Big Woods

One of my favourite things about free-motion machine quilting is how the designs seem to take on a life of their own. The line designs for this quilt began simply as chimney smoke. But as the smoke cleared the houses the design morphed into a much looser windblown version. And as it fell to the ground the design melted into a misty ribbon-like vapour.

I didn't start out with this in mind, but as I played with the designs on paper and later with my sewing machine on the frame, the tightly curled chimney smoke opened out into a variety of much looser designs. The relatedness of the designs gave the quilt continuity, while the variations gave interest. It was fun and quick once I got to the actual quilting. Best of all it was finished for Christmas.

The red schoolhouse blocks for this project were gently resting in a basket for about ten years. My friend Rosemary Titley-Bayes kindly offered to put the blocks together and add the borders so it would be ready to feature in our new DVD. Little Houses in the Big Woods was machine quilted using a JUKI TL98P on the New English Quilting frame using King Tut#920 Sands of Time on top and Bottom Line pre-wounds in the bobbin. It was featured in the UK Popular Patchwork 2007 Christmas issue.

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Going Out of the Lines

This little quilt took years to piece. I was piecing it when my children were quite small. As the Christmas season approached I'd get the urge to find my stash of Christmas fabric, get it all out and ponder about what project to work on. I think the first year all I finished was the star in the centre. The following year I made it through the first border. There were probably a couple of years when I only managed to get it out, look at it and put it back again. But one year I found some great stripy fabric that went perfectly and I was able to finish the piecing.

By this time I was machine quilting on a SuperQuilter frame. I'd recently upgraded my sewing machine from a 30 year old school's Bernina 808 to a JUKI TL98P and I was loving those extra 2 inches. This quilt presented me with one of my first opportunities of 'going outside the lines.' I was fed up with stitch in the ditch. I wanted to try an overall pattern. Many hand quilters do this to great advantage. Look at some of the Amish quilts we all love so much, and you'll see that the quilting has a life of it's own and often ignores the piecing pattern completely.

I used a gold shade from the MasterPiece range, Wheat Fields #157. I choose this fine thread to blend in to the pieced fabric underneath, giving me texture without drawing too much attention to itself. The quilting pattern is one that I stumbled on myself. It's a looser, more flowing version of a smokey spiral pattern that I'd used earlier to come out of chimneys. I called it Filigree Scroll work. It's a free flowing pattern, easy to move with in any direction.

Well, it took years to piece, but it was quilted in an hour. It did take a real effort of the will to ignore the piecing and cross over the lines. But I'm glad I did. Standing back from the finished quilt, I realized that an overall quilting pattern could hold the quilt together visually as well as practically. I also like the way a curvy pattern helped the quilt to hang more gracefully. Now I use this quilt each Christmas. But I keep it handy all the rest of the year as a teaching tool to demonstrate the value of going outside the lines.

Thursday, 4 December 2008

Poinsettia Stocking

My daughter Rosie loves pink, and I'd promised Rosie a home made stocking for Christmas. So I used pink fleece and cut and machined a stocking shape. As you can see, I've leaned toward a more feminine dancer shape for the stocking. Then I used free-motion machine embroidery on a table top frame to create poinsettia flowers. If you don't have a table top frame, you could get the same result using a hoop to stretch the netting.

I've used a fine sparkly netting as a background for the poinsettia flowers. This was stretched between the first two leaders on the frame. I needed a bold line of stitching to outline the petals and keep the netting from fraying. The King Tut range from Superior Threads was ideal for this. Ramses Red #914 was the perfect colour.
I used the needle to draw the petal shapes on the netting. Later I took the netting off the frame and cut out the flowers. I went on to stitch them on a stocking but they could be used in other ways. Take a look at the slide show on the right hand side of this post. It will give you a good idea how this project came together.
Using a see-through fabric is wierd! You can see just how your sewing machine is working. I've used this same technique to create fairy wings. Does anyone have other ideas?

Monday, 1 December 2008

More for your Money

Why bigger is better.

The larger thread cones are, yard-by-yard, more economical. Here in the UK if you buy a big cone of King Tut, you get 2000 yds. of extra-long staple, really-grown-in-Egypt, cotton for £16.99. If you opt for the smaller spool because it seems cheaper, you pay £5.75 for 500 yds. It's the same great stuff, but you're actually paying 30 pence per yard more for the same thread on the smaller spools. The coins are different in America, but the principles remain the same.

The hidden cost of smaller spools:

We all have an unfortunate habit of underestimating the amount of thread we need to complete our projects. Rather than spend the £16.99 to purchase the 2000 yards. We think we could manage with 2 smaller spools giving 1000 yards. So we purchase 2 small spools at £5.75 each, costing a mere £11.50. We go home begin our project, get two thirds of the way through and run out of thread. So we drive back to the shop, pay petrol and parking and hope the matching thread is still in stock. If we’re lucky we purchase another 2 of the smaller spools, because we learned our lesson and don’t want to run out again, and spend another £11.50. Now we’re up to £23.00 plus the cost of parking and petrol or P&P and the delay if we're ordering online. All told, we just spent £6.00 more than if we’d purchased the larger cone plus the added expense and aggravation of the extra journey.

The larger top feed cones also run more smoothly on your machine. This means less thread tension related problems. Most newer sewing machines have integral thread stands that accommodate these larger spools. If you have an older machine we have a thread stand that will allow any sewing machine to take advantage of the larger top feed spools.

Bulk buying saves money, and with thread you don't have to worry about it going off! Thread has a great shelf life, keep it out of the sun and dust free and it will always be there when you need it.

Saturday, 29 November 2008

Lines and Spaces

Here's a fun table runner project, quick and easy enough to still finish in time for Christmas.

Find some Christmas fabric that you may already have in your stash. Fabric with a prominent motif, as in the picture, works well. You'll need about a half yard or even a bit less. Use a rotary cutter to get it to a useful size, one that fits on your table, dresser or sideboard. Then add a contrasting border. This project is small enough to work well on or off a frame.

Choose one of the flatter needle punched waddings and a backing fabric. I like to use a patterned backing fabric because it hides any mistakes. For the quilting, I've chosen a top thread that blends in with the background fabric. Here I've used a thread from the So Fine! range of Superior Threads #434 Misty Blue. For the bobbin, I used a BottomLine thread that disappeared into the backing.

As you can see, the quilting design is a simple free-motion combination of loops and squiggles. I've imitated the wire hangers of the wooden ornaments on the fabric. My only aim was to miss the motifs. In machine quilting the unquilted spaces are every bit as important as the quilted ones. Quilting around the 'images' on the fabric makes the un-quilted spaces pop up. This is easy to do and creates a great look. Start to finish it only takes a couple of hours.

Life is alot like quilting. Simplicity is powerful. We often try to cram far too much into this Christmas season. Doing less will allow us to appreciate what we do even more. Quiet and creative spaces can serve to frame the more active times in the next few weeks. Sometimes it is what we don't do that makes all the difference.

Wednesday, 26 November 2008


MasterPiece is also extra-long staple Egyptian cotton and as the name suggests it was created for piecing.

It's a very fine thread in plain glowing colours, ideal for flat seams and sharp points. It also works very well in the bobbin. MasterPiece seems to disappear into the fabric which makes it perfect for applique and other hand sewing such as putting on the binding. But it came as something of a surprise to the manufacturers, when professional long arm quilters started using MasterPiece for machine quilting.

This photo shows MasterPiece used for free-motion machine quilting. Despite its fine weight, it is surprisingly strong enough to cope with the demands of professional quilters. And if its OK for the Pros, it's going to be just great for me. The machine quilting detail in the photo was created using a JUKI on a New English Quilter table top frame. I've used MasterPiece here to create a more subtle texture. Notice how it shows up against the two different fabric backgrounds.

This quilt was designed as a thread sampler. Its a stripy quilt with just two fabrics; a plain shot cotton yarn dye and a contrasting batik. The quilting pattern is an overall free-motion mussel shell design. I've kept the background simple and the quilting pattern constant to show how a variety of threads perform against the contrasting background. I'll be using it for other posts, but for now I wanted to highlight the subtle beauty, strength and versatility of MasterPiece thread.

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

What's in a Name or Fab Fibres

Quilters love cotton. It's our favourite fibre! But all cottons are not equal.

Currently, China, the US, India, Pakistan and Brazil are the world leaders in cotton production. But in terms of quality nothing comes close to Egyptian cotton. Egypt is renowned for producing long fibres of uniform length, which are stronger, finer and have greater elasticity than any other fibre.The long staple or long fiber of Egyptian-grown cotton means that there is more continuous fiber to use when creating threads or yarns.

The King Tut range from Superior Threads is extra-long staple Egyptian cotton. Extra-long staple means that the fibres are long and strong resulting in a minimum of lint. These long fibres create a resilient thread that won't snap or break under pressure. Because they've begun with the finest fibres, Superior Threads don't need to add nasty chemical coating to the thread to make it less linty or stronger. This is a real plus for machine quilters. Strong, low lint thread means a cleaner sewing machine and less down time for us. This gives machine quilters more time for doing what we love best.

By the way, mind the label. Some threads claim to be Egyptian cotton but they're grown in Brazil. The extra-long staple Egyptian cotton in the King Tut range really does come from Egypt. Now all those funny names like Pyramids, Sands of Time, Oasis and Pharaoh's Treasure begin to make sense.

Sunday, 16 November 2008

"All's Well That Ends Well"

"The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together."

Shakespeare puts this quote in the mouth of a minor character in All's Well That Ends Well. In Act IV, scene III of the play, a Florentine lord is discussing gain and loss in life. But textile artists are fond of the quote for other reasons.
Ending well can be daunting. I think its why we have so many UFO's. Beginning is easy. We generate great ideas and fabrics quickly come together into a top. But often we get stuck in the quilting part of the process. Machine quilting can be the answer to this problem. But sometimes machine quilters also get stuck.
Most machine quilting problems boil down to needles and thread. Using a Schmetz 100/16 Topstitch needle for free-motion quilting and changing it regularly, solves the needle problem. So let's talk about thread. Once again, there are so many different kinds of thread to choose from in various fibres, sizes and prices. Many claim to be perfect for machine quilting. How do you separate 'the good from the ill?' And why bother? Is there really all that much difference between threads.
Well, the short answer is, yes! Poor quality thread will shred, break and muck up your sewing machine. Machine quilting, especially free-motion quilting puts considerable strain on the thread. Pulling the quilt sandwich every which way under the needle can cause poor quality thread to shred or break. The ideal machine quilting thread needs to be strong. You can test the strength of your thread simply by breaking it. Wrap some thread around your index finger on both hands and pull it hard until it breaks. Do this with different spools of thread in your stash. Do it often enough and you will have a feel for the strength of the thread. Cheap and cheerful bargain-barrel over locker thread, for instance, will break very easily. Waxed hand-quilting thread, which you should never put on a sewing machine, might cut your fingers!
We want machine quilting thread to be able to glide easily through the needle and , of course, the thread path of the sewing machine. So it needs to be as lint free as possible. You can check the lint by simply holding thread up to the light or against a contrasting surface. The fuzz from linty thread will bung up your sewing machine. So will any coating that some manufacturers use to disguise the lint. Lint and any coating will end up under the thread plate and also in the tension disc plates. This causes lots of machine related problems.
Good thread is worth the bother. And the more you know about threads, the better equipped you'll be to distinguish the good from the ill.

Saturday, 15 November 2008

The Needle's Eye

When I started out machine quilting, I was mystified by needles. There were so many different sizes and kinds. I wasn't sure which one to use. I wasn't even completely sure how to change the needle on my machine. Yes, I know that this is pathetic! But I'm sure that at least a few other people may find themselves in a similar position.

Experience is a good teacher. Now I know that using the right needle makes all the difference. In my piecing days, when I was just playing with colour and patterns, the needle didn't matter too much. Later when I started to machine quilt and especially when I began to free-motion quilt on a table top frame, I came to realize that the needle was very important. When I started breaking needles, I was forced to find my sewing machine manual and figure out how to change the needle. Then I had to figure out which type of needle would be best for machine quilting and why.

Free-motion quilting puts a lot of strain on the needle and thread. This is because the rate at which the fabric moves under the needle is no longer automatic and consistent. As soon as you lower the feed dogs for free-motion quilting, YOU are the one guiding the movement of the fabric under the needle. And if you're new and unsure, then the fabric movement can be variable and somewhat erratic. This is true for all free-motion quilting whether you move the fabric or the machine.

In this situation, the ideal needle needs a sharp point to pierce through the layers of the quilt sandwich. It needs a deep groove to protect the thread and most importantly, the ideal needle needs a large eye so the thread has room to maneuver as the quilt moves every which way under the needle. If the eye of the needle is too small, it will trap the thread causing the thread to shred or break. This can also cause the needle to bend or break.

Many needles claim to be good for machine quilting but there is only one that meets all these requirements; the Topstitch Needle. The Topstitch needle has a very sharp point and a deep groove to protect the special threads we love to machine quilt with. But most importantly, the eye of the Topstitch Needle is twice as large as an ordinary needle. This means that the thread won't get trapped in the needle's eye, causing it to shred or break.

Now, I only ever use one needle because the Topstitch is ideal for all machine quilting threads and projects. I recommend the Schmetz Topstitch 100/16 for free-motion quilting on or off a frame. If you're a pro using very fine thread, go down to a Schmetz Topstitch 90/14. If you're here in the UK and can't find the right size Topstitch needles at your local shop give us a ring - we keep them in stock. Size matters! With free-motion quilting, the bigger the needle's eye the better!

The Source

Before going any further, I want to give credit where it's due. Just about everything I know about needles and threads, I've learned from Bob Purcell. Bob's the president and owner of the American company; Superior Threads. He is also a captivating teacher. I mean this literally - he wraps his students in threads!

I stumbled into the Superior Threads website several years ago when I was having trouble with needle and thread breakage. I thought that this might have something to do with the thread. So I asked my American quilting friends about the threads that they were using for machine quilting. Everybody said Superior Threads.

So I looked them up. The Superior Threads website has fantastic education pages. I learned more in a couple of hours pouring over Bob's education pages than in all my previous 25 years of trial and error. This summer I got to meet Bob at the Festival of Quilts in Birmingham and attend a couple of his lectures. They were brilliant. Now that I have a PhD. in Threadology I feel qualified to pass on 'the Knowledge.' Bob Purcell will be back in the UK again next summer giving a few more lectures. Sign up ASAP - they fill up fast. Meanwhile you can visit their website: and read Bob's education pages. I strongly recommend a visit to 'the Source'.

Thursday, 13 November 2008

The Right Stuff

Sewing is really all about needles and thread. It's easy to loose sight of this, especially when we get great gizmos and gadgets; sewing machines that do everything but make a cup of tea, frames to properly tension our quilt sandwich, lasers for copying a pattern, speed controls and stitch regulators. All these contraptions, useful though they are, can make us forget that sewing is really all about needles and thread.

Machine quilting is no exception. When I started out, years ago, I just used whatever came to hand. But I soon found out that that just using any old needle or thread could cause lots of problems. If you've ever been frustrated with all the 'down time' caused by machine tension troubles and/or broken needles and thread, you'll know what I mean. We need to become as picky about good quality needles and thread as we are about the quality of our fabrics.

A very large percentage, indeed most, machine quilting problems boil down to needles and threads. This is so important that I'm going to dedicate the next few posts to an in depth look at the ideal needles and threads to use for machine quilting.

Sunday, 9 November 2008

The Quilt in the Closet

When I was a little girl, my mom had a special box she kept in the linen closet at the top of the stairs. Inside the box was a 1930's Dresden Plate quilt made by her grandmother. From time to time I would rummage around under the sheets and towels to find the box, get it down and carefully take out the beautiful old quilt. I loved that quilt. It captured my imagination. I loved to pore over the fabric and trace the stitching with my fingers. I liked to imagine my great grandmother making it and I decided that when I grew up I would make a quilt just like it.

Years later, I found myself living with my English husband in the UK with 3 children under three. I took an adult education quilting course to keep sane and became well and truly hooked. Over the next 10 years, I had 3 more children and made lots of tops. I loved collecting fabric and playing with pattern and colour. But I struggled with the quilting. Life was busy. I felt guilty about rarely finishing my projects. Quilting by hand was not a remote possibility. I was bored with stitch in the ditch but found free motion machine quilting a pain in the neck. My collection of UFO's (Un Finished Objects) grew with my guilt.

In 2003, my mom gave me a table top quilting frame for Christmas, probably my best ever present. I've been happily free-motion machine quilting ever since. Most of my UFO's have disappeared but I still haven't made my Dresden Plate. I will soon, I have a great collection of 1930's fabric!