Thursday, 26 February 2009

Charity Quilts

A few years a go we hosted a charity quilt contest with UK Patchwork and Quilting Magazine for Project Linus. The challenge was to create a themed stripy quilt suitable for a child - tots through to teens. The theme could be anything from apples, butterflies, cats, dogs, trucks and trains, pirates or princesses. The judges were looking for themes that were clearly evident in the choice of fabrics and quilting designs.
We kept the project fun and simple so the quilts were quick and easy to finish. And while not mandatory, we hoped that entrants would donate their finished quilts to Project Linus.

The challenge was a huge success. The editors were delighted as it was the biggest response yet to an appeal by the magazine and nearly 100 quilts were donated to Project Linus.
It was such fun to see all those quilts and appreciate the creativity and goodwill of all the quilters. I'd like to pick out out a few of the things that made these quilts work.

  • Simplicity - the piecing was so simple that people were free to focus on the theme. When my son was 3, I let him choose some fabric for his quilt from an online shop. He was so thrilled when it came in the post. But as he opened the parcel he said; "Please mom, Don't cut it up!" That got me laughing! I just put some borders around it, backed it in bright non pil fleece and free-motion quilted around all the cars and trucks. It was so simple and he loved it.

  • Fun fabrics - there are so many fantastic fabrics - having a theme helped to give focus. Sometimes, complicated piecing can get in the way. It can be fun to let the fabric speak for itself. Some fabric would be gorgeous just as a wholecloth quilt. We found that when the piecing is simple the quilting can take the center stage. I loved using lots of fun threads to make the quilting stand out.

  • Comfort - many of the quilts were backed in fleece which made them soft and cuddly. Fleece is a fantastic backing for kids quilts. It's great for charity quilts too. Make sure that the fleece is good quality non-pil polar fleece. Then it will stay in great shape with years of use. I had to make sure that the fleece was not stretched too tightly on my frame otherwise it scrunched up when I took it off. I used a Topstitch 100/16 needle with Bottom Line in the bobbin and lots of different colourful and fun threads like Rainbows, King Tut and Metallics on the top.
  • Time limit - there's nothing quite like a deadline to get people motivated. I'm great at starting things but having an end date certainly helps me to get it done.

Here's a quilting detail from the Ice Cream and Cake Stripy. Click on the image for a great close up. Notice the outine of the cakes in Rainbows #801 Jester. It was fun being whimsical on this one.

Monday, 23 February 2009

Cowboy Party

We're planning a cowboy party at our house this weekend. I was inspired by my trip out West a couple of weeks ago. Pete, the youngest, turns 9 this Saturday. So we're getting our cowboy outfits together and planning games and food. I've collected some fun cowboy and horse fabric over the years. I'm using some of it to make kerchiefs and bunting. I'm also going to try to throw together a quick table runner. I'll let you know how it turns out.
If anyone out there has any good ideas about food or games or decorations, I'd love to hear it. If you leave a comment after the post, other people could enjoy your ideas.


Trouble Shooting

TNT is a helpful mnemonic for trouble shooting when it comes to thread related problems. It reminds me to check the Thread Path, the Needle and the Tension.
If my thread breaks or the tension goes wonky, the first place I check is the thread path. Free-motion machine quilting is relatively fast paced on a table top frame. And sometimes the thread jumps out of place and catches somewhere along the thread path which stops the steady flow of thread. A quick check to make sure the thread is moving smoothly from the cone to the needle is my first check when I'm trouble shooting.

A word here about spools and cones; the smaller spools and the larger, more economical cones are wound differently. Notice the smaller spools in the bottom front of the photo. The thread on these spools is straight or parallel wound and intended to come off the spool from the side, either from the front or back. But it should not come from the top as that creates drag. Now look at the larger cones in the back of the photo. These larger cones are cross wound. Look closely and you'll see the criss cross pattern of the thread. The thread on these cones is intended to come off from the top. Most newer sewing machines have a facility for this and older sewing machines can still take advantage of the larger cones by using a thread stand. Whether you use smaller spools or the larger cones, make sure that your thread is unwinding the way it was intended.
Once you've checked the thread path move on to the needle. We often hesitate to change the needle but the benefit of changing the needle is worth the bother of doing it. Make sure that you're using the right needle. For machine quilting use a Topstitch 90/14. If you're free-motion quilting on or off a frame move up to a Topstitch 100/16. Topstitch needles are ideal for all types of quiting and all types of threads. The eye of the Topstitch needle is twice as large as other needles.This allows the thread to move smoothly through the eye. Many times thread breakage is simply due to the eye of the needle being too small. A Topstitch needle will solve this problem. Needles get dull and sometimes bent with use. So change the needle with each new project. If you're having trouble with thread breakage, and you've checked the thread path, try changing the needle. This often solves the problem.
Finally, check your tension. Again many people are worried about altering the tension of their sewing machines. Sometimes we're told by the sewing machine guy, " Never touch the tension. Tension is set at the factory." Please ignore this advice. Factory tension setting is usually geared to making clothes. Quilting puts different demands on the sewing machine. Be brave and learn to play with your tension until you get it right. The rule of thumb is that machine quilting, especially free-motion quilting needs a lower tension. So take your tension way down almost to nothing. It should go all loopy underneath when you do this. Then bring the tension up until the loops disappear. The tension dial on my JUKI goes from naught to 4 and I have it set to one. Every machine is different. Set aside some time to play with the tension on your machine so you get to know your machine better. Learning how to adjust the tension on your machine to accommodate different kinds of thread and stitching will make you a happier quilter!

Saturday, 21 February 2009

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Bobbin threads come in all kinds. Let's take the 'good' first. If you are keen to match fibres for piecing cotton fabrics, MasterPiece is perfect. MasterPiece is 100% extra-long staple Egyptian grown cotton in gorgeous shimmering colours. Being a fine weight it works well in the bobbin. You can wind your own from the spool or enjoy the convenience of pre-wounds in packs of 144, 72 or 12 bobbins.

For machine quilting there are other equally good choices. Bottom Line is a polyester thread designed specially for the bobbin, but it's also great for detail quilting, embroidery, applique and binding. It's a very fine smooth thread that comes in 50 colours. I prefer to use Bottom Line in the bobbin for machine quilting. I found, particularly in a heavily quilted or embroidered project, that cotton in the top and the bobbin made it stiff. But Bottom Line in the bobbin keeps even a very heavily quilted project soft and supple. The slick surface of this filament poly makes it a good choice to pair with specialty threads like metallics or heavy cotton threads because it won't grab or snag the top thread. Again Bottom Line comes in large spools that you can use to wind your own bobbins. It also comes in pre-wounds for ordinary and long-arm machines.
This heavily quilted project from the Superior Threads Seminar would have been stiff with cotton in the bobbin. Bottom Line kept it soft and supple.
Now for the 'bad and the ugly'. The more I learn about thread the less willing I am to run poor quality thread through the thread path on the top of the machine. Linty threads mess up the machine, threads that have coatings on them to get rid of the lint gunk up the machine, and weak threads will break and cause all sorts of tension problems. Since I care about my machine and my quilting projects, I now have a pile of threads that I'm no longer willing to risk running through the top of my machine. But it seems a waste to just throw them away.
The good news is that many of these poor quality threads will work fine in the bobbin. Bobbin thread doesn't have to go through the tension discs or the needle, this means that, as a rule, bobbin threads cause much less trouble than top threads. So for fun, less precious projects, I can use these up in the bobbin. For anything important, I'm sticking to the good stuff.

Friday, 20 February 2009

Down Under

Forget Australia. This one's about bobbins and bobbin threads. Tucked away under the thread plate, bobbins and bobbin threads are sometimes out of sight and out of mind. But the right bobbin thread can make a big difference.
I have a confession to make. I hate winding bobbins. That means I love using pre-wounds. First of all, pre-wounds can hold up to 3 times as much thread as the bobbins that you wind yourself. When I'm in the middle of a machine quilting project, I really hate to have to stop and change the bobbin - it stops the creative flow. So being able to keep going for longer is a big plus for me. And when the bobbin does eventually run out, I have another all ready to slip in. I don't have the aggravation of winding a bobbin myself. It's pure convenience and I'm grateful for it every time.
Precision factory winding means the bobbin thread is wound evenly. And that's the second reason to consider pre-wounds. Even winding is a big issue for many machines. An uneven winding can cause thread breakage and other tension related problems. At the Superior Threads Seminar last week we needed to wind some bobbins for a project. All the gals at my table were laughing at the wonky bobbins that our machines were coming up with. We gave up in the end and used some pre-wounds.The precision factory winding on the Superior Threads pre-wounds is so tight and even that you can take off the cardboard sides and the thread still stays on the bobbin. Hard to believe but true!

Most of the machines on the market (70%) will take pre-wounds. You can follow this link to the Superior Threads education pages to check on the compatibility of your machine. If you're sewing machine savvy, you can also just try one out. If you're in the UK contact me (use this link to the website and click contact us) and I'll send you a freebie to try out. If you're in the USA Superior Threads offer a 'Try me Special' of 6 pre-wound bobbins in assorted colors for $4.00. I use a Janome 6600 for piecing and a JUKI TL98 P for free-motion machine quilting on my table-top New English Quilter frame. Both machines take pre-wounds without any problems. Next post I'll talk about what type of threads are good to use in the bobbin and why.

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Stress Lines

I'm feeling adventurous, so let's tackle a popular thread myth. We've all been warned at one time or another "Never use polyester thread in a quilt because the strength of the poly fibers will eventually cut through the cotton. " I believed this popular myth unquestioningly for years. But recently, I've discovered the error of my ways.

Think about hanging up a completed quilt or shaking the wrinkles out of a quilt. What seams are bearing the most weight? In a house not all walls are load bearing walls. In a quilt not all stitches bear the same stress. Lots of people get their knickers in a twist about various types of quilting thread. But it is the pieced seams that are the stress bearing seams. And if we want to match the thread fibres to the fabric fibres, it is most important to do this in the piecing process.

A good quality cotton piecing thread will bear up well against the various stresses in the life of a quilt. As noted in the previous post, a good colour match is a big bonus too! A fine thread, one that is not too heavy or bulky will give nice flat seams and sharp points. So the ideal piecing thread would be 100% extra-long staple Egyptian grown cotton in a wide range of colours and a fine weight. That's why the people at Superior Threads came up with the MasterPiece range.
Once a top is well pieced and ready to be quilted the thread options open up to a whole new world of possibilities. Many specialty threads are ideal for quilting. It all depends on the look you're trying to achieve and the demands placed on the thread in the quilting process. In some projects I want a variegated thread that will catch and reflect the light, for this I use a tri-lobal polyester called Rainbows. It's a beautiful thread that shimmers like silk. I can use it without any fears - as it is strong enough to glide through the thread path of my JUKI on a table top frame. And it is definitely not going to cut through any fabric in my quilt.

Sometimes I want the sparkle of a metallic thread, or the subtle texture created by using a fine polyester bobbin thread on the top. I use Bottom Line for this detail quilting. Again , it's polyester but it is not going to tear the fabric in my quilt. Professional long armers going at a fast and furious pace may want the trouble free ease of the Lava thread range. It is a variegated thread that is stronger than Rainbows ideal for the pros, but again it is not going to tear the fabric in a quilt.

Quilters love cotton. And since most of our quilting fabric is cotton it makes good sense to use cotton in the piecing process. Cotton piecing thread will ensure that our quilts hold together well and bear up under the inevitable stresses in the life of a quilt. But quilting is different! Many threads made of wild and wonderful fibres are ideal for quilting. If you limit yourself to just cotton you're missing out!

Monday, 16 February 2009

Neutrals: a Fresh Look

One of the best fresh ideas I gleaned from the Superior Threads Seminar was Heather Purcell's take on neutral colors. For those of you who don't know, Heather is a colour wonder woman. She designs the thread colours for all the Superior Thread ranges. And a big part of that is finding out early on what new fabric ranges are coming out and making sure that she has the right colour-ways of thread to match. Pretty neat eh?
Back to neutrals...when we think of neutrals - colours like, grey, taupe, buff, brown, muddy green and maroon come to mind. Not terribly exciting. I'm more of a bold colour person so the idea of only using neutrals never made my heart sing. But we all know of some frugal soul who only uses neutrals and claims that they're suitable for piecing and quilting any project.
Heather had a quilt on display that was pieced in a variety of yellow fabrics. But the borders were added later by just such a frugal soul. She used a grey thread to piece the squares in the border corners. This quilt has become a teaching tool because when you look at it hanging on the stand, the grey line of the piecing thread in those corners, jumps out and smacks you in the face. We think of grey as a classic neutral but in that yellow context - it wasn't. Neutrals should blend in and it didn't - it stood out.

Heather's take on neutrals is that context is everything! We should always consider piecing and quilting thread against the fabrics we are using. So take the wrapper off the spool and unwind some thread and lay it against the selection of fabrics in the quilt. You'll be amazed. Some thread that you're sure would work won't and others that you never would have considered will be perfect. Thread and fabric belong together. We should always make thread choices alongside the fabric we're using.

Heather's definition of neutral is a thread that disappears against the fabric. A neutral colour is a thread that just doesn't show. And in a bright quilt, a neutral colour is going to be bright! So the next time you think about neutrals consider, Day Lily, or Indian Paintbrush, SubLime or Pop Art Purple. There is a huge difference between the block of colour on a spool and the line of thread against the fabric. Taking the trouble to unwind the thread against the fabric will make a world of difference.
Almost always, we want the piecing thread to blend in with the fabric, that's why there are so many colours in the MasterPiece range of Superior Threads. With all the wild and wonderful fabrics currently on the market, just a few neutral threads would never do!

Saturday, 14 February 2009

Happy Valentine's Day

I love Valentine's day. Ever since I was little, I loved making cards and decorations for family and friends and as I grew older it has just continued into quilts and quilting.
This little stitching sample shows off a simple hearts and loops free motion line design. Play with it with pen and paper first, then on to thread and fabric.
Table top quilting frames, allow you to perfectly tension your quilt sandwich - so it becomes like the paper. Then your sewing machine sits on a set of carriages, which enable you to move your sewing machine in any direction - just like a pen. I find this so much easier than keeping the pen still and moving the paper!

This little lap quilt was a project I made to get myself back quilting after months of being stuck. It was just a printed panel with added borders. I enjoyed scalloping around the printed blocks and writing the names of all the people in my family. Then, I used the heart and loops line design to quilt the border. It was a fast and fun project that got me over quilter's block. It was a cute Valentine's present for my family too. Click on any of the images in this post for a better view.

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

There and Back Again

I've just returned from St George, Utah where I attended a Superior Threads Seminar. I left London's Heathrow Airport during the biggest snow storm in 18 years. The first stop was L.A. with Palm trees and sunshine and my first view of the Pacific. Then on to St George in a little prop plane that landed on the top of a big red rock plateau. Looking at the blue sky against the terracotta rock, I expected to see cowboys and indians comin' round the bend any moment.

The Seminar was fantastic. 60 people from the States and Canada attended. Coming from England, I travelled the farthest! There were professional long armers, and free-motion quilters as well as art quilters, shop owners and thread distributors. It was great fun to meet so many different people from all over who share a passion for quilting. There seemed to be the perfect mix of lectures, hands on activities and demonstrations as well as time to mingle and get to know each other. For the hands on classes and demos we were split into two groups of 30 so we were all able to see what was going on and had lots of personal attention from the superb teachers.
I've read the education pages at the Superior Threads website and also attended Bob's lectures when he came over to the Festival of Quilts last summer. Even so, I still had so much more to learn. The Seminar was like a mid-winter tonic - just what the doctor ordered. I've tried new things, gained insight and experience from the other quilters as well as the teachers. I've come back with a real enthusiasm to get quilting again. I'm so much more confident in knowing what thread to use on various projects. We also had this amazing demo from Heather about ways to go about choosing thread to go with various fabric. This was possibly my favourite. I now feel empowered to use colour in new and exciting ways.

All in all it's too much to cover in just one post. So I'll be picking out some of my favourite parts of the seminar and going into a bit more detail over this next week.

Sunday, 1 February 2009

Kids and Competitions ~ Pros and Cons

Before moving on to another topic, I'd like to talk about what we found good and not so good about entering kid's quilting competitions.

First the good bits. It was helpful to have a theme. Making any quilt can be overwhelming as the possibilities are endless. A theme helps to narrow it down. It was also fun seeing how the different kids responded to the same theme.

It was also good to have a deadline. Having a specific completion date helped to focus our time and energy. Life is busy and the daily demands of living can often get in the way of spending time on what is important.
Finally, it was good to commit ourselves to doing something worthwhile. Spending time together working on the quilt was great. And we had something brilliant to keep at the end of the project.
Now for the not so good bits. The kids were so excited packing the quilt and sending it off to the quilt competition. But unless they won, they never heard back. So it was like sending their quilt off in to the void. This was a major disappointment especially for the little kids. The older kids were able to be more philosophical about the whole thing. One of the older kids did place in the competition, but the prize was some thread - a pretty big let down for a 13 year old. All in all. the competition part of the experience was negative enough for the kids not to want to do it again.
What would make it better?
Little kids need a different approach than grown ups. I think for the younger kids our real goal is to spark their interest in quilting. This would be more successfully accomplished if there were lots of little prizes instead of just one or two big ones. Best use of colour, most humorous, most adventurous, best technique, best hand quilted, best machine quilted, most innovative interpretation of theme I could go on and on. If all entries got some appreciation for their effort they would be much more inclined to go on and enter again.
Lastly. teenagers need cool prizes. Thread doesn't cut it. All the prizes ought to be something they'd be thrilled to win and not embarrassed to mention to their friends.
I'd be very interested for some comments on this one. Has anyone else had similar or different experiences with kids quilts competitions?