Anita's quilts and quilting

A professional longarm machine quilter for hire and some of the work I've done.

Stabilizing with a smaller machine

I’ve had several people tell me they can’t do the stabilizing of quilt tops like I do because they don’t have a Gammill with channel locks or the large expanse my machine has.  Well, it just so happened that some ladies at a fabric store wanted me to help them understand how to stabilize a quilt with their Voyager machine.  What a great opportunity for me to take photos of how this can be done with a smaller machine.  Yesterday I went to the fabric store and worked with 4 ladies.  I had so much fun! 
The ladies understand the steps now, plus, I can post photos of how its done for those who need a more visual tutorial of working with a smaller machine.  No matter what type machine you have…. you can do what I do.  You just have to do it in a way that fits your machine type.  The basics of stabilizing a quilt top are the same for any machine.  The one thing you need to remember is that the backing and batting should be a minimum of 6 inches longer and 6 inches wider than the quilt top.  This will give you 3 inches of wiggle room on all sides when you are stabilizing the top.
I haven’t always had a Gammill.  My first quilting machine was an old Singer upholstery machine rigged up to tracks on a table very similar to the one at the shop.  The quilting area I had on that old singer was a maximum of 5 inches and even less if I was quilting a very large top.  The more bulk on the take up bar, the less room for quilting a design.  Yet, I was able to quilt designs sometimes as large as 20 inches.  I simply had to do the stitching differently because of the limitations of my machine. 
Yesterday, I took photos as often as I remembered to take them.  I was having so much fun answering questions from the ladies and demonstrating techniques that I simply forgot about using the camera.  I believe I took enough photos that you too can figure out how to use a smaller machine to do the same thing I do.
I have one of the ladies (Hi Brenda!) coming to my house next Friday so we can make zipper leaders for the shop machine.  The one question all of the ladies asked me was “What’s the purpose of the zipper leaders?”  Ok ladies, suppose Brenda is scheduled to work on Monday but won’t be back in the store for 4 days because she’s scheduled off.  She puts a quilt on the machine but doesn’t finish the quilting before her day is over.  Well, the way the machine is set up right now it will be tied up with Brenda’s quilt until she returns to finish it.  No one can use the machine until Brenda finishes her quilt. 
With zipper leaders you could zip Brenda’s quilt off and put one of your own on to work on it for the next 4 days.  When Brenda comes back to work again, she simply zips off whatever is on the machine, to zip hers back on, and continue where she left off.  Get the idea? 
Sometimes our machines want to start acting crazy.  It’s often very difficult to fix the problem with a quilt in the way.  With zippers you are able to unzip to get the quilt out of the way while you work on the machine.
Ok, now that I’ve explained a little about zipper leaders let me show you the other things we did yesterday.  First thing was to put the backing onto the machine.  Here are two of the ladies pinning the backing to the take up bar and to the lower bar.  The middle bar is not used at all for this technique.   I call the unused bar the “belly bar” because….. emm…. see the position it is next to the lady pinning? 
Can you see in the next photo how the backing is attached to the take up bar and the bottom bar only?  The batting is not attached and the top is not attached.  Only the backing.  Next we need to add the batting.  We know the batting is plenty long enough top to bottom.  What we need to do is cut it to size side to side.  Lay the batting on the backing, fold over, and cut where it will just fit onto the backing.  Also, when tightening the backing do not make it so tight that you can pop a quarter on it.  You want it just taught.  Tighten too much and you risk creating a permanent bow curve in the center of your bars. 

Now it’s time to attach the batting to the backing.  But we also want a very straight line to use when we attach our quilt top.  We will accomplish two tasks at once with this step.  We will attach the batting to the backing and make a straight line using the horizontal tracks of the table as a straight edge. 
Ok, my Gammill has channel locks but the shop machine does not.   The Voyager machine at the shop has a Hinterburg table.  The machine sits in a wood box with wheels on the bottom of the box.  You want to hold the forward and backward motion wheels in place somehow for sewing a horizontal straight line.  This is what I showed the ladies to do.  Two binder clips underneath the box by one wheel.  You only need the clips by one wheel to prevent the forward and backward movement.  You see how the wheel will be held there?  It can’t go forward and it can’t go backward because of the binder clips.  But the side to side wheels are still free to move.
 How do you know where you want to put the binder clips?    You position your machine needle about an inch away from where the backing is attached to the take up bar leader.  Ok, I know someone is going to ask, why only an inch when the backing is cut to allow 3 inches?  Hmm…. many times a top will have more stretch to it, top to bottom, than is apparent.  You don’t want to get to the end of the top only to find your backing is too short.  (for more information about this go here)
Hold your machine in that position while you put on the binder clips.  If your machine is leveled correctly you should be able to put the machine there and it will stay put as you work with the clips.   If your table is not level, and the machine wants to move around, then use the needle down to put the needle into the fabric. 
The next thing to do is create your straight line.  First ask yourself, will you make a separate binding or wrap the backing to the front for binding?  If you will be cutting the backing and batting off at the edge of the top then you will sew a straight line with the machine.  If you plan to wrap the backing over the front then you will want to tack stitch the straight line.  I showed the ladies how to do a tack stitched straight line.  What is a tacked stitch line?  Another word for basting stitched line. 
Ok, let me explain, if your single stitch (needle up, needle down) button is on the right then you should work left to right.  You want your left hand to be holding things and manipulating things while your right hand operates the button and moves the machine.  (The opposite will be true if the single stitch button is on the left.)
Move your machine to the left side of the backing and batting.  Pull up your bobbin thread… now repeat this mantra out loud……. needle down, needle up, move over one inch, needle down, needle up, move over one inch, needle down, needle up, move over one inch.  Repeat this mantra until you get to the other side.  Why say it out loud?  It causes your brain to connect it together for better memory later.  Your brain learns the steps.  Sort of like how elementary kids learn things by repeating them out loud over and over again.
Ta Da, you have a straight line.   Ok, for those who chose to sew the straight line with the machine, you simply bring up the bobbin thread, turn the machine on and sew across the batting and backing, ending at the other side.  The binder clips have held the machine in one position to make a very straight line.
Now that you have a straight line holding your batting to the backing it’s time to attach the quilt top.  You can remove the binder clips from the wheel now.  You won’t need them anymore until you load your next quilt.  Lay your top along that sewn or tack stitched line.  Use your needle up, needle down mantra once again to attach your top to the batting and backing making sure the edge of the top stays at the straight line. 
If you prefer to stitch the top on with the machine, then ok, do it that way. Try to stay within the 1/4 inch area along the edge so the stitching will be covered by the binding.  I prefer to use a tack stitch line because often there are friendly borders to deal with.  Sewing will stitch the extra fullness into pleats.
I also showed the ladies how to pin the side edges as an alternate way of attaching the top to the batting and backing.  Now they have two ways of holding the top.  Tack stitched (basting stitched) and pinned.  Pins are placed horizontal to allow for better rolling back and forth. 
I had the ladies put invisible thread on the top and a pretty red thread in the bobbin.  With invisible (mono) thread used for stitching in the ditch; then, any stitching that is not perfectly in the ditch will not show.  I showed the ladies how to stitch along the two sides of the pieced inside border.  Starting on the left side with the machine in the closest position near them.  Stitch away from you in the ditch.  Next turn to stitch left side to right side in the ditch.  Next turn to stitch toward you in the ditch as far as the machine will let you go.  Bring up the bobbin thread and cut off, leaving a little thread tail.  Why leave a tail?  Well, when you advance, it would be hard to see where you stopped.  The thread tail is a flag showing where to start stitching again. 
Ok, I took a step back to take a picture so you can see how the batting and top simply hang in front of the machine while it’s being stabilized.  This technique is what is called a full float.  The ladies had finished the stitch in the ditch along the pieced border so it was time to advance the quilt.   At this point I showed the ladies how to measure from the end of the bar to the edge of the top before advancing.   We did that for both sides and wrote down the measurement.   This measurement is what they used each time the top was advanced; to check for square.   See the measuring tape on the left in the photo?  We used two measuring tapes and used masking tape to hold them on.   I don’t recommend doing that even though that’s what we did yesterday.   The unused bar tends to roll which causes the measuring tape to wrap around the bar.  A loose measuring tape works better.
Because the top and batting are not attached, you can lift it to smooth everything out.   As usual, this top had slightly friendly (waves a lot) borders.  Sometimes this is no fault of the maker.   I was going to explain why friendly borders might not be the maker’s fault but I think I’ll save that for another post with pictures to go with it.  
I showed the ladies how to spread out the fullness of the border and pin it.  I don’t mean “stretch out”.  I mean “spread” the fullness evenly in the area.  There will be little humps of extra fabric in between the pins.  The more pins you use, the better the extra fullness is spread evenly. 
Here the fullness has been pinned along the edge of the outside border and more stitch in the ditch done along the inside border.  Yes, I know it’s not perfectly in the ditch.  This is not the fault of the quilter.  The quilt top has seams that flip flop from side to side…. done during the pressing and sewing stages.  I forgot to take a picture of the seams on this quilt.  Flip flopping seams will cause a machine to get off the ditch.  Trust me, it shows up way more in a photo than it did in person.  See the thread tail left as a flag where to start stitching on the next advance? 
As the ladies advanced, measured, straightened, and did stitch in the ditch around the borders; I also had them stitch in the ditch around the blocks.  This stabilized the inside part of the quilt top.  Ok, not every quilt has areas in the center for stitching in the ditch.  When there is no obvious place for stitch in the ditch then you want to use safety pins to pin, pin, pin the center.  Why? 
Ok, let me use another word for stabilizing.  Call it basting the layers together.  Basting and stabilizing are the same thing.  Think of how much you would pin a quilt sandwich together to keep it from shifting if you were planning to quilt it with a domestic machine.  Think of how you would baste the layers together with thread for hand quilting.  Stabilizing the quilt sandwich with your quilting machine is another way of basting the layers together.  I happen to like the look of stitch in the ditch so I use it as my way of basting the sandwich.  I accomplish two tasks at once.
Suppose you were basting a quilt sandwich together for hand quilting and it wasn’t basted well enough.  When you got to the end you found it wasn’t square.  You would pick out the basting or unpin back to where you could make it square…. right?  You do the same thing with stitching in the ditch.  If you get to the end and it’s not square, it is so much easier to pick out a simple straight line of stitching than it is to pick out a quilting design. 
Here the ladies have gotten to the end of the quilt top.  It’s stabilized and square.  The excess batting can be cut off next to where the backing ends at the leader.  Some may wonder…. “why the excess batting around the top?”  This is to keep the bulk around the bars even.  Hmm… I should have photos of this but I don’t.  If there is a gap area in the bulk, the bulk does not roll evenly.  Look at the photo.  In the area where there is the top, the batting, and the batting, it will have more bulk around the bar.  The area on either side that has only the batting and back there is less bulk.  If the batting were to be cut even with the top then that area would have only the bulk of the backing next to the greater bulk of the center.  The backing would be much looser.  I hope that’s understandable.
Here, one of the ladies is changing from invisible thread to a color thread to start the quilting.  This is the last of the photos.  I was so busy showing the next steps and having fun watch the ladies get excited with new things that I completely forgot to take more photos.
The ladies now know the quilt is square, even, and will not shift.  They can concentrate on stitching the designs instead of thinking about keeping it square.  Because that part is already done.  The quilt sandwich can be moved back and forth without worry of it getting out of square.  If the ladies want to sit to quilt there is enough room under the lower bar for a chair and their legs. 
Next weekend Brenda is coming to my house so we can make the zipper leaders.  I have a much larger table to work on so it will be easier working here in my studio.  I have a couple of other improvements to make to their machine table to make their job easier too.  I’ll show those ideas when I can take photos of what I do. 
For the ladies from the shop that promised to visit my blog….. HOWDY!  Glad you stopped by and hope you enjoy my blog.  Don’t forget to look along the right side of this blog to find the links for my other blogs too.  See you in a few days.
Over the next few weeks I’ll be going back to the fabric store regularly to show the ladies many more things. It’s extremely hard to squeeze 50+ years worth of learning into only a few short hours of one day.  I hope to write many more posts about working with a smaller machine to achieve just as nice results as larger machine owners do. 
You want to know what was my favorite part of yesterday?  It was that after about 10 years of trying, I finally got the store owner to give machine quilting a try.  Yippie!!!  Oh yes, there was also the fun of seeing the excitement the ladies had when things “clicked” and machine quilting suddenly got a whole lot easier for them.  From now forward, machine quilting will have much more enjoyment for all the ladies of Happy Heart Quilt Shop.  See y’all soon.
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One comment on “Stabilizing with a smaller machine

  1. Beth in AZ
    July 9, 2011

    Oh BOY…you had a grand time! I can tell! I wish I could get my friend to try. She just says NO. (she SAYS she is afraid of the machine…but its just a big BULLY of a sewing machine! She seems determined to let it bully her around! DRAT!)

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