Posts filed under ‘Review’
Our guild program for April was a presentation by professional longarm quilter Barbara Persing and her sister, quilt shop owner Mary Hoover. Together, they are the designers behind the quilt pattern company Fourth and Sixth Designs (so named because they are the fourth and sixth in birth order in their family.) I enjoyed their trunk show of quilts and the affectionate banter between the sisters. However, the most valuable piece of information I took home was that Barbara had a book coming out just a few weeks hence, about choosing quilting designs and threads for your quilts. Since this is probably the single biggest current issue in my quilting, I anxiously anticipated its release.
Imagine my pleasant surprise when Dan got it for me for our anniversary last week! At first I thought he’d been super-stealthy Observant Guy and had noticed the advertising card I’d picked up at the meeting and had placed on my studio whiteboard, but it turns out I’d added it to my Amazon Wish List so I wouldn’t forget about it, and he’d just found it there. Still, the result was the same.
And it’s just as good as I’d hoped! Barbara starts by giving an overview of her “Four Questions” that should be asked before planning the quilting for any quilt. This isn’t a new strategy; Kim Brunner and Debby Brown each suggested a form of this approach during their lectures at Quilting with Machines, as do several of my favorite machine quilting books (more on them later.) Barbara Persing has managed to set herself apart by streamlining the discussion into an easily accessible system that any quilter can apply to any quilt. As a big fan of systems, I was hooked.
Basically, what she and all these other knowledgeable quilters are saying is that the secret behind choosing appropriate and complementary quilting designs for any given quilt is to identify what kind of quilt it is and how it will be used. There’s no point in doing gorgeous heirloom “bump-back” feathers on a busy print Turning Twenty quilt you’ve made for your nephew to take to college. (As Mark Lipinski famously said when he spoke to the Letort guild a few years back, “It’s just going to get covered in beer and DNA.”) Likewise, if you’ve taken the time to needle-turn applique a Baltimore album quilt, you probably don’t want to stitch a pantograph over it all.
The latter 2/3 of the book is really a peek inside Barbara’s thought process as she quilts nearly 30 different quilts in four different categories: Child/Youth, Traditional, Contemporary, and Art Quilts. (She acknowledges the arbitrary and incomplete nature of these categories, but you have to start somewhere.) Each quilt has at least one page devoted to it with a 1/4-page photograph of the entire quilt, and inset closeups to show quilting detail. At the bottom of each page, she takes us through the way she answered her own questions for that particular quilt, from the larger generalities of degree and style of quilting, to the specific design chosen and thread used. I particularly enjoyed the attention she pays to thread choice, which has been a bugbear of my quilting lately and doesn’t usually get much press.
“Listen To Your Quilt” is in many ways the player that was up till now missing from my dream team lineup of machine quilting books. With only 70 pages to work with, the author doesn’t dwell at length on the subject of selecting quilting designs to complement particular design elements in the quilt top; she simply mentions that shapes from a fabric print can be mimicked or echoed , or that she used wave-like quilting on a blue quilt. I would recommend that anyone who is looking for a more comprehensive discussion of the process of designing the individual elements of the quilting should see “A Fine Line” by Melody Crust and Heather Waldron Tewell, which is twice as long and really explores this topic in depth, but doesn’t offer such a structured, practical blueprint. In “Machine Quilting Solutions,” author Christine Maraccini provides less variety of sample quilt pictures but more specific “how-to” diagrams of three different levels or intensities of quilting designs for each of the tops depicted. I would finish out the essential book shelf with “Quilting Makes The Quilt” by Lee Cleland, in which the author accomplished the Herculean task of quilting FIVE different versions each of TWELVE quilt top designs (yes, that’s a total of 60 quilts!) so that we could see just how much the quilting design choice can influence the final result. With these four books in my arsenal, I feel properly educated to choose the quilting for any quilt I might make.
Some prospective readers who quilt on domestic machines may be concerned that this book is intended for longarm quilters. I can reassure you that this book is all about planning, not technique; the only mention of longarms is in her biography. If anything, the fact that she is quilting customer quilts, of which she has no input in the design, makes her approach even more relatable for me. I am not yet to the point in my quilting where I am designing my tops with the quilting in mind, as Ricky Tims and various other renowned quilters recommend. I am reacting to my own quilt tops much like a professional quilter who is seeing a customer’s quilt for the first time. While this is a mindset I’m trying to change, it made this book more applicable for me for the time being.
What “Listen To Your Quilt” does not do is teach how to machine quilt, and this was absolutely fine with me: that information is abundantly available from other sources. While there are some simple freehand, free-motion designs depicted on the last few pages, there are plenty of other collections of quilting designs available. What is usually missing from the books that tell you how to machine quilt, or provide you with designs of what to machine quilt, is an explanation of why you should (or shouldn’t) machine quilt a given design on a given top. “Listen To Your Quilt” is an excellent fulfillment of an underserved area of quilting education, and would make a useful addition to most quilters’ libraries.
As I’ve posted repeatedly here, I’ve been having a great deal of difficulty over the last year and a half with skipped stitches and poor tension in my free motion machine quilting. I’ve had my machine serviced repeatedly, adjusted tension, changed needles, changed threads, changed feet, and tried every trick in the book, and I was still getting repeated problems with skipped stitches on the top resulting in big loops of shredded thread, and knots of thread on the back of the quilt. These recurring problems had really put me off of quilting my projects, especially as I had limited time to pursue my hobby in the Age of Ronan.
I wish I could tell you about the single wonderful product that changed all this, or the secret button I found on my machine that cured everything, but instead, as with so many of life’s problems, it took several small incremental areas of change rather than one big revelatory one. The closest things I can identify to magic buttons were threefold: receiving Barbara Shapel’s “Art of Machine Quilting” DVD for my birthday, reading the entire Education section of the Superior Threads website, and absorbing every scrap of information I could from Leah Day’s website.
I had never heard of Barbara Shapel before I put her DVD on my Amazon wishlist, but the reviews were positive and it was the only quilting DVD listed on Amazon that I was interested in (and didn’t already own.) Since watching the excellent DVD and seeing her beautiful quilts I’ve started learning more about her; her blog only just went live, but I look forward to future posts. She makes art quilts, many of them double sided, and frequently incorporates painted fabric and heavy threadwork, so her quilting style is very different from my own. However, she quilts in a very organic style with little to no marking, and as she is self-taught, she brings a different perspective to several aspects of free-motion machine quilting. I haven’t adopted all her techniques, of course, but on her recommendation I have switched to a Schmetz Jeans/Denim needle for machine quilting, and have raised my feed dogs and set my stitch length to zero.
When Diane and I attended the Ricky Tims Super Seminar in Richmond, I enjoyed the privilege of getting to hear Bob Purcell from Superior Threads give his Threadology lecture. He did a very entertaining, audience-participation demonstration of how sewing machine tension works. He also stated what I’ve heard many quilting educators reiterate, that sewing machines simply aren’t designed for what we’re doing with them when we free-motion quilt. Even longarm quilting machines are based on the original technology for sewing two pieces of fabric together in a straight line with a dual-duty type thread. So we have to deviate pretty significantly from “factory settings” to accommodate this utterly different method of sewing. However, recently just playing with the tension (top and bobbin!) hasn’t been enough. I was really getting to my wits’ end. I studied everything I could on the Superior Threads website and gained further insight into the problems I was having, such as paying attention to whether the knots of thread on the underside of the quilt were top thread or bobbin thread. I also realized that I was using the HandyNets Thread Socks incorrectly: I was using them for storage, but taking them off when sewing. By leaving them on, I eliminated the occasional problems I was having with thread getting snagged on the base of the cone.
But it still wasn’t enough! Thank goodness, enter Leah Day. I found her website last spring when I did a Google search for “skipped stitches quilting Janome.” As it happens, one of her machines is the same as mine, a Janome Memory Craft 6500, so her advice was particularly applicable to my situation, although it is general enough to suit any domestic machine quilter. From there, I discovered her amazing Free Motion Quilting Project, in which she posted 365 free online videos of filler patterns, an absolute inspiration to anyone who’s struggled to find alternatives to just stippling. In July I was thrilled to see her listed among the winners at the AQS show in Knoxville. Based on her advice, I am using the Supreme Slider on my machine bed, a Little Genie Magic Bobbin Washer in my bobbin case, and have changed how my free motion foot sits on the quilt surface.
With all these individual “tweaks” to my quilting setup, things were improving dramatically. The cherry on top was my realization that my stitches were too short for the thread I was using, so I decreased the speed on my machine so that “flooring it” with my foot pedal resulted in better control. With almost no skipped stitches or thread snarls, I was able to finish this:
I had started a version of this project last fall before Ronan was born, shortly after blogging about it here, but the mottled dye pattern on the Gelato Minkee was too distracting. I bought the solid Minkee in early spring, but the “quick project” I was expecting turned into anything but, when my thread kept snarling. I’d had this project set aside in a big guilt pile in the corner of the studio ever since. It was supposed to be my warmup for quilting Ronan’s quilt, and instead just set me despairing of ever doing quality free-motion machine quilting again. But now the cloud has lifted! I was able to quilt the remaining 7/8 of the pattern in about the same amount of time as it took to quilt the first 1/8 with all the tension problems. Quilting on the Golden Threads paper for this project was rather delightful. I found I didn’t need to use my Machingers because my bare fingers were quite grippy on the paper. The lines were extremely easy to follow, since they were Sharpie lines. Once the quilting was complete, removing the Golden Threads paper was nowhere NEAR as arduous a task as I was expecting it to be. So in short, I would absolutely do this again. If Meadowlyon Designs is a vendor at Quilting with Machines again this year, I look forward to buying at least one more of these “pictogram” designs, if not more.
This was a fairly short-term UFO, but it is nevertheless finished and out of my physical and psychological space. As such, it deserves a happy dance. We’ve been watching a great deal of Star Trek: The Next Generation on Netflix streaming lately, so this clip immediately sprang to mind. It’s not from an episode (too silly!), but was filmed as a birthday surprise for Gene Roddenberry. Thanks to YouTube, we all get to enjoy it:
It really shouldn’t surprise anyone that I’m somewhat of a notions nut. I certainly am a believer in having the right tool for the job; what I need to find, however, is the happy medium between, on the one extreme, being the person trying to use a nail file as a screwdriver, and on the other, being the person at whom all those “as seen on TV” product commercials are aimed. Heaven forbid one might attempt to apply lotion, flip a pancake, or answer the phone while under a blanket, without the newest labor-saving product! Thus is my dilemma framed: I want to try every sewing product that promises to make my limited quilting time more pleasant and successful. At the same time, I don’t want to fill my already crowded studio with the notions equivalent of the Pasta Boat. So I will attempt to document here my trials of some of the products that seemed worth the money.
My love of Clover products is only partially based on their beautiful ads in my beloved Japanese quilt magazines. It’s also based on the fact that they seem, on the balance, to be worth every penny of their relatively high price. They appear to work both ends of the notions spectrum equally well: everyday basics, such as their silk pins and easy-threading needles, display unerring quality and consistency that seems to be lacking in other commonly found brands, while innovative products, such as their yo-yo makers, thread cutter pendants, and fork pins, surprise us in the “I never knew I needed that!” vein. So when I saw that they had a flexible-sided but metal-capped thimble, I thought it might be worth a try.
Let me back up a bit. Thimbles are things I never really considered until a few years ago, because I’ve never been much for hand sewing. When I started quilting in my teens I wanted to do everything by machine out of impatience, and when I picked it back up about ten years ago, my other primary hobby was counted cross stitch. Therefore, I felt I already had a hobby for when I wanted to sit with a needle in my hand; quilting was for the machine. But I have mellowed in the last ten years. I’ve realized that not only does hand applique produce the results I like best, but there is a rhythm and a meditative beauty to the process as well. I’ve also had to face facts that there are times when only a hand-stitched binding will do. And as I’ve started to make more purses and other small quilted projects, I’ve had to get more comfortable with hand-finishing the details that a machine just can’t access. (I’m still not a hand quilter, though. Give me time.)
My favorite thimble, hands down, is my Roxanne thimble. I bought it at the hand-quilting class I took from Didi McElroy, so she fitted it for me personally, and I love it for being so well-designed. (I’ll never need the long manicured fingernail protector, though!) Being a dentist, I’m a stickler for ergonomics: if I develop degenerative musculoskeletal problems with my hands, I’m potentially out of work. Therefore, I’m very glad this was the first thimble I ever used regularly, so I didn’t have to unlearn any bad habits. The only problem with the Roxanne thimble is the cost: I think I paid $79 for mine in 2004, before all the metal prices skyrocketed; the same sterling silver model now sells for $110. Needless to say, as much as I love my thimble, I’m not buying one for upstairs and one for downstairs, or one for each project bag. If I’m going to be doing a great deal of hand sewing, I use my Roxanne thimble, which usually resides in the living room near the comfy TV-watching chair. But if I just have a little bit to do, I don’t want to have to leave the studio and fetch it, especially if Ronan’s in his doorway jumper. So I have experimented with alternatives, most of which have ended up in the drawer next to my sewing machine and will be donated to the next Guild Boutique.
Since I have a horror of pushing the eye of the needle into my finger (based on experience, not just imagination) I had never before tried any of the jelly thimbles, despite how pretty they look sitting in the glass display jars at quilt shops. But since this one had the metal cap, I was willing to give it a try at $8.95. Plus, it came in orange! The fit was excellent, especially as it warmed to body temperature; this didn’t surprise me, as the package had a helpful cutout at the top to check for sizing. The thimble was comfortable to wear and to use, with nice deep dimples in the metal cap to make controlling the needle easy.
Some of the downsides to using this thimble were, for me, just a result of being used to using the Roxanne thimble and thus trying to push the needle through with the pad of my finger rather than the tip. But the main problem I had with it was one that anyone, even those used to using a traditionally shaped thimble, would encounter: right where the metal cap meets the plastic body, the thread gets caught! In the process of sewing down all of about two feet of binding, I had to unsnag my thread five or six different times. Very annoying! To be fair, “snag” isn’t exactly the right word, as it didn’t in any way shred the thread, just captured it and released it intact. But while it didn’t seem to damage the thread, it definitely threw me off my rhythm, albeit not enough to run downstairs and retrieve my Roxanne thimble.
Verdict? Mixed. This is definitely the most comfortable thimble I’ve used that wasn’t my dear Roxanne. And with some practice, I’m sure I will stop trying to skewer my finger by pushing with the squishy plastic part. But the thread capture issue is the dealbreaker, and if that doesn’t lessen, this thimble will be joining its shiny brethren at the Guild Boutique table at next year’s quilt show.
Edited 2/20/12 to add: This post is part of Bonnie Hunter’s Thimble Linkup: