After teaching all levels of machine quilting for many, many years (!) I've decided that the main reasons your quilting doesn't look as good as it could are:
stitch length is way too long, big - sometimes it is too small, but this is less common
machine top tension is too tight. Stitches need to have a softness and shape to them, not look like they are strung tight and cutting the quilt fabric. Almost ALWAYS, the top tension number on your machine needs to be lowered at least one entire number
wrong thread choice
wrong thread color
Work on these things! Even, consistent stitches are important too, but mostly they look way too big, too ragged, and they break the beautiful line of the design and all you see are stitches, not the motif. The evenness will come in time when you are not even thinking about it. A Schmetz Microtex Sharp needle is also very helpful because if makes the hole smaller and more precise, and the smoothness of your quilting improves. Use the correct needle for the size of your thread; if there are skipped stitches or fraying thread, go up a size.
When we get these problems addressed in classes, it makes a HUGE difference with "no practicing" just fine tuning your tools and techniques.
I believe so much of machine quilting is in the mind. If we see before us beautiful stitches, our work immediately improves, even if you are a beginner. This is why I really insist you use good thread, batt, fabric when you warm up, and not any old thing.
I love using Hobbs Tuscany Wool batting for my quilts, even small samples, but it took awhile getting used to how incredibly different it was from cotton. I haven't found it shifts in the quilt sandwich, although I do pin securely through the very final stages of quilting. Stabilize the quilt too by ditch stitching the main construction lines, the smaller interior areas such as the ditches around a pieced block, or applique. Wool batt gives such incredible dimension to your designs, and the quilt is light and easy to grip and move and handle in a home sewing machine, can be blocked when you are finished with the quilting, and seems to make machine quilting so much easier. There is definitely more puff than you might be used to compared to cotton batts, and more control of the quilt sandwich is needed - pins and hands.
If you use your plastic gridded rulers for marking lines as well as rotary cutting, be sure and clean the edges before using them to mark on the quilt top. I had drawn some designs on paper, used a black permanent ink pen with the ruler, and then forgot and used my washout blue marker with the ruler on the fabric and lo and behold, black ink on the quilt. Wipe them off before using them on your quilt or fabrics. I use water, or white vinegar, or rubbing alcohol.
Think about slightly different thread colors from the quilt fabric to set it off yet not provide high contrast, which is always a dead giveaway to any uneven stitches or little glitches. Instead try rose on gold, or soft green on tan. Recently I used light blue on lilac and it was prettier than lilac on lilac. Of course I am using #100 silk and the soft haze of color from the fine stitches is very subtle. Heavier threads or cotton threads perform very differently, so always try out some in the actual quilting before you make a decision about which color or thread to use on the quilt itself.
I have a set of Olfa "weights" that are used for anchoring pattern piecing instead of pinning when doing clothing. I love them - use them to anchor my quilt over my design I want to trace. They hold them nicely, can be moved about here and there as needed, and I am glad I found a new use for them. Any time you need to keep fabric or paper or stencils in place, these work great. Of course, so do small cans of tomato paste or cat food. When you are finished using them, they are edible.
Maybe it's time to take some time away from quilting for awhile - do some gardening, walking, other artistic adventures like touring your art museum. Open your mind to ideas from these things and they will inspire your quilting when you return to it, recharged. The delicious color combinations of spring flowers, grass, skies should give you plenty to work with in your next quilt.
To avoid having quilts that look like someone else or even a computer planned the colors and placement of fabric choices, throw in one wild card color or print and see if it livens up the quilt and makes it "your own." Of course, I always like to toss in a good mud color. Try bronze or caramel. It really warms up your color palette. And there is always pink, or maybe a bit of red or dusty purple. And many of you love lime green for that accent.
If you have summer linen or linen blend clothing, use a diluted version of my spray starch for pressing. You'll find it really gets rid of the wrinkles, yet leaves a soft supple finish and makes pressing go really fast. A little bit of starch goes a long way though, so dilute the recipe quite a bit with plain water or you will get pants that won't let you sit down.
How small is too small in stippling? Years ago in the 80's and 90's we worried about how big the meandering was that was seen in machine quilted quilts from longarm ones to those done at home on a regular sewing machine, but now it seems quilters are going overboard with "micro stippling" and having nothing but thread and needle holes visible with no "puff" in between the shapes of the stippling. I try to get my tiniest stippling about 1/8" apart, so it is even more closely spaced after washing and shrinkage. There is still plenty of room for fabric and dimension. But a scant 1/4" spacing is perfect for most quilting.
Several years ago my sewing machine at that time had an emergency surgery for a little spring that leaped out and landed near the needle while I was quilting, disaster! While it was in the sewing machine ICU I tried to continue work using my elderly machine that I quilted many of my first quilts on, but alas, it seemed too clunky and slow and stone age for me now so I did not use it but gave myself a day or two of rest from quilting and now am doing better than ever because of it. The muscles in my forearms and hands were sore and stiff and I didn't even realize it until they felt better. Learn to pace yourself if possible and don't do one thing for hours at a time, days and weeks at a time with no breaks. We only have one body so treat it well.
There are many ways to quilt without marking! Use an interesting print or floral on the back and quilt from the back around the motifs. Or do it just in the plain areas that need background quilting and quilt the rest from the front. Quilters who do "bobbin work" quilt from the back! Follow the print on a busy border stripe to accent the design rather than obscure it with some other design quilted over it. In "October Morning" I quilted around the design in the narrow Jinny Beyer border stripe wherever it appeared in the quilt. In the past several years I have devised many new background fill designs, including "Bouncing Bananas," along with the ever popular Dianeshiko. Both of these are in my new Quilt Savvy book. I now have "Folding Towels," "Mosaic Meandering," "Ripple Stipple," "Ripple Stipple," "Celtic Bubbles," and more on the way.
Another method is to space wavy lines interspersed with a motif such as a star or a tree or a loop or whatever (a turtle!) evenly every few inches over the top of your quilt, either vertically or on a diagonal. You can free-motion quilt a wavy line very easily and then add whatever motif every few inches that you want for that quilt. No marking, good for beginners, and whimsical. Try flowers, or messages written out, or seashells.......whatever. Anything unexpected is sure to please the eye of the beholder and you, the quilter, as you work on it, and later as you enjoy using it.
If you get build-up of starch on your iron, wipe it off (when iron is cool) with a rough terry towel soaked in white vinegar. It will come clean beautifully! I use a length of muslin to cover my ironing board and wash it frequently. You can also use a paste made of Bon Ami cleanser (all natural, won't scratch) on a damp cloth and then wipe off the residue, again on a cool iron.
I still roll up my quilt to fit in the machine but many quilters are fan-folding it so it isn't so stiff, like a log. Try to quilt with most of the bulk "on your lap" so the weight out behind the machine isn't unwieldy. And make a big "nest" around the needle and move the center only when you are doing free-motion quilting so the drag of the quilt won't hamper your quilting. Use your fingertips, not your hands and arms, to manipulate this small easy-to-move area, and your quilting will improve dramatically because of the increased sensitivity and control your fingertips have.
Rest your forearms on the bulk of the quilt, or the cabinet your machine is in. The newer machines have a bigger opening between the needle and the right side of the machine, so on mine I usually place the roll of the quilt as far over to the right as possible and then bunch up a "pinch" of the quilt with my right hand and use that to guide the quilt while doing free motion rather than than hanging on to the large roll. Seems I get better control that way and more precision in my movements.
Also, now that I am using Hobbs Heirloom Wool batt, the roll is much much smaller, there is no trapunto, and the quilt stays soft. I have so much more control and less stress on my hands. Even after close quilting, the quilt remains softer than with cotton batts, yet hangs flat and straight. On my last big quilt I could quilt right in the center with both hands flat on the machine bed, plenty of room in my Bernina Artista 730. The quilt is 83" square (This was "Shadows of Umbria," the easiest handling quilt I've ever done).
If you feel you are out of control when doing free-motion work like stippling, see if your machine can run at a slower speed. Many of the new models do have reduced speed so no matter how you floor it, it will not go too fast. The best thing to do, however, is to learn how to use the foot control just like the accelerator in your car. When quilters sit at the machine it seems a devil takes over the foot pressure and they can do nothing at all but follow along. If you are using the BSR foot on the new Berninas, make sure the speed is all the way to the + so if your hands move unexpectedly fast, the machine can keep up and still do even stitches at the length you have set. Remember, you can change the stitch length that the BSR quilts to suit your style and your thread choice. Bigger stitches are good for fatter, thick threads, and smaller stitches work best for very fine threads.
When doing no-mark quilting, it helps to give yourself boundaries: the confines of piecing or applique, the edges of a block or piece, or draw an area, border, line, guides, whatever to help you keep your quilting motifs organized and even. Also, try to visualize the shape you are trying to quilt, or even draw it first on paper over and over to teach your brain what it is you want it to do. Many times just once or twice and you will be able to quilt out a motif wonderfully without having to mark it.
If it is a leaf, feather, or flower, remember they are from nature and are not supposed to look identical, so differences add interest and naturalness that traced stencil designs sometimes compromise. If you like the security of traced designs, or the control they give you as the quilter/designer as I do, then instead of relying totally on no-mark or marked, try combining some marked designs and filling them with no-mark for interest and fun. You will still be able to control the placement, symmetry of whatever design you are filling, but then can relax and have fun doing no mark designs within this framework. Sure saves marking time too.
I've recently quilted some flower designs I drew, but instead of tracing them and quilting on marked lines, I cut them out, laid them where I wanted them on the quilt, and simply traced around the outside edge. As I quilted, I looked at my completely drawn flower and quilted those lines in without marking. After a practice one, I became pretty good at having them look very similar, and the small variations among all the finished blooms was nice. Just like in nature.
Connect the openings in the stencil lines after you tracemake it a nice even line rather than broken up where the stencil bridges were. As they say in London, "Mind the Gap"! Gaps should be filled in because in a home machine it is so hard to see at times where the line goes, much less if all you see is a large gap and you start to wander looking for the line to pick up again.
Use a light touch with whatever marker you choose. The lines are smoother, the marker last longer, and marking chemical doesn't get so heavy on the quilt. The new Clover white marking pen is terrific for dark fabrics--again, use a very light touch - don't press down, let the ink "wick" out of the marker into the fabric rather than physically mashing it into the fabric. Wait about a minute for the line to turn bright white, and use the tip of your iron to "iron out" the marks when done. Be sure and pre-test all markers on your fabric to make sure you can see them and they come out completely.
A quilt I made several years ago had stippling in the border but none in the center, and "bagged out" in the middle when hung. So I re-washed it, did not put it in the dryer at all, and nailed it to the floor (with straight pins) to stretch the borders out while it dried. It is 90% better now, still a little looser in the center, but at least it can be hung. The trapunto in the border also added to the problem. The answer is to place close quilting and/or trapunto proportionately throughout the quilt, not just in one area for best results. Sometimes you can get away with it, but many times problems arise when you concentrate quilting in one area. Recently I re-washed this quilt and dried it in the dryer until slightly damp, placed it flat on the floor to finish drying and it improved dramatically. The dryer heat helped even things out.
This is a good time of year for quilt photos--outside light is great, but not full sun. Place your quilt in the open shade, try with and without flash, and get some good pictures. Try them flat on the grass, draped over a wicker chair or a rustic wood pile, or along a picket fence with flowers. With the excellent "point and shoot" cameras now, you don't need to be a pro to get a decent photo if you know your camera's limitations and work within them.
Take your stored quilts out and air them and re-fold in new ways for storing. Making a muslin case or sack to store each of them in is a great way to protect them from light and dust and mildew but let them breathe as well. This container can have the name of the quilt and pertinent information on it as well as your name and address and can be used for shipping the quilt or taking it to events. Wash it every now and then in hot water with some vinegar and soap to keep it clean and get rid of any mold or mildew spores and dust mites that may be there over time.
Keep quilting! Your work gets better every day.
Try my recipe for spray starch for all your pressing/piecing needs. Produces a super flat stable quilt: Dissolve half (or one full teaspoon) of a teaspoon of regular Argo cornstarch (in your cupboard probably) in a few tablespoons of cold water in a heat proof 2-cup measuring pitcher like Pyrex. Add boiling water to make one cup, stirring constantly. Then add cold water to the 2 cup line. Let cool and use in a pump spray bottle. Shake it every time you spray. You may have to dilute it a little if it is too thick or builds up white flakes. Lasts a week or so as there are no preservatives, no chemicals, no nothing that harms us or the environment, and its practically free, except for the spray bottle! Don't starch fabrics for storage as it will attract critters such as centipedes, and mice. Works especially well for quilt backing fabric so the quilt will move freely.
© 2009 Diane Gaudynski