Friday, June 18, 2010

My new quilting system

I’m sure you’ve had this experience – you work on a major project, have some frustrations and difficulties, and just about the time you get things figured out the project is over. And when you go to do the same thing again, you forgot what you figured out.

We all know we ought to write this stuff down, and sometimes we even do! My cookbooks are annotated with notes like “way too much sugar” and “pretty bland -- needs garlic or onions.” But better than just writing it down at the end of the project is to do the task over again to cement and refine the good ideas.

That has just happened to me, not that I can take credit for doing it on purpose.

I am trying with some urgency to get my Quilt National entries completed. The deadline isn’t till September but I have two overseas trips between now and then. I finished my piecing a while ago and for the last month have been quilting nonstop.

A couple of weeks ago I was complaining that my quilting was sheer torture. The quilt was fighting me at every turn, as so frequently happens with large pieces and a home sewing machine. There’s just no good way to make a huge, bulky, heavy bunch of fabric move gracefully under the needle when half of it has to be forced under the narrow harp. I love, love, love to quilt on small pieces where you can make swooping curves and intricate patterns at the very touch of a fingertip. But many times I hate, hate, hate to quilt on big pieces, which are unfortunately the kind of quilts I like to make.

Last year I spent months quilting two very large pieces (75 x 78” and 79 x 82”) that are going to be shown in the Nancy Crow-curated exhibit, Color Improvisations. I thought it would be easier to free-motion quilt them than to use a walking foot, simply because the bulk of a huge quilt seemed more problematic in that process. I’m not sure that was the correct evaluation, because the free-motion was anything but easy, but in any case I decided to use the walking foot this time around. So here I am with five slightly smaller pieces (all about 41” wide and 60-75” long) that I am quilting with the walking foot in grid patterns.

The first piece was just hard work. The second piece was hard work plus frustration, almost to the point of hysteria.  I was an unhappy camper, but I fought my way through and finished the #$*@#* thing. In a parallel universe that would have been the end of the story, and I would have gone on to start piecing a new quilt and dreaded the part where I had to actually quilt it. But in this universe I had to immediately sandwich another piece and get quilting on it that very evening.

And something magical happened. I was thinking so much about the frustrations of working on pieces one and two that I started running some inventive what-ifs through my head. I started on piece three with the determination to avoid the frustrations of piece two.

There are two big problems with the process of quilting parallel lines across the whole width of the quilt.  You generally start by making a scroll, rolling each edge in toward the center and exposing only the narrow part that you will quilt.  First problem: the roll wants to occupy the same space you do, and if you try to heave it into some other space, farther to your left, it resists arrest in different creative ways. Second problem: the roll doesn’t want to stay neatly rolled; it wants to explode and bulge and get in your way, and require you to re-roll it after every couple of rows, especially on the first pass when you’re stitching the layers together for the first time.

note how calmly the roll sits there on its card table extension when you're at the end of the row of stitching!  but at the beginning of the row, when the roll is on the near side of the machine, it's not so easy -- especially if you're sitting in the chair

So after two weeks of nonstop fighting with these frustrations, I had a couple of insights.

First, I realized that rolling the quilt into a scroll was counterproductive.  You can force a roll to bend off toward your left, to get it out of your own space, but when you do so, it often springs back at you.  But if you fold your quilt like flat-fold fabric instead of rolling it, you can easily fold it again to stay wherever you put it.

see how easily a flat-folded bundle can be folded to the left to get out of your space

Second, I realized that I needed to keep the folded sides of the scroll where they belonged so the bundle didn't come open while I sewed or repositioned.  The ends were easy -- you can put a binder clip or clamp over the folded edges -- but the middle needed to be secured too. 

I haven't yet figured out the perfect way to secure the bundle, but a couple of different things I've tried worked pretty well.  Probably the best way to secure the middle of the bundle is by sewing two long, heavy threads (I used button-and-carpet weight) through the quilt, then tying them around the bundle.  I'm ambivalent about how best to secure the ends -- with clamps or by machine-stitching the edges of the folds.

in the middle: sew through the quilt and then tie the bundle with strong thread

clamping the end of the bundle

sewing the end of the bundle -- note long stitches (1/4 inch or longer -- the thread will not pull out because it's secured on each end with normal length stitches on a sew-off square

Clamps -- pro: it's quick and secure.  Con: clamps make the bundle heavier to move back and forth, and you can bop yourself in the face with a hunk of metal if the bundle is in transit or flopping down from your shoulder (ask me how I know that’s a problem).

Sewing -- pro: it's secure and doesn't add weight to the quilt.  Con: it takes a couple of minutes to sew the ends, especially when the bundle is fat and you need to be careful getting all layers under the needle; it also takes a minute or so to rip the seams when you need to unscroll and reposition.

Using a combination of these approaches, I quilted the third piece in about half the time it took for the second. 

The bundle is so firm, almost rigid, that I can often “drive” by holding the bundle rather than placing my hand(s) flat on the quilt, thus much easier on the wrists. But it’s easy to fold the bundle 90 degrees off to the left so it’s supported by my table and out of my way at the start of a long stitching run. I found myself sewing pedal to the metal, faster than I think I’ve ever quilted in my life. (So fast, indeed, that I can’t hear when the bobbin runs out of thread.)

I'm now on piece four, adapting my system to a quilt in which the walking-foot “grid” is on the diagonal.  That is making for more awkward bundles, because the ends don't fold into neat edges; instead, there's a point sticking out at the end of the roll and it's a little harder to figure out how to sew or clamp it.  But with the bundle tied in the middle, it's so secure that I am even able to sew halfway across the width of the quilt, then turn the entire bundle and sew back in the opposite direction to make V-shaped rows of stitching.  When I do this, it takes a little muscle to coax the bulk of the quilt under the harp, but nothing comes apart.  If you've ever tried to make a big quilt change position under the needle, you know what a coup this is.

I'm feeling quite pleased with my system.  It proves that when you run into difficulties, sometimes the best thing you can do is immediately embark upon another of the same project.


  1. Kathy, Wow! These are great revelations. I have been making some larger pieces than in the past, have quite a few pieces to layer and quilt (large, medium, and small), and will give your techniques a try. Thanks for blazing the trail and sharing your results.

  2. Kathy, if you fold in your sides concertina-like, starting from the outside-in - then it is easier again to unroll - just undo one fold from the inside next to where you are quilting, keeping the rest of the folds in place. I was shown how to do this in a domestic machine quilting course here in Australia. We also used bicycle clips, one each side on the folds - and they seem to stay in place. I'm sorry I don't have any photos to show you, but hope you understand what I mean......

  3. This seems brilliant to me. I'll certainly try it. I still remember the last large piece I tried to quilt and how I hated it. I love the idea of using a thread loop to bury the ends tip you passed on too.

  4. Been wrestling with WHO DO I Send this quilt out to be machine quilted as last one I attempted nearly killed my shoulders. AH HA..this method is WORTH A SHOT. THANKS GAL.

  5. Hi HawkLady! I'm glad you found this old post and hope it helps you. You might also consider my other plan of finishing a very large quilt in two or more pieces, then sewing them together at the end. See my post on September 1.

  6. Your efforts are sheer brilliance. I will have to try this on my next large quilt. Thank you for your detailed explanation.