6 Secrets of Successful Machine Couching

15 Dec 2009

I love the variety of novelty yarns and fibers available today: thick, thin, sparkly, variegated, fuzzy, sumptuous-and they come in every color you can imagine. They are a feast for the eyes and whenever I see a ball, skein, or even snippets of these yarns, I want to plunge my hands into them and get busy creating.

I'm not much of a knitter, so that option for using these fibers doesn't apply to me. Instead I like to couch these yarns onto my handmade quilts and small quilt projects like ATCs to add texture and line.

Couching by hand is easy, and with a little guidance, machine couching can be a fun and easy way to add surface design interest or define areas of a quilt.

Award-winning art quilter Carol Taylor is a master at this. Her Arc-i-Texture series, like "Sunlit" (left), is made up of small, abstract quilt squares with fabrics arranged by value and enhanced by couching. First, Carol machine couches yarns around each swatch of fabric on the quilt square. Then she couches the fibers in spirals over the squares. The result is a rich and fascinating design that brings out the beauty of the fabrics and the fibers.

Carol explains how to use value in design, assemble the quilts, and machine couch on her Quilting Arts WorkshopTM "Art Quilt Design: Strategies for Success." She has several tips for making machine couching easier--one of which involves a plastic straw from a fast food joint! Here are some of her best secrets for successful machine couching, adapted from the Workshop.

1. Choose the right yarn for your purpose. Do you want the couched yarn to add subtle definition to the fabric under it? Then choose a fiber that will blend with the fabric. To outline and set off the fabric and the yarn, choose a light or dark contrasting yarn. For the couched circles,  consider a variety of yarns in different widths, sheen, and value to add interest to your piece. (Carol uses yarns according to value in the "Sunlit" piece for the Workshop in order to accentuate the flow of value. The ability to make value flow by trying it hands-on is one of the major techniques she teaches in the video.)

2. Think about thread. Everyday quilting thread will usually stand out too much against the yarns. So, unless you want that effect, Carol suggests you use invisible thread or a supertwist thread which is lightweight and has a bit of sparkle to it. "It makes the yarn the star, not the thread," says Carol.

3. Control the yarn flow. Carol has devised a clever way keep the yarn under control while stitching. She puts the yarn in a basket to the right of her machine, hooks it over the top, and then threads it through a tube cut from a plastic drinking straw that has been taped to the top left of her machine.

4. Set your machine for success. Use a 90/14 needle (for its large eye) and a couching foot. Set your stitch length for as wide and as long as it can go.

5. Tack and turn your couching. Start with two straight stitches forward and back to tack the end of the yarn in place. Then switch to a zigzag stitch. When you want to change direction, lower your feed dogs, tack (ending with the needle on the side you will be turning toward), turn, tack (again ending with your needle on the side you'll be turning toward), put your feed dogs back up and keep going.

6. Small adjustments. When couching small squares, start in the middle of one of the sides, rather than on a corner so the join is less visible.

Once you see how easy it is to machine couch, you'll want to dive into your stash of novelty fibers, grab a plastic straw, and play all day. In fact, you may want to practice on some fiber postcards for Valentine's Day. If you send them to our sister publication Fiberarts by January 15, they'll have them postmarked at the Loveland, Colorado, post office. Find out all about how to send your postcards, the rules, and how you can win prizes for your mail art at the Fiberarts website.


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Art Quilt Design Strategies for Success (DVD)

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Carol Taylor teaches you how to work with textured fabrics of all kinds to create wall hangingswhile balancing color, size, and value to make your design flow smoothly from light to dark.

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