Free Motion Quilting

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jraymond wrote
on 12 Jun 2013 12:52 PM

Hi, my name is Jo-Ann and I started my first quilting project for my daughter, a twin size traditional quilt 54-40 or Fight pattern. I've sewn the 6 x 6 completed squares together in rows of two separated by a 2 inch strips. I want to use free motion quilting on the panels but here is where I need help.

I have an old  Bernina 1006 and just recently purchased an old style free motion foot. I practiced some free motion quilting on a potholder and some place-mats but the stitching looks messy and irregular with skipped stitches. Is this normal when learning free motion? The feed dogs were down, my stitch length was set at 21/2, and the top tension was set for normal sewing. What I did not do is thread through the bobbin arm.

Is it just a matter of practice on my part or is my machine doing something it should not be doing? Should I always thread through the bobbin arm when machine quilting?


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Dale Kathryn wrote
on 13 Jun 2013 2:20 AM

My original reply went "poof", so excuse me if this is a duplicate.

I thread through the bobbin arm on my 35+ year old Bernina 831 and also reduce the top thread tension slightly.  I also set the stitch length at 0.

It gets better with practice! Don't forget to post a photo when you are done!


"To create one's own world in any of the arts takes courage." - Georgia O'Keeffe

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jraymond wrote
on 13 Jun 2013 7:31 AM

Thanks Kathryn for your advise. It may be a while before the quilt is finished though to post a picture. I'm still very new at this but at least I'm half way there!



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ckquilter wrote
on 24 Jun 2013 6:15 AM

hi joann

i am not familiar with your bernina 1006.

but the skipped stitches are NOT normal. messy and irregular - that could be either you or the machine.

irregular stitches when doing free motion - is probably you are not moving the quilt at a consistent speed while sewing at a consistent speed. remember, when doing free motion, you are the one who determines the stitch length - not the sewing machine. which is why we usually set the stitch length to zero when doing free motion.

are you able to drop the feed dogs on your bernina? if not, that can also cause problems.

give yourself a break and use a sewing friendly thread - preferably the same one in both the needle and the bobbin. at least til your stitching gets to be consistent, and you have figured out the skipping problem. if you have a cotton or cotton covered poly that normally sews thru your machine nicely, try quilting with it to help eliminate the skipped stitches problem.  save the heavy weight threads and metallic threads for later, when you have worked out the problems. metallic threads are not good for quilts meant to be used anyways - they are scratchy against the skin; and not as sturdy when washing the quilt.

if you have a straight stitch needle plate, using that instead of the regular stitch plate can also help with skipped stitches.

use a new quilting needle. no universal or ball point needles.

your regular tension should probably be ok for quilting.

you might try quilting some straight lines with a walking foot and the feed dogs up - does the machine give good results with that ? if so, then leave the same thread and needle in, and just change the foot to the free motion foot, drop the feed dogs, and set the stitch length to zero.  and you should not need to adjust tension.

i don't normally run the thread thru the bobbin finger when quilting. running the thread thru the bobbin finger tightens the bobbin tension slightly, without having to make any actual adjustments to the bobbin case itself. it is good to use when doing embroidery on the quilt top, and you want the top thread pulled slightly to the underside of the quilt top. but for quilting, you want the threads to meet in the middle - so i don't normally run the thread thru the bobbin finger.

if you try these ideas and still have problems with skipped stitches - take everything to your local dealer and ask for some help problem solving.

oh - one more thing - i have a bernina 730 - and it does a horrible job of stitching when moving from a thin area to a thick area - it will skip stitches.

this is not usually a problem when doing free motion - but is when using the walking foot.

hope that helps                       ckquilter


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jraymond wrote
on 24 Jun 2013 8:35 AM

Thanks for all the tips I will certainly experiment with them to find what works best.

I do not have a walking foot attachment for this machine so I'll try the other tips. Setting the stitch length to 0 sounds funny to me but I'll try it. I do not have a quilting needle either, I was using a universal needle and quilting with just cotton thread, top and bottom. I did set the feed dogs down but it still felt like the dogs were pulling on the fabric a little.  

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ckquilter wrote
on 25 Jun 2013 1:24 AM

hi joann

keep experimenting ! you will find what works for you.

if possible, find a friend experienced with free motion sewing - she will be able to trouble shoot much easier being there.

but if not, we can still figure out some things together online.

get rid of the universal needle . it has a rounded tip, which does not work well for quilt cottons - it will have a tendency to pull on the fabric threads, causing skipped stitches and snags. a ballpoint needle has a very round tip - use it for sewing knits - NOT quilt cottons. for quilt cotton fabric, you want a sharp, pointed tip. these come on sharp needles (used for piecing), embroidery needles (used for applique and embroidery), quilting needles (used for quilting), topstitch needles (used for metallic threads and for thick threads - in your future; not yet).

remember - the feed dogs function is to feed the fabric thru the machine. you adjust the stitch length, and then the feed dogs take either short or longer stitches, depending on what you set the stitch length to.        but for free motion sewing (and free motion quilting), the machine is no longer determining the stitch length. you are. so you drop the feed dogs so they don't catch the fabric and prevent you from moving it freely in any direction. and you set the stitch length to zero (the feed dogs don't need to move when doing free motion). although if the feed dogs are down and not in contact with the fabric at all, you could get by without changing your normal stitch length.

if the feed dogs are down, and it still feels like they are in contact with the fabric - most definitely set the stitch length to zero. the feed dogs will still go up and down, but they won't catch and move the fabric.

your cotton thread sounds fine. do NOT use hand quilting cotton thread. it is too stiff to run thru the machine properly and will cause problems. if your cotton thread is your standard piecing thread and runs thru the machine fine when piecing, it shoud be fine for quilting.

also, always, new project, new needle. and use a new needle when starting the piecing (best will be a sharp size 11, if using a regular weight cotton thread). and then use another new needle, quilting size 11 when you start the quilting(or 14 if you needed the larger size when piecing because your cotton thread is too thick for the size 11 - but find a cotton thread that will sew fine with a size 11 needle - and it will be better for both piecing and quilting - for now ((as you get into art quilting, and start using thread to create different effects, you will need to adjust needles accordingly - but that is still in your future !!))                                          unless you are making a very small quilt - when done with the piecing - toss the needle. when done quilting - toss the needle.     and new project, new needle.  (yes it is important - and that is why it is worth repeating)      however, do NOT just throw your needle in the trash. it is an accident waiting to happen. make yourself a sharps container - a hard plastic container with a secure lid. label it "sharps". what are sharps ?? (this is not the same use of the word sharp that is used to label the specific type needle)  sharps are needles and pins that are to be discarded; because they are either bent, or dull or broken. small bottles that prescriptions come in work well. or an old empty vitamin or aspirin bottle works well too.   use the sharps container to hold all your discards until you are ready to dispose of the whole thing. then securely close the lid. if the lid is child resistant , you should be able to discard it once tightly closed.   if it is just a snap lid, tape it tightly shut to prevent accidental opening when discarded.     you don't want pins and needles poking thru trash bags. and if a trash handler gets injured from one while handling your trash, they can refuse to handle it in the future.    so be safe, and keep others safe, and use a sharps container to dispose of pins and needles.

let me know if you have specific questions. that helps me help you figure out what is going on. and what to try next to improve your stitching.

when i first start someone on free motion, i make a small quilt sandwich - 12 to 14 inches square or so.  then first, i have them sew in just a straight line fore several inches. stop. look at the stitches. are they of a good length? too long? you need to move slower and/or sew faster.         too short? then you need to sew slower and/or move faster.        it is a combination of how fast the machine is moving the needle and how fast you are moving the quilt which determines the stitch length. you are looking for a nice stitch length, and a consistent stitch length.         keep repeating the straight lines. several inches at a time, then stop and analyze them. do that half a dozen times and you should be starting to get the feel of how fast you need to move the quilt for the sewing speed you are comfortable with.                

 once you have a fairly good stitch length, and are starting to get consistent ; then try writing your name. make the letters a good size - an inch or so (not too small) and keep the letters round. this will give you practice backtracking and moving the quilt in all directions. stop every couple of letters and analyze stitch length and consistency. then continue.      do NOT draw any lines on the quilt. do NOT write your name on the quilt before you sew.   you should be very comfortable writing your name freehand, so use that experience to help you with the free motion quilting.                             

while you are new to free motion quilting, it is a good idea to practice on this little quilt for 5 minutes before working on your big quilt.   i also use this practice piece to make sure my machine is behaving. after sewing a few inches, check the threads top and bottom to make sure the tension is adjusted properly. this is also a good place to try new quilt designs that you might want to use on your big quilt.  and continue to sew on the practice piece until the tension is working and you are feeling comfortable; then go to work on your big quilt.         i use inexpensive white muslin for the top and bottom of the practice quilt, because it is the easiest to see the threads on (unless you are quilting with white thread - then use a darker color fabric to practice on. i use scrap batting , the same batt as is in my big quilt, to make the practice quilt. (i have plenty of scraps from past projects. if you don't, use a piece cut from the batt leftover from your big quilt. or find a quilt shop that does longarm quilting, and ask them if you can have some of their scraps. they almost always have batt pieces leftover from quilts they have quilted for others. )

let us know how you are doing.                       ckquilter

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jraymond wrote
on 26 Jun 2013 2:43 PM

Thanks for the well needed information. I have a question...., does it matter if I don't have a free-arm extention table for my sewing machine? Does it make a difference with free motion quilting or not?

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ckquilter wrote
on 26 Jun 2013 10:59 PM

hi joann

it has been a long time since i was a beginner - and i don't even remember some of the problems !!

i am not sure what a free arm extension table is ?     but thinking about it - sewing machines just come with that small level surface for supporting the fabric. and that does make it very hard to quilt - because the quilt just falls off the machine so fast, without any support or being flat - and that makes it pull against the needle - and that can cause skipped stitches.                       if you are working on a large quilt, it will also caue a lot of unnecessary wear and tear on shoulders and arms, because you are constantly having to pick up and support and move the quilt back onto the sewing level.

if you have one of the sewing cabinets that you can drop your machine into and then the sewing surface is level with cabinet level - that helps. i don't like them because it makes it hard to get my bobbin in and out.      i bought one of the extension tables years ago - and use it always.  i had the legs of my sewing desk cut down so that when i sit at the machine, the level of the extension table, and thus the level of my hands are right where they should be for best (most ergonomic) use.  my elbows are at a 90 degree angle and wrists are straight. so i am not having to raise my shoulders or bend my elbows more than 90 degrees to quilt.            i use a swivel office chair, raised to its highest position - so my knees are also at a 90 degree angle, and are not crammed against the floor.                     the table top just clears my legs.  but everything is angled to make sure that i am not putting any pressure against joints.               i spend a lot of time at the machine - so i need to not do any damage to shoulders, knees.........

also, make sure your quilt is supported by something other than you. i have an extended table to the left side of my machine. some people will set up their ironing board to the left of the machine to catch and support the quilt. whatever you do, make sure the quilt is supported by a table or ironing board or some other surface besides your arms.     also, you do not want it pulling against the needle - that will cause skipped stitches and broken needles and other problems (very difficult to get consistent stitch length).               also, my sewing table backs up to another desk, at a standard height. so it is higher than my machine. and that prevents the quilt from falling off the back of the machine.                  so my table supports all of the quilt; at the level of the sewing. so all i have to do is move the small area where i am actually quilting - but i don't have to support the rest of the quilt.    and that helps a lot.  especially as the quilt gets larger - having it supported becomes even more important.

so i guess the short answer to your question is - yes, an extension table for your machine makes a huge difference when quilting - both for the quality of the sewing and for the wear and tear on you. (i just had not heard them called a free arm table before - but then i have had mine for over 15 years and probably just forgot what they are called.)

and while they may be a hundred dollars or more - compared to shoulder surgery, it is pretty cheap !                      and i have used mine for over 15 years, and several hundred quilts (plus other sewing); so the cost per item - maybe a quarter by now !!    taking the pressure off my shoulders - priceless!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!                                 ckquilter

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