Thursday, February 16, 2012

Technology Trickle-Down Takes Too Long! A Road Block for the Drunken Dragons Quilt

Keryn Emmerson design, enlarged to max hoop width, still too small for my quilt
So, here's my dilemma.  My Grand Plan for this Drunken Dragons quilt involved using the embroidery module on my Bernina Artista 200E/730E to do "in-the-hoop" decorative quilting in the center of each of the large circles, with background grid quilting to be done with my walking foot.  I was going to layer the quilt top with batting and backing, hoop a piece of stabilizer and adhere my quilt sandwich on top with temporary spray adhesive, run a basting line along the outside edge of the hoop to keep things from shifting, and then quilting a perfect decorative motif was going to be as easy as pushing one button on my sewing machine and watching the computer stitch out perfect repetitions of the selected quilting design onto each and every circle on this quilt.  The seam lines on my circles would make it especially easy to get the placement of the designs right, which is one of the biggest challenges of machine embroidery (for me, anyway). 

Keryn Emmerson design from OESD #788
I found the perfect quilting motif, too -- it's from the Oklahoma Embroidery Suppy & Design Collection 788, Quilting Inspirations by Keryn Emmerson, and it looks kind of like a blazing sun.  Perfect, right? 

My 11" Diameter Circles
Wrong!  When I sat down at the computer to enlarge this design, I selected the largest hoop that I have for my sewing machine, which is the Oval Hoop at 255 mm x 145 mm, or about 10" x 5.75".  Then I printed out a template of the enlarged design and went upstairs to "try it out" on my quilt top, as you see in the first photo of this post.  Boo, hiss!  It's WAY too small.  I guess I was thinking that the Drunkard's Path blocks I made were 7" x 7", and the circle was only a portion of that block...  It didn't dawn on me that since it took FOUR 7" blocks to make one circle, my circles were going to be larger than the maximum embroidery field of my sewing machine.  They are 11" diameter circles.

Bernina Artista 730E, photo courtesy Bernina USA
Now, it would be so much easier to just accept this and move on, and come up with a different plan, if my circles were too big to be quilted with the embroidery module on ANY sewing machine, but there's the rub: My Artista 200E computerized sewing and embroidery machine came out in 2002, and it was the top-of-the-line model at that time, but that was 10 years ago.  In 2006, when Bernina came out with the Artista 730E, I was able to pay to have my machine upgraded to the equivalent of the newest model, which is why I refer to my sewbaby as a 200E/730E.  The coolest new feature with the release of the 730 was the Bernina Stitch Regulator, or BSR Function, which facilitates even stitch length while free-motion quilting. 

Bernina 830LE, photo courtesy Bernina USA
But in 2008, Bernina came out with a beast of a new TOL sewing machine, the 830E (not to be confused with the 830 model they sold during the 1980s).  Right now they are promoting this Limited Edition version with pretty red graphics on the cover.  It's faster, it has a gigantic bobbin that holds a ton of thread, and of course the first thing you notice is that the whole machine is a lot bigger, with much more space to the right of the needle -- obviously, that's going to be really helpful to quilters who struggle to fit large quilts under the machine.  But the feature I'm most longing for at the moment is the much larger embroidery sewing field of the 730E's Jumbo Hoop, which measures a whopping 260 mm x 440 mm, or approximately 10 1/4" x 17 3/8".  If I had this machine, I could enlarge that design motif to fit my 11" quilt circles perfectly.  It's not like I can just get a wider hoop for my existing machine, either -- this is outside the limits of what my sewing machine is able to do.  Now, at an approximate retail price of $10,000, I'm not rushing out to the Bernina store to buy this machine just so I can finish Lars's quilt the way I want to do it.  That's not in the budget right now, and even if I found $10K under the sofa cushions or something (hah!) I don't think I could bring myself to spend that much on a sewing machine -- I don't even have enough time to spend sewing to justify that kind of splurge.

So instead, I'm consoling myself with the inevitability of Technology Trickle-Down.  Whatever blistering hot, bleeding edge technology is only available on the priciest models today will eventually be seen on midpriced models as well.  Over the next few years we'll even start to see this snazzy red 830LE sewbaby showing up used on eBay for a fraction of the price of a new one, so that by the time my current sewbaby is ready for retirement I should be able to step up to a sewbaby with a big, wide embroidery hoop for much less than it would cost me to make that jump today. 

Now that we've finished our pity party, what are my options for finishing this quilt using equipment that I already own?  Well, I could hand quilt the whole thing, with designs as elaborate as my heart desires, but I'm not going to do that.  For one thing, I'd like to finish this before my eleven-year-old son is ready to head off to college.  Another reason not to hand quilt it is that the variety of fabrics I used are not all suitable for hand quilting.  The batiks are a bit too stiff, and some of the other fabrics have a slightly more open weave and are not perfectly balanced thread count on the warp and weft.  As I learned from Dierdre McElroy in a hand quilting class I was fortunate to take with her a few years ago, that means it would be impossible to get consistent, even, hand quilting stitches throughout this particular quilt -- I would have evaluated each fabric for hand quilting before I used it if I was planning to finish the quilt that way.  So, no hand quilting.

I have a couple of options for machine quilting.  If I had been machine quilting for years, and was really good at it, I could just mark the design I like directly on my quilt top, drop the feed dogs, and quilt it free-hand.  I don't have the skill level to pull that off.  Another option would be to find a quarter circle design and use my Hoop-It-All Double Wide Quilter's Square to quilt each circle in four stages.  This is an expensive 3rd party hoop contraption that "tricks" my machine so that I can embroider larger designs without rehooping, with a 14 1/2" square hoop that is divided into four quadrants that slide into position and lock in place.  I'm ashamed to admit that I have never even taken this gizmo out of the box, and it must have been at least four years ago that I purchased it at a seminar.  See why I can't bring myself to fork over the ten grand for that uff da machine, no matter how wild and wonderful it may be?  I haven't had time to learn how to use half of the sewing toys that I already own!  The downsides to the Hoop-It-All solution are that I would need to spend some time figuring out how it works, for one thing, but more importantly, I would need to find a completely different design that could be stitched out in four quadrants.  My blazing sun motif has continuous lines of stitching going all the way around the circle, so that wouldn't work.

Another idea, the one I'm leaning toward at the moment, is to select a digitized embroidery quilting design that I could stitch in-the-hoop at the center of each circle, about 5 1/2" diameter with my machine's Oval Hoop, and then I would embellish and enlarge the design to fill the rest of the 11" diameter circles using free motion quilting aided by my BSR function.  I could add wavy zigzag "rays" around my blazing suns, for instance.  That way, I'm getting the speed advantage and good-looking results of the computerized quilting, but also having a chance to practice some FMQ.  After all, I'm never going to get good at it if I don't ever roll up my sleeves and just do it, right?  So, while the completed quilt top continues to languish in my studio, my next order of business is going to be threading up my sewbaby with invisible nylon monofilament thread, making up some practice quilt sandwiches, and stitching out some of these motifs to see what kind of Frankenstein hybrid quilt design I can come up with for these gigantic circles.  I'll post the results, be they good, bad, or ugly.  Wish me luck!

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