Friday, June 22, 2012

The Cheater's Ultimate Guide to Quilting With Your Embroidery Module

Decorative Quilting the Easy Way: Quilting "In the Hoop" with an Embroidery Module

They say that it takes, on average, 80 hours of practice to learn free motion machine quilting.  That's what "they" say.  I say that it's like learning to draw all over again -- with your feet.  Still, it's a skill worth learning, because free motion quilting allows home sewers to quilt just about any design with almost any domestic sewing machine, in a fraction of the time that hand quilting would require.  The method I'm going to describe today is totally cheating -- like reading the Cliff Notes instead of reading the book -- but for me, it's a good way to get complex decorative quilting designs on my quilts NOW while I'm still working through the FMQ learning curve.  I have about 79 more hours of practice to go...  ;-)

Disclaimer:  I do not claim to be an expert on quilting, embroidery, or Bernina machines.  I'm going to share what has worked the best for me, but as they say, "your mileage may vary."  If you know of any tips or tricks that I haven't mentioned, or if you have a better method, please share in the comments!  I'm always willing to learn more. 

Speaking of learning more (from quilters who actually know what they're talking about!): Check out Wendy Sheppard's "Pretty Pillow, Quilted Heirloom" article in Bernina's Through the Needle magazine, Issue 28 from November 2008; I highly recommend it.  Wendy's pillow project is small and manageable, and it combines decorative embroidery module-stitched designs with begginer-friendly free motion quilting for stunning results.  Another resource I consulted was Jennifer Gigas' and Marlis Bennett's "Quilting In the Hoop" article for Bernina, and you can get a full PDF of that article right here.  Again, I consulted that article, but I did not follow their recommended method (they say to hoop just the quilt top with the batting, before adding the backing fabric, so the decorative quilting motifs are not stitched through all three layers of the quilt sandwich) because it wouldn't have given me the finished look that I wanted for my quilts, and because quilting with exposed batting underneath would create a lint nightmare for my sewing machine.

Artista 730E with Embroidery Module Attached, photo from Bernina USA
In order to quilt "in the hoop," you need to have a computerized sewing machine with an embroidery module.  Mine is a Bernina Artista 200E, upgraded to the equivalent of the current model Artista 730E.  However, any embroidery machine can do this technique.  With the embroidery module attached and a digital design file loaded into your sewing machine, exquisite and flawless decorative quilting designs are as easy as snapping a hoop onto your quilt, threading the machine, and pushing the start button.  The embroidery module, guided by the sewing machine's internal computer, moves the quilt around beneath the needle to ensure perfect placement of every stitch, every time.  It's so easy that I almost feel guilty!

Actually, it's easy NOW because I have finally worked the kinks out of my method. 
  • First of all, ideally, you should plan your quilting at the very beginning, before you cut the first piece of fabric for your quilt top.  Why?  Because you will not be able to stitch out an embroidery-assisted quilting design that is larger than the maximum stitchable area of your machine's largest hoop.  Most quilt blocks are squares, which means that the maximum WIDTH of your largest hoop is going to determine how big your quilt blocks should be.  For my machine, the biggest round or square design I can stitch in one hooping is about 5 1/2" x 5 1/2".  So, next time I'm planning to quilt by embroidery module, I'll keep my block sizes 6" or smaller so I won't have to fill in and improvise to fill the rest of the space.
Planning Pays Off: This design fits the block properly in "Anders' Froggy Quilt of Many Colors," 2006

  •  This method only works for small to medium quilts -- do not attempt this on a King or Queen bed quilt!  My Drunken Dragons quilt is 70" x 105," and thankfully, the quilting design I chose was non-directional so that I never had more than 35" of quilt crammed to the right of my needle under the sewing machine at once.  I feel like that was the outer limit.  Why?  Because the embroidery hoop moves when the design is stitching out, and when the left-most portion of the design is stitching, the right side of the hoop is almost touching the inside part of the sewing machine, leaving nowhere for all that 35" of quilt to go.  I had it sort of rolled up and bunched above the hoop during stitchout of the motifs in the center of my quilt, and had to be very careful to keep the excess out of the way of the needle and the moving hoop.  Quilting "in the hoop" will work well for throw or crib sized quilts, table runners, and other small or narrow items.
  • Choose your quilting design carefully.  Sources for professionally digitized quilting designs include your machine dealer, where you can purchase design collections such as OESD Crafter's Collection #007, Quilting Whimsy by Diane Gaudynski, as well as online sources such as Amazing Designs or Oklahoma Embroidery Supply & Design (although OESD doesn't have a category for quilting designs, so you'll have to scroll through lots of not-what-I-wanteds before you find what you're looking for).  Anita Goodesign has some beautiful quilting designs as well.  If you own embroidery design software, you can easily digitize any design your heart desires -- it's just an outline stitch, after all.  Personally, I've had the best results with continuous designs that don't have any backtracking (sewing over a previously-stitched line to get to the next place in the design).  In the picture below from my 2003 "Celestial Double Nine Patch" quilt, the first time I quilted "in the hoop," you can see how the backtracking didn't always land exactly on the previously stitched line.  Could I have corrected this with better hooping and/or stabilizing?  Perhaps -- but for less headaches, just choose a different design!
Even if the second line of stitching had landed right on top of the other stitches where they belonged, the variegated thread I was using would have drawn attention to the backtracking because it always ends up being two different colors of thread.  This quilt is also a great example of What Not To Do because my quilt blocks were much bigger than my maximum embroidery hoop could stitch the designs, and I ended up with too much empty space around the designs. 
The nine patch blocks and borders of this quilt were grid quilted (crookedly) with a walking foot, and I was terrified of free motion quilting so I added some lame looking straight lines radiating from the corners and center points of the design, to meet the batting manufacturer's guidelines for how far apart the quilting lines should be spaced.  Yuck!  One of these days I'm going to go back and add more quilting to make that look better.  It will count towards those 80 hours of practice, and I couldn't possibly make it look any worse!
My "Celestial Double Nine Patch" quilt for Anders, completed in November 2003
[UPDATED March 4th, 2014: After writing this post and looking at that quilt again, I DID finally go back and fill in the blank space around the embroidered motifs with some free motion squiggle quilting.  It's wobbly and imperfect, but it looks a lot better than it did before.]

Celestial Double Nine Patch with FMQ Filler Around Embroidered Design added in 2012

  • A Word About Tension: As soon as you snap that embroidery module onto your sewing machine, your machine tension is automatically altered to deliberately pull the loose needle thread underneath to the tighter bobbin thread.  If you were doing a regular embroidery design with satin stitches, this is exactly what you would want to ensure that none of your ugly black or white bobbin thread showed on the top of your embroidery, especially along the edges of narrow satin stitched columns.  This is why Gigas and Bennett recommend adding the backing afterwards, to hide the ugly unbalanced tension on the back of the quilt, which can look like this:
Unbalanced Tension, Backing Side
Who wants to see that ugliness on the back of a quilt they've worked hard to create?  Fortunately, the solution to this problem is simple.  Just manually change the needle tension back to normal before you stitch your design.  On my machine, with the threads I've been using on the Drunken Dragons quilt, I get perfectly balanced stitches with tension set at 4.0, but the tension drops down to 2.0 when I engage the embroidery function.  I just have to remember to change the tension back to 4.0 in the Edit screen before I stitch the design, and then the back side of my quilt comes out just as pretty as the front.  I put a Post-It note on the front of my sewing machine to remind myself to check the tension every time.  If you don't know how to adjust the tension for your machine, check your owner's manual or pester your sewing machine dealer until they show you how.  That's what they're there for!
  • Speaking of thread, the first couple of times I quilted "in the hoop," I used heavy 40-weight YLI variegated machine quilting thread in the needle as well as in the bobbin.  For the Drunken Dragons quilt, I experimented with a much thinner 60-weight Mettler 2-ply cotton embroidery thread in the needle and bobbin, and found that the quality of stitching on both sides of my quilt look much better with the finer thread.  I can use a #60 Sharp or #75 Quilting needle with this fine thread, which makes for a very tiny hole in the quilt.  Moreover, there are some pretty short stitch lengths in the tight curves of these intricate designs, and the heavier thread just looks too thick and clumsy for my taste.  The bulk of any backtracking and tie-offs in your designs will be much less obvious on the back of the quilt when you're using a finer thread, too.  Quilting thread is a subject of murderous contention, though, and every quilter will savagely defend her favorite brand to the death, so I suggest you try different threads in secret, see what works best for you, and then quietly use your favorite one no matter what other people tell you!
  • In my meager experience, using embroidery stabilizer was not necessary as long as I hooped the quilt (rather than hooping tearaway stabilizer, basting the quilt to the stabilizer, and then tearing the stabilizer off afterwards).  I used stabilizer for that first quilt, and it didn't stop the design from shifting slightly -- but it used up a LOT of stabilizer, and that stuff isn't cheap!  It also took longer to fuss with the extra steps of basting and removing the stabilizer, and as I'm thinking about it now, it's also possible that when I pulled the stabilizer off the back of the quilt, it exaggerated the tension problems by pulling the threads even more out of whack.  Now I'm just hooping the quilt "naked," (naked quilt, not naked me!) and I'm getting much better results.
  • Hooping gets easier, I promise!  The hardest part of quilting "in the hoop" is getting the quilt hooped nice and straight, with everything lined up properly so the design will stitch out exactly where you want it to on your quilt.  My sewing machine can stitch out one of these quilting motifs in under 2 minutes, but at first it was taking me 15 minutes to get the hoop in place prior to each stitch out.  The good news is that I got faster and more accurate with my hooping as I worked my way through the quilt, until I was finally able to get the hoop in place almost as quickly as my machine was stitching the designs.  Use the plastic gridded template that came with your hoop and line it up with seamlines in your quilt top, if possible.  Draw horizontal and vertical center lines on your block prior to hooping (with chalk pencil or something else you know you can remove easily) if you have to.  Once you have the hoop attached to your machine, check the center point of the design (my machine has a button that will move the needle to the center point of the design).  Use the on-screen editing features of your machine to shift your design slightly if needed so that it is perfectly centered on every block.  Note that, if your hoop has hit anything that impeded its movement while stitching, it could have been knocked out of alignment like mine was when I started embroidering quilting motifs on my "Drunken Dragons" quilt.  I was able to go into my Embroidery Settings screen and recalibrate that on my own after a quick, panicked phone call to my Bernina dealer.  If you are sure you have centered your block perfectly but your design is still stitching off-center, look in your owner's manual and try recalibrating your hoop.
Hoop in Position, Quilt Block Perfectly Centered Using Seamlines and Gridded Template

So, what's next for Lars's "Drunken Dragons" quilt, now that all of the "in the hoop" designs have been stitched out?  Since I did not follow my own advice to plan the quilting designs at the beginning, I ended up yet again with skimpy little designs that do not adequately fill my blocks. 
See all that "dead" space around the fancy quilting design in the center of the circle?

That's okay, because I'm going to add some REAL free motion quilting around the designs I stitched with my embroidery module this time.  It won't be perfect, and I'm going to have to experiment to find something that looks good with the existing design AND isn't so difficult that I can't execute it successfully.  Wish me luck!


mpaul said...

I am finishing a quilt top that I am going to try this on! What kind of batting did you use? I would think the thickness makes a difference in being able to hoop it.

Rebecca Grace said...

I used Hobbs Tuscany Silk batting for the Drunken Dragons quilt, but I've used a thin 100% cotton batting for other quilts in the past using this method. You just need to loosen the screw on your embroidery hoop quite a bit, and then you can hoop your quilt just as easily as you would a thick terry cloth towel. Good luck with your quilt!

melissa said...

Thank you for this great post! I found a link at the Bernina site to the issue of Through the Needle with the Wendy Sheppard article -

Grammy's Quilting Studio said...

I enjoyed your article. I am on my second quilt using my embroidery module and quilting in the hoop. First quilt was smaller, second on a little bigger and using two different designs (it's a X & O quilt top). In my O blocks I was able to take the circle motif and make it longer to fill the block better without going over on the width. Using 50wt cotton bottom and bobbin. Thanks for the tip on the tension, I will adjust mine and see if the back looks better. Luckily I am using a busy floral backing and the quilting doesn't show that much on the back. Will check out your resources. Thanks again.

Rebecca Grace said...

Thanks, Melissa! I updated my post to include your link to the online version of Through the Needle Issue #28.

Tonil said...

How do I really feel? Happy, that EQ7 pointed me towards you! Then I found this post just as I am about to try my first In the Hoop quilting - in my case I do not think I will live long enough to get enough fmq practice! I have a Brother so probably a bit different but your learned lessons will be an incredible help to me. Thank you so much...:)

Rebecca Grace said...

One more answer to mpaul's question about batting. If you are using a thicker batting and hooping is a challenge, try hooping a piece of tearaway stabilizer, layering your quilt on top, and basting around the perimeter prior to stitching out your design. Some of the newer machines have this basting function built-in (read your manual or check with your dealer), and if you have an older embroidery machine, the manufacturer may have the basting file for each hoop size available as a download on their web site that you would transfer to your machine and stitch out like any other design. Bernina definitely has the basting file downloads on their web site.

Unknown said...

I wat to start doing this were do you get your designs for hoop quilting? I have a Baby Lov Ellure Plus THanks for the help

Rebecca Grace said...

Hi, Jessica. There are tons of these quilting designs available for sale online, individually as well as in design collections. Try and put "quilting" into the search field. Your sewing machine dealer may also have appropriate design collections for sale that are made especially for your machine. Have fun!

mpaul said...

What is the largest project that you have done?

Rebecca Grace said...

This XL Twin quilt is the largest quilt that I quilted with this method. It gets difficult to do the blocks in the center of the quilt with everything bunched up around the embroidery module. But after doing the FMQ around the machine embroidered quilting, I started to feel more confident about my ability to quilt without the embroidery module. Ironically, I bought the Bernina 750QE thinking that it would allow me more options for quilting by embroidery module, but I haven't used it for that purpose even once because I've been working on my FMQ skills instead.

Kathleen said...

Thanks for linking up to the #TTot22 party! I am so looking forward to my new 750 Q E and this will be very helpful for me to refer to!