Friday, August 7, 2015

The One Where I Meet Alex Anderson, Struggle With Control Issues, and a Bernina 790 Tries To Lure Me Away from My 750 QE

Rebecca Meets Alex Anderson!
I got to meet Alex Anderson last week at a two-day event sponsored by my local Bernina dealer!  On Friday evening we had a "Meet-and-Greet" event -- hors d'oeuvres, book signings, photo ops, and Alex shared a slide show presentation about how she came to be a quilter, with lots of photos of her quilts and a few photos and anecdotes about her family.  It was interesting to hear her story of how she got into quilting and teaching and how she became an internationally recognized author and television personality.  I enjoyed that. 

Quilt Basket Rendezvous in Batiks, Class Sample Made by Bernina Dealer's Staff

Then on Saturday morning we came back for an all-day workshop to make a 4-block version of Alex's Quilt Basket Rendezvous pattern, pictured above.  My Bernina dealer provided all of the machines for the class, and they assigned me a B 790 machine.  At first I was thrilled, since the allure of the brand-new Bernina model B 790 had been tempting me to trade in my B 750.  Unfortunately, my dealer did not bring the FHS (Free-Hand System)  Presser Foot Lifter bar for any of the student machines.  And one of the quirks about all of the 7 Series Berninas is that they do not have a manual presser foot lift behind the presser foot, because that's where the Dual Feed mechanism is housed -- so without the FHS bar, the only way to raise and lower the presser foot on these machines is to press a button awkwardly located on the front of the sewing machine: 

I know that Alex was blindsided by this, too, because she had a slide about FHS in her presentation and she was telling us how much we were all going to love using it for machine applique. 

Now, when I'm piecing on my vintage Singer Featherweights, of course I don't have a FHS bar to lift the presser foot, so why was it such a big deal that I didn't have FHS on the Bernina 790 I was using for the workshop?  With a mechanical sewing machine (as well as with many electronic and computerized models), I still have a great deal of control because the manual presser foot lever is located right behind the foot, within easy reach of your left or right hand.  I get my fabric in position, lower the presser foot, and then I can make small adjustments by just barely raising the presser foot with my left hand.  Once everything is perfectly aligned for that 1/4" seam, the presser foot clamps the fabric firmly in place as I step on the gas pedal to sew. 

Bernina FHS (Free-Hand System)
On my B 750 QE sewing machine at home, I have even more control because I can keep BOTH hands on my fabric the whole time, using the FHS bar to raise the presser foot just slightly, all the way up, or anywhere in between, controlling all of this with slight pressure from my right knee.  And this is exactly how I would do it if I owned a B 790, because the FHS does come standard with that machine.  But with the B 790 and NO FHS, I had to position my fabric, then have to take my RIGHT hand completely away to press the button on the front of the machine, and then find that my fabric had shifted ever so slightly out of position.  Again.  And again.  Ad infinitum.  Ugh!  To make matters worse, the hover feature was turned on for the first half of the workshop so that the presser foot would not even go down all the way to secure the fabric until the machine started sewing.  My 750 also has a hover option, but I have never understood that feature, never practiced working with it, and I turned it off in my machine settings the very fist time I used my 750.  In class, I couldn't figure out which sub menu in the 790 machine's settings folder would allow me to turn off the hover feature right away.  So I'm trying to line up and position my fabric pieces, trying to line the raw edges up with a foot that is "hovering" up in the air instead of touching the fabric, then I take my hand away to hit the button and lower the presser foot but the presser foot STILL won't come all the way down until I start sewing, and meanwhile everything is sliding all over the place and every seam is starting out crooked.  It was so frustrating that I couldn't even appreciate any of the slick bells and whistles on the machine -- I couldn't sew a straight, accurate seam allowance to save my soul and I just longed for my own 750 with her shiny FHS bar!  [EDITED 8/8/2015: One of my readers, a 710 owner, was kind enough to tell me in the Comments section that I could have used slight pressure on my foot pedal to bring down the presser foot when using the hover feature on the 790.  I wish I had known that in class!  Thanks, Katie!

So, the fancy new B 790 machine and I did not get along.  This is most likely due entirely to the missing FHS (which is a standard accessory on ALL 7 Series machines) and the missing cloth guide (which is included with all #97 and #97D Patchwork feet) rather than any deficit of the machine itself.  Also, I've never taken a class where I used someone else's sewing machine before and I probably am just more comfortable using my own equipment, even if it is a pain in the tushy to have to pack up a large sewing machine and schlepp it off to class with me.

Bernina Patchwork Foot #97D With Guide

Although all of the classroom machines were fitted with straight stitch plates and #97D Patchwork feet for piecing, for some reason they did not to give any of us the guide piece that comes with the foot, which is supposed to screw into the bed of the machine.  And that guide piece is my favorite piece of the precision piecing puzzle, because -- as Alex said in class -- if you wait until the edge of your fabric gets to the edge of your presser foot to make sure it's lined up perfectly, you're already too late.  This metal guide screws right into the bed of the sewing machine, is impervious to movement from the machine's vibration, and is infinitely adjustable to ensure an EXACT 1/4", scant 1/4", or whatever seam allowance you're trying to achieve.  If your guide is screwed down in the right position and your fabric is touching the metal guide from the edge closest to you, then sewing a precisely accurate 1/4" seam is virtually goof-proof.

Piecing with Patchwork Foot #97D, WITH the Guide, on my B 750 QE
The Bernina guide is almost identical to the vintage Singer Cloth Guide accessory that I use for piecing on my Featherweights, except that the Bernina guide has a cutout at the back for the 9 mm feed dog.  I have tried all the gimmicks, tricks, and gizmos out there for achieving a perfect seam allowance for quilting, and my favorite and most reliable method is using a screw-down guide like this one, adjusted until my pieced units come out measuring exactly the size they should be and then guaranteeing that every subsequent seam allowance comes out exactly the same width as the first one.

Back to the workshop itself...  Well, it was project-oriented, with everyone making the same Basket quilt, and there was a mandatory fabric kit that we all had to pay about $100 for above and beyond the price of the class.  Yuck, and more yuck, as far as I'm concerned, but I knew all of this up front and I decided to sign up for the class anyway because -- ALEX ANDERSON!  But I should probably never take a class with a kit again.  I'm an interior designer, for crying out loud -- I design textiles and pick out coordinating fabrics for a living.  The design stage of any quilt is my favorite part of the whole process. 

Boring Mandatory Batik Kit

Compare my all-batik fabric kit, above, with the bold, vibrant prints that Alex combined in her original version of this quilt, below:

Alex's Quilt Basket Rendezvous Using Kaffe Fassett Prints

My Precut Kit Triangles
What's more, the blocks we were working on in class had all been precut the night before by the Bernina dealer's staff, frantically working late into the night because they had under anticipated how many pieces needed cutting.  Bless their hearts, I feel for them, but those were not ideal conditions for cutting accuracy.  My precut block pieces were unstarched, slightly off grain, and not particularly accurate.  Note the cut-off triangle points in the photo at left.  The triangle points aren't really cut off.  What happened is that they hurriedly cut squares, lay a ruler corner to corner diagonally, and then sliced the squares into triangles with a rotary cutter.  But on most of my triangles, the ruler was not lined up precisely from corner to corner when they made the cut, so some triangles were about 1/16" to 1/32" too big, the others were too small, and they were not perfect right triangles.  That meant that no matter how accurate my seam allowances were, even if I wasn't working on an unfamiliar sewing machine, the odds were already stacked against my achieving accurately pieced blocks with perfect points.  The dealer's staff also helpfully wrapped masking tape labels around the precut triangles so they could label them for us, a well-intentioned thought that really helped with laying out the block pieces, but it was very difficult to remove the tape without it ripping away threads and distorting the bias triangle edges. 

So, disclaimer here -- I have some serious perfectionist tendencies, if you haven't noticed, and that is one of the reasons I enjoy quilting.  Perfectionism may be a waste of time in other pursuits, like when you are cooking, for instance.  The stew is not going to taste better just because I managed to dice my potatoes and onions into EXACT 1/2" cubes, or because all of my carrot slices measure precisely 3/4" and are cut at a perfect 45 degree angle.  But in quilting, the extra time you invest in precision pays off big time.  Inaccurate cutting and "good enough" piecing creates a road block for quilters because there comes a point when those tiny errors add up until you eventually hit a brick wall and certain blocks are just "too difficult" for you.  So when I am doing my own projects at home, I take the time to straighten and starch my fabrics, cut them as close to perfectly on-grain and as accurately as I possibly can, and then I measure throughout the piecing of every block to ensure that my units and finished blocks come out exactly the size they need to be, without any triangle points cut off or floating where they don't belong.  Call me a control freak; I don't care.  If a quilt is worth the hundreds of hours I invest in making it, it's worth it to me to do it right and end up with something I can be proud of.

So with all of these factors driving me crazy (including a defective travel iron that I bought the night before especially for the workshop), this is all I managed to accomplish by lunch time:

My Meager Accomplishments Midway Through the Workshop

 By about 2 PM, I had all four baskets sewn together and I managed to have three of them meet my personal standards of acceptability, but the fourth basket was irredeemable:

Rejected Basket!
I took that apart and resewed it at least four times, trying to compensate for the inaccurately cut, misshapen triangles in my kit, and I could not correct for the size of the tiny triangles without putting the outer corner of the block seriously out of whack, as you see above.  Remember what I said about perfectionism paying off in quilting?  The smaller the fabric pieces you are working with, the more crucial it is not only to sew them together with an accurate seam allowance but also to cut them out accurately to size in the first place!  There's no salvaging this block without recutting some of the pieces, and I just am not excited enough about making this particular quilt in these particular fabrics to bother with doing that.  I've still got my paper pieced pineapple log cabin that I'm working on, the Math is Beautiful quilt that was based on my son Lars's math notebook doodling, my Bear Paw project, the Jingle applique BOM, and my needleturned applique FrankenWhiggesh Rose quilt AND my skirt project to keep me busy.  Not to mention the Dear Jane quilt that I'm itching to start.

Three Decent Baskets
After I got home from the workshop, I decided that it would be silly to force myself to finish this class project.  I sliced off 1 1/2" strips of some of the blue and green kit fabrics so I can incorporate them into my pineapple log cabin quilt, and then I packed the rest of it away into my stash.  I put the basket units in my Rejects pile, destined most likely for free-motion quilting practice or warmup quilting (prior to quilting my actual quilts).  And I feel good about that.

I understand why Alex required the dealer to supply kits for the class.  Even if there had been a supply list and instructions for what to have cut out and ready to go ahead of time, there are always going to be a handful of people who would show up having made cutting errors, or who neglected to do ANY of their cutting beforehand, and they would hold up the whole class. 

Despite my difficulties, I'm really glad that I attended the workshop.  As I've said, my two primary objectives were to meet Alex Anderson and to spend some time sewing on the Bernina 790 sewing machine.  I got to do both of those things.  Alex was great, and although I didn't bond with the 790 machine I was really glad that I got to sew on it in a workshop for 5 hours and find out I didn't like it instead of paying thousands of dollars to upgrade, get the machine home, and THEN discover I didn't like it any better than the machine I already have.  Finding out that I prefer the machine I already own was well worth what I spent for the workshop and the fabric kit.  Although I was disappointed that my kit was not cut out as carefully as I would have done for myself, I also realize that most normal quilters would have been fine with the kits -- and unless the kits were die cut, it would have taken so much longer to cut them "my way" that they would have had to charge three times the cost for each kit!  I am well aware and very appreciative of the great deal of effort that my dealer and his staff exerted in order to pull off this event, going out of their way in so many ways to make all of us feel welcome and comfortable, cutting and assembling the kits and trying to make everything as clear and streamlined as possible for us.  They gave me the machine that I requested to sew on, and situated me right up at the front of the room as I had requested, as well.  They had name tags for everyone, rented an excellent facility for the event, and had plenty of staff on hand to help with machine issues (like helping me turn off the bleeping hover feature) so that we could concentrate on our projects.  We had wonderful lunches from McAlister's Deli, and although I didn't know any of the other students at the start of the class and I was the youngest person there by several decades, everyone was very welcoming and inclusive towards me.  Some nice ladies from Rock Hill, South Carolina invited me to eat lunch with me and encouraged me to come to one of their guild meetings.  And I just might take them up on it!

And now, back to my pineapples!


Karen - Quilts...etc. said...

I would hate to attend a workshop and have to sew on a machine I am not familiar with, it takes me awhile to bond with a machine and learn how to use it. The pattern looks nice but yes one that accuracy is important. It does sound good though that you met some others in your area. hope you can use the fabric in something else.

Katie said...

I like to use an FHS, but on Berninas it is rarely placed right so I can use it comfortably. I couldn’t live with out it when sewing on my Juki. On the 710 and 530 not so much. On the 710 I love the hover. I hold the fabric with both hands and just give the foot control a tap to bring it down in the right place. Then I start sewing. I agree the FHS is so much better if you have to make an adjustment.

I really think you are right about that kit. It’s a shame the dealer rushed with cutting and also wasn’t prepared for all contingencies. Ah well.

Barbara Sindlinger said...

Glad you got to meet Alex. Sorry you had some trouble with the machine but you're right, now you know you got the machine you like. I happen to like the hover foot, but I know not everyone does. I never use the FHS to raise the foot. I could never use it on my other machine because of the cabinet I had for it and just got used to not using it. Maybe you can donate the kit to someone is isn't as particular.

P11otter said...

Sorry you had a bad experience in this workshop. I can understand that completely. The best thing for a workshop is to bring your one machine, I did. I have a Bernina 440QE for that. At home I work on a Bernina 780, for over 2 jears now. When jou now how to work whit it, it is a wonderful machine! There are some tips and tricks to go with this machine. The button on the front in combination with the FHS is haven! If you now how its works. Sorry that the dealer diddent take the time to give you the right instructions. Hopefully you next workshop is a lot better. Also I think you are to good in you sewing experience for this kind of workshop. Greetings from Holland Marie Bartels.

Jenny K. Lyon said...

Too much "stuff" on the embroidery Berninas for fmq IMHO. When I teach, manufacturers frequently put their high-end embroidery unit in the classrooms to market them. As a fmq teacher, I HATE them-too much stuff for students to learn just to use them. Bummer about the dealer's choices-makes for a very frustrating class. Glad you got to meet Alex!

Rebecca Grace said...

Katie, thanks for the tip about using the foot control heel tap with the hover feature! I edited my post to include that. Wish I had known about it in class! :-) And in my dealer's defense, they assumed I would be comfortable with the features on a 7 Series machine since I have had my 750 QE for over two and a half years now. I'll bet they showed everyone how to use the hover feature in the mastery classes that I didn't attend...

O'Quilts said...

Great post...I would hate to work with someone else's fabric and someone else's machine...Glad you had fun in spite of it all.

Lara B. said...

Rebecca, this was fascinating to read! I'm not a Bernina owner, but what you had to say about two of the features applies to my vintage Singers and my Janome. The knee lift and the fabric guide now seem to me to be invaluable tools, when in fact, I have never even tried them out. Can you believe that? Thanks for cluing me in!

I love Alex Anderson too. Her basket quilt was ever so much better than the fabrics you were given in the kit. I admire your attitude about the class, that you stuck to your perfectionist ideals, and the fact that you stashed the kit. Life is to short to sew something you don't love!

Unknown said...

I love this post, Rebecca. You got what you mainly wanted out of the workshop and made adjustments where needed. Sometimes I do that too. I had a class with the great Virginia Avery once and discovered that what I really wanted to do was just listen and watch her and not to sew. I picked her brain with questions, watched her work with other students, and I am totally convinced that I got more out of that class by doing it my way than I would have if I had tried to sew and keep up with the other students using an unfamiliar machine and fabrics that I would never choose myself. Sometimes you just need to recognize what you want and need in a class situation and try to make it happen for yourself. (Without inconveniencing the other students or the teacher of course.) Regards, Claudia W

Anonymous said...

Hi Rebecca,
I am trying to get used to the FHS feature. Is the presser foot supposed to drop back down when I let go my knee? I thought the presser foot would stay up for me even if I let go.

Rebecca Grace said...

Hi, Winnie. Your FHS is working the way it's supposed to. If you need the presser foot to stay up for an extended period of time, there's probably a button on the front of your machine that will do that. The FHS bar is more for slightly lifting the foot up and down repeatedly as you're pivoting around a curve, for instance.