Saturday, September 15, 2018

Longarm Learning Curve: Directional Tension Troubles

Good Morning, Lovelies!  I've had both teenagers home from school since Thursday due to the Red Cross taking over their high school as an emergency shelter for Hurricane  Tropical Storm Florence evacuees.  Here in Charlotte, we're expecting heavy rains and flooding, and I'm hoping we don't lose power because I need to do some SEWING!

Charity Quilt is On the Frame, Ready for Quilting
I've been stalled out with some Technical Difficulties for the past week.  I know we learn more from these challenges than we do when it's all smooth sailing, but it's still frustrating when something is obviously set up wrong and I can't for the life of me figure out what it is.  I volunteered to quilt a couple of tops for the charity quilters at my church, thinking that it would be a great way to serve AND get some more practice with my longarm quilting machine (which I have not touched since I finished my Tabby Mountain Disco Kitties quilt at the end of May).

So I picked up two tops from the church quilters over a month ago, including batting and backings for each, and then I proceeded to panic about them because:

  1. The backings they gave me are sheets.  One is a cotton/poly blend and the other is definitely synthetic, with kind of a microfiber silkiness to it.  I know right off the bat that, because bed linens are woven with a much higher thread count and much tighter weave than quilting cotton, these backings are going to make it much harder for me to get a decent looking quilting stitch.
  2. Since this group normally ties all of their quilts rather than quilting them, the batting they gave me is a high loft polyester, and what's more, the batting has a really uneven consistency.  In the thickest spots, the batting is nearly three times as thick as it is in the thinnest spots.  I have never seen anyone use batting like this for machine quilting and I worry that it is one of those "not suitable for the longarm" battings that, like the bed sheet backings, will introduce all kinds of additional challenges with shifting quilt layers as my presser foot snowplowed through the slippery, super puffy quilt sandwich.
  3. As for the quilt tops themselves, they are not quite like the quilts I piece myself.  Not all of the ladies who serve in this ministry are quilters, so the tops have 1/2" seam allowances instead of 1/4", they are not quite flat and square, and although seams have been pressed to one side, there are places where a more experienced quilter would have done a different pressing plan to reduce bulk where seams intersect.  But my biggest concern is that, like the quilt backings, many of the fabrics used in the quilt tops appear to be sheets, drapery fabric remnants, or scraps of garment fabrics.  
After a couple weeks of agonizing and consulting with several more experienced longarm quilters, I decided to take advantage of the JoAnn Fabrics Labor Day 50% off coupons to give myself a fighting chance with these projects.  I bought two Fairfield Low Loft Polyester battings to replace the thick battings supplied by the church group, and I bought an inexpensive extra wide cotton quilt backing fabric for one of the tops so I wouldn't have to use the slippery microfiber sheet.  I have enough of a learning curve as a beginner without further stacking the odds against myself, right?

Pinning the Quilt Top to Canvas Leader, Occasionally Stabbing Myself With Pins
So I loaded the first quilt on my frame with the new low loft polyester batting and the cotton/poly sheet backing, threaded up my machine with a neutral cream colored So Fine #50 quilting thread, and proceeded to do some test stitching off to the side of the quilt top, on the excess batting and backing.  Stitches looked lovely from the top side, but look at what was going on below deck:

Bobbin Thread Flatlining, But Only When Quilting In Certain Directions
Aaaarrgh!!!  Folks, I am not a woman who is afraid to adjust needle or bobbin tension on a sewing machine.  I understand the science of balanced lock stitch tension, and if I needed a refresher, there are a ton of tension troubleshooting videos and tutorials online to refresh my memory.  This is a different beast -- directional tension problems that only happen when I'm moving the quilting machine away from myself and/or to the left.  After an entire day of fiddling around with top and bobbin tension, I could not see ANY improvement whatsoever.  

The Internet was able to tell me that directional tension problems have nothing to do with top or bobbin tension -- this problem is caused by needle flex and/or bobbin backlash.  I'm using a lightweight cardboard prewound bobbin in a size L bobbin case with the check spring in place just as it should be, so my bobbin shouldn't be spinning backwards when the machine switches direction.  And, as for needle flex, the only recommendations I could find online were to make sure the quilt wasn't stretched too tight on the frame and/or to use a larger needle.  I was already using a size 4.0 needle initially and I had loosened the quilt tension to the point that it was dragging around with the machine head.

I had read that tightly woven fabrics such as batiks and bed sheets can behave better with a SMALLER needle, so I took a couple of new needles out of their packs and just did an informal "stab test" to see how easily each one could penetrate my quilt sandwich.  Sure enough, the 4.0 that performs so beautifully with quilting cottons had some significant resistance trying to go through this charity top made of sheets and drapery fabric.  When I stabbed the needle straight down on top of the quilt, there was a slight hesitation before the needle punched through the fabric.  The size 3.5 needle went right through easily.  And I have to say, after struggling with this project for a few days, I enjoyed randomly stabbing it with needles.

But the needle change didn't solve the directional tension problem, so I finally broke down and put a call in to APQS Tech Support on Wednesday (which I should have done a LONG time ago!).  The first thing they had me do is check that my hopping foot was centered, level, and set at the correct height -- approximately one business card thickness from the stitch plate when the needle is in its lowest position.  I would never in a million years have thought to check that, but my hopping foot was set so low that it was touching the stitch plate in its lowest position and there was no way I could have crammed a business card or even a regular piece of paper underneath the foot.  So we got that set correctly in a matter of minutes with the help of Tech Support, but then I had to run kids to activities before I had a chance to do any further test stitching.

On Thursday evening, I fired up the longarm, said a little prayer, and stitched the following test squiggles:

Most Recent Test Stitches, Top Side View
Lovely stitches from the top side, right?  But this is what the back looks like:

Same Test Stitches, Backing Side View
AAAAARRGH!!!!  It is maddening that the stitches can be so beautifully formed and then just flatline randomly like that.  Well, it's not really random; it's happening only when the machine head is being moved to my left and/or away from me.  

Well, the VERY KIND AND PATIENT woman at APQS Tech Support said that checking the hopping foot height was only the first step on her list of troubleshooting, so I'm not giving up yet!  I just haven't had a chance to call back during business hours yet.  So far in Charlotte all we've seen from Tropical Storm Florence is wind and steady rain.  I'm going out for a walk with my husband as soon as I finish my coffee, and then I'm headed back up to the studio to get Miss Millie straightened out.  I've got her plugged into a hefty UPS so no worries about damaging the machine if there are power irregularities from the storm.

But one thing I really must do is make myself a larger test sandwich off to the side of the quilt that's loaded on the frame, because these little 4" swatches are way too small and I'm running out of room with the excess batting and backing at the sides of the quilt top.  Also, I'm going to make that practice sandwich out of 100% cotton top and bottom, NOT sheets, and scrap batting that I would normally use in one of my own quilts.  Getting beautiful stitches with high quality materials is really my goal, and if the stitch quality is compromised somewhat when I'm quilting through sheets on a charity quilt, so be it.

Wish me luck!


KaHolly said...

You are being so very patient. I’d be a wreck! Good luck with the troubleshooting.

Cathy Melancon said...

Oh dear!!! Sorry for all the issues you are having. I know these are for charity, but maybe you should let them know the type of fabrics and batting work best for quilts and for your machine! I don't have a longarm, but I do lovemthe APQS machines and know they have a good reputation! Hope you can get this resolved! So glad y'all are safe and so far nothing serious from Flo.

Louise said...

Oh, my. This sounds so frustrating!! You did the right thing by buying better batting and backing because it will help you narrow this down. I'm glad you have a patient customer support person to assist! Deep breaths... Good luck to you!

The Joyful Quilter said...

I feel your pain!! I was having similar issues with my APQS Millennium on the last quilt that I loaded on the frame. Strangely enough, The Beast likes Dream Poly best of all! It's a little thicker, but the stitching usually turns out beautifully. Thin cotton batting and the like? Not SEW much! :o((

Anonymous said...

You are one smart lady to steer away from sheets as a backing. Why make trouble? Sounds like you are getting excellent guidance from tech support. Thanks for the idea of a smaller needle. I would not have thought to go there as a beginner myself. Great post. Hope you are safe and I look forward to hearing more about your experiences with the longarm.

colleen said...

So sorry it's so hard to do good things for others. I am sure you will figure something out even if it is only moving forward and right.
Those quilts will keep someone warm at night

Jenny K. Lyon said...

What a journey. I too learned how challenging quilting for others can be. Really, those ladies need to know that proper batting and fabric is needed for your machine. I hope the tech gets you quickly on your way!

Preeti said...

See, these are exactly the kind of horror stories that prevent me from attempting FMQ. I have goosebumps and my knuckles are white and I am on the verge of tears. Oops, sorry. This is not about me. Knowing what I know about you (the patience of a saint and the zeal of a warrior), you will successfully and beautifully sort this out to make exquisite quilts.