Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Remember the Alamo: Why Your Longarm Quilter Won't Let You Use a Bed Sheet for Quilt Backing

Oh my gosh, you guys -- this "easy pantograph" charity quilt is finally done and off my frame.  I'm battered, bloodied and traumatized, but I learned a lot and I survived.  Let's call that a win.  ;-)

"Remember the Alamo," 60 x 80 Charity Quilt Finish

Why Bed Sheets, Drapery Panels and Shower Curtains Make Bad Quilt Backings

I used to think that longarm quilters who refused to accept bed sheets as quilt backings were just being picky quilt snobs, but now I totally understand why a longarmer would have that rule.  The backing for this particular quilt was a cotton/polyester blend, either a sheet or an unlined readymade drapery panel.  It was a tighter weave and a heavier weight than quilting cotton, and no amount of changing tension settings, different size threads, different size needles, begging, pleading, or cursing could coax this fabric into cooperating for consistently balanced stitches.  What's more, the quilt top itself is comprised of lots of different types of fabric, with many of them a heavier weight and tighter weave as well.  If I managed to get the tension looking good on one patch of fabric, it would be off again as soon as the quilting stitches traveled onto a patch of a different kind of fabric.  

Directional Tension Trouble on Bed Sheet Backing: This Is the Best Stitch Quality I Could Achieve
I spent days fiddling with settings, trying to get decent stitch quality with the combination of fabric challenges in this quilt, and I was never able to get something I was truly happy with.  I ended up just doing the best I could, and hopefully that will be good enough.  

Here's The Skinny On Directional Tension Trouble:

Here's what I learned this week!  When your tension looks great in some directions but you have unbalanced tension only when stitching in certain directions, that indicates that your needle is flexing -- bending as the stitch is formed, so the top thread is not meeting up with the bobbin thread in exactly the right place to form a good lock stitch.  What causes needle flex, you may ask?

  • The needle is too small.  Thicker needles bend less than skinny needles do -- which is why longarm machines quilt with larger needles than you might use to quilt on your domestic sewing machine.
  • The quilt sandwich is stretched too tight on the quilting frame.  This is a common newbie mistake -- the quilt shouldn't be flat and taut like a drum; it needs to drape down around the machine bed and, as you move the machine around on the quilt, it should look like a critter is tunneling around under there.
  • The quilter is trying to quilt way too fast and needs to slow down.
  • Stitch length is too long.  Longer stitches allow the needle to bend more than shorter stitches.
  • Thread Composition: The APQS article I found on directional tension says that cotton thread pulls harder on the needle than a smooth polyester thread does, especially if it's also having to pull through cotton batting.  My So Fine thread is a lint free 100% polyester thread with a matte finish that looks like cotton.  My batting was polyester, but my atypical fabrics were giving resistance to the needle already -- perhaps switching to the slippery-smooth Glide polyester thread would have helped the needle "glide" through this challenging quilt more easily, with less flexing? 
  • Batting: Again, according to the APQS article, very dense, like a 100% cotton, is more difficult for the needle to penetrate, and if the batting doesn't have enough loft, there isn't much room for the longarm machine to form that locking stitch.  I don't think my Fairfield low loft polyester batting was a contributing factor this time around, but that's definitely something I'll keep in mind when I'm selecting battings for future quilts.  
  • Fabric type and thread count -- this is what was killing me on my charity quilt!  The needle just had to work too hard to punch through that thick, tight fabric weave.  Bed sheets have a much higher thread count and tighter weave than quilting cottons, but beautiful batik quilting cottons have a tighter weave than regular cotton prints and they can be challenging, too.  APQS suggests trying a smaller needle and/or a slippery polyester thread in this situation -- again, maybe the smooth and shiny Glide thread would have been a better choice.  Then again, I was dealing with a very tight weave/high thread count, AND a heavier fabric weight overall with my backing, as well as a quilt top that had some dress weight, bed sheets, and even drapery fabrics.  So a smaller needle would have a high risk of BREAKING, especially since I was quilting "blind" from the back of my machine and couldn't see whether I was approaching bulky seam intersections...    

I chose to use So Fine thread for this project because I thought the matte finish would make my beginner quilting stitches more inconspicuous than the shiny, showy Glide thread, and because I don't happen to have a nice neutral shade of Glide on hand that would have complemented this particular quilt top.  I am realizing that there is more that goes into selecting the best thread for each quilt than just the aesthetics of color and sheen preferences!  Even monopoly invisible thread would have slipped through these tight weaves better than the thread I used.  I'm learning, so it's all good -- and when you look at it from a distance instead of sticking your nose up to the bobbin stitches like you're the Chief Inspector for the Quilt Police, this quilt looks fine:

Floral Meander Pantograph, Front of Quilt
I feel like I did a good job of spacing the pantograph rows so they blend together into one overall pattern instead of quilted "stripes" with obvious demarcations between each pass of stitching.  The back looks okay from a distance, too:

Backing (Bed Sheet) Side of Floral Meander Charity Quilt

It Had To Be A Solid Color to Show Every Imperfection, Too...
This pantograph design is called Floral Meander.

Smoother Curves Than My Last Hand Guided Pantograph Attempt
I do like the way the neutral colored Superior So Fine #50 thread I used blends with most of the fabrics in the quilt top, and I'm getting much better at quilting round shapes from the back of the machine than I did on my first pantograph attempt back in January.  

This charity quilt is only my second try at a hand guided pantograph, and I can see that I'm getting better at staying on the design lines -- the round parts of the design are starting to look rounder and smoother and the "ogre toes" are going away, and as Martha Stewart would say, that's a good thing!

First Pantograph Attempt.  Compare Oval Inside Hook to More Rounded Shape In Prior Photo
Incidentally, the above photo is of a Popcorn LG pantograph that I stitched on a quilt made of all quilt shop cotton fabrics with Quilter's Dream Poly batting.  It's a very similar pantograph pattern to the one I used on the charity quilt, yet you can see in this backing-side photo that I was able to stitch the design with beautiful, balanced stitches in ALL directions with my APQS Millenium without any of the directional problems I experienced on the charity quilt.  (The tiny dots of black between stitches are the black batting showing at the needle holes, by the way -- the holes closed up when I washed the quilt).

And so, in my own mind, I have named this charity quilt "Remember the Alamo" because it was a bloody battle (figuratively!) but I fought a good fight and even though I wasn't successful, I never gave up.  Also I will REMEMBER my Alamo and never, ever load another bed sheet/drapery panel/shower curtain on my longarm frame EVER AGAIN!

So I have one more of these charity tops waiting to be quilted that was pieced by the same church group.  It has the same 1/2" seam allowances and the same variety of fabrics in the top, and I'll be using the same low loft poly batting.  However, for this top, I purchased a length of cotton quilt backing from JoAnn's with a nice, busy paisley print to camouflage any oopsies from the back side.  My wonderful APQS dealer suggested that, instead of following a paper pantograph from the back side of my machine, I quilt this one with a freehand allover meander from the front of the machine instead, so I can at least avoid stitching through bulky seam intersections and see what's happening while I'm quilting.  I think that's a great idea.  What I have NOT yet decided is whether I'll tackle the second charity top right away.  I might decide to load up a sample quilt with just plain muslin top and backing, "normal" batting that I would typically use for one of my own quilt projects, and use that practice piece to get my tensions tweaked again just so, practice that allover meander a little bit, and rebuild my confidence after my Battle of the Alamo...

Meanwhile, I'm linking up with:
Let’s Bee Social at 
Midweek Makers at
WOW WIP on Wednesday at 
Needle and Thread Thursday at  
Finish It Up Friday at 
Whoop Whoop Fridays at 

Finished Or Not Friday at 


Ann said...

Thank you for compiling all those tips! I'm having a similar problem on a leaf pattern on a quilt right now, but only on the curved tips going certain directions. I laughed out loud on your last post when you were testing different needles. I could totally picture you stabbing the quilt, going, "Die, die, die!" I've had a quilt or two that i felt that way about. They usually go sit in the Faugh! pile in the corner til I'm less disgusted with them.

SJSM said...

Oh, how frustrating! I had no idea that Longarmers had such troubles with sheets and fabrics that aren’t quilting cottons. No wonder there are so many specialty quilt stores. I mean aside from the large interest in quilt making. Thanks for explaining the many reasons that make thread tension and fabric not work on a long arm machine. I’m glad you gained the knowledge to know what not to do. I’m guessing you will be more selective on what you take from the church group and let many quilts be tied.

Frédérique - Quilting Patchwork Appliqué said...

You did it! And beautifully! Sounds like it was very hard, but the quilting is lovely

Louise said...

These are great tips even for a domestic machine! I was having tension issues with my latest top, and I think it was because it was made with lotto blocks that I didn't make. The quality and thickness of the fabrics was all over the map. Shortening my stitches helped, as did slowing down my hands. I guess my needle was flexing! So reading about your issues in detail helped me make sense of what I was seeing here. Thanks!! :)

Beth @ Cooking Up Quilts said...

There are just so many things to take into consideration when doing a quilt on a longarm. Just when I think I have a good handle on all the pieces, I read about something called 'directional tension issues'. LOL Thanks for so much good info Rebecca! I'm sorry you had to struggle to finish what should have been a feel good charity quilt, but the knowledge you gained from this project is priceless. Every time I learn something new I feel a bit more comfortable with my machine and feel more confident in my ability to overcome whatever issue might come up. Take a break, and pat yourself on the back for another great finish. You deserve it!

Ramona said...

Reading your post made me think about all of the quilt makers back in the day, who used what they had and then hand quilted their handiwork. Their fingers must have been bleeding and so callused after doing the quilting. Of course, there weren't quite as many different types of fabric, but they used what they had. I'm glad you are finished with this quilt and, while it was frustrating, you learned a lot and shared your experience with us. Thank you for the tips! Onward and upward!

dq said...

It sounds like you were lucky to have survived this one.

People who don't quilt just don't get that we do know what we are doing. I visited a sewing machine fix-it shop once and we got on the subject of quilts. The owner could not understand why quilters won't use polyester because it last so much longer. That may be true, but quilters need accuracy and fabric that won't stretch. It really is an accuracy thing we do when we piece. Long arm quilting is no exception.

colleen said...

It takes a lot of strength to quilt using a long arm machine by hand. I hope the bone(s) you broke not so very long ago are still doing fine

Julie said...

You persevered and the quilt turned out great. I don't have a longarm, and I do all my quilting on a Pfaff Grand Quilter shoving the quilt through. A friend asked me to quilt a quilt for her son and DIL and since he was one of my late son's best friends I agreed. She brought a sheet for the backing! Argh! However, it was a cheap sheet and loosely woven so it all worked out. I can totally understand your frustration at getting the tensions right. I use Superior thread almost exclusively, but I am interested in the Glide thread you mentioned. I will have to check it out!

Lynette said...

You make the best posts, sharing things, when you have to problem-solve something! Thanks for listing all the variables you found information for. My poor longarm has stood idle for 2-1/2 months while remodeling has been going on. Today I can clear out enough of the furniture and other flotsam that's been packed in that room so I can start back up again with my quilting. First up is a super fun quilt for my cousin, who sent a cool boho-print fabric (which is actually a duvet that was cut apart because they hated the poly stuffing) with a bright red velveteen for the backing. It's pretty, and I love off-the-norm backings, but I'm really expecting tension to be an active bedfellow with this one. It's even king size. Heh!!