Saturday, May 2, 2020

Hey, Has Anyone Used Stencils for Long Arm Quilting?

So today is May 1st, and I've not put a single stitch of quilting into my Spirit Song quilt since the rip-stitching I wrote about a few days ago.  Finishing the quilting was supposed to be my One Monthly Goal in the studio for April, so clearly that didn't happen -- but I'm not just going to throw a bunch of stitches into a quilt to meet an imaginary deadline.  

Sad Spirit Song: No Further Quilting Progress to Report
Since my original quilting plan didn't work for me, I've got to figure out WHAT I want to quilt before I can start quilting it.  I pulled out all of my quilting books and spent an hour or two flipping through them on the floor of my studio yesterday afternoon.  

It's not that I can't think of anything to quilt on this quilt.  I can think of LOTS of things to quilt on this quilt that would look great -- the problem is that my favorite ideas are "advanced skill level," and I was having trouble coming up with something that:

  1. Complements my quilt top
  2. Challenges me enough to develop my long arm quilting skills (since that is the one and only reason for making this quilt in the first place)
  3. I need an attainable design for where I am right now, not more ideas to attempt and rip out of the quilt.  Basically, to use a mathematics teaching analogy, I'm beyond subtraction and addition, but not yet ready for calculus.  I need to work through some algebra first!

Plan B: Consult My Personal Quilting Library

Looking for Quilting Inspiration From My Favorite Quilt Authors
I keep coming back to Judi Madsen's first book, Quilting Wide Open Spaces.  What I like about the designs in this particular book is that they look fabulous on quilts, yet they are basic repetitive lines and shapes that are the building blocks for more complicated designs.  I was delighted to discover that all of these designs are on the CD that came with the book, making them easy to print out in the sizes that I need.

These Designs Came On a CD with Judi Madsen's book, Quilting Wide Open Spaces

Plan C: Consult My EQ8 Quilt Design Software

Quilting Stencils Can Be Selected and Overlaid on a Quilt Design in Layer 3 of EQ8
Finding that CD of quilting designs in the back of one of my books reminded me that my EQ8 quilt design software includes a selection of quilting stencils in the block library that I haven't paid much attention to before.  So I went down that rabbit hole, exploring the quilting design "stencils" in my EQ Block Library and auditioning them on my quilt.  An advantage of printing quilting designs from EQ8 software over using designs from books is that, in EQ8, I type in the exact size I want to print the stencil design, in inches or millimeters, and it prints out exactly the right size the first time.  There is no trial and error (or wasting of paper and ink) involved in figuring out how much to enlarge/reduce/scale percentages.  Also, the line width is going to remain constant in an EQ printed design, whereas significantly enlarging a printed pattern without software can give you a very thick, blurry line that isn't as easy to follow precisely.  However, none of the stencil designs built into EQ8 really wowed me for my quilt.  Most of them are better suited for hand quilting as they are not continuous line designs.

Plan D: Does EQ Have More Stencil Designs Available for Download?

Electric Quilt  also sells CDs with hundreds of resizable quilt stencil designs from Quiltmaker magazine.  There are seven different "volumes" available for purchase, each containing over 500 resizable designs, and the CDs can be used by themselves to print designs even if you don't own the EQ quilt design software.  For those who do own EQ software, the designs on the Quiltmaker CDs can be imported your EQ8 block library so that you can actually preview them on your quilt the way I was doing with the built in stencil designs in the screen shot above.  I saw a lot of design possibilities that I could see myself using on this project and on future projects, and honestly, if they sold it as a digital download for instant gratification, I probably would have purchased Volume 7 yesterday.  However, I'm not interested enough right this minute that I'm going to order a CD and wait for it to show up in my mailbox.  After all, I still haven't figured out how I'm going to get any of these designs onto my quilt fabric so I can actually quilt them!

Over 500 Printable Stencil Designs on each Quilting Designs CD from Electric Quilt
All of these stencil designs I've been talking about are just line drawings to print out on paper, and not digitized designs that can program your machine to stitch automatically.  My APQS Millennium is not computerized, so I'm looking for a way to get these designs marked onto my quilt as a guide that I will manually "trace over" with hand-guided quilting stitches, removing the marked guidelines after the quilting is complete.  I need to turn the drawing into a stencil and then use the stencil to mark the design onto my quilt.  

If I was working on a quilt where I'd planned out all of the quilting ahead of time, and the intricate quilting designs were destined for light-colored fabrics in my quilt, I might have decided to trace all of the quilting designs onto the quilt top before loading it, using my light box and one of those fine point fabric markers that disappears when you wash the quilt or spritz it with water.  

Marking Mission Impossible Before Loading, Against Hard Surface of Cutting Table
With Lars's Mission Impossible graduation quilt, I marked my straight line designs on the entire quilt top using rulers and a white Clover heat erasable marking pen, pressing down against the hard surface of my cutting table beneath the single fabric layer of my quilt top.  But in this case, the quilt is already puffy (stitched through all three layers along the seam lines) and it's suspended in the air between the rollers of my long arm frame like a hammock.  I need to use some kind of stencil that will allow me to mark the designs from the top, a method that doesn't require a hard surface beneath my project in order for the marks to show up well.

How Do I Make a Stencil From These Designs, Anyway?

Stencils have been around for a LONG time, and there are tutorials for making DIY mylar stencils with an X-acto knife in several of my older quilting books as well as all over the Internet.  Reading over some of these, I began to have ugly flashbacks of having tried this in  the past.  If memory serves, this method is best suited to very basic designs, not anything as intricate as what I'm wanting to mark on my quilt, and those X-acto knife blades are super dangerous.  You have to cut channels through the plastic wide enough for a marking pen or pencil to fit through, leaving little bridges so the shapes don't fall right out of your stencil, and if you make a mistake your whole stencil is ruined and you have to start over. Hence the widespread popularity of commercially produced quilting stencils in a vast assortment of styles and sizes:

Commercially Made Quilting Stencils in 3 Sizes, available here on Etsy

Honestly, if this is the kind of stencil I want, I should probably choose a premade stencil and just skip ahead to the marking and quilting, if I can find a suitable design in the correct size to fit my quilt block.  Commercially made stencils are very inexpensive, costing just a few dollars each, and it is near impossible to cut them out your own stencil with a craft knife with the same accuracy and smooth lines.  The drawback of the commercial stencils, of course, is that you are limited to the designs and sizes for sale in your local quilt shop, or what's available on the Internet to order, and if you purchase a design to use for 6" blocks today, you cannot use that same stencil to mark the designs on 9" blocks on a future quilt.  Often the design you like the most is not even available in the block size you need.  Which is why anyone bothers to make their own stencils in the first place!


As I'm writing this, I'm wondering -- do those Cricut or Silhouette craft cutting machines that so many quilters love have the ability to take a line drawing (like the ones on the Electric Quilt CD or on the CD that came with Judi Madsen's book) and cut them into stencil plastic for you?  If you own one of these machines, please chime in via the comments.  I could only find information about cutting stencils onto adhesive vinyl for painting projects in my quick Google search on that topic.

Another Option: Full Line Quilting Stencils With Chalk Powder

I discovered another kind of stencil that is new to me and kind of interesting.  It's Full Line Stencils from Hancy Manufacturing, and instead of being made of mylar with channels cut for the design, it's made of a flexible, high-tech nylon mesh material.  The design lines are continuous, without the breaks in traditional stencil lines, because the line is perforated with many tiny holes that a marking chalk like Pounce can be worked through onto your fabric.  It looks very cool in the demo videos, but of course the downside is that you cannot use any kind of marking pen or pencil with this type of stencil, only chalk powder.

Full Line Stencils for use with Powdered Chalk
What really makes these stencils appealing to me is the range of designs offered -- designs that I would actually want to use on quilts more than once, and designs that would be very useful to "trace" with the long arm machine in order to develop the muscle memory for doing them freehand.  Remember when we were little and they had us trace over the shapes of perfect cursive letters before we practiced drawing the letters ourselves?  Same concept.  So no, professional longarm quilters are not going to draw out every feather of their border before quilting it -- maybe they'd mark the feather spine and a few registration points, then they'd quilt the feathers freehand.

Nine Inch Wide Feather Border Stencil from Full Line Stencils
Several things make freehand feathers difficult for beginners.  First, getting the angles right for each feather, and maintaining the same angle for each feather even as you're quilting feathers in different directions along a curve.  I like how the Full Line stencils give you a line to follow that starts right at the spine, before you have a chance to start quilting a sideways feather that looks like an ogre toe.  The second difficulty is getting those smooth, rounded curves to each feather on a long arm machine that moves more easily on the true horizontal or vertical than it does on the diagonal.  Rounded shapes come out looking a little square for beginners, so quilting over nicely rounded curves marked onto your quilt with this stencil should help a new quilter to learn to compensate for that.  If I buy this stencil, I will design a small practice quilt with a big, wide border, just so I can use this stencil for feather practice.  Even if the size and proportions of this stencil weren't appropriate for other quilts down the road, I think it would be worth the $13 just for the practice.

Ribbon Candy Stencil from Full Line Stencils
The Ribbon Candy stencil shown above is another one that I think would be good for "training wheels."  Like feathers, this is a design that seasoned quilters can knock out fairly quickly without any marking at all.  The stencil looks kind of boring, but look how pretty it looks quilted into a narrow border or sashing in this quilt by Kathleen Riggins of Kathleen Quilts (via Instagram):

Beautiful Ribbon Candy Quilting by Kathleen Riggins of Kathleen Quilts
Even when I'm just doodling on my iPad, I have trouble keeping my ribbon candy straight with rounded "knobs" on both sides, especially when I'm drawing it on a diagonal.  I get leaning ribbon candy and ribbon candy that is rounded on one side but flattened on the other side.  Being able to quickly mark a chalk guideline for ribbon candy would be a huge help. like tracing around those beautiful, perfect cursive letters in first grade.

So these stencils are promising, IF I can figure out how to use them successfully to mark a quilt that is already loaded onto my longarm frame.  The process looks very straightforward in the tutorials, but they are just transferring the design onto a single layer of fabric on a hard tabletop surface, and they talk about needing to press the chalk down through the stencil holes.  I know that I tried something similar with a DIY stencil and chalk on my Tabby Mountain Disco Kitties quilt two years ago, and the experiment ended in failure.  

Attempted DIY Feather Stencil for My Tabby Mountain Disco Kitties
However, I don't remember if the failure was that I couldn't get my homemade stencil to transfer a clear chalk line onto my already-loaded quilt, or if the failure happened when I attempted to quilt the little feather design after marking it.  I've gone digging back through all of my old blog posts during the time I was working on this quilt, and I can't believe I didn't write about why I wasn't able to mark and quilt these feather designs on that quilt!  Well, two things I'm noticing immediately, looking at this photo today.  First of all, the design is still too big for the block.  It would look better if the feather edges were about a quarter of an inch inside the seam lines.  Second, I traced the feather design onto my template plastic the same way I would have traced appliqué templates -- as close to the edges of the template plastic as possible, to minimize waste.  If I'm going to poke holes through the design lines and then swipe chalk powder across the stencil to transfer the design, I need more of a buffer of extra template plastic around the design or else excess chalk is going to get all over my quilt!  If I did manage to get the design marked clearly and had trouble quilting along the marked lines, that could have been due to the jerky, unpredictable operation of my stitch regulation prior to replacing my encoders (I did not realize my machine was not working properly until I'd been struggling with it for a year and a half).  It could also have been that I was trying to reach too far into the long arm frame to quilt the design instead of backing up the quilt on the frame to put the area I was quilting where I could reach it comfortably (something I learned in Lisa Calle's long arm quilting workshop.  Just because your machine has a deep throat does not mean you have full control for detailed quilting when the machine is all the way at the back of the frame by the dead bar!).

My Friend's Cat, Finn, Enjoying His Disco Kitties Quilt
Coincidentally, my friend texted me this picture of her cat snuggled up with this very same Tabby Mountain Disco Kitties quilt today, right while I was going through the old posts about making it.  So sweet!  I'm always glad to see photographic evidence that one of my gifted quilts is being used and appreciated!  

So, What Does All This Mean for Spirit Song?

Back to the Quilt du Jour!
So, back to the current quilt.  I think I'm going to try making some DIY chalk stencils of a couple of the Judi Madsen designs, by tracing them onto translucent vellum (I don't have any of that projector transparency stuff on hand) and stitching over the traced lines with an unthreaded needle on my home sewing machine to perforate them.  I picked up one of those little foam paint brushes yesterday when I was at Lowe's, because I've heard that can help with more precise application of the chalk powder than what you get with the pounce pad that comes with the chalk.  Wish me luck!  And of course, since I am curious, I did order a few of those Full Line stencils to try out on a future project.  Hopefully Spirit Song will be finished by the time the stencils show up in the mail!

Have YOU used stencils successfully for marking designs on your quilts?  I'd love to hear about what works for you -- let me know in the comments!

I'm linking up today's post with:

·       Needle and Thread Thursday at My Quilt Infatuation  
·       Free Motion Mavericks at Quilting & Learning Combo OR at Lizzie Lenard Vintage Sewing
·      Whoop Whoop Fridays at Confessions of a Fabric Addict
·       Peacock Party at Wendy’s Quilts and More
·       Beauty Pageant at From Bolt to Beauty
·       Finished Or Not Friday at Alycia Quilts
·       Off the Wall Friday at Nina Marie Sayre
·       UFO Busting at Tish in Wonderland


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

I think I have that big feather stencil you show - only problem with it was I didn't buy the corner at the same time - I have had the stencil for who knows how many years as it was before I got really into hand quilting and didn't even realize it didn't have the corner piece on it LOL -- it must be 30 years old by now and is still laying flat under the edge of the dresser where I keep them flat and out of the way.
Whatever you decide will work I'm sure. You can do it!!

Anonymous said...

Hi Rebecca,
Just a wild thought....
Could you position your ironing board under the long arm
and lift it high enough to create a support to the quilt ‘hammock’ for marking.
Im sure it would be awkward but maybe worth a try.
Jane S

Mother Goose said...

Like you, in the quilting world mathematical analogy, I am in pre-algebra. I have tried straight line quilting with a walking foot with success but I wanted to be able to do free-motion quilting. Alas, my enthusiasm far exceeded my talent...until I began using the full line stencils. They have been the solution to the problem for me. You don't 'press' or 'pounce' the chalk onto the fabric through the stencil -- it is more of a swipe motion. I bought several different patterns and have loved them all. I hope it will work for you! Your Spirit Song quilt is BEAUTIFUL!

Vivian said...

Lol, when it's time to quilt I often find myself in the same situation and from now on I'm going to say "time to do some Algebra!" I take those same steps (and have many of those same books) but yes, it's that process of finding the sweet spot between the right design and your skill confidence level. I had never heard of the Handy stencils (and have the pounce) so have to check those out. Don't worry, the Quilt Muses will bring you a workable solution in time!

Kris said...

Wow I barely know what you are talking about in this post but I love that you are so passionate about improving your quilting skills. I admit, that my quilting is limited. I started a modern guild here and I focus mainly on contemporary and modern quilting which is often times organic in nature (great for me that it doesn't have to be perfect) still I love that you are diving into this. I have marked all over designs on a few small pieces but never all the intricate quilting details in all the places on the quilt. Good luck. I have to go read and see what you did first that you ripped out. I hope you figure something soon.

Kathleen said...

I like pounce for marking and I think that would work pretty well. Debby Brown Quilts does some of that. And yes, you can cut stencils on cutting machines, I did it on my Scan N Cut with a cardstock, because it was what I had at the time - worked like a charm. Angela Walters does so much of the point to point moving on quilts and has lots of videos at Quilting is My Therapy. Good luck with this, you will do a great job.

SJSM said...

Not be ing a quilter you ponder questions that are out of my realm. What you do give me is a better appreciation of quilts at a quilt show. I generally look at the fabric and decide whether a quilt speaks to me or look at the skill in piecing The quilting design is an afterthought to me. Now I see as much thought can go into quilting as the design and fabric selection. One question. The quilts in shows, are they stitched with an individual guiding the machine (which is my present thought) or did the quilter individually program their long arm to stitch the quilt row by row? When you indicated a long arm can be computerized, is this what you meant? And I thought the use of the ironing board was brilliant. Not sure of it is practical in your situation but I have used an ironing board to support fabric and other tasks over the years.

I’m sure you will light upon the method/technique that will get the Spirit Song quilt to a beautiful completion!

The Joyful Quilter said...

What hoops this quilt has you jumping through, Rebecca! I don't have any words of wisdom concerning stencil use. I have a pounce pad, but haven't tried using it. Good luck!

JustGail said...

I hand cut a few stencils - NOT easy as you say. I found a finger splint in the first aid drawer and that saved my index finger. There are stencil cutter tools which are like a soldering iron, with exacto knife tips. I have one but by the time I found the tips for it, I was done cutting the stencils :-/

Another item to try for making your own stencils is cereal box liners - transparent enough to see through to trace your design and line it up on the quilt, but much easier to cut, or sew through. To mark your quilt on the long arm - would it work to make stencil out of freezer paper, and press it on the quilt top? Is there a way to slip a piece of cardboard or thin plastic between LA needle and arm for partial support if the ironing board doesn't work? You'd have to hold one end of the cardboard and mark lightly. As for pounce pads - a HQ instructor said the only time you "pounce" the pad is when getting it loaded with chalk, after that - swipe only, and even then use lightly.

Sometimes I think the more inspiration ideas and sources I have, the less helpful they are.

Michelle @ From Bolt to Beauty said...

Your longarm challenges are way out of my league, but know that I am rooting for you as you tackle the quilting on this project!

Tracy said...

I used a homemade stencil on my frame to mark a quilt. I used regular binder paper, like the kind you use for school work. The lines helped me to line up my design on the blocks. I drew my design and used a large sewing needle to prick the holes in it. Then used a well chalked pounce pad to brush the chalk over it. Like JustGail said above, you only pounce it when you are getting the chalk into the applicator. One other thing I want to add, I was marking a light colored quilt with blue chalk and a pounce stencil and I guess I got carried away with how much chalk I was getting on it. That quilt still has a blue tint to it, I'm afraid to wash it, and possible set the color into it.

Alycia~Quiltygirl said...

Oh boy - that is a lot of options and a lot of thinking... my brain hurts for you! I do use stencils - I usually use actual chalk ( like the old fashioned old school chalk) or a blue pen - then spritz it when I am done. Hope you figure out what you really like to do!!

Andree G. Faubert said...

Hi Rebecca, getting that design on a quilt is always difficult. I guess that using a long arm gives it an extra dimension of complexity. I've used small stencils to FMQ on a domestic machine. This worked fine as long as the fabric was relatively light or of the same value. I just had to jump to your next post to see what you were going to do. Good luck with the powder. I've never used it and am eager to get your opinion.
Thanks for linking up to Free Motion Mavericks. Sorry that I'm so late's been a couple of very crazy weeks. Take care.