Thursday, May 21, 2020

Stencils for Long Arm Quilting, Part Three: None of the Magic Tricks Are Working

If you've been following along with me recently, you know that I've been experimenting with the use of homemade stencils and chalk powder to transfer quilting designs onto my Spirit Song quilt.  My DIY stencils are made of 24 pound vellum paper that I've stitched through with an unthreaded domestic sewing machine to perforate the design lines, and since I've already completed all of the SID (stitch in the ditch) quilting on this quilt, it's already loaded onto my long arm frame.  In case you're wondering, there is absolutely no way you could use chalk powder to mark an entire quilt PRIOR to loading it on the frame, because the chalk powder is just resting on the surface of the quilt and if you touch it, move the fabric after marking it, or even breathe on it, it's gone.

Such a Quick Method of Transferring a Design!

Here's what I'm finding: When you see these stencils and powdered marking chalk products demonstrated at quilt shows or in online videos, they are usually demonstrating these products on a single piece of fabric that is laying on a table top.  Transferring a stencil design with chalk powder works much better against a flat surface, and I could not consistently achieve a clean, full design transfer unless I had some kind of flat surface pressing up against the bottom of my quilt.  With smaller stencils, I had good results transferring the stencil design with my machine head positioned so that I could support my quilt with the ruler base while transferring the design, but if I was trying to transfer a large design, like a border pattern, I would need to rig something up beneath my frame in order to get a clean transfer of the entire design.

White Zinc Stearate Magic Chalk on Left (Orange) and Pounce Chalk in Blue on right (Yellow)
However, that may be a moot point.  I have now tried both the original white Pounce Chalk product, the blue Pounce Chalk product, and the zinc stearate Magic Chalk that is supposed to stick to your quilt better than the Pounce Chalk product, removing with steam.  [I didn't have a separate pounce pad for the blue chalk, just a bag of the chalk powder to try, which is why I'm applying that chalk with a foam paint brush in the photo above].  You guys, I saw ZERO difference between these products.  If anything, the chalk powders that were supposed to stick better and were supposed to be MORE difficult to remove actually stuck to my quilt surface not at ALL and disappeared even faster!

80% of Magic Chalk Bounced Off As Soon as I Began Stitching
When you are trying to follow a design line that you've carefully marked on your quilt and it's vanishing before you can stitch it, it's very frustrating!  

The Blue Pounce Chalk That's Supposed to be Harder to Remove
I thought for sure the blue Pounce Chalk would stick to my quilt long enough for me to quilt the design, because a few quilters had warned me that they still had some of that blue pigment remaining in their finished quilts that they couldn't remove once the quilting was finished.  I am absolutely mystified by that.  In the photo above, the periwinkle chalk dust is the blue Pounce Chalk that bounced right off my quilt, completely removing itself as soon as I started stitching, and the couple of places where you see more of a teal line are spots where I filled in the incomplete stenciled design with my blue washaway marker.  All of the chalk disappeared the instant I began stitching, and only the marker lines remained.

This Time, I Wet My Fabric Patch Before Applying the Stencil with Chalk Powder
One tip that I'd read about was to mist the surface of your quilt with water before applying the stencil with chalk powder, to make it "grab" the chalk and hold onto it long enough for you to quilt the design.  Well, I can't spray water all over my quilt because I'm also using the blue water soluble marker to mark my ruler work lines and I don't want those lines disappearing on me.  But I did saturate a scrap of cotton batting with water and pressed that into my fabric patch to wet it prior to applying a chalk stencil.  Did this make any difference, though?  Nope!

Still Pretty Hard to See Once I Start Stitching
Theories as to why these products and tips may be working better for other quilters than they are for me:

1. Is there a difference in the amount of vibration between different quilting machines?  Is my APQS Millennium just "bouncier" than Jamie Wallen's HandiQuilter or someone else's domestic sewing machine that they are quilting with?

2. By the time a quilt top is loaded onto my frame, it has been HEAVILY starched.  I starched every seam of every block throughout construction, because starch helps me achieve a flat, square quilt top with nice, crisp points throughout.  But maybe the quilters who are using stencils with powdered chalk to mark their quilts are not starch fanatics like I am.  If we were to compare a heavily starched piece of cotton fabric to an unstarched piece of cotton fabric under a microscope, I'll bet the unstarched fabric has a rougher surface texture that the chalk powder is able to settle into, especially into those tiny holes in between the warp and weft yarns.  My starch has probably filled in those holes and smoothed any microscopic yarn slubs that the chalk powder could have grabbed onto, giving me a nonstick quilt surface kind of like Teflon in a frying pan.

All Stitched Out
I don't know -- now that I'm looking at these photos of the yellow triangle that I dampened with water before stenciling, maybe the chalk DID stay on better during stitching?  That would actually make sense, because wetting the starched fabric makes the layer of starch a little bit tacky to "grab" the chalk.  Maybe I was just having trouble seeing my little white chalk dots against this particular fabric that has such a profusion of dots and splotches all over the place.  Maybe I'll try wetting the fabric before stenciling again on a couple of different fabric patches with the different chalks before giving up and moving on.

These Look Better Than the Ones I Quilted Two Days Ago
One thing I can tell you is that I'm already seeing improvement from the first couple of times I quilted this motif to the ones I quilted last night.  My curls are more consistent on both sides of each triangle, the curly ends are more rounded, and the echo spacing of the curls is more even.  Also, in the places where the stitching IS a little wonky, my blending Peach Tart So Fine 50 weight thread is camouflaging the oopses nicely.

The First Two Attempts at Quilting This Motif
I don't know how obvious this is to other people comparing these photos, but in the one above there were several places where I lost control for a moment and a line that I intended to be smooth twisted away, or a line that I meant to echo back on a curl was super thick in some places and then super thin in others.  It should be interesting to compare these first attempts to the last ones that I will quilt when I get to the bottom of the quilt.

Still Not Great, But Better Than the First One!
In the photo above, the yellow and pink fabric patch is still wet -- that's why you see the seam allowance shadowing through so badly.  It will look fine when it's completely dry.

Still Wet.  From a Distance, Can't Really See Anything Anyway
You know, these crazy prints and my blending thread do a great job of hiding the skips and bobbles, but they also make it hard to see what I'm quilting WHILE I'm quilting it.  It might be better to plan the next quilt so I'm doing these designs on fabric that will show the quilting more distinctly.

Super Bad Tension MUST Come Out!
I also ripped out and requilted some of the bad eyelash stitching that I showed you last time.  A couple of you advised me to leave those stitches in because "no one will ever know," but I know better from experience!  If your tension is off so badly that you have eyelashes on the back of your quilt as shown in the photo above, it's not just an aesthetic issue.  That bobbin thread is just floating against the backing fabric, barely attached with long loops of top thread that were pulled clear through to the back of the quilt.  When you wash that quilt for the first time and it shrinks -- and yes, it WILL shrink, even if you preshrunk all of your fabrics -- you end up with loose thread all over the back of the quilt that will catch and snag and rip right out of the quilt.  Tension that bad is just not "structurally sound."  What's more, these stitches are faster and easier to remove than nice, balanced stitches that lock together within the batting layer of the quilt.  You just clip the beginning and end of the flat stitching line from the back of the quilt, grab the bobbin thread with your tweezers, and the whole line of stitching slides right out in one piece.  Hideous tension stitches are the only quilting stitches that come out faster than they were sewn.

So, where does that leave us?  I think I have some more lousy tension to rip out and restitch before advancing the quilt.  It's hard to tell for sure until I roll that bit up onto the pickup roller of the frame, because I get vertigo when I keep crawling under the frame and trying to look up to evaluate the stitching.  Now I'm wishing that I'd taken the time to attach the zipper leaders to my canvas leaders (I've had them for three years, still in the package), because it would be so much easier to unzip the top edge of this quilt from the pickup roller, flip the quilt backside up to locate and remove the bad stitches, and then zip that edge right back onto the frame to resume quilting.  Woulda, shoulda, coulda!  I can't attach zipper leaders while I've got a quilt loaded on the frame, though, so I'm just going to have to keep rolling the quilt back and forth to rip and restitch one yucky bit at a time.

Happy Thursday, all of you.  I hope you get some time in your sewing rooms today!


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

I would want to rip the bad tension area out too because if you are using the quilt on a bed or whatever you would still see them from time to time and they don't look good and like you say - you wash and dry the quilt and who knows what would happen to them - I'm surprised some said to leave them in. Once I had someone give me a machine quilted baby quilt to pass on to a charity I was collecting for and saw one big area of this on the back of the quilt - I couldn't in good conscious pass it on - I marked the design with my blue wash out pen and ripped the whole area out and restitched it before continuing it to the donation - the person that made it hadn't to have seen it as it was near the binding area that she stitched by hand but still hadn't fixed the bad tension area.

Kathleen said...

You are learning a lot doing this. I am sure as I can be the starch is not helping you with the marking. It does sit on top of the fibers and some starch backs heavily to help them move when quilting on a sit down machine. I love my zippers. It is so fast to put something on and a dream to check tension. I did get another set of leaders so I could have the other if I needed it....doubt I ever will! I even like it for table runners,etc as it is so fast. I have heard of some sort of camera that people have rigged to see the underside of the quilt, not sure I’ll ever do that but I can see it would be a help.

Quilty Chaos said...

I bought my used Millie from a woman the quilts for a living and uses pounce marked stencils to mark her top off the frame with good success. I suspect you are on to something with the starch being the culprit, but if you wanted to try one more product, she uses an "iron off pounce" that I can't readily remember the name of, I just have those words in my notes from the day I picked up the machine.

Ann said...

I've taken a couple of classes with Jamie Wallen. He's great. One of his suggestions was to very lightly mist your chalk lines with cheap hairspray. He used aquanet, I think. Not soak the quilt in it, not spray back and forth; just one "chhhht" over your lines. Haven't tried it myself, but am going to because I'm having some of the same issues with the chalk bouncing off.

Ramona said...

It's funny... I've had one of those pouncy things to use with the chalk and could never get it to work. I was told to "pounce" it for about 5 minutes to load it with the chalk. I probably pounced it for an hour over several sessions and finally gave up on it. You are probably right that the starch is keeping the chalk from adhering to your fabric. It's looking good!

SJSM said...

When the next person needs information about how to mark quilts, by, you will have encyclopedic (well maybe dictionary) knowledge! When you figure this all out it will be encyclopedic. Your quilting is getting better and better. Keep moving forward.

K Yee said...

Dorie Hruska of Forever Quilting, uses an APQS longarm and speaks of using the Miracle Chalk with stencils. The work I have seen is with commercial stencils rather than homemade needle hole type. I wonder if she could be of any help.