Thursday, May 7, 2020

Using Stencils to Develop Muscle Memory for Long Arm Quilting, Part One

My DIY Stencils, from Designs in Judi Madsen's book
No quilting to show you yet, but I've been planning and experimenting this week with stencils for my Spirit Song quilt, and I think this is going to work.  Woo hoo!  

Both of the designs on these DIY stencils shown above were resized and traced from quilting designs that were on the CD that came with Judi Madsen's Quilting Wide Open Spaces book, available on Amazon here.  

My Spirit Song Quilt, Waiting Patiently on the Frame
I know that some of you will look at this quilt and say that I should have just gone with an allover pantograph and moved on, so I should probably explain that Spirit Song is a practice quilt that I'm making specifically for developing my long arm quilting skills.  I got lots of SID (Stitch in the Ditch) practice with all of these seams, and I can tell you that my SID was a lot better by the time I got to the bottom edge of the quilt than it was when I started at the top.  Now I'm looking at how I can complete this quilt with ruler work and very basic free motion motifs.  

Muscle Memory: How Using Stencils Can Speed Up Learning for Free Motion Quilting

Some people advocate that the best way to learn to quilt smooth, even free motion motifs is to just "go for it" and try your best, covering a dozen -- or a hundred -- quilts with lumpy, wobbly quilting that will gradually improve from one quilt to the next if you just keep at it.  But this doesn't make sense to me, from an education theory perspective.  The more time I spend quilting misshapen ogre toe feathers on my quilts, the more I am ingraining the muscle memory for ogre toe feathers and the more difficult I am making it to unlearn and correct bad habits.  Wouldn't it be better to practice quilting smooth, evenly spaced, nicely rounded loops and feathers from the very beginning?  Consider how penmanship and figure skating have been taught for hundreds of years:

Remember How We Learned Cursive?
Remember these worksheets from elementary school?  Our teachers had us trace over perfectly formed cursive letters so that we could develop the muscle memory we would need to recreate these shapes on our own.  Penmanship practice develops muscle memory using our fine motor skills, but operating a long arm quilting machine requires a similar level of control using the larger muscle groups in our upper arms and shoulders... That's why I can draw beautiful loops and feathers on my iPad or on paper that I am not able to recreate with my long arm machine.  I'm using totally different muscles, gross motor skills involving coordination of my shoulders, torso, and upper arms rather than fine motor skills of just my hand.  Which reminds me of how figure skaters learn to precisely and exquisitely control and coordinate large muscle groups for compulsory figures.  Check out the surface of the ice after a figure skating competition -- if I had that level of control with my quilting machine, I could free motion quilt ANYTHING!

Skating Rink After Compulsory Figures Competition
Figure skaters learn by first etching circles, figure eights, and other patterns onto the ice using a scribe (like a giant compass) and then they practice skating over the etched lines again and again as they developed the gross motor muscle memory for skating these shapes in competition.

Free motion quilting with a long arm machine on a frame has got to be somewhere in between learning to write in cursive and learning figure skating, don't you think?  That's why I'm exploring options for marking some basic free motion designs onto the surface of my quilt.  The idea is that, if I mark and "trace" these designs all over my quilt today, I will develop the muscle memory faster for quilting these shapes in the future without having to mark them at all.

Both of the designs on these DIY stencils shown above were resized and traced from quilting designs that were on the CD that came with Judi Madsen's Quilting Wide Open Spaces book, available on Amazon here.  

The first design I've selected for my Spirit Song quilt is the one that Judi quilted in the white squares below on her Crossroads quilt, the featherlike swirls that radiate around those blocks:

Quilting Detail of Crossroads, by Judi Madsen
I enlarged that design to fit the space on my quilt, and just traced one line for each curl.  Now, this might seem like a silly design to need to mark before quilting, but marking this will help me get consistent spacing and angles for the feather curls as I travel around the block, quilting the design in four different directions, and it should help build muscle memory for all sorts of different feathers in the future.  Training wheels, baby!  By the way, if I was not using a stencil for this design but was nervous about stitching it freehand, I could also draw the feather curl guidelines freehand with a purple or blue erasable fabric marker.  Transferring the lines with a stencil is much faster and will ensure that the feather curls at the bottom of the quilt are consistent with the curls I was making at the top of the quilt.

Enlarged to Fit Here On My Spirit Song Quilt
When I quilt this design, I'll be traveling up each curved line to the swirled tip on one side of the marked line, and then quilting back down on the other side of the line.  After printing the design on my computer at the correct size for my block, I used an ultra fine point Sharpie marker to trace the swirls (along with registration marks) onto translucent 24# vellum that I found squirreled away in my office supplies.  Then I S-L-O-W-L-Y stitched along the lines I'd drawn using an old needle and no thread in my sewing machine.  This is one of those times when speed kills, because the lines that get marked on the quilt are only going to be as accurate as the holes created by your sewing machine needle!  Going around that inner curl was one stitch, pivot, another stitch, pivot, repeat FOREVER...

Making My Vellum Quilting Stencil
So, although I'm happy with my stencil and I think it will work great for me, it is definitely worth shelling out a couple of dollars for a premade stencil if you can find one in the right design and the correct size for your project.  It could take hours to make your own stencil for a really elaborate design.  To make my stencil, I'm using a size 75/11 needle with stitch length 1.5, and I did have to turn off the upper thread break indicator on my Bernina since I'm running the machine without any thread.  (With my first try, I had a beefy size 90/14 jeans needle, but found that to result in a chalk line on my quilt that was thicker than necessary).

What's nice about the 24 lb. vellum for making stencils is that it's light enough to stitch through easily, yet sturdy and rigid enough that the holes don't close up as easily as paper when you rub over the stencil with your pounce chalk, and it's not going to tear easily.  And I love that I can see through it, which is crucial for aligning motifs precisely where you want them on your quilt.
Auditioning Quilting Ideas on my iPad
Not sure how well you can see the quilting doodles on the image above.  The blocks with red X's on them are ideas I was trying out that I've decided against, and the blocks outlined in bright yellow are the ideas I'm feeling good about at the moment.  

Can You See It Better Here?
My idea for quilting this is that I want to create the illusion that my quilt is comprised of two alternating blocks set on the diagonal rather than one straight set block, emphasizing the secondary design created where the blocks meet up at the corners.  

This is the 16 inch Block in My Quilt, Made From Four Birds In the Air Blocks

I have a combination of  straight line ruler work and freehand curvy designs in each quilting design, and I've tried to keep the quilting density fairly constant.  The off-white fabrics will be quilted more densely than the blue and peach/pink/corals, making those areas recede visually.  Now, I know I'd get better dimension in the less-quilted areas if I was using a wool or double batting for this piece, but since it's just for practice and I already have enough variables in play, I'm just going with a single layer of Quilter's Dream Cotton Select.  As of right now, I'm planning to use pale peach Superior So Fine 50 weight thread in the needle with 60 weight Bottom Line in the bobbin for all of the peach/pink/coral fabrics, and then switch to an off-white thread for the background fills.  Those little blue triangles are a bit problematic, because they would be easier to quilt without a gazillion thread breaks if I quilted them at the same time as the pink/peach/corals, or at the same time as the off-white background fills.  So, we'll see what happens when I start quilting!

Anyway, today's post about why I'm using stencils and how I made my own is Part One.  In a day or two, I'm hoping to share with you my experiments with using different brands of chalk powder to transfer the DIY stencils to my quilt, a few different kinds of commercially made stencil options, and how to keep the design from smudging or bouncing off the quilt surface before stitching is complete.  That will be Part Two.

I'm linking today's post up with the following linky parties:

·       Needle and Thread Thursday at My Quilt Infatuation  

·       Free Motion Mavericks at Quilting & Learning Combo OR at Lizzie Lenard Vintage Sewing


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

good luck - with all this prep work in practicing I am hoping it will help you achieve what you want

Ramona said...

I agree with your premise! Your quilting design is going to make your quilt really sing. Looking forward to following your progreee.

Carla Fiedler said...

I learned a lot from you today. Thanks for giving this peek into your planning process.

Bethany said...

Thank you for this post. I hate marking my quilts, but you've provided a needed perspective! I don't want to be teaching myself bad habits

Jill said...

Agree totally on making muscle memory. You want to instill good stitching rhythms and train your eye for even stitches. One improves by doing such as your ditch quilting. All the figure skaters are getting rusty as rinks are not open. Great ice image by the way of their precision. Enjoy your learning process on this cheery colorful quilt.

Kerry said...

Just popping over from Free Mavericks - beautiful quilt and what a clever idea. Thank you.

Dione Gardner-Stephen said...

Great post, love all your analysis and analogies! Stencil making is easier with FMQ on a fixed machine, if you have the accuracy. Practice (muscle memory) is key here too! - I developed mine by stitching down all my appliqués FMQ, amazing how it eventually adds up and one day you realise it has taken care of itself. This will happen to you too with such dedication, I have absolutely no doubt. :)

The Joyful Quilter said...

Fantastic post, Rebecca! Now, I just need to find the kind of time necessary for this amount of detailed work. Knowing me, it's not going to happen anytime soon! Thanks for sharing your explanations and illustrations with us.

Muv said...

Hello Rebecca Grace,

What a gorgeous quilt! The quilting looks fantastic.

I love the home made approach with your stencils. I have used my own stencils for appliqué, and also for plotting basic guidelines when doing a free motion landscape. Making stencils can seem really time consuming, but totally worth the effort in the long run.

Thank you for linking up with Free Motion Mavericks. Your quilt is this week's featured project!

Love, Muv