Saturday, May 15, 2021

Date Night With Jack the Ripper: A Directional Tension Thriller With a Happy Ending

Friday Night with Jack the Ripper

You should have seen the look on my husband's face when I told him I was ripping stitches out of Anders' graduation quilt.  You'd think I just told him that I fed one of our neighbors to the dog or something.  It was all there in his eyes -- shock, horror, revulsion, "how could you do this to me, to us, and to our family?!" blah blah blah.  But a quilter's gotta do what a quilter's gotta do, and sometimes you just have to put on your Big Girl panties and reach for the seam ripper.

So I finished quilting Anders' graduation quilt late on Tuesday night, but when I took it off the frame and flipped it over, I saw a couple of spots where I wasn't happy with the stitching on the back of the quilt.  I know better than to make rash decisions when I'm tired, so I walked away from the quilt and decided to come back and triage in the daylight, after a good night's sleep.  Sometimes I can pick out and restitch small sections of quilting invisibly, knotting and burying the thread tails so you'd never know any "quilt surgery" had happened there.  This was not one of those times.

Tuesday Night, When I Thought I Was Finished

Inspection on Wednesday morning revealed directional tension problems in the first two rows of quilting, about 15" across the entire top of the quilt.  

What the Heck are Directional Tension Problems?

Oh, I'm so glad you asked!  

Good, balanced sewing machine tension is when the top thread and bobbin thread meet and lock together in the middle of your fabrics, or in the middle of the batting layer for quilters.  Normally when you have poor tension, you see that either your top thread is pulling all the way to the bottom side or that your bobbin thread is pulling all the way to the top, throughout all of your stitches.  Directional tension problems are a special plague of long arm quilting -- your stitches look lovely and perfectly balanced on both the top and bottom of your quilt, but only when you were quilting in certain directions.  When you see this happening, needle flex is usually the culprit.  Your long arm needle is bending ever so slightly as it's stitching, moving your top thread out of the ideal position where it needs to be caught by the swing of the hook to form a perfect lock stitch with the bobbin thread.

On a clock face, the "happy stitches" happen from about 9 o'clock to 6 o'clock, and the flatlining yucky stitches happen from 6 o'clock to 9 o'clock.

If your needle is flexing as you stitch, it will bend opposite to the direction you're moving the machine.  Moving the machine from right to left or from back to front would bend the needle slightly closer to where it meets the hook (because the hook is directly behind the needle, rotating in a clockwise direction).  But quilting from right to left or from front to back, if your needle is bending at all, it's bending away from where it needs to meet the hook.

The Kristin's Champagne Bubbles E2E design I was quilting on Anders' quilt is actually a great one for demonstrating what directional tension problems look like, since it's all circles and you can clearly see how every circle has a section where the bobbin thread is laying flat  on the surface of the quilt backing, with little nubs of exposed needle thread:

This Is What Directional Tension Problems Look Like

It's not just an aesthetic problem, because poor tension adversely affects the integrity of a line of stitching.  When I ran my fingernail along that one spot near the center arrow in the photo above, my fingernail snagged on and broke one of the loops of needle thread.  If this was a wall hanging that would never be washed, I could have left this alone because the stitching looked impeccable in all directions on the right side of the quilt.  But with a bed quilt that will be heavily used and regularly laundered, these areas of stitching with poor tension would loosen and break.    In fact, as soon as this quilt was washed the first time and the fabrics and batting shrank by just 2-3%, the bobbin thread that was laying flat on the back of the quilt before washing would be hanging loose from the quilt, just waiting to catch on jewelry or whatever to break the line of quilting stitches.

Fixing Directional Tension Problems Caused by Needle Flex

Since directional tension changes are caused by the needle bending as the stitches are being formed, you can't usually correct the problem just by making adjustments to your needle and/or bobbin tension.  Dawn Cavanaugh has a great article on the APQS Education blog explaining how to diagnose and troubleshoot allover as well as directional tension issues from needle flex here.  These are the adjustments that are most helpful for resolving directional tension issues on my machine: 

  • A Brandy-New Needle.  If this had been a client's quilt, I'd have put a new needle in the machine before starting the quilt, just as a matter of course.  For some reason I decided to be frugal on my own quilt over a needle that costs all of a dollar...  ðŸ¤¦.   After about the first two rows on my kaleidoscope quilt, I was hearing that punching sound that indicates a dulling needle point, and that's when I put in a new needle.  Why would a new needle make a difference?  Because a nice, new needle with a fresh, sharp point glides through the quilt sandwich more easily rather than struggling to punch its way through like a dull needle has to do.  The harder it is for the needle to pierce the layers of the quilt sandwich, the more likely it is for the needle to flex as stitches are being formed.  Most sewing machine technicians recommend replacing your needle after about 8 hours of sewing.  I had nearly 8 hours of continuous stitching just on my client's queen size quilt, and then I quilted that cuddle donation quilt with the same needle before loading up my kaleidoscope quilt...  I think that the dull needle was my primary culprit this time. 
  • A Bigger Needle (Size 4.5/19).  When I see directional tension issues on a quilt and I'm using a thick/strong/cotton thread like King Tut, and/or I'm using a really dense cotton batting, sometimes going up one needle size will help.  A thicker needle shaft resists bending better than a thinner needle shaft (which is why long arm quilters use larger needles than domestic machine quilters).
  • A Smaller Needle (Size 3.5/16).  With higher thread count, densely woven fabrics like batiks, sometimes a smaller needle will penetrate the quilt sandwich more easily than a larger one.  I did have densely woven hand dyed, hand marbled and batik fabrics in this quilt, but I also had lots of thick seam allowances to stitch through and I was using 40 weight Glide thread that might shred if the eye of the needle was too small, so I stuck with my middle-of-the-road size 4.0/18 needle.
  • Slow Down, Speed Racer!  Sometimes running the machine too fast causes needle flex, and slowing down can correct the problem.  In this case, my IntelliQuilter computer robotics were moving the quilting machine at a steady 1.2 inches per second, a moderate speed that has worked well for me for many, many quilts, so I knew speed was not the culprit.
  • Shorter Stitch Length.  Stitch length may have been a factor here; it's something I was tweaking as the first couple rows stitched out.  By the time the directional tension issue had resolved on this quilt, I was using a slightly shorter stitch length.  So I think stitch length was a contributing factor, along with the dull needle.
  • Use a Smoother, Slicker Polyester Thread.  I was already using Glide trilobal polyester thread with this project, and that's just about the slickest, smoothest thread I know of for long arm quilting.  Had I been having these issues with a rough/matte/cotton thread, especially in combination with a dense cotton batting, switching to a smoother thread might have solved the problem.  If I had my heart set on using that coarser cotton thread in my needle for whatever reason, sometimes just switching to a slipperier polyester thread in the bobbin will make a difference.
  • Use a Lighter Weight Thread in the Bobbin.  Some quilters are adamant about using the exact same thread in both the needle and the bobbin, thinking this is the best way to ensure balanced stitches on both sides of the quilt.  However, the needle thread is the one that does all of the work in stitch formation, grabbing the bobbin thread and pulling it up into the batting layer to form a lockstitch.  When the bobbin thread is a lighter weight than the needle thread, there's less resistance coming from the bobbin thread and stitching tends to look more consistent in all directions.  It's easier to get great stitches with 40 weight Glide in the needle if I use the skinnier 60 weight Glide in my bobbin -- but the Split Pea color I was using in my needle is only available as 40 weight thread.
  • Loosen the Quilt Sandwich on the Frame.  APQS doesn't recommend pulling your quilt sandwich super tight and taut on your frame for quilting, and they say a too-tight quilt can cause or contribute to needle flex and directional tension issues.  However, if I have my quilt as loose on the frame as my APQS dealer showed me for hand guided free motion quilting, it seems to be more difficult to achieve precise alignment of computerized edge-to-edge designs.  So I keep this factor in mind, but I'm going to mess around with everything else first before I resort to putting slack in my quilt on the frame.
  • Choose a Loftier Batting that is NOT 100% Cotton.  There is a certain amount of needle flex that is just inherent in the physics of long arm quilting, even if you're doing everything else right.  Those super-thin battings beloved by hand quilters and quilted garment makers just don't have enough space in the middle layer of the quilt sandwich for the threads to lock a little closer to the surface in some directions, a little closer to the backing in other directions, but always hidden within the batting layer of the quilt.  I don't stock or use any of those really thin battings on my long arm.  However, the 100% cotton batting I'm using for this quilt is the flattest and densest of all of the battings I carry.  As with cotton thread, cotton batting fibers can contribute to needle flex because they are "grabbier" than wool or polyester and the needle and thread have to work harder with every trip through the quilt layers.  I'm not saying that you shouldn't use 100% cotton batting, just mentioning it because it's easy to forget that the batting choice can impact your stitch quality.  I didn't test my stitch quality as extensively as I usually do at the beginning of this quilt because I was using the exact same thread (in a different color) as I used on the previous charity quilt where the stitches looked great.  But the charity quilt had different batting, most likely a cotton/poly blend that had a bit more loft and a bit less resistance to the needle than the all-cotton batting.  Lesson learned!  Test stitch quality every time, using the same backing and batting that will be used in the actual quilt!
  • Keep an Eye On Bobbin Thread in your Needle Holes.  Long arm quilter Jamie Wallen has an awesome video about trouble shooting tension problems on his YouTube channel here.  Basically, since you can't see the back of your quilt while you're quilting, Jamie recommends setting your tension so that the two threads are locking in the TOP third of your quilt sandwich, making sure that you can always see specks of bobbin thread in the needle holes as you're quilting.  You start out by setting your tension so that your top is too tight and you have little bumps of bobbin thread on the surface of your quilt, and then back off slightly so the bobbin thread is below the surface of the quilt top but close enough to the surface that you can still see those dots of bobbin thread within the needle holes.  Once the quilt comes off the frame and relaxes, those needle holes close up and the bobbin thread is hidden away.  If you set your tension so that you can't see any bobbin thread at all when you're quilting, your stitches will look amazing on the top of your quilt as you are stitching -- but you might have your threads locking so close to the backing layer of the quilt that you are running the risk of intermittent flatlining/railroad tracks happening in places where you speed up, your stitches get longer, or you're simply moving the machine in the directions that flex your needle away from the hook.

If you experience directional tension issues on a long arm machine, you try everything I've mentioned above, and you still can't resolve the problem on your own, it's probably time to reach out to your dealer or manufacturer for tech support.  If you've broken a needle recently or sewed over the edge of an acrylic ruler, it's possible that your hopping foot was knocked out of position or that your timing is off.  But, nine times out of ten, adjusting one or more variables in the list above will solve the problem.

Jack the Ripper Strikes Again

Thank goodness I saw the flatlining when I advanced the quilt and got it corrected by the third row.  But now here I was, with the entire quilt finished and off the frame, and I'd determined that the stitch quality was bad enough in the first two rows of quilting (the top 15" or so of the quilt) that it all had to come out and be requilted.  You guys, the quilting stitches went in SO MUCH FASTER than they came out.  It took me about six hours over the course of two days to carefully unpick all of that quilting.  

The Good Tension Stitches Are Harder to Remove Than the Bad Tension Stitches

The places where the bobbin thread was flatlined were the easiest to remove, but that was only 50% of the stitching that had to come out.  Everything that was stitched from 9 o'clock to 6 o'clock had the threads locked tightly together inside the batting layer, so I had to slide my seam ripper under every second stitch or so to pull those stitches out individually or in pairs.  Very slow going, but the last thing I wanted to do was risk poking a hole in my quilt with the seam ripper!  I worked from the backing side, since that's where the flatlining was, and to minimize the chances of damaging the front of the quilt.

Needle Holes Will Close Up When the Quilt is Laundered

Those needle holes will close right up again as soon as this quilt is washed.  I will probably wash the quilt as soon as I finish binding it, to get rid of all of the Mary Ellen's Best Press starch I used throughout the piecing of the quilt top.

Back on the Frame for ReQuilting

Even though I'd ripped out all of the quilting stitches in the top row and a half of blocks, the layers of the quilt were still secured by the basting stitches along the perimeter of the quilt top.  I pinned the top edge of my backing fabric back to the canvas leader of my pickup roller at the back of the frame, just as it was before.  And then I secured the remainder of the quilt, the already-quilted portion, to the backing roller with four really strong magnet bars from Harbor Freight.  

Restitching the Second Row of Quilting From the Saved File

I save every single quilt layout in IQ just in case of a problem like this, so I was able to pull up the file with the exact same pattern height, spacing between rows, and positioning of the design relative to the center of the quilt top that I used before.  This is the first time I've ever had to reload a quilt to fix quilting after completely removing it from the frame, so it was a good learning experience even though it was a bit nerve-wracking!  

Normally when stitching an edge-to-edge design, you quilt from the top of the quilt down and realign each new row based on a reference point in previously stitched row above.  In this situation, I was working upside-down and backwards, realigning the computer to a reference point in the previously stitched row BELOW the new row of quilting.  It helped that this was a forgiving design as far as alignment between rows -- no one is going to notice if the bubbles are overlapping in exactly the same way between rows 2 and 3 as they do in rows 6 and 7.  

You can faintly see the needle holes from the previous stitching in this block, but like I said, they will close right up as soon as I wash the quilt.  If I wasn't going to wash the quilt, I could close the needle holes by gently brushing them with a stiff stencil brush dipped in water.

All's Well That Ends Well

Fixed and Finished!  Kristin's Champagne Bubbles E2E

After all of that rigamarole, hopefully I've learned my lesson.  I'll be starting with a brand new needle and testing stitch quality in all directions, with EVERY quilt from now on (including my own)!  Six hours of my life with a seam ripper are worth at least a dollar to me!

Strong, Beautiful Quilting Stitches, Front AND Back

Ripping and requilting all of that was a glorious pain in the keyster, but totally worth the effort.  Onwards and upwards, Baby!

Tuesday's To-Do List:

Off the Frame for the Second (and Last!) Time

I've already made the machine embroidered label for this quilt, but I still need to decide whether I'm going with my standard 1/4" wide quilt binding or whether I'll go wider.  I know that 1/2" finished width quilt binding is a thing, and I have a vintage quilt in my queue with 3/4" finished width binding that is really striking, functioning like an outer border around the quilt.  I'm considering up to an inch wide on this one, to help make up for my miscalculation about the quilt size, but then I'd need to experiment a bit to figure out how wide to cut the binding strips.  In any case, my goal is to get this quilt trimmed, labeled and completely bound (with hand stitched binding) by the end of the week.  Wish me luck!

PSST!!  I'd Love to Quilt for YOU!

By the way, if you or any of your quilty friends has a quilt top or two that needs quilting, I'd be delighted to quilt for you!  My turnaround for edge-to-edge quilting is currently running about 2-3 weeks, and you can click here to find out how to book your quilt with me.

I'm linking up with all of my favorite linky parties this week:


UFO Busting at Tish in Wonderland


Frédérique at Quilting Patchwork Appliqué

Oh Scrap! at Quilting Is More Fun Than Housework

Slow Stitching Sunday at Kathy's Quilts


Design Wall Monday at Small Quilts and Doll Quilts  

Monday Making at Love Laugh Quilt

BOMs Away at What a Hoot Quilts


To-Do Tuesday at ChrisKnits


Midweek Makers at Quilt Fabrication

Wednesday Wait Loss at The Inquiring Quilter


Needle and Thread Thursday at My Quilt Infatuation  

Free Motion Mavericks with Muv and Andree


Whoop Whoop Fridays at Confessions of a Fabric Addict

Peacock Party at Wendy’s Quilts and More

Finished or Not Friday at Alycia Quilts

Off the Wall Friday at Nina Marie Sayre

 TGIFF Thank Goodness It’s Finished Friday, rotates, schedule found here: TGIF Friday


Tips and Tutorials on the 22nd, open 22nd through end of each month at Kathleen McMusing


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

I'm so sorry you had these problems! I wouldn't have known what you were talking about without the photos - I'm glad you were able to fix it and now on to the binding - hope Bernie recovered nicely :)

Gretchen Weaver said...

Removing stitches is so annoying but I'm always glad when I do. The same thing happens to needles on a regular sewing machine. I change my needle often, sewing goes so much more smoother. Happy stitching!

Carole @ From My Carolina Home said...

Yes, yes, yes, excellent article on needle flex and directional stitching problems!! It is so frustrating to think a quilt is done, only to find issues with the stitching on the back. Great list of things to try, and should help newer longarm quilters diagnose and fix their issues.

Frédérique - Quilting Patchwork Appliqué said...

Oh boy, six hours... But it was very worth it. Great tips for longarmers, but suitable for home sewing machine ;)
Thanks for sharing, and linking up today!

The Joyful Quilter said...

I feel your pain about those hours lost due to a date with Jack the (Seam) Ripper, Rebecca. As much as it hurt, you learned something and Anders' quilt will be better for it. I have to say, I was SEW glad to hear that I'm not the only one who is slow at ripping out stitches!

chrisknits said...

Your tutorial came at the perfect time! I am getting ready to start a quilt with a dark back and using a gray thread to blend on the top side, cream background with a dark blue border. The gray is the best blender I can find, but I know bad stitching will really show on the dark blue back if the bobbin thread is off. Off to put in a new needle!

Michelle Wallace said...

Love the quilt, and I will most likely be reading this again in the future when I have this issue crop up - it’s only a matter of time.

Melisa- pinkernpunkinquilting said...

Great post . So sorry that Jack the Ripper had to make an appearance, but glad that you were able to deal with the issue. I love the term "Quilt Surgery" . Have a great week.

Brenda @ Songbird Designs said...

You did a great job on realigning and quilting those areas you had to pick out. Great information on tension issues. Thanks for sharing!

Kathleen said...

WOW! You did a great job and it had to be done. That much quality time with Jack is never fun, but you won't regret it. Good luck with the binding. Your explanation of stitching problems is getting linked in my longarm file and notes for myTips post on the 22nd!!!

LA Paylor said... crikey! What a good article on this issue. Submit it to machine quilting magazine to reach even more people!

Peacemeal said...

Good for you setting an example for all of us.
You said "In this situation, I was working upside-down"
Yep - think dancing! Women dance backward and in HEELS!
I had to do this with a quilt I sent out and paid for!
But I couldn't stand for it to go into infinity without it's best foot forward.

Linda Garcia said...

AWESOME information regarding tension issues. I have a different brand of longarm machine, but your list of fixes is applicable to all types of machines. I have learned SO much from reading your blog. Thank you for all the awesome information, it is a great help as I am sure I am not alone in having tension issues. Thank you for sharing.

sue s said...

This is absolutely the BEST description ever of what I'm experiencing on my DSM when I quilt! I am going to try the new needle (guilty!) and some of your other advice. I know I have issues when doing the curves, and try to go slower, but it really may be that needle. Thank you!!!

Cheree @ The Morning Latte said...

Wow, 6 hours? But it HAS to be right, and something about just jumping in there and getting it done makes it go better. "The quicker I get started, the more quickly the whole thing will be behind me" is kind of my motto for these situations...and the faster you get to that happy ending--glad you found yours.

Miaismine said...

Yuck. Yuck. Yuck. Jack the Ripper is not my favorite tool, but when I need him, I'm glad he's there! Your tenacity inspires me with my own ripper quilt.....
It's true though, once we rip out and fix the mishap, aren't we glad we did so? :)

Preeti said...

Oh Rebecca, I raced through this post, my heart in my mouth. I am so sorry for your ordeal but my respect for your determination and dedication to your art is renewed, yet again. Happy ending indeed, even if it took forever-ish. Well, I think it is a spectacular, gorgeous and spellbinding ending :-) On the downside, it reaffirms my fear of FMQ. Spring Broken is going live today. So you are free to share.

Preeti said...

Oh Rebecca, I raced through this post, my heart in my mouth. I am so sorry for your ordeal but my respect for your determination and dedication to your art is renewed, yet again. Happy ending indeed, even if it took forever-ish. Well, I think it is a spectacular, gorgeous and spellbinding ending :-) On the downside, it reaffirms my fear of FMQ. Spring Broken is going live today. So you are free to share.

Jennifer Fulton Inquiring Quilter said...

We've all been there, having to rip out badly formed quilting, but very few have had to reload a quilt precisely on a longarm and restart a design and get it to come out so perfectly! This was a wonderful post. Thanks for sharing on Wednesday Wait Loss.

Sharon Kwilter said...

Since I'm planning to buy a long arm machine in the next year this was a really interesting read. Thanks for sharing!

Karin said...

Your blog titles always crack me up! Too funny.
Your post was really interesting...I definitely get that pesky flatlining at times when doing curves with the rulers. Will watch this from now on to see what direction this occurs. Never put it down to needle flex...mind you I am also guilty of not changing my needle regularly.

Kate said...

Not a fun salvage job, but a very necessary one. The final quilt looks great. I don't do my own quilting, but I find it fascinating to learn about how the process works or what to do if it doesn't. Happy stitching this week.

Alycia~Quiltygirl said...

A date with Jack the Ripper - I think that would have very much made your husband jealous haha!!

The Joyful Quilter said...

Happy birthday, Rebecca!! Has Bernie received his Husband of the Decade award yet? If not, what are you waiting for??? Congrats on finishing Anders' fabulous grad quilt, too!! Best of luck on selling Millie.