silk thread

YLI #100 silk thred in 1000 yd. cones

I love to use the silk thread, above, for my machine quilting which I consider fine needlework. I like it for so many reasons, mostly because of its inherent beauty but also because it is a perfect tool. It allows me to backtrack, or travel, to stitch over another line of quilting and be almost undetectable. In designs where many lines meet at a point there is no big thread buildup. This thread sink into the quilt rather than sitting on top and looking "thready."

It reflects light back from the surface of the quilt, giving it lfe and richness. The colors are so versatile, with a chameleon-like quality. The center cone, above, is #241 and it is one of my "go to" colors, as it seems to work on so many shades. Chartreuse is also wonderful, or soft teal. Instead of red, you can use one of the variety of browns or taupes, and it becomes red when quilted on red fabric.

Until you gain experience using this thread and know what colors work on different fabric colors, do a stitch-out on your sample quilt sandwich first. The results many times still surprise me!

I have found in this variable weather time of year that the dampness in the air, whether it is warm and moist or cold and windy and dry with the house heat on, that the setting for my upper tension for free motion quilting changes accordingly. If it is cold outside and the house heat is on, I need to lower the tension a bit less than if it is warm and damp, or even cool and damp. The thread seems to absorb moisture, making it "fatter" and the tension is tighter then. Don't lock yourself into one setting and think it will be correct all the time. Yesterday my silk thread was at #2 and today I turned on the machine, set it at 2, and it was too loose. Tightened it up to 2.5 and it was fine. I also discovered that the color of the thread, all other things being equal, changes how the it affects the tension settings. Red is the worst, and black isn't great either. It's always easiest to use top and bobbin colors that are the same or blend coors if you can rather than have high contrast between the two.

There is no reason you have to use one color on the back of the quilt. Change bobbin thread color to work best with whatever top thread color choice to get a "balanced" stitch. Also try a solid color for the backing and use a shade of thread for the bobbin in that same value range or lighter so that the back of the quilt is just as beautiful as the front.

Instead of another feather design, try something new. Even leaves on a vine might be a pleasant change of pace for you. And if you don't like feathers or are "feather challenged," definitely try to find some other focal point quilting motifs you can add to spaces in your quilt to give it some flow and movement.

Needles breaking? Usually it is a case of moving the quilt too fast for the speed of the machine. I have only broken a few needles over the years. I broke two #60 needles by strange little accidents. The first broke when I had lifted out my machine and slapped the carrying handle down over the top thread, so when I began quilting the thread was stuck under the handle, and in 3 stitches stretched taut on the needle, bent it, and it broke instantly. The next time was shifting the quilt around to a new spot to quilt and one of the safety pins got hung up on the foot and the needle broke then too.

However, for most of you, needles break during free motion quilting. Try to slow those hands down, and speed up the machine. That means slow smooth hands, and no jerks or fast movements, and a faster "sound" to the machine. Don't let the sound of the machine make you speed up your hands too. It is the combination that works. Sometimes changing one thing at a time is best, so slow the hands first and see how that works, then also speed up the machine a bit too.

Another issue for breaking needles is the upper thread pathway. With the presser foot UP gently pull the top thread through the needle. It should move smoothly with no "catches" or hard-to-pull areas. If it isn't smooth and easy, check that thread pathway from the spool to the needle and make sure the thread is not catching of snagging on anything.

Sometimes the thread will wind itself around the spindle and cause tension to get tight and then if you keep quilting the needle will eventually pull to the side and come down on the throatplate and snap off. This is the easiest problem to fix, and you need to find a good way to place the thread on the machine so that it unwinds smoothy and evenly. I actually like the horizontal spindle with no thread cap, even for "stacked" threads like the #100 YLI silk in the small spools. It seems to work better for me this way than sitting on the vertical spindle, even though all the thread people and machine companies tell you this is totally not right.

As we get older sometimes using a magnifier on the machine is incredibly helpful. I use mine for close quilting, but for large designs I take it off the machine. Remember to establish the design first, then use the magnifier to continue, as things definitely appear much larger under the magnifier than they actually are.

A Microtex Sharp needle or quilting needle rather than a Universal is much better for free motion quilting. It pierces cotton fabrics and batts and leaves a small hole so bobbin threads don’t pop up or show through. A universal needle is like a baseball bat with a rounded end and punches a large hole in your quilt that is permanent.

For most machine quilting a #70 sharp works great. I use a #60 sharp with #100 silk thread. You may also try a Jeans/Denim needle, but a small one like a #70. If you use heavier thread, then use a bigger needle, like an 80 or higher. If your thread frays and breaks, you may need a bigger needle or a topstitch needle, that has a bigger eye. If you get skipped stitches, either the needle is too small, or the presser foot is too far away from the quilt when it is lowered because you have very thin, flat batting.

Every so often a needle will have a roughness in the eye and fray the thread. This is a manufacturing problem, so try another needle, or one from a different pack.

Almost always the top tension needs to be reduced (lower number) a bit for free motion quilting, to give the top thread a bit of slack so when quilting goes in various directions the thread will still be able to make a nice stitch without being pulled tight. Good tension on the thread means not only a beautiful stitch, admiring ooh's, but longevity for your quilt fabrics and the stitching itself, and much less distortion in the quilt from the machine quilting.

If you travel with your machine, treat it like a person. Let it ride inside the car and benefit from your heater or your air conditioning, and the nicer ride inside on a padded seat. Please seatbelt it in so it won't tip over or fly around if you have to stop suddenly. And maybe the back seat, so the airbag won't injure it . . . If it is very cold bring it in to room temperature before turning on. These are mostly ideas from students, as I rarely take my babies out and about, except for service. They love living in their own room in my house.

Look ahead of the needle when doing free-motion quilting! There are only a few times when you want to look at the needle—stopping and starting, some double-stitching, tricky grids, etc. Otherwise it is like any other athletic endeavor.

Find a point, aim at it, and sew towards it while you are looking at it. Your stitches will even out and you will feel in control. Sally Terry, a longarm quilter I met while taping American Quilter, suggests you "blur" your vision while quilting so you don't focus too intently on one spot or the needle. I agree - you look at the field, not at each little spot in it. I also have learned to look at the "puff" or negative space, not the lines. So much easier to get a perfect circle, a clamshell, a feather if you see the shape and then quilt to make it appear.

Pin, pin, pin. The pins hold everything in place while you are quilting so that isn’t another worry for you. Even if you are not holding the quilt tightly, the pins are doing the job. I pin about 4-5" apart and judiciously around my designs. I usually remove them as I quilt the quilt, but you shouldn’t have to remove them until you have quilted an area.

However, the great advantage over hand basting or tack basting with a gun is that you are able to move the pins if necessary before you cause a pleat or tuck. Re-position, re-pin. Recently I've noticed I can usually tell if someone is quilting on a spray basted quilt - it gets gunk on the needle and in the machine, and the quilt is very stiff to handle, and quilters who spray baste or use batting that irons into place tend to wear gloves to move the quilt. A softer quilt sandwich, with pin basting, lets you move it so much more easily and without gloves.

I used the Clover white marking pen on a dark brown/black quilt. The pen is so easy to use, but a very light touch is needed. It almost glides on, doesn't pull on the fabric, and after a minute turns to a bright white fine line, very easy to see, and lasts during quilting. I used the iron on medium dry heat, just the tip, to go over the marks and they disappeared. One pen marked the whole top. Love it.

When tracing designs with a blue wash-out marker through a stencil, don’t push so hard! I see thick dark bleeding lines that are just way too much chemical in your quilt, way too hard on the marker's tip, and way too difficult to know where to quilt in a 1/8"-wide line.

Use a light gentle touch. The lines will be smoother and nicer to follow when quilting too. I find the lines from the extra fine markers disappear very fast, so mark and quilt right away. I like the fine markers for precision: grids, lines, tiny designs, bu mostly use the regular tip ones.

Connect the openings in the stencil lines after you trace—make it a nice even line rather than broken up where the stencil bridges were. It will be much easier to quilt too. I skipped doing this in a cable design and ended up with several way too fat when I was quilting away from myself and couldn't see the line.

Sometimes, when you do need a line to follow even if you are doing freehand designs mostly, quilt to the side of the line, not on it. Then you can see your stitches better and it is easier to remove the line later. Guidelines for freehand work are terrific. In a home machine, they make all the difference in the world to be able to do work with no marking but at least have some guides there to tell you how and where to position designs.

When I trace with a light box (my clear sewing table with a fluorescent light under it) I tape the design to the surface and position the quilt over it and clamp it down with my big office clips to keep it from shifting. To get a mirror image of a design for the other half of a border, for instance, just flip over the design and shine the light through it.

When pressing pieced work, treat it like it is fragile pastry dough or pie crust! A light delicate touch with the iron—let the heat do the work, don’t mash it out of shape. Set the seam first with the iron, and then open it up and press from the right side. If I am pressing seams open, I press first lightly from the wrong side, then turn it over and press on the right side with starch. Starching helps stabilize "iffy" fabric use too - stripes cut bias or cross grain for design purposes, or silk fabric that stretches and frays. Pre-wash and starch it and use a light touch, minimal handling, and don't overuse the iron when pressing.

Try using threads slightly different than the fabric so the quilting shows a bit more, plus you can see your quilting as you do it. Don't go for high contrast, or very dark thread on lighter fabrics, but a soft variation in color works wonderfully. On muslin recently I used soft yellow and it blended in so beautifully and warmed the "look" of the quilting, plus was easier to see as I worked.

Look around you for ideas for quilting designs - dishes, magazine ads, fabric, upholstery, carpet, wallpaper. Ideas and motifs are everywhere. Also, sit and play at your machine. Quilt a simple curved line, repeat it, keep adding to it to see what you come up with. I love to do this, and have more textures and motifs than I could ever use in any one quilt.

Clean the entire bobbin/book area frequently. Every time I re-wind the bobbin, I take off the throat plate and brush the lint and debris out of the bobbin area. When I am machine quilting, I add a drop of oil to the hook area in the bobbin every 3 or 4 hours or when it starts sounding like it needs some lubricating. Be sure and run some thread through the machine and stitch on some practice fabric until the threads don't look oily before you begin on the quilt itself.

If the thread looks much darker it means there is still excess oil and it needs to be cleaned up or worked out with stitching. A fine, low-lint thread for the bobbin helps a lot too, such as Aurifil #50 cotton, #100 YLI silk (my personal favorite), DMC #50 cotton, or Superior MasterPiece cotton. Mettler #60 and YLI Soft Touch work great too, but are a tad heavier.

Now that the days are getting longer we have more good light for quilting. Give yourself an extra 30 minutes of quilting time a day - you'll be amazed what you will accomplish.

Keep quilting! Your work gets better every day.

Try my recipe for spray starch for all your pressing/piecing needs. Remember, you can adjust any of these amounts to suit your own needs, and also don't keep this for more than two weeks max. I make up a batch when I need it, then dump it out when I'm finished. It produces a super flat stable quilt: Dissolve half a teaspoon (or one teaspoon for a stiffer starch) of regular Argo cornstarch (in your cupboard probably) in a few tablespoons of cold water in a heat proof 2-cup measuring pitcher like Pyrex. Add boiling water to make one cup, stirring constantly. Then add cold water to the 2 cup line. Let cool and use in a pump spray bottle. Shake it every time you spray. You may have to dilute it a little if it is too thick or builds up white flakes. Lasts a week or so as there are no preservatives, no chemicals, no nothing that harms us or the environment, and it’s practically free, except for the spray bottle! Don't starch fabrics for storage as it will attract critters such as centipedes, and mice.


© 2010 Diane Gaudynski