These snippets were first published in Machine Quilting Unlimited magazine's ask-the-expert column 'Ask Kimmy'. Copyrights held by Kim Brunner and Meander Publishing. All rights reserved.
The Importance of Being Stable from the March 2012 issue of Machine Quilting Unlimited magazine
Dear Kimmy-Recently, I finished a quilt which looked okay while I was working on it. However, when I took it off the frame I noticed that my sashing strips and some of the seam lines were very wavy. I’m a beginner and I know I shouldn’t expect miracles, but this looks really bad. What did I do wrong and how can I prevent this from happening again?
Kimmy says-Don’t be too hard on yourself; we’ve all done this! Wavy lines are a very common flaw among quilts finished by beginning (and sometimes not-so-beginning!) quilters and, fortunately, the fix is quite simple. The key is to start by loading the quilt straight and then focus on keeping it that way as you work your way through the quilt, paying close attention to the lines of the quilt so that they don’t become distorted as you go. Distortion can be caused by several different things; perhaps the fabric was cut or pieced improperly so the line was never very straight in the first place, perhaps there is excess fullness in the block which caused the piecing lines to migrate and become crooked, or perhaps the lines were straight to begin with but have been pulled out of place by dense quilting. These issues can all be solved by careful stabilization work during the quilting process, enabling you to end up with a quilt that has a crisp and professional finish. The real bonus is that the steps needed to complete this stabilization work are quick, easy and very achievable!
Once you’ve loaded the quilt and have ensured that your top edge is straight and the corners are square, it’s time to work on the framework of the quilt. (my instructions for proper loading can be found in the March 2011 issue of this magazine.) Let’s view the quilt as a house for a moment. The foundation of our quilty house is formed by a nice straight on-grain backing which will help to support everything that is built on top of it; in this case, the quilt’s batting (which does not have much stability of its own) and the quilt top (which is made from many different pieces of fabric, some of which may have been cut on the bias, or may have been warped by aggressive ironing, thus compromising their stability and altering the way they affect the finished block) The batting and top wouldn’t have much chance of turning out straight if quilted together on their own, but the foundational stability provided by the backing will help hold them in line and prevent them from drooping and sagging, just like the foundation of a house holds up everything that comes next.
Now, let’s look at what’s built on top of our foundation. Again viewing the quilt as a house, we can see that the seam lines which connect the borders to the interior of the quilt, the sashing strips to the blocks, and the rows to one another are much like the solid wooden framework of a house. Obviously, if the framework in your house is crooked your rooms won’t be very straight. You’ll have floors that tilt from one corner of the room to the other, your roof will look like a ski slope, and when you set your coffee cup on one end of the countertop it will go sliding right off the other end and land on the cat. The same thing will happen if your seam lines aren’t kept straight during the quilting process; that framework of seam lines which should work together to keep your blocks square, your sashing strips pencil-straight, and your borders flat and crisp will instead allow blocks to droop, sashing strips to sag, and borders to appear wavy. The solution to this problem? Easy! With each new advance of the quilt, simply take a few moments to ensure that all of your lines are in place before you begin to quilt.
Here’s how it works. Your quilt is loaded and you’re ready to begin the quilting process. If you’re doing edge to edge work (panto or freehand, it doesn’t matter) you’re probably not going to be doing any stitch in the ditch work but you still want all of your lines to be straight before you begin quilting so, prior to stitching out your pattern, take a moment to step back from your quilt and take a look at what those lines are doing. Look at the seam line that connects the border to the body of the quilt. That’s a very visible line and if it’s crooked it will be one of the first things the eye will see when the finished quilt is viewed as a whole. Loosen up the tension on the leader holding the quilt top so that you have a little bit of wiggle room and gently ease or tug that seam into place so that it looks straight, carefully smoothing it down. (Please note; you can ease a lot more than you can tug. Fabric that is stretched into place will only stay in place as long as there is tension applied to it. Once that tension is released, it will spring right back to where it was before it was stretched, taking the rest of the quilt with it.) If your quilt has a narrow stop border, be sure to check that line as well, as nothing looks worse than a should-be-straight stop border that resembles a serpentine line! Now take a look at the seam lines in your first row of blocks. Are they straight, or do they require a little fluffing and dusting? Are there any sashing strips? Like the seam connecting the border, these strips form very visible lines in your quilt and if they’re wobbly they’ll stick out like sore thumbs when the quilt comes off the frame, so take a minute or two to work with them until they look right. Use the belly bar of your quilt as a tool to help you judge how straight your lines are; if there is a seam line anywhere near the bar you’ll see immediately if it’s crooked when compared to the straight line of that bar. Look at your blocks: if they have excess fullness, pat that fullness gently into place within the block: do not allow it to creep out and distort the lines surrounding the block. Once the lines are all adjusted and everything looks the way you want it to look, tighten the roller back up, do the quilting in that work area, advance the quilt to expose the next work area and repeat the process. Continue in this way through the entire quilt, making sure that your framework is straight before you nail it into place.
When doing custom work, the process is similar in that you will still straighten your lines before quilting. The difference is that you will now take the time to stabilize the lines before you start doing any dense design work that might distort them. Because custom work generally involves denser quilting than edge to edge work, and denser quilting can cause more distortion than loose quilting does, it’s important to nail the lines down first before you go hog wild on your quilting. Stabilization work includes stitch in the ditch, continuous curve, motifs that are not dense enough to adversely affect the rest of the block, etc., basically any type of quilting that is not so dense that it will shift or move the surrounding fabric and cause warping of the lines.
Here’s how you do it; as previously discussed, straighten all of the lines in your work area, paying careful attention to the highly visible lines that form the skeleton of your quilt. Distribute fullness properly and arrange the piecing lines within the blocks so that the blocks are laying flat and true. If you are going to stitch in the ditch (SID) do so now, before doing any design work that could cause things to shift. Now it’s time to stabilize the block itself and work through the rest of the quilting plan. Using this example of a simple custom quilting job that could be easily accomplished by a confident beginner, let’s go step by step through the process.
Because there were numerous piecing issues with this quilt, I chose to use Continuous Curve (CC) work as a way to create the illusion of perfectly pieced points and squares. (Because CC is so flexible, it can easily be adapted to not-so-perfect blocks without making the adaptation obvious. It also works wonders when it comes to giving the appearance of pointy points when the actual points have been mangled or beheaded during the piecing process.) Working my way across the area to be quilted, I did CC in all of the squares and triangles, thus stabilizing all of my blocks and nailing the framework of my quilt into place.
I then went back in and did my template work, creating the X-shaped melon designs (minus the meandering) in the nine patch blocks (which are very loose designs and will not shift or warp my blocks), and the more complex designs in the snowball blocks . Please note; when doing these more complex designs, I did not execute the entire design on my first pass because to do so would have been too much quilting and I would have risked distortion.
Instead, I did only the skeleton of the design on this pass and left the dense fill-in work for later.
At the ends of each row, I used my templates to create the swag design and the piano key design (minus the filler work and meandering) to create the look of a border for this borderless quilt. Advancing the quilt, I repeated this process for all of the rows. When I was finished with this stabilization work I went back through the quilt, completing the denser quilting in the center of the snowball block designs and doing the easy meandering that squashed out the fullness and finished the quilt. The end result was a quilt that possessed the appearance of well pieced patchwork , no fullness, and a subtle border, all of which was framed by a grid of straight seam lines.
This method of ‘back and forth’ quilting may seem time consuming at first glance, but in reality it takes no longer to execute the design work than it would if you were to do it all in one pass and it yields dramatically superior results. In my own experience, I have found it to have worked wonders on ‘challenging’ quilts, allowing me to create the illusion of beautiful and precise piecing on tops that initially looked like they’d been run over by a dump truck at some point during the piecing process. Give it a try and prepare to be amazed at how crisp and true your finished quilts look!