Tuesday, January 8, 2013

FMQ Lessons Learned

I've been free motion quilting for a grand total of about a week, so suffice it to say this isn't some kind of expert tutorial on how to have successful FMQ.  In fact, it's the opposite of that.  These are just some tips, by a novice and meant for a novice.
Beginner FMQ Scribbles
I noticed as I was scouring the internet for help trouble shooting the FMQ problems I was having that there wasn't too much out there. I figure this is probably because by the time most people get around to writing a guide for something they're gotten good enough at it that all the hiccups and trips ups that beginner face are long forgotten.  With that in mind, I wanted to write these lessons learned down before I get so good at FMQ that I forget all about them (fingers crossed.)

Lesson 1: Faster isn't always better
          I found mixed advice on the blogs as far as the speed one should learn to FMQ at.  Apparently the conventional wisdom is to go as fast as possible.  Others said that you should go as slow as you need to.  Personally tend more toward the slow.  Setting my machine to a higher speed did help a tiny bit with tension issues, but I was way to close to running over my fingers, never mind being able to sew a pretty, planned design.
         I find that I move my hands slowest at the beginning of a session of quilting, but as I  get "warmed up" I begin to go faster.  I bump up the speed switch on my machine correspondingly as my hands speed up.  My comfortable speed is pretty medium, in fact it's almost dead center on my machine's speed slider switch.  Still, it's faster than I expected it to be.  I expect that as I get better I'll get faster, too.

Lesson 2: It's only a matter of time before I sew over a pin
        It's also only a matter of time (probably not very much) before I run over my finger.  Not much to say about this besides, it's a whole lot easier to run over things with a free motion foot that a walking foot, so try not to do that.  And I'll try, too.

Lesson 3: Hand position
        I saw a lot of hand positions for FMQ as I was searching for information.  Both hands on top, both hands underneath, one on top and one under, gloves, no gloves, etc.  I tried a little bit of everything and found that I like to have both hands on top of the quilt, pinching the quilt with the fingers on my right hand to provide the grunt to move the bulk of the quilt while keeping my left hand spread flat for finer guidance.  Obviously everyone has their preferred way to do this, you just have to try until you find something that works.
Left hand position
Right hand position
         One of the most difficult things for me at first was moving my hands without making a major wobble in my quilting.  I'm still working on it; it's getting better.
        On a related note, I found it easier to maneuver with my quilt piled loosely on the table around my machine rather than tightly rolled as I have seen many people do.  Try both and see what works.

Quilt piled around machine, ready to quilt "toward" me (gradually moving quilt back)
Lesson 4: Tension problems and "tension" problems, Or: The dreaded eyelashes
        Thing were going so well, until... the dreaded eyelashes started showing up on the back of my quilt.  Here is what I learned after I threw up my hands and turned to the internet for help:  Popular wisdom is that there are two sources for this: top tension is too loose or you are moving you hands too quickly on the curves.  It's recommended to set your tension a bit higher for FMQ than where you normally keep it, but if you aren't getting eyelashes everywhere then that probably isn't the source of your problem.  Also, if your tension was working fine for piecing then really it should still be fine.
The dreaded eyelashes.  Source: SewCalGal
        As for speed on the curves, I was fairly certain that I was moving my hands at the same speed all over.  The stitches along my curves were exactly that same size as the ones in the straight sections.  I tried all combinations of hand and foot speeds anyway, but it didn't solve my problem.
        Next I decided to try various combinations of having my feed dogs up or down and setting my stitch length between 0 and where I normally keep it (see below for a more extensive discussion of this).  None of that helped either, but it was worth a try.  Messing with your feed dogs and stitch length change how your machine works mechanically so theoretically they could cause tension issues that don't happen when your are piecing.
         The epiphany finally came when I went back and looked at some of my more successful efforts and looked for things that had changed between then and now. The only difference? The bobbin thread.  I switched from red bobbin thread back to white and voila, no eyelashes.  Don't even ask me why, sewing machines are finicky things, but for now I am sticking to white in the bobbin until I figure it out.
PS: Everything I read recommended using the same thread color in the bobbin as on top to camouflage any minor tension issues as it's just almost impossible to get it perfect.  If even the experts admit to minor tension issues, I decided to be happy as long as mine are not obnoxious.

Lesson 5: The right thread?
         Everything I read online emphasized the importance of having quality thread for FMQ.  The wrong thread could be a source of tension problems and thread breakage, among other things.  Now, red bobbin weirdness aside, I was able to successfully FMQ using the standard, bargain but not cheap, threads I had in my stash already.  It is possible.  However, I bought some purpose made machine quilting thread to try and it did make a noticeable difference.  So, for me the fancy thread wasn't necessary, but it was nice.

Lesson 6: Dogs up or down?
        Traditional wisdom, as well as common sense, says that you should put your feed dogs down when FMQ-ing.  After all, they push fabric through the machine, and you didn't need their help for that when you're free motioning.
        However, with certain machines lowering the feed dogs alters the mechanical operation of the machine in such a way that it just doesn't stitch well with them down.  It's worth a try to leave them up, anyway, if you're having weird problems you can't diagnose.  Setting your stitch length to 0 should render your feed dogs movement irrelevant, so it won't matter if they're up.
        However, (haha, there's that word again!) changing your stitch length can ALSO cause issues on some machines.  So, try keeping your stitch length where you'd normally have it and lower your feed dogs.  If your feed dogs are down then your stitch length is irrelevant.
        If you are still having problems that you think may be related to your feed dogs and/or stitch length try taping a piece of an old credit card (or something similar) over the feed dogs to cover them and leave everything as you would normally have it set for piecing.  (Or you could not bother with the card... I found that I couldn't really feel the effects of my feed dogs against the fabric, even when I left them just as they would normally be set for piecing).
       In the end I've settled for turning my feed dogs off and leaving my stitch length set as normal when I free motion.

Six tips... that's all I can think of for now. I hope someone out there beginning to learn FMQ finds these helpful.  If all else fails, put your FMQ away for a few months and try again later. I have tried to learn before without success, but this time when I started I felt ready.  If I can do it so can you!

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