This is part 4 of the Longarm Quilting Demystified series – read part 3 here!
Preparing for Practice
Now that your longarm is set up and ready to go, you’re probably wondering where to start. Practice will help you master your machine, but perfect practice will lead to a perfect quilting technique.
First and foremost, practice on quality fabric. Old sheets or inexpensive fabric may have a high thread count or heavy sizing. This often creates needle deflection that leads to skipped stitches, broken needles, or causes timing issues or damage to the machine. It’s not worth it. Additionally, you won’t experience the correct feel of the machine, which will throw off your rhythm.
I like to start each project with a fresh needle. Change the needle after a maximum of 8 hours of sewing time. If you notice pulled threads on the fabric, hear a “tinking” sound as you quilt, or see skipped stitches, stop and change your needle.
The best way to practice is to use contrasting threads on the top and in the bobbin so that you can easily judge the tension. Load about a yard-and-a-half of solid fabric onto the machine to act as a quilt top. Add another yard-and-a-half for the backing. Load a batting as well.
Test the tension on one of the side margins. Simply place a 6″ square of both batting and solid fabric on top of the extra 4″ space of backing fabric. Draw up your bobbin thread and quilt simple curves or loops and stars or boxes on the test sandwich. Look at the top thread to see if any of the bobbin thread is showing through.
Then examine the back. On the curves, look for pulled threads that resemble eyelashes. At the points of the stars or boxes, look for the top thread that may be pulled to the back. Adjust the top tension as needed, and repeat until you are satisfied. You may have to adjust the bobbin tension slightly.
Start the Practice
Hold onto the top and bobbin threads, take a few anchoring stitches, grab the handles, and quilt your name. You know how to write, and the muscle memory is already there for your signature. Then quilt the entire alphabet, in both upper and lower case. Next, try meandering with nice, easy curves.
As you go smaller and smaller, be sure the threads do not cross over each other. Your meander should resemble capital cursive E’s or jigsaw puzzle pieces and be a consistent size. You only want to see curves, not points. A meander that is about 1/4″ or less is known as a stipple, and less than 1⁄8″ is known as a micro-stipple.
Now, try making a series of the letter C. The C’s resemble curls if you backtrack on the original line of stitching. If you come inside the circle a bit more and leave open space between the stitching, you’ll create swirls.
When you feel comfortable with curls and swirls, try making loops. You want to have nice, perfectly round circles or consistently formed elongated loops.
Try coming out of a loop to make a heart. As you come out of the heart, make some more loops or meander for a bit and make another heart.
Now you’re really quilting! Be sure to stop for a microsecond at the tip of each heart to ensure a well-defined point. If you don’t, the machine will be moving too fast and may create a rounded tip.
Since you’ve gotten the hang of the microsecond stop at a point, it’s time to try stars. Just stitch a classic five-point star like you used to draw in grade school, making sure you stop briefly at each point before looping your way to the next star.
For subsequent practice sessions, make a sampler by dividing the fabric into sections. Refer to your owner’s manual and engage the channel locks to make perfectly straight lines. Your goal is to completely fill each space without getting boxed into a corner and without going in a straight line. You’ll also want to practice on pieced quilt tops. You need to get the feel for quilting over seams and stitching in the ditch next to seams.
With practice, these basic elements of quilting become second nature. You’ll soon be creating your own designs!
Keep an eye on the blog for part 5, where you’ll learn the differences between hand-guided and computer-guided longarm machines.
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