About me Tools and Tips

The Machines That Make It Work

The machines that we sew on are such a foundational part of our experience as quilters. Today, I’d like to share my current machines, and my good and bad experiences with them.

First, I think of my machines as women and they are named, although I rarely refer to them by name. First up is my oldest machine, Lork, my mother’s 1951 Singer Centennial Featherweight. This my mom’s graduation gift from her parents when she finished nursing school. She never did a lot of sewing, but when she did, it was often denim, or plastic coated duck upholstery. This sewed through it all. I learned to sew on this machine, and so did my kids. I have all of the original parts and feet that she got with it, including the buttonholer. It still makes the best buttonholes! I use Lork for any class that only requires straight stitch.

When I was 10 years old, a family friend was moving across the country and didn’t want to pay to move her White sewing machine in the cabinet, with a knee pedal. She offered it to me, and I spent countless hours over the next eight years sewing clothing, quilts, miniature quilts, and unique creations. I loved having my own machine and being able to sew whenever I wanted.

My next machine is not pictured because it was not my favorite, and I traded it in. My parents bought me a portable Singer when I graduated from high school, but it was not the quality of the Featherweight. As a plus, it did have a zig zag stitch, and I took to college and made clothes and quilts with it. I even quilted queen-sized quilts on it, although there may have been some swearing involved.

I traded the Singer in when I bought Bernie, my Bernina 1260 from 1993. Bernie has been a workhorse for 30 years. She is still my machine for classes that require any stitch other than a straight stitch. I have had issues with the tension since I bought her, and I have had countless repair people try to fix it. But I have worked with it for so long, I know how to deal with it: 1. Use good quality cotton thread (metallics are a nightmare on Bernie), 2. Adjust the bobbin tension as you would for any machine, 3. Set up the upper tension at around 3, and test. It is almost always correct when I follow these steps. It is also critically important to use the same thread on top and bottom.

Despite her quirks (she also will not free motion quilt through fusible, which makes raw edge applique a challenge), Bernie is well loved. Most of the quilts I have made were made on Bernie. And my daughters (and sons) used her for all of their 4H sewing. When I bought a new primary machine, there was quite a discussion in the family about who would get the Bernina (little did they know I planned to keep using her). It was finally decided that one daughter gets the Featherweight and the other gets the Bernina.

My primary machine is Jeannie. Jeannie is a Juki DX-4000 QVP. I got her in 2021 for my birthday and she has been used almost daily since then. I love the nearly 12 inches of space under the arm. And doing walking foot quilting is a dream on this machine. My husband was excited that I could embroider my quilt labels, so they will not wear off over time. She has a beautiful stitch, and can go really fast when I need it.

I find quilting and piecing so easy on this machine. I just took her in for a spa week, not because anything is wrong, but because I use her so much, I want to keep it all working as well as possible.

I am grateful that I have had sewing machines around me for my entire life. Each one is a bit different, but I have learned and grown with each machine.

Patterns and tutorials Tools and Tips

Closing a Binding

I have been teaching a class on advanced bindings, and I have found that many quilters are challenged with closing the beginning and end of a binding so it is smooth and you can’t find it easily.

There are a lot of tutorials on this subject, but there are as many methods as there are quilters. This is my approach.

First, when I start sewing binding on a quilt, I start on one side, about 6 inches or more from the bottom corner. I leave an 6-10 inch tail of extra binding and then back stitch when I start to attach the binding. In the sample pictures, I am sewing on a machine finished binding, so I am sewing it to the back of the quilt.

Pin at 8 inches where stitching will start (NOTE: this is too close to the corner, I will show what to do if you make the same mistake I did.)

I sew around the quilt and miter each corner (a tutorial for another day). On the last side, I sew down the binding to about 8-12 inches away from the starting point and backstitch. A smaller space will make it more difficult to connect the binding edges, especially on a big quilt. There is no particular downside to having a larger gap, as long as you accurately measure for the connecting seam. You should have at least 7-10 inches of binding at the end that is not attached to the quilt.

This space is not wide enough – it will make it very difficult to join the binding. If you make this mistake, seam rip the stitches from where you started to sew the binding on. Keep opening until there is a gap of at least 7-10 inches.
This is a 7-inch gap – a perfect size to join the binding on a small piece. For a larger piece, a larger gap (up to 10-12 inches) may make it easier to manipulate in the sewing machine.

Now comes the fun part. Lay your free binding ends flat on the edge of the quilt and overlap them. There should be plenty of overlap (more than 3 inches). Cut a small piece (about an inch wide is enough) from the end of one of the binding tails. This will be your measuring piece.

Choose a point for your binding ends to meet. It should be roughly in the middle of the gap. Lay your measuring piece with the center crease on the point you selected.

Measuring piece in the middle of the gap.

On the piece coming from the right side, go to the far left end of measuring piece and mark or cut the fabric. I prefer to cut it at this point, but it makes some people nervous.

On the piece coming from the left side, go to the far right end of the measuring piece and cut or mark the fabric.

Now open up both ends, and on the wrong side of the fabric, make an X in the square at the end.

Ends cut and opened for marking.
Mark at a 45 degree angle.

Position the fabric right sides together at a 90 degree angle in the square you just marked with an X. Pin to secure. NOTE: It is sometimes easier to do this if you fold the quilt in half at the point of the gap.

Take a good look at the tail coming off the intersection of the fabric. If you cut off the long ends, imagine where they were. Think of the two long tails as the “legs” of the binding. You want to sew across the “waist” of the cross fabrics, to give the binding a “belt” (the black arrow). You do NOT want to sew between the legs (the red arrow). (This tip comes from Kat Martinez at Capital Quilts. She says to “give the binding a belt, not a wedgie” and it is the best way I have ever heard to remember this. (By the way, this tip also works when sewing long strips of binding together at an angle.)

If you are making a flanged binding, put a pin through the seam between the flange and the binding fabric on one side where the “waist” mark intersects the seam. Make sure the pin goes through the seam on the other piece. The pin will not be at the center of the X.

Pin on either side of the “waist” line. It is especially important to pin on the “body” side because that side has more tension pulling on the seam area. Sew carefully on the “waist” line, taking out the pins before you sew over them.

I sew across and then check the binding before cutting off the ends. The binding should lay flat.

Trim the seam allowances to 1/4 inch and finger press them open.

Fold the binding on the center line and press.

Lay the binding on the edge of the quilt and pin. Start sewing with a backstitch a few stitches before the gap. Continue until a few stitches past the original starting place and back stitch.

Turn over your quilt and press the binding to see the seam. It should be almost indistinguishable from other seams in the binding.

Final view of the binding join when binding is complete.

Hope this helps with your binding joins. Happy binding!

Tools and Tips

Test Blocks +/-

I have never been big on making test blocks. I just bought a little more fabric in case one of my first blocks needed to be redone. I actually cannot remember making a test block before. I always was too eager to get started with the project to take the time. And I didn’t know what to do with the finished test blocks.

My latest project, the Singapore Sling quilt, was going to be made with these new templates that my daughter 3D printed. She wanted to make sure they were accurate. My first thought was I would use some scrap fabric to make sure they work. However, I knew I had extra of the Good Vibes fabric designed by Christa Watson for Benartex, so I decided to try a test block with the fabric I planned to use for the quilt (this may sound basic to you, but it was a novel idea for me).

I carefully laid out one block and realized immediately that both my background and foreground fabrics were directional. I tried to line up the templates so the fabrics would be straight and I cut them out using the templates. Then I carefully pinned and sewed the block.

It took me about 15-20 minutes total and I learned a lot of valuable lessons:

  • The templates work and appear the be the correct size.
  • If I cut the fabric to keep the pattern straight, all of the cuts are on the bias.
  • It is really hard to get the fabric pattern perfectly aligned for this block. And I don’t like the look when it is off.
  • The tight curves are really tight – I ended up trying glue basting for them and it worked like a charm.
  • I will need to be very precise in my seam allowances.
  • I need to starch the fabric before cutting and before piecing. The fabric distorted a little with the curves. You can see below that the line does not fall perfectly straight.
  • I may need to slightly trim the blocks to get them all square and perfectly the same so the quilt top lays flat.
  • I like the finished look of the diamond.
  • There is enough contrast between the foreground and the background.

Because I learned so much making the first test block, I decided to do a second one keeping one edge of the template on the straight of grain. I like the scrappy look and it was much easier to cut out.

What did I learn? There are some excellent reasons to make a test block, especially if the equipment or techniques are new to you.

Of course this leads to a new question – what do you do with test blocks? Let me know what you do with them and we will address that in another post!

Tools and Tips

Where Do You Iron?

Since 1992, I have used my mother’s ironing board.

She bought it about 50 years ago and it was the Cadillac of ironing boards. It is heavy-duty and heavy. It was corded with an outlet on the board, and has a springy guide to hold the iron cord away from fabric. Over the years, the cord got cut off. I always tuck the springy guide under the board because it drives me crazy. Mostly, I get frustrated because it is not wide enough and the angled end means my fabric never seems to get fully ironed.

After a lot of research, I decided that I wanted an ironing station with storage. I looked at all of the Pinterest ironing stations and I even considered buying the Singer Ironing and Crafting Station, but at $350, I thought I could figure out something that was less expensive. I bought a 15-drawer rainbow drawer organizer, a 3/4 inch sheet of plywood that is 2 foot by 4 foot, Insulbrite, 100% cotton quilt batting, and silver ironing board cloth. All together I spent less than $120 (not counting what my husband spent for a new hammer stapler).

I brought it all home and left it in the living room, because work got crazy and I didn’t have time to put it together. Enter my husband, the hero! He put together the drawer unit, rounded and sanded the edges of the plywood so the corners would not wear through the fabric, and created these cool latches that hold the board onto the drawers, but can be easily turned to remove the board for storage (as if I will ever put my new ironing station away).

This weekend, we decided to work together to get the board upholstered. I started with a layer of Insulbrite to protect the board and reflect heat back up to the fabric. Then we put on 2 layers of 100% cotton batting.

My husband was using a hammer stapler to staple everything down. He didn’t want to catch my fingers, so on the corners, we used tape to hold the miter in place until he stapled it.

Finally, we stretched the fancy silver ironing board fabric on top.

Doesn’t it look great!

It is about 1 inch higher than a normal ironing board, but I am on the tall side, so I don’t mind. And it is 24 x 48 inches so I can iron the full width of a cut of fabric. I can get a sharp press on it. And check out all that lovely fabric storage. Fifteen color-coded drawers. I have already started moving my scraps from shoe boxes randomly placed around my room into this neat stand. There is even room for my power bar between the cart top and the board!

I am SO grateful that my husband put everything together and made my new ironing station happen. Happy ironing and pressing!

Tools and Tips


Pins are such basic sewing tools that we don’t think about them very often. For years, I used whatever pins were available. I didn’t pay attention to whether I was using quilting pins for sewing satin clothes, or silk pins for a cotton quilt. A dear friend taught me that quilting pins are for quilts and you need the appropriate pin for the fabric you are using. But I didn’t understand the finer points (pun intended) until recently. I have a toolbox of pins. My all purpose pins are on my red magnetic pin holder. My large safety pins for basting are in the clear container. I also have small safety pins that are used primarily for costumes and quick repairs. I have become a lover of the lowly pin. As I discuss my favorites, please be aware that as an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases through the links.

For basting, I like large (at least size 2) curved safety pins. These work very well for me. I have a box of size 1 safety pins, but I don’t use them except for some wallhangings. Here is a handy size chart for safety pins:

SizeLength in inches (mm)
003/4″ (19mm)
07/8″ (22mm)
11 1/16″ (27mm)
21 1/2″ (38mm)
32″ (51mm)
42 1/4″ (57mm)

Straight pins also have sizes. Some manufacturers list a pin by the length and some include diameter to distinguish fine pins from regular or large pins. Here is a chart for straight pins:

SizeLength in inches
442 3/4″
281 3/4″
241 1/2″
201 1/4″
171 1/6″

Pin diameter also varies:

Diameter in mmSizeUse
0.4 mmSuper fineSheers, chiffons, satins
0.5 mmExtra fineCottons, sewing curves
0.6 mmFineAll purpose sewing
0.7 or 0.8mmHeavy dutyDenim, corduroy, heavy fabrics

I have played around with a lot of pins over my nearly 50 years of sewing, and I am happy to share some of my favorites with you.

My favorite pins for keeping track of pieces for a quilt are these star pins from Dritz. They are long (2 3/4″) and thick, but the variety of numbers and marks works for most of my quilts.

There are pins numbered 1-10 and blank stars, and stars with up, down, right and left arrows.

If I need more variety, I add in my Wright flower pins . These are also long and are slightly thinner than the star pins. I wrote numbers 1-75 on my flower head pins, but some of the numbers have worn off. They work well in conjunction with my stars.

For piecing, I have two sets of pins. Sheri Cifaldi-Morrill of Whole Circle Studio suggested that better pins would improve my precision in piecing tight curves, and she was right! Sheri recommends (and I agree) the Iris 1 1/4 inch pins for tight curves. Iris also makes 1 1/2 inch colored head pins which are great general use pins.

These are European pins with a delightful tin. I love opening and closing it! The pins are fine and relatively short and work great on tight spaces.

For most piecing, my favorite pins are Clover Fine Quilting Pins<a href="http://<a href="http:// .

These pins are 1 1/2 inches long, with a glass head and a 0.5mm diameter.

They are long, thin and hold up to heavy use quite well. I have been using them for curves and straight piecing. Clover also makes a super fine which is also 1 1/2 inches long but is 0.4mm.

I don’t do much hand applique, so I have not worked with fine applique pins, but there are numerous short (1/2 to 3/4 inch) special applique pins to choose from

I am always looking for the newest, best pin. Do you have a favorite to share? Remember to change out dull or bent pins. I keep a “discard” bottle for old pins next to my sewing machine.

Happy sewing and may your pins be sharp!