Tension, Chapter 2: The Unstitching

Today is a whole new day. This morning I spoke with the machine guy at Nolting, Dan Novak. Dan and I have chatted before. He is unfailingly helpful, even when the help isn’t what I want to hear. (For example, “The machine isn’t the problem,” as said a few years ago when I had a different model than I own now.)

Today Dan said that, like any other machine, my longarm needs some maintenance. After all, I’ve had this machine for more than four years, and I’ve probably quilted 80 or more quilts on it, most of them biggish. (By my figurin’, I’ve covered about 2000 square feet with quilting, or about the footprint of a typical house in the US.) In particular, I need to start by smoothing the tension disks with a piece of emery cloth. If that doesn’t work, I may need a new tension assembly, but we’ll cross that river when we get to it.

As it turns out, I don’t have a piece of emery cloth. Tomorrow I have a bunch of errands planned, and the hardware store will be on the list.

In the meantime, there is ALWAYS plenty to do. (Say it with me, friends: “There is ALWAYS plenty to do!”) Besides paying bills, making apple sauce, doing my nails, sweeping floors, reading, writing blog posts, and the like, I also have some work to do on the quilt project. Unstitching.

Yes, some people call it “ripping,” and some people call it “frogging” (similar theory — rip it, rip it!) I always call it “unstitching.” Sort of like I always call pantyhose “stockings.” It just sounds nicer to me. I’m weird that way.

Unstitching is a part of quilting. The fact of it does not bother me. The fact that there is SO MUCH is kind of a pain. Literal pain. Leaning over the quilt frame to pick tiny stitches kind of pain. Bent back, twisted neck kind of pain.

There are ways to make it easier. First, roll the quilt forward so the area to be picked is close. There’s no need to reach or lean very far. (Don’t worry, you can roll it back when it’s cleaned up.) Then pull up a stool. Sit. Use good tools. My two favorite tools are these:


That’s a Clover seam ripper and a Fiskers blunt-tipped children’s school scissors. Another help, if you have a large section to unstitch, is a way to mark the bad area. I used a couple of long straight pins as flags. But I also thought marking the area with blue tape, like marking a crime scene for a dead body would work, too.

Once the unstitching is done, there is another task. I will sew a piece of muslin along the bottom edge of my backing. The longarm can make that stitch. It won’t matter if there is loopiness and bad tension. Once the muslin is sewn on, I’ll unpin the quilt backing from the frame’s leader on the frame front. (If you don’t use a longarm, you may be unfamiliar with the terms. The leader is the piece of canvas I’ve attached the backing to, to create the bottom of the quilt sandwich.) Then I’ll pin the muslin to the leader, extending the backing or bottom layer. This will give me space to test my stitch tension after I’ve smoothed the disks and rebuilt the tension assembly.

Only then will I take the tension assembly apart.

Say it again, friends: There is ALWAYS plenty to do!


16 thoughts on “Tension, Chapter 2: The Unstitching

  1. Thread crazy

    I do hope by now you’ve gotten your machine fixed and going again. I’m with you when it comes to tension; I’ve nearly pulled out my hear over tension. Sad to say but I’ve gotten used to stopping every little bit and checking the back to make sure things are going ok. While it gets old, I still do it. So glad you called the company and hoping things are good now.

  2. KerryCan

    I’ve never had to do this but I have had to unstitch hand quilting so I can relate to the pain. It takes longer to take the stitches out than it did to put them in!

  3. Shasta

    You had me laughing out loud about the thought of marking off the scene of the crime. I think marking it is a good idea, but the analogy of a crime scene. I can completely understand.

  4. snarkyquilter

    You’ve taught me a valuable lesson – always check the underside of your quilt after the first few inches of quilting. If it’s messed up, take it away from your machine and undo it right away. Try again and check again. I recall babysitting some raffle baskets next to a friend who was ripping out all the stitching from a queen size quilt.

  5. weddingdressblue

    My husband managed an auto repair shop for a long while and used to say that most car problems were due to a “loose nut behind the wheel.” Not that I think that is the case here, but your story brought it to mind.

  6. katechiconi

    I’m with you on getting it done promptly. Otherwise, you do your machine adjustments, set up your muslin strip, you’re all ready to go, and then – oh….. I still have to remove all that stitching…

  7. TextileRanger

    I think I would have had to let it sit a month or two before I could face that. It is one thing to unstitch with the work in your lap while you sit comfortably and watch old movies; it is another to have to perch near a big machine and flex over it! You are very brave.

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Brave? One of the things I say is “I am not afraid.” Sort of like the song from The King and I — so no one ever knows, I’m afraid! OH don’t you love Deborah Kerr?? πŸ™‚


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