Practice may not make perfect, but it helps!

6 01 2013

Earlier this week on the Handi Quilter sit-down model Yahoo! group, Emily asked me how long I’d been quilting to ‘get this good’. In my long reply to her (and the group), I outlined my quilting journey in recent years.

However, that journey actually started back in 1986 when I lived in Canada for a year and saw my first-ever Mennonite quilts at a local fair in the Kitchener-Waterloo area of Ontario. I purchased a dahlia quilt pattern for a queen size bed at that fair, but to this day have never made it 😉 When I returned to Australia in 1987, I hunted out a store that held patchwork classes and made a couple of quilts as a result. Life got in the way from about 1990 until we moved from the city to the country in 2007, and then the next stage of my quilting life took off…

Here’s my long reply to Emily — bottom line: practice is the key!

The key is practice! Everyone says it, but it’s really true in the case of FMQ. My first attempts at a stipple in early 2007 looked like jagged, pointy brain coral – my friend and dealer taught that class and she will attest to my very pathetic efforts 😉 I never thought I’d get smooth curves and was ready to give up there and then.

I played with FMQ on and off from then on, getting a bit better all the time. But my first quilts were still quilted by a local long-armer. It wasn’t until late 2008 that I felt I had enough confidence to do some very basic  FMQ on a ‘real’ quilt:

I was still pretty much at the stippling level (I could get curves now!) and continued that way until mid-2010 when I attended a 2-day FMQ retreat/workshop run my my lovely dealer ( We were FORCED to practice all sorts of FMQ designs. I was getting better, but was still disappointed in many of my efforts. Tension was a big issue for me with things like metallic threads, but Michelle was patient and full of knowledge, so I got there. And I got the bug! I practiced some more and got better each time.

I found the Leah Day 365 days of FMQ website ( and decided to make samples of all her designs (I did most of them on my domestic machine, with the last ones done on my Sweet Sixteen:

In March 2011, I attended a quilting workshop in the US when I was there for a conference and tried out the Sweet Sixteen. I was smitten ;-). Another friend in our local group bought a Sweet Sixteen around that time and I just had to try it for more than 10 minutes! She was going away for two weeks so generously lent me her ‘Queenie’ while she was away ( Oh boy! That did it. In that 2 weeks, I quilted about three UFOs I had, including one where I quilted a different motif in every block ( I was totally hooked and bought my own machine a few weeks later (

Last year (2012) I participated in the 2012 FMQ Challenge ( and that pushed my boundaries even more. I forced myself to make each month’s practice piece, even if I wasn’t keen on the technique or felt I’d never use it again. Some of my efforts were less than impressive 😉 (

Then in June 2012, I offered to quilt community quilts. I figured if I was ever going to master FMQ, I had to get a lot more practice. I knew I couldn’t make quilts forever – just not enough friends and family to make them for; and besides, I wanted to practice quilting, not piecing. As I said in the previous email, quilting community quilts has been a win-win – I’ve had heaps of practice and they’ve got finished quilts to donate to the various charities, hospitals, cancer support groups etc.

You don’t get to 6 million stitches in a few hours ;-). Some smaller quilts with a simple motif take me an hour or so to quilt; others take me several days depending on the size of the quilt, how I decide to quilt it, whether I use more than one thread colour/type or threads that break (I avoid these now). For example, McTavishing takes FOREVER as it’s so dense and goes into every corner, whereas the various headband motifs I use – and large stippling – take me far less time. I’m up to 60-80% speed on these motifs these days as I now have the ‘muscle memory’ for them from heaps of practice. I think Malcolm Gladwell said in one of his books that it takes about 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery – I think he’s right, though I wouldn’t call myself a master ;-).

And yes, I have a day job, and no, I don’t quilt at night. However, I try to only work three days a week in my day job, which leaves four days for quilting 😉 Some weeks I’ll quilt a bit on every one of those four days; other weeks I might only quilt for an hour or so on one day of the four – it depends on what life is throwing at me at the time. I don’t have kids, grandkids, or pets, and I have a low maintenance husband – as a result, I don’t have a lot of external demands on my potential quilting time that others have.

Domestic sewing machine needles vs industrial sewing machine needles

6 01 2013

Update June 2019: This Handi Quilter Blog article clearly explains the type of needles you need to buy for your longarm or Sweet Sixteen machine:

On the Handi Quilter sit-down model Yahoo! group someone asked about whether they could use their domestic sewing machine needles in their HQ Sweet Sixteen (or Babylock Tiara) machine.

In a word, NO!

The needles are made differently, with the prime difference being the shape of the shank. On a domestic sewing machine needle, the shank is flat at the back. On an industrial machine needle, the shank is fully rounded.


Image of a domestic sewing machine needles’ parts. Industrial machine needles have the same parts except for the shape of the shank. (From

The needles used in the Sweet Sixteen are industrial needles and do not have this flat piece on the shank. In the diagram below, A represents an industrial sewing machine needle looking down from the top, whereas B is a domestic sewing machine needle from the same angle — note the flat part on the shank.



The fronts of industrial (A) and domestic (B) sewing machine needles look just the same.


However, the backs are different. The industrial machine’s needle (A) is fully rounded at the back; whereas the domestic sewing machine’s needle (B) has a flat back on the shank.

Domestic sewing machine needles have the flat side on the shank to make it easy for you to insert the needle correctly into the needle holder on the machine. However, with the industrial needles, you have no guide as to where to place the needle. Thus you need to be careful when inserting the needle in your Sweet Sixteen to make sure the long groove is facing you, and the scarf (the notch on the back) is away from you.

One way to do this successfully is to take the old needle and place its point into the eye of the new needle (with the long groove facing towards you), then insert the needle so that the old needle is at the 6 o’clock position, perpendicular to the new needle. Some people position the needle just off centre, at the 5:30 position (this is what I do) and that’s fine. But don’t position it too far away from the 6 o’clock position otherwise the bobbin thread won’t be picked up correctly and you will not be able to form a stitch correctly.


For more information about sewing machine needles and how they work, check out the excellent videos on needles (videos 16 and 17) from Superior Threads: Note: These videos focus on domestic machine needles (particularly topstitch needles), but much also applies to industrial machine needles, especially the information on needle sizes. As an aside, I mostly use 40 wt threads for my quilting and a size 100/16 134 R Groz-Beckert needle in my Sweet Sixteen (the 134 is important).

For more information on needles suitable for Handi Quilter machines, see this free video: or (needles and their relationship to thread is discussed in the first 10 minutes).

Update: R versus MR needles: A further question from the group was about whether we can use MR needles instead of R needles in the Sweet Sixteen. Handi Quilter is quite clear on that — NO! See (To quote from that 2015 forum post response by the Handi Quilter Educator: “Handi Quilter recommends the R needles for the Sweet Sixteen, the Avante and Fusion machines and the MR needles for the Infinity machine.”)

There’s a picture of an MR needle here: — you can see the difference in the shape of the needle, so I can see why HQ says NOT to use them in the S16.

Groz-Beckert describes the tips of the needles (which give the letter designation such as ‘R’) in the ‘Cloth points’ article here: . And Superior Threads has more information on the codes on Groz-Beckert needles here:

These are the main needles I buy (in sizes 12 to 20, though mostly 14 and 16):

Two final hints:

  • Hint 1: Use the groove on the front of the needle to help thread your needle easily every time. Instead of trying to get the end of the thread into the eye of the needle, run it down the groove and it will pop into the eye without a problem almost every time (assuming the end of the thread is snipped, of course, and not frayed).
  • Hint 2: Discard your old sewing machine needles, pins etc. into a safe, sealed container. I use an old glass spice jar as I couldn’t justify the expense of an official ‘sharps’ container from the drugstore. It will take a long time to fill this jar, and once full, I’ll throw out the sealed jar take this jar to my local pharmacy for correct disposal and grab another one for my dead needles.