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Tension, Friend or Foe?

Now be honest how many of you looked at the title and wanted to skip over this posting??

Instead of doing that why not get yourself a cup of something nice and warm on this horrible wet day and just see if reading this can change your thinking.

I’ve been sewing for a very long time and I am sure that years ago what is now called a ‘Tension’ dial used to be called a ‘Balance Control Knob’!!!! The word Tension has come to mean something stressful, something we want to avoid and something wrong, but in terms of Textiles it just means ‘Balance’.

With that in mind how can we start to think of this differently. So imagine a “Tug of War” match, there are equal numbers of players on each side and they have equal weights and strengths. The tie in the middle of the rope lines up perfectly with the line on the ground and as everything either side is equal it does not move. Balance!!!

So how is that applied to Textiles? The easiest one to look at is Weaving. There are warp threads and there are weft threads. If they are the same thickness and length and are placed the same distances apart on both they will produce an even grid of threads when the fabric is woven. Any changes in any of these will produce something different. Changes in the distances between then threads will produce a looser woven fabric. Changes in the thickness of the any of the threads will produce a different pattern. This is a very simple example I know but if you understand the process and why things change you can apply that to other forms of Textiles.

Knitting and Crochet are by their nature not square, if you want the stitch to be square you need to manipulate something to make it happen, usually the combination of the needle/hook and the yarn. But by accepting that it will not be square you can make one or more sample pieces, in the stitch pattern of your choice, measure that and then from those two measurements, stitches per inch/cm and rows per inch/cm calculate your pattern sizes. The density of the fabric can also be adjusted by using a smaller or larger needle/hook in relation to the thickness of the yarn. I now see many patterns suggesting that the sample square is worked in stocking stitch for knitting or double crochet stitch for crochet, how is this going to work if you are working on a pattern which will inevitably distort the work?

Now consider what happens to the yarn before it gets to the needle/hook for the stitches to be formed. Is it loose and floppy? Being picked up each time a stitch is to be formed. OR is it wound around the fingers of either hand to keep it straight and at the same level of tightness for each and every stitch. Think back to the ‘Tug of War’ analogy!!!!If everything is balanced then the result will be even.

Cross stitch,Needdlework and Tapestry next. Before starting on a project the background fabric that is going to be worked onto is stretched over a frame to keep it square while the stitches are being worked into it. This is because if it was not the fabric would buckle and distort, it is also because of the sewing method where most of the stitches are worked on a 90 degree angle through the fabric. There are some more complex stitches, which are not worked this way, but usually they have a framework on the backing fabric that they are worked into. With all the stitching and pulling in different directions and allowing for the fact that the background has been stretched over a frame, needlework of this sort still needs reshaping upon completion to restore the balance before either framing or including in another piece of work.

Quilting. There are so many different types, Hand, Domestic Machine, Domestic Machine Free Motion Quilting, Long Arm Quilting so why should we assume that the same rules can be applied to them all when the variables are so different. Let’s take Hand Quilting, something I have done rather a lot of. There are the fabrics, top and bottom, wadding, in a frame/not in a frame, stitch type and size, needle size and type, thimbles or not, seams in the fabric or whole cloth, thread type and that’s all just for starters.

For a moment just imagine a piece of thin loosely woven calico with a pattern marked on the top, a 100 % wool wadding and a backing made up of squares of fabric with lots of seams, to work this you are using a 2” long number 12 needle with a leather point on the end and using the rocking thimble method. I think even from this description you can envisage all the things that can go wrong. The only way to get even stitches would be to use a stab stitch but then the end on the needle would cut through all the threads. You could not use the ‘rocking thimble’ method with a needle that long and thin it will just bend. The variety of wadding does not allow close/small stitches as it cannot be compressed enough. The top fabric is too loosely woven so that the wadding will poke through then there are the seams on the backing which will in some places be 1 layer of fabric thick and in others several!!!

I know that is a very extreme example but I want you to think about getting the balance of everything right as it is often other things that will contribute to the unevenness of the actual stitching rather than the stitching alone.

I will not cover the other types of quilting as I hope that you can now see some of the reasons why problems can occur in whatever method you use.

Patchwork. I have deliberately left this until now as I’m hoping that you’ve read through the rest and not skipped it to get to this section.

So many times I’ve seen people and quilts where so very much time and thought has been put into colour and fabric selection but there has not been very much thought or understanding into how the quilt is to be used and how this needs to be incorporated into the design. So here are some things to consider and think about whether it is your own design you are creating or whether you are making up someone else’s’.

Let’s start with a Bed Quilt, the size is immaterial. It has 5 sections, a flat middle section, a top section that will lay over pillows, a bottom section that will drop over the bottom of the bed, two side sections that will drop down the sides of the bed AND a section where the sides and bottom join onto the flat top that will take the weight of the sides and the bottom in the transition from flat to vertical. I would imagine that many of you have never before heard about this last section but it can be the most vital as that is where most of the weight of the quilt will go and as a result there will be an imbalance between the top and the sides/bottom which will need to be addressed in some way.

How many times has sashing been placed around pieced blocks only to find that despite accurate cutting it no longer fits. Why is this so? Quite simple really the block has seams in it which however carefully sewn pulls the fabrics together, that sashing does not. So to overcome this and restore the balance the sashing needs to have some seams in it, they done have to be in the same direction as the block, just think of it as adding reinforcing to the structure.

If something is to be hung vertically then it will need the structure to hold everything in place in that position, if it is to be placed on a flat surface, such as a table then that structure is no longer needed. The balance of the work will have different requirements.

I’ll end with a short section on threads and machines which in a way I have already covered in the Knitting /Crochet and Quilting sections. When using any thread with any equipment you need to balance the properties of the thread with the adjustments available on the equipment used. So dials and controls on the bobbin and its housing as well as those on the body of the machine, the size and shape of the needle. The fabric/fabrics to be sewn on the appliance and last but very not least YOU the operator.

Don’t forget to place yourself in the optimum position to produce the best work you can.