Bernina 640: Didn’t want to let it go

July 30, 2012

Well, Spiros, the Bernina 640 that I got to play with this past year had to go home. The good news is that a newer, bigger Bernina 830 is on its way, and I’m really looking forward to the longer arm! (

I wanted to try out a Bernina because everyone I have talked to who has one raves about how much they love their sewing machine. But even more, after quilting on a couple of other machines, I realized that the machine you quilt on really does make a difference. I needed a machine with a motor that could give me hours of smooth sewing, constantly turning on-and-off, working at different rates of speed, etc. and still keep a perfectly balanced stitch through it all.

My goal when I started with the Bernina 640 a year-and-a-half ago was to develop my quilting skills to competition level. Here are some things I learned during the process of going from novice machine-quilter to my first competition quilt.

1. A big part of the learning process in quilting is learning your machine and how to set it up. There are so many variables related to the machine that can go wrong: tension, needle, bobbin.

2. A second part of the learning process is learning your materials: thread, fabric, batting.

3. And then, of course, there is “operator error” — your lack of quilting skill in general.

If any one of these variables (or more likely a combination or them) goes wrong, you end up with unsatisfactory quilting.

4. Your inexperience in knowing which factor causes which problem becomes a problem in and of itself. You might blame yourself for something that is being caused by the machine, or you might blame the machine for something that you are doing wrong. Either way, you can easily end up frustrated and discouraged with yourself and/or your machine.

I reached this point and hit a wall, because I simply didn’t know what was going wrong.

I tend to be a teach-myself-by-just-doing it kind of person. But I eventually came to realize that in order to learn to machine quilt and to use my Bernina successfully, I needed the eyes and hands of someone experienced who could sort out for me which of my problems were caused by my lack of skill, which were caused by errors in setting up my machine, which involved using the wrong materials, and which were actual mechanical problems with the machine itself.

My advice (learned after being too stubborn for too long!): find someone to teach you in person. Take a class. Go to a machine quilting expo. Swap favors with a friends whose quilting you admire. Take advantage of training offered by the dealer where you bought your sewing machine. Get an experienced set of eyes and hands looking over your shoulder.

Teri Harris Lucas (, an award-winning quilter who quilted one of my quilts and who is a Bernina user herself, was the angel who took me under her wing in person and got me on track.

(I must also thank Joanie Zeier Poole (, a friend and the author of several excellent books on heirloom-quality quilting, who was as helpful as anyone could be via phone and internet.)

When Teri came into the picture, here is what I learned:

1. Good thread is a must. Believe me, the few extra dollars you spend for strong, smooth, lint-free, evenly-textured thread are worth all the moments that you save not dealing with broken thread and uneven tension. I started out trying to quilt with generic thread that I bought in the Garment District of NYC. I thought I was saving money. But the time I wasted, and the frustration of thread constantly breaking . . . never again. And by the way, I have fallen totally in love with Superior’s #100 Kimono Silk thread (

2. There was, in fact, a mechanical problem with the 640: the automatic tension controller quit. Teri introduced me to a reliable sewing machine mechanic (thank you Larry, at Hartsdale Fabarics ( who fixed that problem. At the same time he gave the machine a thorough cleaning and lubrication, and de-burred the throat plate. (Burrs are little rough spots that are caused by the needle hitting the throat plate. Thread can catch on these and shred.)

3. With good thread and a working machine, I could now set up the machine properly. Working with a test sandwich that had the same fabric and batting as my quilt and that wonderful Kimono Silk thread, Teri adjusted the top tension lower than I ever thought was possible. She changed my needle to a top-stitching needle, and took me down to a 70/10. Then, to solve a skipping-stitch issue that occurred whenever I tried to quilt backwards or to the left, she installed a bobbin case used for embroidery that has a special arm to keep the thread centered as it comes off the bobbin. (Another solution for this is to use a single-needle throat plate, but be sure it doesn’t have burrs that can break the thread as it passes through the narrow needle hole.)

4. After Teri sorted out and eliminated my materials problems, mechanical problems, and set-up problems, finally I could get down to concentrating on my own skills. At this point, I discovered that years of playing the piano had taught me much of the fine motor movement and control I needed. (You can read more about that here:  Quilting suddenly became a pleasure and I was getting results that pleased me. I was able to finish my first quilt that will go to a competition.

Other things I learned along the way:

I did try out the Bernina Stitch Regulator and found it sometimes useful and sometimes not. It can be a bit jerky in small, intricate stitching, and eventually for this type of work I came to prefer manual control. But for larger, more open quilting, it is really fantastic.

When my quilting designs are really intricate, I like to draft them in Illustrator and print them on Golden Threads paper ( I use the lightest grey ink that I can see comfortably. I pin it to the surface of the quilt and stitch through it. Yes, I have to tear it away after stitching (sometimes even using fine-point tweezers), but I find it far more accurate than marking.

A Super Slider ( the surface of my quilting table really helped with moving around the quilt under the needle.

Here are some pictures of the quilts I completed this past year on my Bernina 640:

Moonflower  (Approx. 60″ x 80″) This was a quilt-as-you-go project – each individual block and border strip was quilted before assembling the finished quilt. (See more detail photos at

Alex’s Tree of Life (Approx. 16″ x 20″) (with Nydia Guevara)

Improvisation: Cause & Effect (Approx. 60″ x 80″) (See more work-in-progress photos at

Phoenix Rising (30″ x 30″) (See more detail photos at

I came to really love my Bernina 640 for its smooth operation, speed control, powerful motor and perfectly-balanced stitch. (The truth is, I only scratched the surface of its capabilities.) The one thing that I kept wishing for as I worked on larger and larger quilts was a longer arm to have more space to move the quilt. So even though I didn’t want to let go of the Bernina 640, I’m looking forward to moving up to a Bernina 830 with its longer arm.


One Response to “Bernina 640: Didn’t want to let it go”

  1. […] Spiros, as you know, over the past year or so I’ve been working on my machine quilting skills, using a Bernina 640.  Here’s my summing-up of the experience so far: […]

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