How to load a quilt on the longarm…and why your longarmer is so darn pesky!

It’s that “darn pesky” part of this blog I want to start with.  I mean, why not get that gruff stuff out of the way early on?  If you are planning to rent a longarm at your local quilt shop, hang with me for a short while… I’m going to show you how the loading process goes on the longarm so that you aren’t so intimidated.  I’ll even share with you the finish on the project that I shot this blog for.

Let’s get started on being pesky.  There are several key steps that must be addressed before ANY pieced top goes on frame and these steps can and should be addressed by you, the piecer.  If these steps are done by you, the longarm prices are a little lighter on the wallet.  If these steps are left to the longarmer, you are truly “quilting by check”.  Let me explain to you what you can do to save a little “setup fee” money.

  1. Do NOT bring your pieced top basted to your batting and backing.  Every longarm machine has rollers… a set to hold the backing and a roller to help hold the top.  Every layer is loaded separately.  If all three layers are already sewn together, loading the top is rather difficult (unless we are talking about repairing a quilt).
  2. Mend your quilt.  Seams that are left open can be caught by the longarm hopping foot and, boy, can that lead to a real disaster for both the quilt and the longarm machine.
  3. If your outermost border is pieced, stay-stich within 1/4″ of the outer edge so that the seams will not open up when the top is on the longarm frame.  It’s great insurance for you!
  4. Make sure quilting pins, safety pins and any other foreign objects are removed from the pieced top.
  5. Trim your loose threads.  Dark threads left on the underside of the pieced top can and will show through light areas of your quilt once quilted.  I’m sure you don’t wish to see that.  IF you have a quilt that is quilted and you find these, invest in a very small crochet hook.  It can be used to poke through the fabric (size US 10 is a good one) to grab that thread and yank it back through to the top.
  6. Square up your top as best you can (and this should be done prior to putting any borders on it).  Quilt tops that are not square can be fudged by the longarmer during the loading and quilting process in order to square it up a bit more.  Do not expect miracles, however!
  7. Square up your backing… don’t just leave it the way it came off the fabric shop’s cutting table.  REALLY square it up.  This is vital to the longarmer.   If you don’t square up the backing, the longarmer will and trust me, that takes time and costs you money.  Wide backings are rarely wound onto the bolt square, so backings that are cut with scissors or rotary cutters at the quilt shop, rather than torn,  may not be square (or, as the case may be, rectangular).  If it’s not squared, it will load wavy, crooked or stretched…none of those scenarios presents a good finished product.  Here is what it looks like when the backing is not squared:pic-1
  8. Make sure your batting is at least 6″ wider and longer than your pieced top and that your backing is at least 8″ wider and longer than your pieced top.  The longarmer needs this extra batting and backing in order to load your masterpiece onto their frame and if ruler work is done in the borders, the ruler base demands this extra space.  You’ll see why in a little bit. Likewise, please be respectful of your longarmer…don’t bring them a king sized batting for a crib quilt and act like you’ve done them a favor…you and I know that you haven’t.  It’ll take quite some time to trim things down to size for loading and time is money.  Save some cash and get the batting and backing down to size and squared and you’ll be leaving your longarmer’s with more cash in YOUR pocket.
  9. Press your pieced top and backing.  It’s understandable to have some creases when it arrives at the longarmer’s, but set-in creases will need to be ironed by the longarmer and I’m sure you know how much time and care goes into pressing a large quilt or backing.

With that, your responsibilities are pretty much over.  It’s at this point that you set the appointment, wait a bit, wake up one morning (hopefully very excitedly) and head off to meet with your longarmer.  We are officially done with the “pesky” part of this blog and we now get to head off to the part about how your longarmer peforms magic on your quilt top (and what you should know if you plan on renting time on a longarm machine to produce things like this):pic-23

For any longarmer, this is where things begin to get fun.  Sometimes with excitement.  Sometimes with trepidation.  Sometimes with even a little panic or fear.  It’s a big responsibility and we longarmers want to do our best work on your quilt top.

The loading process has quite a few steps, so let me step you through this with some photos and directions.  There are many manufacturers of longarm quilting machines, but the basics remain the same.  You’ll be seeing the loading taking place on my A-1 Platinum.

  1. Check your quilt sandwich for proper sizing:  Take your backing and  place in right side down on the floor.  Place the batting on top of it, making sure the orientation is correct for your sandwich.  Place the pieced top (my pictures will be of a whole cloth example) right side up on top of the sandwich, making sure the orientation is correct.  Confirm that you have at least 3″ of extra batting on all four sides and at least 4″ of extra backing on all four sides in relation to the pieced top.  If you can confirm this, you are ready to mark the top and backing for loading.  If you do not have this, you can baste or pin a strip of fabric to the backing to get it long enough to load.pic-2
  2. Mark the top edge of the pieced top and the top edge of the backing.  Set the top and batting aside.  Take the backing, figure out what edge you want to mount to the frame (length vs. width), and fold the backing in half width-wise (as width relates to the frame).  For example, if the top of your quilt will really load as the top edge on frame and the width on frame would be the finished quilt’s width, you would fold that width in half.  If the length of your quilt will really load as the top edge on frame and the width on frame would be the finished quilt’s length, you would fold the length in half.  Whichever way you are going to load, fold it in half and crease it, marking that crease, at both ends, (on the WRONG side) with a pin.  Do this same thing for the pieced top (but place the pins on the RIGHT side) and set it aside.
  3. Take the backing over to the frame and drape it, WRONG side up, over the front rollers.  Unroll the leader of the back roller and set in on the table.  Place the upper edge of the backing on that back roller leader, centering your pin on the centermark of the leader.  You can see by my photos that I have actually sewn a center ruler onto my leader for ease of locating the centerline.  (What you are doing here is getting your backing squared to the roller system so that you will actually create a square quilt and not a trapezoidal one…that’s good for business!).pic-3
  4. Pin or clamp your edge to that leader to finish securing that edge.  If you use centering tapes like I do, you can check along each end of this backing to make sure it lands at the same measurement on each edge.  If it doesn’t, you didn’t mark the center line correctly and you may have issues later.pic-4
  5. Roll this backing on that back roller, smoothing it out as you go and making sure that it is rolled squarely.  Smooth things out starting at the center point of the roller and walking your hand out to each edge.  Never do a twisting motion… you will affect the backing alignment if you do that.pic-5
  6. It should finish looking like this on the roller.  The edge maintained it’s perfect alignment, telling me two things.  First, I cut this backing square!  Second, I loaded it square.  That’s a win-win.pic-6
  7. We will leave that backing on the back roller and start the loading process for the top next.  Take your top, and with the right side up, and having determined what will be the bottom edge of it while it on frame, we will drape that top over the back roller and extend the leader for the topmost roller on the front of the frame.  Extend that leader until it is on the table.pic-7
  8. Take your bottom edge of the pieced top and place the pin on it at the center point of that leader.  Pin or secure it with clamps at that center mark and then secure it along the entire edge.
  9. It’s time to roll this top up, making sure that you roll it smoothly and in a straight fasion.pic-8
  10. We are now going to secure the bottom edge of the backing!  Extend the leader of the bottom roller on the front of the frame and set it on the table.  Extend the back leader so that the backing drapes onto this front leader, lining up that pin you placed on the bottom of the backing with the center line of the leader.  Secure that centerpoint to the leader and then secure the entire bottom edge of the backing to the leader.pic-10
  11. This is the moment of truth… this is where you see if your backing really was square and it you really did load the backing square.  Take the slack out of the backing by picking up the slack from the front leader.  IF you have loading things correctly, there will be even tension across the backing.  IF you have loaded this incorrectly, you will find pockets of tight areas and pockets of slack.  That’s not good if that happens and I would strongly urge you to take the time to remove the backing and square it up.  I have seen quilts where there are puckers and gathers sewn in  on the backing and this could be your result if you don’t address your issues.  Here is how it SHOULD look:pic-11
  12. Loosen the back roller and take up the backing onto the front roller until part of the back leader is extended within sight (just like the above picture shows).  It’s now time to load the batting and get the top situated onto the sandwich!  You are nearly there!  IF your frame allows you to raise your belly bar (the roller that has your pieced top wrapped around it), raise it and place the batting on top of the backing.  How do you know which side of the batting should be facing up?  The general saying is “Dimples up and Pimples down”  Most batting is needle punched, so look at it and see the dimples left by the needle punching through it.  That needle direction is your guide for your needle direction…match it.  The dimples created by the needle should be facing up.  IF your batting comes with a scrim (a very fine layer of an anti-movement material) that scrim should always face down.  Scrim is placed on things like poly puff  or wool to keep the fine filaments of batting from migrating through the quilt back when longarming.  This phenomenon is often referred to as “bearding” and it’s not what you want to see on your quilt back.  Cheap backings with low thread counts (and a loose weave) can create bearding, too, so never skimp on your backing material!pic-12
  13. Square that batting up by tracking the edge of it in relation to the edge of the backing and smooth it out so that there are no lumps or bumps.  Drop the belly bar back down into place and extend the top so that it is just a few inches below the top of the backing.
  14. Align that top edge with a ruler to make sure that the top edge is perpendicular to the sides and parallel to the backing roller and make sure that the pin is aligned with the  centerline on the leader.  Pin it in place.  You are now ready to baste it!pic-13
  15. First, pick out your top and bobbin threads and get them all ready to go.  This little 16″ x 16″ piece will use two thread colors.pic-16
  16. Load your thread and lets baste that edge (I don’t normally set tension at this point… basting doesn’t require perfect tension…it is just basting, afterall!).  First, let’s set the tension of your quilt sandwich…not too tight and not too loose… you should be able to place your index finger on one hand below the quilt sandwich, push up into the sandwich and with your other hand on top of the quilt sandwich, you should be able to grab up to the first joint of that index finger.  That’s good quilt sandwich tension!   Time to baste the top down.  Run a basting stitch within 1/4″ of the quilt top’s edge.  I usually make my basting stitch about 1/2″ long.  I make it shorter if the outermost border is pieced… I want to make sure I secure each piece and protect myself from splitting a seam open during the longarming process.pic-18
  17. Plop a spare small piece of the batting and a small strip of fabric onto the backing in the margins of the sandwich.  (If your area of spare backing and batting is big enough, simply place a strip of fabric over it and use that for testing tension.  My batting was a scrap piece and it wasn’t big enough to place a scrap piece of fabric over it, so I just placed a small piece of batting and fabric for my tension testing).  Mount your side tension system to the quilt back.  It’s time to check your thread tension.  I always increase my top tension until I see small dots of the bobbin thread and then back top tension off by a quarter turn.  I look at the quilt back as well to make sure tension is good to go.  We are off and running!pic-20

You are all ready to go to town.  If you are going to pantograph, this is the point where you load the pantograph onto the table and set it up for quilting.  I won’t go through the process on this blog, but perhaps that is something that can be addressed at a later date.

The pantograph would be set on the table like so:pic-15

This is what I want to show you concerning ruler work and the ruler base that all longarms must have in order to have a “table” upon which the ruler can rest and stay steady.  Ruler bases are just what they sound like.  They are a metal or plasic extension that is mounted to the base of the machine head so that you now have  a “table” with which to work upon.  They are large.  They sometimes get into the side tension system and that can really pose problems for longarm quilting.  THIS is why backings need to be at least 4″ bigger than the pieced top on all four edges.  This backing was cut 5″ bigger on each edge and yet, the ruler base still gets into the side clamps!  Eeeck!pic-17

So ends today’s lesson of quilt preparation and loading.  What will follow are a few blurbs of the quilt piece you saw getting loaded onto the frame… a demonstration piece of free-motion quilting for my local quilt guild.  Thank you for following along and please subscribe to my blog if you wish to get emailed notices for each blog posting.  You can also like me on facebook at my facebook page, thethreadworksfactory!  Look for me!

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Yay!  Thank you for sticking around!  Here is progress of my quick whole cloth quilt.  Nothing fancy.  Just a quick example to show that a longarmer can create a one-of-a-kind piece without the aid of computer assisted software.

The quilt top was marked with a chalk pencil prior to loading and rulers were used to stitch all the curved parts of this design:pic-21

Once the ruler work was done, fill work went into everything else.  I used a cream thread to do the outline of the ruler work and an orange thread for all detail work. That cream thread helped to pop the design a little more and while pictures don’t do it justice, it’s a pretty piece in real life!  It’s 16″ x 16″.pic-21a

Tadaa!  All done and ready for the guild meeting.  Thank you so much for spending your time with me!  Have a wonderful day and I hope you get to have some time to be creative today.