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Thing #6: How a quilt is loaded on the machine

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I recently had a delightful conversation with one of my most accomplished clients. We were reminiscing about the first time we met, during which I had volunteered to be her scribe while she judged a quilt show. During the time we spent together, I asked her so many questions that we were quite late coming out of the show and everyone was waiting for us! I remembered this with some embarrassment; however, she remembered it fondly. She shared that she appreciated my eagerness to learn. It is true, I have a somewhat insatiable curiosity about the world around me. I am always striving to learn more about things that I am interested in, and always feel better about something if I understand how it works.

It is because of this quirky part of my personality, that I wanted to share with you the process by which quilts are loaded onto the machine. Some may not care to read all the details I will share, but for others, I believe this post will fill in the blanks of how the quilting process begins, and may shed a little light on why some long-arm quilting policies exist.

When I receive a quilt from a client, the first thing I do is measure both the top and the backing of the quilt. Sometimes the quilt-maker will have marked the top with the dimensions (usually this is a small piece of paper safety pinned to one edge). I am a very trusting person, but I also believe you can never measure too many times.  The top measurements are what I use to calculate cost of quilting, and I measure the backing to make sure that it is at least 5 inches longer than the quilt top.

When it comes time to put the quilt on the frame of the machine, I measure the top and back again.  What’s that old carpenter’s adage? Measure twice, cut once.  In my case, I measure twice, and avoid a whole lot of heartache when I get to the end of a quilt on the machine. Once I have confirmed the measurements, the decision is made of how to put the quilt on the machine.  There are a couple of factors that go into this decision.  The most common deciding factor is which edge of the backing fabric is straightest, which is usually the selvage edges.

I’d say that 80-90 percent of the quilts I IMG_3746finish have one or two piece backings. Either they are fewer than 45 inches wide, the client has purchased an extra wide backing fabric, or the back has been pieced with one seam down the middle.  In  the case of a one piece backing, the quilt will almost always be put on the machine so that the back is attached on the selvage. Most often this means that the quilt top will be oriented sideways on the machine.  One of the benefits of this is that when the quilt is complete, because it’s been attached to the machine this way, the seam will usually not be centered on the back of the quilt.  Because most quilts are stored folded, and most quilts are folded in half first, this prevents some wear.  The seams are generally a weak point on a quilt, and if they are continually folded at the seam, it weakens it further.

If attaching a quilt on the selvage isn’t an option, either due to client preference or because a pieced backing needs to be centered, it is possible to attach the quilt to the machine frame the opposite way,  However, this means the edge of the backing usually needs to be trimmed to insure it is straight.


I use a wonderful invention called “red snappers” to attachIMG_3740 a quilt to the canvas leaders on the machine table.  They are a great time saver over the old end to end pin method, and I can usually get a quilt loaded onto the machine in about a half hour.  This is a significant improvement to the hour to ninety minutes it used to take.  The red snappers do an excellent job of holding the quilt top and backing onto the leaders so that an appropriate amount of tension can be achieved.  Also, since no pins are used to attach the quilt to the leaders I don’t run the risk of damaging the fabric with pin holes or tears if the back isn’t perfectly straight.  The only complaint I have about these tools is that my children often mistake them as toy swords, and I sometimes have to spend some time searching for them before I can use them  :).

The first component of the quilt to be loaded onto the machine is the backing fabric.  This is done by spreading the back out over the canvas pick-up roller and, after insuring it is centered, using the red snappers to secure it to the lower backing roller.



The backing fabric is then carefully rolled around the backing roller.  While it is rolled, any folds or fullness is carefully smoothed out, in an effort to prevent any tucks or fullness in the back of the quilt.  The same process is then repeated with the quilt top, which is attached to the top roller which you can see in the photo above toward the front of the quilting frame.

After both top and backing are securely fastened on their respective leaders, the batting is measured and cut and placed over the rolled up top in preparation for attaching all three layers to the pick-up roller.










The backing fabric is then pulled around the belly bar (yes, that’s what we call it) and fastened to the pick-up roller. This will serve as the foundation onto which the batting and top are then basted.


Tension is then added to the quilt sandwich by turning the top and backing rollers. And voila!  The quilt is ready to be quilted!

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