A professional longarm machine quilter for hire and some of the work I've done.
Every machine quilter should know about centering a quilt top horizontally on the machine. That is centering from end to end on the roller bars and is one of the first things you learn. Sometimes I’m asked to center a quilt vertically too. That is where a top is centered on the backing from beginning end to finishing end of the top. Why would someone want to do this? Mostly to center something on the backing. Probably a pieced area or possibly a special label. This technique isn’t taught (to my knowledge) when a quilting machine is bought. I thought I’d put on my blog the way I center a quilt top vertically just in case someone would like to know.
The owner of this quilt had put a different color fabric strip on the sides of the backing and wanted those to be even on both sides when it was quilted. Well that meant this quilt backing had to be loaded with the seams going horizontal on the machine. See how it’s attached to the zipper leaders? The seams going the same way as the leaders.
Why must the seams be horizontal instead of vertical? Wouldn’t it be easier to center the other way? No. Because of fabric buildup on the bar. There would be more fabric in one spot (the seam) than the rest of the backing which should be flat against the bar. Here is a little experiment for you to try. Get two small pieces of fabric, one should be skinny, and a pencil. Pretend one piece of fabric is the backing and the other piece is the seam. The pencil would be the machine roller bar.
Roll up the fabric onto the pencil like this. You should be able to feel the difference between where there is two fabrics and one fabric. The center is very tight but the sides are squishy.
Here is what mine looked like from the end. See the gap? The squishy part creates the gap. That’s a mini version of what the backing seam would be like if rolled onto a machine bar. It could be done but it would be a struggle to keep everything square and even. Plus it’s very difficult to keep a seam on top of itself as you roll it onto the bars. It wants to move sideways. More than one seam going vertically means more to deal with. Better to load the backing with the seams the same way as the bar so there wouldn’t be any fabric buildup.
Well now that that is explained let’s go back to centering vertically. Find the vertical center of the backing and put a pin there. Also, measure it. For this quilt it is 30 inches from leader edge to center. I put a pin on both sides at center.
Now measure the top for vertical center too and put a pin on both sides too. This top is 27 inches from leading edge to center.
The difference between top and backing is 3 inches. I load the backing and batting onto the machine bars and then measure down 3 inches from the leader.
I tack stitched a guideline horizontally along the leading edge three inches down. I used a color thread so it shows up well in the picture. I usually use whatever thread happens to be on the machine at the time. I love my machine’s channel lock and single stitch function!
I then tack stitched the quilt top along that stitched line. Making sure it is entered horizontally along that previous stitched line.
Now that I’m fairly sure it’s centered both horizontally and vertically there is one more step I take to assure myself I’m keeping everything even. I measure from the end of my table bars to the edge of the quilt top. I have velcro on both ends of the bar and a small piece on the end of a tape measure.
I measure from the end of the bar to the edge of the quilt top. Why not to the edge of the backing? Because I’m centering the top which means that is what I want to keep checking. I write the measurement on a small piece of tape on the bar so I don’t forget what it is. The top is 25 inches from the end.
I do the same thing for the other side of the top. This top is 25 1/2 inches from the end. Why the difference? Because I was off by 1/4 inch getting it true center. I’m not going to redo it. I can deal with it this way.
Did you notice the backing is only about two inches bigger than the top on each side? I prefer at least three inches to prevent the machine from bumping the clamps as I stitch the borders. I’ll deal with it this time but explain I need more for the next one. As I stabilize the quilt sandwich I’m always mindful of wandering threads on the back of the top.
The wandering threads show up under the solid white area and are very annoying. Each time I advance the quilt, I lift the top and clip those. I do what is called a full float of the top. Meaning the quilt top is not attached to any roller. Just attached to the backing. I use a sticky roller to remove the stray threads from both the top and the batting.
Even with all the thread clipping and checking, one or two stray thread still manage to show up through the white fabric. It’s the twist of the thread and the way it wants to undo its self that causes wandering threads. Even after I’ve stabilized the whole top one or two make themselves known. Dang it! Well, anyway, as I advance and stitch in the ditch, when I get to the center the two pins on the top and the backing should be even. Pretty darned close. Maybe a sixteenth of an inch off?
I finish the rest of the stabilizing before I get to the actual quilting. The end should come out very close to three inches from the ending leader. If it doesn’t then I’ve got some frog stitching to do. I figure a straight line of stitching is much easier to frog stitch than a design would be if something went wrong. When all the stitch in the ditch is done then it’s quilt as usual. Here is the quilt all finished. It is the same quilt I showed as a finish in my last post.
Obviously this post is meant to help anyone with a new quilting machine or those who are looking to advance their skills. It should also be helpful for those who hire a professional quilter. This post is meant to help you understand what is involved when you prepare a backing for your quilt. Many professional machine quilters charge an extra fee for centering backs or for clipping threads. Keep this in mind when you plan your next quilt.
One more thing to keep in mind about backing. A pieced backing may look nice but can be difficult to keep squared or even. Why? Because fabric has stretch and bias. If you don’t keep all the grains even and in going in the same direction it will be impossible to prevent puckers and tucks. And, if two fabric wart seams land next to each other it can break a needle or throw the machine out of timing.