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The right way to prepare your quilt for a longarm quilter

The right way to prepare your quilt for a longarm quilter

by Christine Baker

My two quilt tops are all finished and ready for quilting. I happen to be the lucky owner of a Gammill quilting machine, so when I finish piecing my quilts all I have to do to finish them off is to head out to my quilting studio. But not all quilters are lucky enough to have this option for finishing off their quilts, which got me thinking about what you should know for preparing your quilts for a longarm quilter.

Making the backing

Before any quilt can be quilted, it needs to have a backing! Backings can be as simple or as complex as you want, and although I don’t generally put too much effort into my backings, I can see why many quilters like to include leftover blocks or add interesting piecing in their quilt backs. For large quilts you can buy extra wide backing fabrics (108” wide) to eliminate the need for piecing. Northcott has some lovely backing fabrics including ones from their Stonehenge line and Artisan Spirit Shimmer line.

Stonehenge wide backings

Artisan Spirit Shimmer wide backings

For quilts that are 60” wide or smaller, generally the best use of fabric is to piece the backing with a horizontal seam on the back. With quilts that are 61” – 80” wide you would usually piece the back with the seam running vertically while quilts that are over 80” wide would need three lengths of fabric and have two vertical seams on the back.

Since my Mountain View quilt ended up being 60” x 70”, I cut two lengths of fabric 70” x WOF (width of fabric) and sewed them together so that the seam will run horizontally on the back of the quilt. When you’re piecing a backing ALWAYS make sure to remove the selvedges along the seam. These selvedge edges do not stretch so they have no give when the backing is mounted on the frame. I like to leave the outside selvedges on the backing because these edges are nice for pinning the quilt to the leaders, but I always cut off the selvedges along the seam when I sew two fabrics together for a backing.

If you’re using fabric with a directional print, make sure that you cut the right side selvedge from one of your fabric sections and the left side selvedge from the other section so that when you sew the two sections together the design will be running the same direction in both.

Cutting off the right selvedge

Cutting off the right selvedge

Cutting off the left selvedge

Cutting off the left selvedge

For this type of seam I usually use a ½” seam allowance and then I press the seam open.

Pressing the seam open

Pressing the seam open

Pieced backing

My lap quilt ended up measuring 50” x 61”, so I need to make a backing that is about 60” x 70”. Unfortunately, I have no large pieces of Mystic Garden fabric left, so I’ m going to piece the backing using multiple fabrics!

A lot of my customers give me quilts with pieced backings, but as a longarm quilter they sometimes give me a bit of stress when mounting the quilt on the frame. The problem with some pieced backings is that if the top isn’t perfectly centered on the backing you REALLY notice it when the quilt is trimmed. In all machine quilting the batting and backing shrink a little as the quilt is quilted and a longarm is no different. So the best bet if you want to piece your backing is to use large enough pieces (especially around the edges) so that if the quilt shifts ½ʺ – 1ʺ it won’t be noticeable.

I cut the largest piece of fabric that I had left into quarters and then added some rectangles of the other fabrics to the middle lengthwise and widthwise to make my backing large enough.

Piecing the backing together

Piecing the backing together

The longarm quilting machine

All longarm quilting machines have the same basic parts: separate roller bars for the quilt top, backing and (sometimes) batting, a tabletop, and a sewing machine that moves along the table top on some type of track. The machine can be moved in any direction so that the quilter is able to free motion machine quilt any design. Some of these machines are controlled by a computer, but many others, like mine, are controlled entirely by the quilter.

The quilting frame

The quilting frame

Loading the quilt

The backing is pinned to leaders along both the backing roller and the pick-up roller (where the quilted sandwich is rolled onto as the quilt is quilted). The longarm quilter finds the center of the quilt back and then pins to the left and to the right of center.

The center point of the backing and the leader

The center point of the backing and the leader

Pins are placed end to end for the entire length of the quilt

Pins are placed end to end for the entire length of the quilt

Once the backing is pinned to both leaders, clamps are secured along the sides of the backing to pull it taught and prevent any creases. The backing needs to be at least 3” bigger than the quilt top on all four sides because of these leaders and clamps.

The batting is cut and placed on top of the backing, smoothed out and the bottom end is tucked under the roller bar.

The top is then placed onto the batting and basted along the top and sides. This ensures that the quilt top is straight and centered.

Quilt top and batting on top of the backing and clamps on the sides

Quilt top and batting on top of the backing and clamps on the sides

Now the magic starts! The longarm quilter moves the machine across the quilt, following a pantograph, using templates or rulers or using freehand designs to quilt the quilt.

Once the entire width of the quilt has been quilted, the pick up roller is cranked to roll the quilted section onto the roller which brings up a new ‘un-quilted’ section into position.

After all of the machine quilting is finished, the pins are removed and the quilt is delivered to the customer.

Trimming the quilt

After I finished quilting my lap quilt, I removed it from the machine and trimmed the sides to remove the excess batting and backing. As you can see, even though I was extra careful centering the quilt, when I flipped it over and looked at the back, the top did shift a bit as it was rolled. This doesn’t bother me too much, but just keep this in mind if you’re piecing your back and sending your quilt to a longarm quilter.

The back of the quilt showing how the top shifted about one half inch

The back of the quilt showing how the top shifted about one half inch

Hiring a longarm quilter

Here are some things to keep in mind when you’re looking to hire a longarm quilter:

  1. Ask fellow quilters, a member of your quilt guild, or enquire at your local quilt shop for names of longarm quilters in your area.
  2. Ask what type of payments are accepted.
  3. Ask for a price estimate before you leave your quilt with the quilter – this may vary depending on:
    • The size of the quilt
    • The quilting design used. Loose, overall designs will cost less than custom quilted or dense quilting designs
    • Batting, if you supply or if you’re buying from the longarm quilter
    • The threads used
    • The turnaround time requested
  4. Meet with the quilter to discuss your expectations and if you have special requests.
  5. Let the quilter know if you want an all-over design such as a pantograph or meandering design or if you’re looking for different quilting designs in blocks/borders
  6. Prepare your quilt by pressing the top, clipping any loose threads and making your backing 6″ – 8” longer and wider than the top. Also, make sure to square up your backing and press it – especially if it’s a 108” wide backing as these will often have large creases in them if they have just been taken off the bolt.
  7. Some longarm quilters offer extra services such as basting, trimming, binding or adding hanging sleeves – discuss this with your longarm quilter before leaving your quilt.
  8. Let the quilter know if you need the quilt back by a specific date.

My finished projects

Here are my two Mystic Garden projects. I’ve only been able to finish up one this week – I guess the other one will go into my UFO stack. Check my blog to see how I’ve been progressing on my 52 week UFO Challenge – so far I’ve finished off 27 projects since the beginning of the year!! Northcott’s Mystic Garden fabrics should be arriving in quilt shops this month – check out your local shop to see what Northcott fabrics they carry!

Mountain View quilt - Mystic Garden Version using Northcott fabrics

Mountain View quilt – Mystic Garden Version using Northcott fabrics

Mystic Garden lap quilt using Northcott fabrics

Mystic Garden lap quilt using Northcott fabrics

Whether you’re quilting it yourself or sending your quilt to a longarm quilter, it’s important to follow all of the above steps to ensure the best possible results. You’ve put all of this time, effort and money into making your quilt top, so you want the quilting to be the icing on the cake! I love quilting quilts for other people because it’s so fun to step out of the box and try new and different quilting designs on quilts that I would never make myself. If you don’t want to machine quilt your own quilt, hiring a longarm quilter is a great option! Hopefully, you’ll be able to find someone you can work with in your area and that today I’ve been able to help you out with tips on preparing your quilts for a longarm quilter.

This is part 5 of 5 in this series.
Go back to part 4:  Use striped fabrics effectively in your quilt design



Carolyn Southam April 18, 2019 - 7:19 pm

“The top is then placed onto the batting and basted along the top and sides.”

The whole article is appreciated, but the above is the bit I need help with. Have only done one quilt, with a domestic machine on a frame, and kept catching the edges of the top, trying to baste.

Basted top and sides of first section only, quilted, rolled, then didn’t know how to baste the sides of the second section, as the first section had shrunk.

Could I use pins instead of basting? Should the sides be basted down the whole length before quilting?

Thank you!

Rebecca K. July 17, 2016 - 4:17 am

Found this very interesting – thanks!

Karen Monteith July 14, 2016 - 6:54 am

Lovely quilt. Thanks for the info.

Jessi Reyes July 13, 2016 - 12:11 am

Loved this series! Love those colours too!

anna Brown July 12, 2016 - 7:47 pm

Very nice ty for insight…….Will be reading more on this…

Susan Nicol July 12, 2016 - 2:20 pm

Love the purples!


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