Loading Quilts with a Longarm System

With stand up machine quilting system, we quilt using a frame and table system like shown below:

Carla Barrett's Longarm Quilting Machine

Carla Barrett’s Longarm Quilting Machine

The quilt backing is attached to the canvas leaders on the top roller and the very bottom roller on longarm systems.  The batting is laid down on top of the backing and then for the quilt top, you have several options for how you load the top.  Most machine quilters will either partially float the quilt top or fully float them.  There is a 3rd method, the no-float technique, but I do not recommend this method for a wide variety of technical reasons. In machine quilting, just as in life, there are often many ways to get to the same end point.  I always advise new quilters to try it every way, then chose the method they prefer best.  So, let’s go over the various techniques and start with my favorite way, the Partial Float Method:

loading a quilt info by Carla Barrett

loading a quilt info by Carla Barrett

As you can see in my illustration, the backing is attached to both the top and bottom leaders, while the quilt top is only attached on the bottom leader and rolled up.  The batting is laid in between. I prefer to partial float for several reasons.  I feel this method gives me the most control of my sandwich during the quilting process, especially for larger quilts.  When I load the quilt top and roll it up, this will give me an idea for how much excess fullness the top will have, so I can plan my quilting design accordingly.

Quilt top is partially floated, edges are basted to maintain a straight edge.

Quilt top is partially floated, edges are basted to maintain a straight edge.

When you quilt, the fabric draws in towards the stitching, and so I control the top edge of the quilt and the sides by careful basting.  You can put on your machine channel locks, or use a laser level to provide a straight line for your basting.  This way, you start out with a very straight quilt sandwich. As I advance, I use a T-square to keep the side edges basted straight.  I prefer basting to pinning the edges.  Why?  You would have to use lots of pins to give you the control you need compared to basting, and then the chances increase for running over a pin accidentally.  For non-quilters, if you run over a pin and hit it just right, you could break a needle, which could then damage the quilt if you don’t stop in time.  Also, you could throw off your machine head timing, too. Back to partial floating- during the quilting process the quilt will want to draw upwards as you quilt.  This tendency will be limited because the top is attached at the bottom and rolled up.  The roller has locks so I can control the vertical height of the quilt during the quilting, too. Let’s talk about the next quilt loading strategy- the Full Float Method, which looks like this:

Full Float method of loading a quilt for stand up quilting

Full Float method of loading a quilt for stand up quilting

As you can see, the backing is attached both top and bottom.  Then both the batting and quilt top are carefully laid on top and basted straight for control.  The edges are draped over the bottom roller and hangs down during the quilting process. I often fully float smaller quilts and quilts with a 3D element to them.  If the 3D quilt is large, sometimes I will add a horizontal line of basting near the bottom roller to control the vertical stretch as I quilt.  Obviously, this is optional.  Some quilters like to use a weighted magnetic bar (used for organizing tools) from Harbor Freight to assist with top control while fully floating, while others do not.   Obviously, you need to have metal roller for this to work.  Caution, too, that the magnetic tool bar is clean when you use it to weight your sandwich.

King Plus batik quilt I quilted for Barb Kiehn.  This quilt hangs straight.

King Plus batik quilt I quilted for Barb Kiehn. This quilt hangs straight.

No matter if you full float or partial float, you want to end up with a quilt that hangs straight.   Of course, this assumes that the quilt top and backing were straight to begin with.

TIP: The biggest tip I give new machine quilters is to not distort the quilt sandwich tension by over tightening the side clamps or having your roller tension too tight.

There are many variables involved  in machine quilting (including your sandwich tension, side clamps, stretchy leaders, bias quilt, design consistency, etc etc.), any one which may contribute to ending up with a quilt that waves when it hangs. Note to quilt top piecers- what machine quilters see frequently are backings and quilt tops which come to them not straight or square.  Depending on the variance of the horizontal and vertical measurements, and if there are lots of bias sections on the top, this will also affect your quilt and how it hangs in the end. The 3rd way to load a quilt is pretty rare, called the No-Float Method or sometimes called the Full Attachment Method.   Please note that I do not recommend this method for a variety of reasons I will explain in a minute.  Here is what this technique looks like:

No float/full attachment method of loading a quilt

No float/full attachment method of loading a quilt

The illustration above shows you how the quilt top and backing are both attached at the top leader/roller, with the backing and top attached on the bottom leaders/rollers.  Why do I not recommend it?  For a couple of reasons, including that you cannot quilt off the top edge of the quilt, something many freehand and pantograph quilters do often.  There will also be a section at the edge where it is not quilted or has batting, the part you pin, zip, velcro or otherwise attach to the leader.  This could cause issues with the preferred binding technique. I only knew one machine quilter who attached her quilts this way.  If this is how you like to do it, and don’t mind the negatives, then certainly do it the way you like it.   I think I will stick with partial float, and in some cases fully floating. I hope this post has help you to visually understand the differences in the various ways to attach a quilt with a stand up quilting system.  Would love to hear from you if you have an opinion, no matter which way you load your quilts.  Happy Quilting, Carla

17 thoughts on “Loading Quilts with a Longarm System

  1. I’m with you, I partially float my quilt tops. Thank you for the suggestion of using a laser, I never thought of that and have just eyeballed it, sometimes it was good sometimes not.

  2. Hi Carla. As a fairly new longarm quilter your post was great. This question is not related to loading, but do you know of a source for decent lighting over my longarm that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg? Maybe some kind of attachment? Thanks for any suggestions. Linda Johnson

    Sent from my iPad


    • Hi Linda, in the past, I have used a standing Ott light, at least until I used it so long it fell apart. Then I jerry rigged my onlight lighting system with velcro. My last light is an inexpensive, LED flexible light. You can get them in either clamp on models or adhesive. I will locate my brand and get back to you. Thanks for writing! Carla

  3. When I first started longarming, I was taught to pin the backing, batting and top to my take-up leader, pin the backing to it’s leader and the top to it’s leader, just floating the bottom of the batting. It worked just fine because I only did hand-guided quilting from the front. It was about 3 years ago that another quilter friend taught me to baste the batting and top to the backing and I have never gone back! I was always careful to get as close to the pins as possible and only the 1/4″ that went in the binding wasn’t quilted on that top side, but I like the “new” way better!

  4. Thanks for your clear and concise explanation of loading quilts. I too prefer the partial float on most of my quilts. Once in a while I will do the full float on a baby quilt or small table topper. A lot of long arm quilters in my area do their larger quilts with a full float of the top. I don’t think they come out as square that way. Just my thoughts.

    • Hi Dar, good to hear from you! I think a quilter who knows what they are doing can full float and have a square, straight quilt, but it does require lots of good solid technical quilting skills and rock solid quilt sandwich management. I am always surprised at the number of quilts which do not hang straight, and it makes me wonder the why behind it- was it perfectly pieced and square before the loading? Or was it a quilt that was wonky to begin with? Terrific topic, but can be sensitive with some. 🙂 Carla

    • Hi Leeanne, how have you been? Would love to do a video, but real life has a way of intruding and so the drawings will have to do. Now that I am raising Ethan, I find that an adorable little boy takes up most of my time. Do you float or partial float? /

  5. Hi Carla

    Thanks for this very clear explanation as to the pros and cons of each method. I am a relatively new longarm quilter 2 years) and I live in New Zealand. We don’t have Harbour Freight stores here and I have often seen the bar magnets mentioned. I don’t have a bloke around the house and I have puzzled as to what their original intended purpose is. Now I know they are for hanging blokes’ work tools I can go to our equivalent store, called Mitre 10 Mega, and ask about them. Thank you for that.

    PS. I love the corner border design shown on the quilt in the picture. When I ‘grow up’ I want to be able to do something like that, lol!

  6. Hi Karla, I’ve been following you for awhile now. You create such lovely work! I am brand new to long arming….have set up my frame, etc. but confused as to which way each leader should roll…clockwise/counter etc. the information you have here is wonderful. I was wondering if you could put it in PDF format so it could be saved as a reference. I have such difficulty remembering where I read info!🙂

    • Hi Mary, Leaders usually roll off counter clockwise, so that they feed out on the bottom side of the leader. This will give you a flatter quilt sandwich than feeding out from the top. Since you are new, the biggest advice is to not tighten your sandwich too tight as you quilt. You need it tight enough so that you do not get pleats, but too tight will cause the sandwich to be wonky and not hang straight.

      As for the PDF, my laptop with Acrobat loaded (PDF creation software) bit the dust, so if I can locate the software, I will consider converting the info. Thanks for writing! Happy Quilting, Carla

  7. Carla, I enjoyed reading your post. I have been Pantograph quilting for 2 yrs now. I was taught to fully load the quilt top at either end. I have have been noticing that the quilt top seems to pull tighter in the middle than at either side giving the quilt an uneven edge at the lower end. Do you know of what I could possibly be doing wrong. Could it be during each rolling? I have to roll from the right side of the quilt, which is where my roller locks are.
    I have also noticed that as I roll the leaders tend to want to roll unevenly. I have unrolled them (with not quilt attached) and tried to re-roll evenly, but the still want to roll uneven. I am frustrated with trying to remedy these issues? Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

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