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