Preparing Your Quilt for the Longarm Quilter
by Carla Triemer, professional longarm quilter
Note from Quilt U: Many students finish their tops and then fold them away because they do not have time to quilt them or feel their quilting skills are not good enough. Most communities now have someone who will quilt for hire. You can often get names from your local quilt shop or quilt guild. To get the best results when having someone else quilt your top, it is best to know what you can expect and what you can do to make it a good experience.
First, if you do a lot of quilt tops and would like to bring them to a professional on a regular basis, make sure this is a person with whom you want to have an on-going professional relationship. If your chosen quilter comes off as the mean and critical Quilt Police and you are a quilter who believes that "finished is better than perfect," then the two of you are probably not a match made in heaven. You need to find someone who is forgiving of mistakes and creative about compensating for them.
On the other hand, if your quilter points out errors in a kind manner and tells you how to fix them or avoid them in the future, perhaps this is a relationship that will help you grow and improve your skills and you should value and continue that relationship. Most of all, you should make sure that you and your chosen quilter can communicate well and that you feel comfortable that they understand what you want and have the ability to deliver.
Note from Quilt U: Get it in writing. This seems obvious, but we want to say it anyway. Be clear about what kind of quilting you want and how much it will cost. Dense quilting makes a quilt stiff and is not suitable for most beds and definitely not for baby quilts. Custom quilting, where the design varies over the surface of the quilt is more expensive than having the same design quilted everywhere. You need to have a contract.
Now, let me tell you the things that professional quilters love to see when a quilt top and back are delivered to them:
1. Are the thread ends trimmed? Stray threads can show through the finished quilt and detract from the beauty of your finished quilt. Some professionals will figure that if you don't care about stray threads then they won't care either. They will go ahead and quilt it just the way you gave it to them. Others will trim the threads and charge you extra for doing it. If you trim those stray threads before you give the quilt to them, they will appreciate it.
2. Is the quilt top pressed so the seams are flat? This is really important and can make a big difference in the final look of the quilt. It is okay if some of the seams are twisted; that happens when you quilt. But you really want to iron them as flat as you can. Iron from the finished side (the front), and if you use starch or sizing it will be especially appreciated by your quilter because it will be really easy to handle and nice to quilt. If you bring it in pressed, trimmed and placed on a heavy duty plastic or wood hanger to minimize how many times you need to fold it, that would be really lovely! Some quilters will press your quilt for you, but they will charge extra for it. Save yourself some money and do this yourself.
3. Do the borders lay flat or are they wavy? Sometimes a quilter can compensate for wavy borders by using puffy batting or quilting densely in the borders, but I have seen quilts where the border had an extra 8" of fabric each, and that is pretty hard to quilt out without making tucks. The best way I have found to make flat borders is to fold the quilt in half lengthwise and measure the center of the quilt and make the side borders the same length as the center measurement, NOT the edge measurement.
After you attach the side borders, fold the quilt in half the other way and measure the crosswise center (including the borders you just put on) and make the other borders the same length as that center measurement, not the edge measurement. I know the pattern makers tell you how long to make the borders, but they don't know if your seams are a perfect 1/4 inch, so what works perfectly in a pattern may not work on your quilt.
4. Lay your quilt flat on a bed or floor and see if the blocks lay flat. If they do, you have my utmost admiration! If they don't, welcome to the club! You could take the whole quilt apart and go back and cut all your blocks to make sure they all lay flat, but that is way too much work and probably not worth the time, unless you plan for this to be a show quilt.
Note from Quilt U: Ideally, you have squared up your blocks before putting the quilt together, which will save a lot of problems later. You can find those instructions in the Quilt Terms section of our Library under Squaring Up.
Your quilter can often compensate for imperfect piecing by using a puffier batting or by quilting more densely in some parts than in others. I have quilted a quilt that was made by groups as a round robin, and the seam allowances in every border were dramatically off from the prior border. It was my "quilt from hell" to quilt but a puffy batting and the way I quilted it made it lay flat in the end, and it actually turned out to be beautiful. Be honest with yourself. A good quilter can handle a little unevenness, but if a block is a D-cup or even a sombrero, you probably should consider re-doing it, because even puffy batting may not help in that case.
5. Is the quilt clean? I have received quilt tops that smelled mildewed or smoky, and I think one was used to clean a floor before it was delivered to me! I cannot quilt them if I can't stand to be near them, so I ended up washing them, then ironing them and trimming all the loose threads, which took a lot of my time. They were charity quilts, so I never received any compensation for all the time I spent. If I had been doing this for hire, I probably would not have accepted these quilt tops. There is very little I don't accept, but stinky and dirty does it for me.
That's the scoop on quilt tops. Trimmed, pressed, borders even, relatively flat, and clean. I would LOVE to quilt that!
Now let's talk about backs.
1. Your quilt back should be a MINIMUM of 3-4" bigger than your quilt top on each side. That means a total of 6-8" longer and 6-8" wider. Ask your quilter -- she might want more. That is because your quilter will use that fabric to attach the quilt to the bars and side clamps of their frame. They also use the side edges to test the tension of their machine to make sure their settings work perfectly with your quilt. Also, backs and batting tend to shrink up during the quilting process. If your back is the same size as your top, your quilter will ask you to make it bigger or they will do it for you and charge you for the work and fabric.
Some quilters trim the quilt for you after they quilt it, others return it to you untrimmed. If they return it untrimmed, you can often use that extra backing for binding. If your quilter does the trimming, you should ask her to save the excess for you. If there isn't enough for binding, you can always cut it in strips or squares and use it on another quilt.
2. If you piece your backing, which is most often the case, make sure to trim the selvages off. They will shrink unevenly when you wash the quilt and create a puckered line. Use a 1/2- 5/8" seam and press the seam open. That will minimize the bulk in one area as your quilter rolls the quilt back on the frame and minimizes any resulting waves. Ideally, the quilt back can be loaded so the seam runs parallel to the bars, taking the bulk of the seam out of the equation, but that may not always be possible depending upon the kind of quilting your quilter is doing, especially with directional pantographs.
3. Square up your quilt back. If it is 6" longer on one side than the opposite side, your quilter will have to square it up before she can attach it to her frame. You can do this by folding it in quarters and using your rotary cutter and rulers to trim it even. Just make sure the back ends up at least 6-8" longer and wider than the quilt top.
4. Press the back. Using starch or sizing makes it easier to handle.
Your quilt back should be big enough, have pressed open seams without selvage, square and pressed.
You also have to consider batting. Most professional quilters have rolls of their favorite battings that they will offer to use. However, even if we stock battings we know and in which we have confidence, most quilters will be happy to work with you if you want to bring your own batting. This is something you should talk to the quilter about in advance.
Note from Quilt U: Remember that cotton batting shrinks 2-6%. Batting provided off a roll has not been preshrunk. You should take into account the shrinkage when making the quilt to fit a particular size bed or be responsible for preshrinking the batting. The same rules apply to batting as to backing. It needs to be 6" larger on all sides to allow for shrinkage caused by the machine quilting process.