Quilting by Checkbook

Do you have a passion for quilting but do not have the time or patience to quilt your quilt top yourself? Then quilting by checkbook is for you!

Quilting by checkbook is a phrase often heard in the quilting world. What it refers to is someone, like me, who pieces their quilt tops themselves but who, gives them to a longarm quilter to quilt. The reasons for quilting by checkbook vary, but the most common are a lack of time, skill, patience, interest, or, most commonly, a lack of specialized equipment.

I have tremendous respect and great admiration for longarm quilters. I have always been impressed with both their creative skills and their dedication to doing whatever is necessary to produce an appealing and aesthetically pleasing final product. I am incredibly grateful for their efforts because it’s just not a skill that I think I’ll ever be able to master. So, this got me to thinking, since many of us will have the quilting of our projects done by others, how can we make their job easier? I contacted several longarm quilters to find out.

Before detailing all that I learned from them, I want to empathize that the consensus among longarm quilters is that the SINGLE MOST CRUCIAL ELEMENT TO ENSURE A GOOD QUILTING OUTCOME is the accuracy of the piecing of the quilt top that they have been asked to quilt. If your quilt top is not accurately pieced then, no matter how artfully they perform their service, the final product will less than perfect.

A common problem that longarm quilters encounter is that the quilt top borders that are not accurately measured and, when sewn, may appear either wavy or pinched. In either case, quilting will not fix that problem.

The easiest way to achieve flat, accurate borders is to fold the quilt in half lengthwise, measure the center of the quilt. Armed with this information, you should make the side borders the same length as the center measurement, not the edge measurement. After the side borders are attached, fold the quilt in half the other way and measure the crosswise center (including the borders you just added), and then make the other borders are the same length as that center measurement.

Another (more precise) method for achieving accurate borders is to measure your quilt in three places along the quilt top’s length (for example, where the border will be sewn, down the center, and down the opposite side of the quilt). You should use the average of these three lengths as the length of your side borders. Mark the center of the quilt side, and the center of the border - line up at the center point and pin every few inches along the whole length of the border, easing as necessary, so the ends line up. Repeat the process for the top and bottom borders (now you are including the side borders in your measurements). Some pattern designers tell you how long to make your borders, but they do not know if your seams are a perfect 1/4 inch, so what works perfectly in a pattern may not work for your quilt.

To ensure that the longarm quilter can do their job, you need to ensure that your backing and batting are at least 4" – 6" longer in length and width than your quilt top. For example, if your quilt top is 70" x 80", then your backing needs to be at least 78" x 88". This extra fabric allows the quilter to attach grips to the sides of the quilt to help distribute tension on the quilt evenly. With less backing, when the machine nears the edge of the quilt, the grip could be in the way. The amount of extra backing needed may vary between quilting machines, so check with your quilter.

If you are using a wide back (108") fabric for your backing or if you piece your backing, you should trim the selvages. The selvages do not stretch and can cause your backing not to lie flat. There is the possibility when you wash the quilt; the fabric will unevenly shrink and create a puckered line.

If you piece your backing, you should use a ½ inch seam and press. Some quilters recommend pressing those seams open, to minimize the bulk in one area as the quilter rolls the quilt back on the frame and to reduce the possibility of any resulting waves. Ideally, the quilt back can be loaded on the longarm machine so that the seam runs parallel to the machine’s bars, taking the bulk of the seam out of the equation. Others recommend pressing all seams to one side, thus strengthening the seam. The most important thing is to make sure your quilt back is as square as possible so it can be properly attached to the frame – no uneven edges! The quilt top, backing, and batting should be three separate pieces. They are each loaded separately onto the longarm machine. If your top and backing are not square (corners are 90 degrees), you can end up with tucks and pleats.

Always make sure that you remove any extra threads, dog/cat hairs, pieces of fuzz from the quilt top. Also, be sure to trim thread ends, as stray threads can show through the finished quilt. Even worse, a thread sticking out of the quilt top can hang up in the machine, damaging both the machine and quilt itself.

It is also essential that the quilt top is pressed, so the seams are flat. Before sending you quilt top out for quilting ensure that you press the front (finished side), using either starch or sizing. By doing so you will make it easier for the quilter to handle your quilt and it will increase the accuracy of their quilting.

To prevent subsequent wrinkling, after you have pressed the quilt, fold it in accordion folds that are parallel to the top and bottom of the quilt. By doing so, the tension from the rails of the longarm machine will cause those accordion folds to be released. If the folds are perpendicular to the sides, those folds will not be eliminated by the longarm-applied tension, decreasing the accuracy of the long arm quilter. To further reduce wrinkling, you might also consider delivering the quilt hung over a padded coat hanger.

If your quilt has many seams that end at the edge of the quilt, for example, when you have no border or when you use a piano key border, you should consider sewing a line of stitching 1/8" from the edge of the quilt. This stitching will work as a stay stitch and ensures that those edge seams will not come unsewn while being positioned on the longarm. This line of stitching will later be covered when you bind you now-quilted project.

To ensure a good quilting outcome, it is essential that you clearly identify the top of your quilt to your longarm quilter. Many of us safety-pin a note to our quilt tops to ensure there is no confusion. Also, if your backing material is directional, you should identify the top of the backing with a safety pin as well.

When considering batting, it important to check with your quilter, as they may have batting type restrictions. Not all battings are created equal and some battings perform better than others on a longarm. If you provide the batting, make sure it is at least as big as the quilt backing. There is nothing worse than running short of batting, except running out of backing fabric! Some quilters prefer you to keep the batting in the packaging, thus telling the quilter the exact size without having to measure.

Some Final Tips:

  1. Do not sew embellishments such as buttons, charms, pins, etc. onto your quilt top, until after it has been quilted. The quilter will not be able to quilt through these items, and their presence will likely cause the quilting to be skewed in some way.

  2. If you have spent an extended period of time piecing your quilt or if the quilt top is many years old, you should consider airing it out prior to having it quilted by a longarm quilter.

  3. Ensure that all your seams are very securely stitched. When a quilt is loaded onto a longarm machine, the fabric is kept very taut and if the seams are not secure, they will pull apart. Longarm quilters quilt at high speeds and any holes or open seams can catch on the machine's foot and rip the quilt.

  4. If you prewash the fabric for your quilt top, you should consider prewashing your backing fabric to prevent uneven shrinkage.

  5. If you have someone quilt your project, please remember to give them credit on the label. 

The bottom line: a quilt top that has been accurately pieced and pressed, with relatively flat borders, and a "clean" surface is a longarm quilters dream come true. Provided with that as a starting point, and armed with clear instructions from you, our loyal longarm quilters will produce a finished product that both you and they can be proud of!