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What is "floating” a quilt top, and how do I do it?

"Floating” refers to a method of loading your quilt to your longarm frame. You can either "fully float” your quilt top or you can "partially float” your quilt top. A quilt top that is fully floated is not pinned, zipped or otherwise attached to any of the quilting frame canvases. The quilt merely rests on the batting and backing fabric. However, it may be secured with pins or basting stitches that hold the quilt top right to the batting and backing directly. Full floating is very fast. Take care when moving along the frame of the quilt as you may distort the top with this method. You may wish to add some basting stitches or pins that penetrate all three quilt top layers near the quilt top roller, just to temporarily hold the top in place as you work.

A "partially floated” quilt top is attached to the "quilt top” canvas only. The free end of the top rests on the batting and backing, and is typically held in place with basting or pins as well. Partially floating a quilt gives you more control over the quilt top by allowing you to tighten or loosen the quilt on the roller, smoothing out puckers or wrinkles. Floating a quilt with either method allows you to quilt completely off the edge of a quilt and back on again if necessary. This is helpful with pantograph patterns or some border designs that must exit the quilt’s edge.

Over the years quilters have come up with numerous quilt loading methods, as well as variations to "floating”. There is not a single "right way” to load or float a quilt top. The key is to choose a process that makes sense to you and gives you results you want.

To "partially float” a quilt top, follow these steps:

  1. Load the quilt top on to the quilt top roller, winding and smoothing it as you go. Wind it completely on to the roller, as you will later unwind it and place it on top of the backing and batting.
  2. Pin the backing fabric to the backing fabric roller and the pick up roller. Wind the excess on to the backing roller, leaving some slack. Be sure to put the backing fabric on "wrong side up” and pass it underneath the quilt top roller AND the leveler bar roller.
  3. Slip the batting underneath the quilt top roller with its right side facing up. Place the batting on top of the backing fabric and align its top edge close to the top edge of the backing fabric as well.
  4. Smooth and tighten the backing and batting layers. Leave the quilt top completely rolled up on the quilt top roller for just a moment.
  5. Position your needle about 2 inches below the top edge of the batting and backing (the actual distance can vary; just be sure you do not come down so far that you will run out of backing fabric on the other end of the quilt). Engage your manual or electronic vertical channel lock (the vertical lock prevents the machine from moving forward and backward). Now stitch a straight horizontal line across the batting and backing from one end to the other.
  6. Now unroll your quilt top until you can align the top edge with the straight "reference line” you just stitched on the backing and batting. You may need to loosen the backing fabric and batting slightly until you can get all of the layers aligned and smooth. Secure the top edge along the stitched reference line. You can use your needle up/down feature to do a true "basting stitch” about 1-inch apart. Or you can choose to do a "running baste” by setting your stitches per inch longer. (Hint: if your quilt border or edge is a bit wobbly, use the true "basting stitch” so that you can ease in any fullness in the border as you go.)
  7. As an option, you can also use your horizontal channel locks (if your machine is so equipped) to hold the machine steady while you baste down the side edges of your quilt as you work.


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