How to load a quilt – 3 basic methods [part 1]

June 10, 2014

“No more crawling around on the floor with a mouthful of safety pins!” That “aha!” moment happens when a new longarm owner realizes she no longer has to baste her quilt layers together for quilting. However, that excitement can wane a bit when she looks at her longarm frame and is perplexed by how she must now attach those three layers to her quilting frame. The good news is that several different loading methods make it possible for newbies to find a process that works for them.

Each quilt loading method has advantages and drawbacks, and there really is not a “right” way to load a quilt—only different ways. Some techniques offer fast loading and unloading, but can make things a bit tricky if the quilt isn’t square and true. Other methods give your increased control over the quilt layers, but may restrict your ability to quilt off the edge of a quilt when doing a pantograph. Try each method, or choose the best parts of them to create your own process that makes sense to YOU.

Loading styles can be divided into three broad types: “partial float,” “full float,” and “full attachment.” When a quilt “floats” as part of the loading process it means that one or more sides of the quilt simply rest (or “float”) on top of the batting and backing. It may be held to the batting or backing fabric with pins or basting, but it is not attached directly to the frame or canvas. When discussing quilt loading method with your friends, make sure your terminology matches theirs so you are comparing accurately. If a person says she “floats” her quilt top, she may use a “partial float” or a “full float.”

Method #1: Partial float

Quilters who “partially float” their quilt tops attach one edge of their quilt to the frame, but not the opposite end. These quilters attach one edge of their quilt to the Quilt Top Roller so that they can wind it up and control the top during the quilting process. However, the opposite end of the top is not attached to the Pick Up Roller. Instead, it rests on the batting and backing, and may be held down with basting stitches or pins.

The “partial float” method is most common for pantograph quilters because it allows you to quilt off the edge of the quilt without running on to the frame’s canvas. When you reach the bottom of the quilt, you remove the quilt from the quilt top roller and then smooth it out on the backing and batting so that you can quilt off the bottom of the quilt just as you did on the top edge. To prevent shifting, the bottom edge may also be pinned or machine basted in place on the backing and batting.

Method #2: Full float

By contrast, when a person uses the “full float” method to load a quilt, no part of the quilt is ever attached to the frame. The quilt drapes over the batting and backing but hangs to the floor. This method is fastest for loading a quilt since only the backing fabric must be attached to the frame. Some quilters who prefer this method completely remove their Quilt Top Roller from the frame, and use an accessory for APQS machines called a “Texas Hold ‘em Bracket” so that their roller brake functions. However, this method does not provide much control over the quilt top.

Method #3: Full attachment

The “full attachment” method involves pinning the quilt top to the Pick Up roller in addition to the backing fabric. This allows the top and backing fabric to be adjusted independently from each other and affords great control over the three layers—it is easier to ease the quilt edges if necessary with fewer preparatory steps. However, one should not use this method if you’re doing a pantograph that must travel past the quilt’s raw edge. Otherwise you’ll be stitching on the canvas itself. This is a popular method for custom quilters who want ultimate control over the quilt top.

As you can see, each method has positive and negative aspects. It’s good to know how to use all of them so that you can choose the method that makes sense for any given project. For example, it may be easier to use a common backing fabric and quilt 4 placemats side by side using the full floating method. But it might make sense to use the pinning method when your borders have too much fabric compared to the rest of the quilt. You can “ease in” the top as you pin it to the rollers, and then allow your quilting to help absorb the extra fabric. (Thicker batting and a dense quilting design also help).

Remember that none of these methods is the one “right” way to load your quilt. Explore all of them to determine which one makes sense for your project, your style of quilting, and also your patience level!

How to attach your fabric to your frame

No matter which loading method you choose—”full float,” “partial float,” or “full attachment”—you’ll even discover several different methods for holding the fabric to your frame. These include pins of all types, zippers, Velcro, staples, magnets and even plastic tacks. Gadgets that work similar to the closure on a Ziploc bag are also popular (Leader Grips and Red Snappers are two brands). With those products, a plastic rod slips into a hem or pocket you create on each canvas. Your fabric lies across this rod. You then press another piece of curved plastic down
over the fabric and the rod (like closing the Ziploc bag), securing it in place. Each attachment method also includes bonuses and pitfalls.

 how to load a quilt, quilt frame, pins, zipper, plastic rods, APQS, longarm quilting, longarm machine


Pins give you more specific control over each layer as you attach the quilt to the frame. Pinning can be very fast with a little practice since you don’t need to take additional steps to align your quilt or baste it in place. However, if you aren’t careful you might get blood on the quilt if you are prone to pokes.

Some quilters prefer sturdy corsage pins, while others choose flexible flower head pins that lay flat along the roller. Specialty flower head pins also work well when you want to turn your quilt and re-mount it to the frame.

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Zippers make quick work of loading the quilt to the actual frame and are very handy if you share your machine, rent a machine, or even simply grow tired of a project and want to quickly load something else. They also make unloading the quilt easy if you make a mistake that requires extensive “unsewing”—you can take the quilt off and tear out the stitches in your easy chair instead of leaning over the frame, then zip it right back on again while keeping everything aligned.

Even though zippers make parts of the process more convenient, you must still attach the zippers to their respective quilt tops. In that sense, the zippers may not save you a lot of time in the initial loading steps. They change where you spend the time—either standing at the frame or sitting down and attaching a zipper to your quilt.

Here’s an example of a zipper system you can purchase from the Quilting Connection.

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Plastic rods and clips

Plastic rods and plastic clips (the “Ziploc” solution to quilt loading) also make short work of loading a quilt to the frame. Just position the quilt or backing over the rods, and then press another plastic piece over the top of each to hold it in place! These increase loading speed, but require several more inches of backing fabric.

Often the rods will not fit in the space between the machine and the leveler bar, so extra backing is necessary to clear this area. Plus extra fabric is required to make it up and over each rod. Finally, if your quilt needs some “easing” to help it come out square, it’s difficult to do with this system without ending up with pleats or puckers.

These Red Snappers are one example of a loading system.

We can’t emphasize enough that no loading method is the “right” way to do it—as long as you’re happy with your results when the quilt comes off the frame, how it went on is not nearly as important!

Stop by the blog next week for the second installment of this article, which will outline the basic steps for loading a quilt.