Just how “tight” are you?

September 25, 2012

For those of you who may remember what that phrase meant in the 40’s and 50’s, we aren’t talking about whether you imbibed a bit too much – after all, it would be hard to quilt that way! Instead, we’re revisiting how tight you pull your quilt top or backing fabric on your longarm frame.

Somehow, just because we can, we stretch and pull and tighten until our quilt top sits military-style on the frame, ready to bounce a quarter to the ceiling. The quilt seems so pretty, all taut like fabric on a loom. However, we fail to notice how that tautness pulls at our seams, stretches our borders and makes our tension difficult to manage.

When the quilt is stretched firmly on the frame, any air space created by the batting is crushed by the quilt layers. Without that “gap” the top and bottom, thread really struggles to lock in between the quilt layers with every stitch. You can move a quilting machine so much faster than a person could ever move fabric and quilt with a traditional sewing machine, that you need that air space to give the thread a fighting chance to balance in the quilt layers.

A tight quilt sandwich also increases the needle flex dramatically, like trying to stitch through a drum skin. The fabric holds on to the needle until the very last second, and causes it to dance around and change tension. Plus, a quilt sandwich that is too tight will tend to pull up around the hopping foot. This makes the foot “plow” the fabric on the quilt instead of hopping up and over the fabric as it should do. It will result in distortion and puckering.

If you first started quilting with a domestic machine, think about how you did it. Was it in a hoop? Probably not. How about hand quilting – was the fabric very tight in the hoop? Probably not. But once we get that quilting frame, well…let’s just say we go overboard! Your machine should look like a mole crawling under the ground when you slide it around on the table frame under a quilt.

You can also check your tautness with this easy trick. Adjust the quilt layers to where you think you want the fabric tension to be. Then slowly raise the roller brake a bit at a time, and observe your quilt sandwich. If the layers rebound dramatically to a “resting” state, that’s very close to the correct fabric tension for the project. That position is the quilt’s “resting state,” and that’s the stage at which it should be quilted.

Of course, once you are close in the adjustment, look underneath the quilt to make sure the backing fabric is smooth and wrinkle-free. Finally, don’t overdo the side clamp pressure, either. This can really make that quilt become wonky! Your tension and stitch quality will improve if the fabric is not taut. Give it a try!