You can quilt that out: Dealing with puffy blocks on the longarm machine
If every quilt top was perfectly flat we’d never have to fear accidentally quilting in a pleat or pucker again. Alas, even the most experienced piecer struggles with getting things as smooth as possible. And when we find “treasures” like this hand-pieced antique quilt pictured below, it can be an even bigger challenge to tame the hills and valleys into submission.
The best solution for billowy blocks would be to take the quilt apart and adjust the piecing as necessary. However, that’s an option that isn’t a top priority once the borders are on and our minds are already on our next project. Instead we usually opt for the easy way out, convincing ourselves or the longarmer quilting for us that “it will quilt out.”
In some cases where the problem isn’t too severe, an experienced quilter may be able to manipulate that fabric in such a way that the bulging block is no longer noticeable after quilting. With the manipulation method, you’ll want to choose batting that has some loft so that it can fill in the extra pockets of fabric. If you were originally leaning toward 100 percent cotton batting then switch to a blended batting with some polyester, a lofty wool batting, or even a 100 percent poly batt.
Be selective in your design choice and the density of the quilting as well. A design that moves in many directions can help distribute the fabric fullness more evenly across an area and make the excess fabric less conspicuous. So that you can hand manipulate the fabric fullness as you go, choose a design that you can execute from the needle side of your longarm machine. Guide the machine with one hand as you quilt, and use the other one to gently hold the fabric in place as you glide across the area.
In addition, add extra quilting to help absorb fabric fullness since it will compress the extra fabric. For example, if your original quilting choice was a design with large roses, add extra leaves and stem tendrils to help reduce the puffiness. Just be sure to maintain consistent quilting density over your entire project so you don’t trade one problem for another. Inconsistent quilting can make borders wavy and add puffiness, not reduce it.
Quilters often affectionately label blocks with more than a little fullness by “cup size” because the block is “well endowed.” If you’re faced with a “B cup” or something even more generous, manipulating the fabric as you quilt may not give you enough control.
Temporary quilt basting spray can help with that issue and is handy for both stand up and sit down quilters. You’ll find many quilt basting products in your local quilt shop. Most are designed not to gum up your needle. Read the label to be sure you understand how long the spray will last, as well as how to use it or remove it.
If you’re basting your quilt for a sit-down quilting session, you can pin the quilt the way you normally do, but use a temporary spray baste in the areas where you have fullness. (Or you can use spray baste for the entire project.) Layer the quilt as you normally do to baste it together for quilting. However, before you pin all the layers together, lightly spray the batting in the area underneath the fullness. Pat the excess fabric down on to the batting so that the adhesive holds the excess in place. Pin the quilt layers together as normal and add pins in the sprayed area as well to prevent the fabric from shifting, then quilt as normal.
On a stand up quilting frame the quilt layers are not basted together before loading. Therefore you must note where the fullness is on the quilt top before you load it. Watch for the billowy blocks to approach your quilting space as you work through the quilt. When you see the puffy blocks coming up, spray the batting sections that will end up under the blocks as you advance the quilt. When the billowy blocks enter your quilting field, press the quilt top down on to the tacky batting to hold it in place as you quilt.
When a quilt suffers from “C cups” or even “DD cups” you’ll definitely want puffy batting, and your design should be denser. But adding enough pins or basting spray to adequately hold all of that in place may prove next to impossible. Instead of using safety pins to baste the layers or trying to hand-baste the section in place, switch to water soluble (wash away) thread in the top and bobbin of your machine and closely meander through the offending area.
You will also need to manipulate the fabric at the same time, depending on your batting thickness. Then switch back to your normal quilting thread and quilt right over the basted area. When you’re finished quilting and the project is bound, follow the instructions with the wash away thread to remove it from your quilt.
Try these tips when working with wash away thread in a sewing machine or longarm quilting machine:
- Wind a bobbin with the wash away thread (loosen the winding tension on your winder.) Also loosen the tension on your bobbin case. If the thread breaks, loosen the tension even more.
- Loosen the top tension considerably (the thread is fragile and requires much less tension). Don’t worry about stitch quality—remember you’ll be washing this thread out when you’re done.
- Quilt from the needle side of your machine and manipulate the puffy block with your hands as you baste it down with meandering stitches or even traditional basting lines.
- Switch back to your normal quilting thread in the top and bobbin. Be sure to readjust your top and bobbin tension again and test it before resuming your quilting. Quilt right over the top of the block as normal.