Borders Can Make or Break the Quilt – Do It Right

Quilters often take a lot of time piecing their blocks and square them up before assembly.  The body of the quilt looks wonderful, color choices are excellent, and the quilt has the potential to be beautiful.  That is, until the borders are added.  As a professional Longarm quilter, the borders are where I often see many problems.  Incorrectly applied borders often lead to puckers, pleats, wavy borders and dog-eared quilts.  All of this can be avoided.

Although you may not realize it, one of the functions of borders is to stabilize and square up a quilt.  Throughout the body of the quilt are cut (unstable) edges around the outside of each of the blocks  Even though the patches may be cut on grain, the cut edges can stretch easily.  When borders are added correctly to a quilt top, the edges of the body of the quilt are contained and restricted within the new measurement.  The key word here is, applied or added correctly to achieve this.

problem quilt

A quilt that could use borders to stabilize and square it up.  Notice distorted sides and wavy bottom on this quilt.

Incorrect method for adding borders

Cut or make a long strip, stitch to one of the sides of the quilt and cut off the extra.  Because no measuring is done with this method, you have no idea how long one side of the quilt is compared with the opposite side of the quilt.  If one side stretches out a little more when the border is stitched on, that side will be longer leading to a dog-eared quilt.  Do not use this method to add borders to any quilt.

quilt by Sally Mowers

Quilt with correctly applied borders hangs straight.
Dresden Plate, designed, made and quilted by Sally Mowers

Correct method for adding borders

Even though it takes a little longer, the correct method for adding borders involves measuring, using a little math, and perhaps easing in fullness.

  1. Measure across the area in three places, near the top and near the bottom, but never along the edge, and across the middle.
  2. Average the three measurements and use the average as the measurement to cut the length of both borders.
  3. Quarter the quilt top marking with pins. Quarter the border strip marking with pins.  Align the quarter marks and pin the border to the quilt.  Pin between the quarter marks distributing any fullness evenly.
  4. Placing the fullest side down, stitch together. When the fullest side is down, the feed dogs on the machine gently pull the bottom through a little faster than the top.  There are no puckers or pleats on the top or bottom.
  5. Press the border seam outward toward the border.
  6. Measure across the quilt and borders in three places, similar to #1, average the measurements as in #2.
  7. Follow steps #3-5 to add the other border.

For a visual of this technique, see the video below by Dee Christopher.  Video also demonstrates a bonus no math method for determining size of a pieced border.

Whether you quilt your quilts yourself or have them quilted professionally, by taking the extra time to add borders correctly, your quilts will look much better with square corners and straight sides.

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Solving Longarm Backing Issues

Nothing is worse than taking the quilt off the frame and discovering problems on the back

problem quilt

Notice distorted sides and wavy bottom on this quilt.

of the quilt, such as puckers or tucks, or getting to the bottom of the quilt and find dog-ear borders.  It is very discouraging after spend a lot of time to make the quilting design look so nice.  Who at this point wants to do reverse stitching (pick out stitches)? Perhaps, even by removing the stitching, there may not be a good solution to fix the issue.

Reasons that may result in puckers, tucks, backing that drapes on the sides and dog-ear borders:

  1. The backing is loaded too loosely.
  2. Backing is pieced with a vertical seam
  3. Improper clamping
  4. incorrect technique for adding borders

Because of inexperience, new longarm quilters often have backing issues, even I did.  All of these issues are caused by incorrect methods.  Change your methods and you immediately change the outcome.

The best solution to “fixing” these issues is prevention using techniques that will eliminate the problems from the start.  In fact, prevention starts even before you start loading the backing.    Over the years I have refined a procedure that totally eliminates all of these issues.  If you follow these steps, you can eliminate these issues.  Best thing is that these same procedures and techniques work with all brands of machines and frames.

Techniques to eliminate puckers, tucks and dog-ear borders.

Method for adding borders:

Dog-ears result from the border being longer than the quilt top or being stretched during quilting.  “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”  In this case, add borders correctly.

  1. Never add a border by laying the strip on the quilt, stitching it on and trimming it off.  Because the sides of any quilt will distort easily, opposite borders will never end up being the same sewn on this way and you end up with opposite borders all different lengths distorting the outside edge of the quilt.  Borders added correctly will square up a quilt.
  2. Correct method:
    1. Measure across the quilt top in two or three places (not at the top or bottom), use the average of the measurements or the smallest, cut both top and bottom border at the same time, the same length.
    2. Pin border to quilt easing in any fullness of the border or quilt.  Best way is to quarter both the quilt top and border, pin together at the quarter marks, then ease in fullness.
    3. Always stitch with the fullest piece on the bottom where the feed dogs will evenly pull it through without creating any puckers.
    4. Using the same method, measure the other direction across the quilt, cut both border strips the same length following instructions in steps A-C.

Loading Procedure:

  1. Backing (and batting) must be 8” longer and 8” wider than the quilt top.
  2. Square the top and bottom end of the backing so that they are perpendicular to the sides. Fold backing in half lengthwise, fold again making sure there are no puckers and the folds and side lay on top of each other with no ripples or puckers.  Use a long cutting ruler and line up a cross mark along the folded edge and trim the top (and bottom) edge.  Cut will be perpendicular to the length of the backing.  Your backing will NEVER work properly without squaring with this method.  Even tearing along the grain line does not work because all fabric is distorted during the manufacturing and winding process.  You must square by cutting.
  3. Make sure the backing is pinned evenly to the canvas or zippers, or with the same amount folded over the rod if using leader grips. Any amount that is off by more than ¼ – 3/8” here can distort the backing.
  4. Always roll ALL of the backing onto the take-up roller first (roller under the machine arm). Stand at the back of the frame, roll a little, then, SMOOTH the backing from the center outward in each direction.  This does not stretch the fabric, it smooths it out to remove little puckers and ripples.  Keep rolling a little and smoothing until nearly all of the backing is rolled onto the take-up roller.
  5. Roll the backing from the take-up roller to the belly bar roller. Again, roll a little, walk
    loading quilt backing correctly

    Controlling transfer of backing from take-up roller to belly bar roller.

    over and smooth from center outward in each direction (belly bar), roll a little more, smooth more, until the backing is transferred to the front belly bar roller.  When transferring from take-up roller to front roller, keep tension on the backing by keeping a hand on each roller (see photo).  Something magical happens during this transfer – the backing straightens itself out, drapes along the side disappear.  YES, this method takes a little longer, but it eliminates the problems.

  6. What about a backing seam? Unless the backing is directional, always seam backing fabrics so that the seam is a horizontal seam and not a vertical seam.  If you must have a vertical seam see my YouTube video below on how to roll the backing.

More Loading Tips:

Once the backing has been transferred to the belly bar roller, the batting and top can now be loaded.  Do not put clamps on the quilt yet as this distorts the backing.

  1. Batting must have a straight edge at the top perpendicular to the sides. If it does not and/or is distorted, square up the top edge of the batting.
  2. Baste the batting to the backing with the horizontal channel lock engaged. This is very important as the basting line becomes the placement line for the top.
  3. Using the basting line (step 2) as the placement for the top edge of the quilt matching the center of the top to the center mark on the roller.  The quilt top will be perfectly aligned parallel to the rollers and square with the frame. Baste less than ¼ “ from the edge of the quilt top.  When basting less than 1/4″ from the quilt edge, there is no need to remove the basting as the binding will cover the stitching.
  4. Using a zero center tape installed on the frame, baste the sides of the quilt top at the same distance from the center as the top edge of the quilt. Using a zero center tape every time the quilt is advanced assures the quilt will be square at the bottom.

After the top is basted to the backing, attach the clamps only to the backing.  Backing clamps are used only to stabilize the sides of the quilt and are only attached to the backing.  Side leader grips can be used as an alternative method of stabilizing the quilt/backing sides.  These are 10-14 inches long with the ribbon on the side leader grip held by a frame side clamp.  They do a great job of stabilizing a longer area than just a narrow clamp.  DONOT pull tightly on the clamp straps as that distorts the backing.  Because of this distortion, when the clamps are released after quilting, the quilt will pucker.

One final tip.  Before starting to quilt the new area, take a quick look under at the backing.  Make sure that it is smooth with no ripples, folds, or areas of distortion.  If it looks smooth, you are good to go.

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Correct Method for Adding Borders to a Quilt Top

The Problem

As a professional Longarm quilter I have the privilege of seeing many lovely quilts.  There is, however, a problem that can occur when borders are not correctly added to a quilt top.  Many times a strip of fabric is laid on the quilt top, sewn from one end to the other and then cut off.  Unfortunately, this results in wavy borders and dog eared corners.  No amount of awesome quilting can change the look of an out of square quilt.

Regardless of the precision taken during the piecing process, because of the nature of fabric, the cut edges and sometimes bias edges, a quilt top will not be perfectly square.  As a result, by adding borders correctly, you can square up the quilt top so that when quilted it will look much better, lay flatter, or if a wall quilt, hang straight on the wall.

The Solution

The correct method for adding borders starts with measuring the quilt top in three places, just in from the top and bottom and across the middle.  Two strips are cut the same length for the opposite borders using the middle measurement easing in the fullness, if any.  The same steps are repeated for the other two sides. Although this method takes a few minutes longer, you will be more satisfied with how your quilt looks when completed.  The video below walks you through the steps to correctly add borders to any quilt top.

Sewing Tip

If there was any fullness that was “eased” in by distributing the fullness and pinning as illustrated in the video, always place the eased or fuller side down (next to the feed dogs) when stitching.  The feed dogs will evenly pull the fullness through.  If you try to stitch with the fullness on the top, the presser foot will push the fullness along and make little pleats.  Always stitch with the fullest side down.

If you have never added borders using this method, I encourage you to try it.  You will be love the results.

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