Monday, September 17, 2012

Tutorial: Fabric Leaders for a Long Arm Quilting Frame

When I bought my long arm in 2009, we didn't have a gigantic room I could devote to a huge frame.  We cut the frame supports to about 7 feet long and set it up in the basement.  That time period really tested my love of quilting:  The lighting was terrible in that room even during the day, and the first machine was a lemon that took almost two years to get replaced under warranty.  I nearly gave up. 

Then in the winter of 2011 we moved...

The water house in Navarre offered ample space in the sunroom and an addictive amount of natural light.  Not only did the new place offer an amazing space, but I also had a brand spankin' new machine in hand.  What an improvement!  My longing to quilt ratcheted back up, so we set the frame up at its full 10' size, and before long people began approaching me to quilt their projects.

My leaders were narrower than my frame.  Yikes!
Even though we had expanded the frame, my quilt leaders -- the fabric panels that stay fixed to the frame and to which the quilt layers are attached -- were still cut to the narrower size.

I knew I needed new ones to fit the full-size frame, but buying them costs over $100, and I wasn't super-crazy about the quality of the commercial leaders to begin with.

When I neared completion of my mother's quilt a few weeks ago, I couldn't put off doing something about it any longer.  It was just too wide for the old ones.

So, being me, I decided to make my own!  :)

Here's how you do it:

You'll need...
- 7 yards of 36-inch wide pillow ticking (Here's where I bought mine.)
- 11 yards of sew-on loop tape
- 11 yards of stick-on hook tape...if you already have a frame, theoretically you should already have the stick-on hook tape mounted on the bars.  This isn't part of the sewing process, but in case you don't already have it, you should understand this is a requirement for your leaders to function. 

I needed three 10-foot long leaders, and I purchased the extra yard as a fail safe.  You can get the two narrowest leaders from the same 10-foot cut.  (I actually bought 11 yards before I realized it would work that way.)

You can buy the sew-on loop separately from various military surplus stores on the web, if you're not too picky about the color.  Mine is "OD green" (olive drab).

Why pillow ticking?  Well, it's heavy enough, it's economical to buy and the printed lines make it a natural choice for leaders:  It's easy to tell if you're pinning your quilt parts in a perfectly straight line.

First things first, I rolled out my ticking and cut two sections at roughly 10 feet long.  (I added three inches or so of play until I could get around to squaring it up and finishing the edges.)

Next, I laid the old leaders on top of the fabric to determine the width to cut them.  This measurement determines how far they will stretch away from the bar.  

For the bottom edge -- the one that will be pinned to the quilt layers -- I left the selvage on the fabric and lined my old leaders up along that edge.  I decided the selvage would make a perfect bottom edge because it will not stretch or warp as easily as a cut edge.  While it's a big no-no to leave selvages in quilt backings, borders or garments, I've never needed to wash my leaders, so I'm not too worried about the way the fabric and selvage tend to go wonky when washed. 

For the top edge, I marked the ticking approximately 2 inches above the top edge of the old leader.  (This extra will be folded over to create a strong, double-thickness of fabric for attaching the loop tape.) You should be able to get the two narrower leaders from a single 10-foot length of the ticking.

NOTE:  I realize you may not have old leaders to work from.  In that case, here are the finished measurements for mine: 

9 inches x 10 feet  (Cut 11 inches by 10 feet plus a few inches for wiggle room.)
19 inches x 10 feet  (Cut 21 inches by 10 feet plus a few inches for wiggle room.)
26 inches x 10 feet  (Cut 28 inches by 10 feet plus a few inches for wiggle room.)

It helped me to label the edges of the individual leaders as I measured them out, to make sure I didn't get confused and cut two of the same width. 

Cut your leaders where you've marked them, using the lines in the ticking to keep your cut straight.

Next, overcast the long raw edges of all three leaders using a serger or sewing machine on zigzag stitch.  More about overcasting in the pillowcase tutorial.

Again, use the lines in the ticking to keep everything nice and straight. 

If you use a serger to overcast your edges, you should secure the thread tails by threading them under the line of stitching.  It doesn't hurt to dab on a bit of Dritz Fray Check or some similar product.  

I used a tapestry needle for this.  The eye is nice and big, 
allowing me to get all three woven serger threads neatly through. 

Using your loop tape as a guide, turn the overcast edge over the width of your loop tape on all three leaders.  Do not sew your loop tape down at this time.

 Press the fold the entire length of the leaders. 

Now it's time to cut the loop tape to length.  I stuck mine to the already-mounted hook tape and cut it at the end.  Again, although all three pieces should (theoretically) be the exact same length, it gave me peace of mind to label them as I went.

Before you can sew your loop tape to the leaders, you need to square off one raw edge on each leader.

Now overcast that edge, making sure to stitch your fold in place.

Beginning at the freshly-overcast end, sew the loop tape to the leader on top of the fold.  Leave approximately two inches unsewn on the opposite end.

At this point, you may be asking yourself:  Why didn't we just cut all the leaders to an exact length in the beginning?  Same thing with the loop tape?  I'll tell you! :) This project requires that two things be very precise:  Each leader should be very straight, hence the use of the ticking with straight lines running with the lengthwise grain, each leader should fit its bar exactly. When you work with really long cuts of fabric like 10 feet, no matter how cautious/precise you are, there's a high likelihood the cuts will come out uneven.  (Ask me how I know...)  A mistake of 1/4 inch in either direction on each leader eventually adds up.  I've found that by taking this more organic approach, I can leave a little wiggle room in my projects and finish as I go.

I sew most things this way.  If you can get your head around this method, you can sew almost anything on your own, with or without a pattern.  How liberating is that?! 

If you are using a serger to overcast, trim the remaining raw edge of the leader to approximately 1/4 to 1/2 inch from the end of the loose loop tape.

If you are using a sewing machine to overcast, trim the raw edge exactly to the end of the loose loop tape.

Overcast the raw edge and sew the remaining loop tape into place.

That's it!  All done!  :)  I attached my leaders to the frame using the hook and loop tape.  You know your machine and frame setup best, but here's how mine work:  The narrowest leader goes on the take-up bar -- the one that rides inside the throat of the machine.  The medium leader goes on the belly bar -- the top-most bar at the front of the machine and the one used for backing.  And the widest leader goes on the lower bar in front intended for the quilt top. 

They fit perfectly!
I've already loaded Momma's quilt and started quilting it.  Here's a little preview!