Loading a Quilt Backing
on a Longarm Frame
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I’ll cut right to the chase for those of you who have a familiarity with the loading process. If you don’t, continue reading on for all of the excruciating details. :)
I start by centering the bottom of the backing and attaching with Red Snappers like I normally would, lining up the center of the backing with the center of the quilt back roller.
Then, I attach the top of the backing to the take-up roller, making sure to align the center of the backing with the center of the roller.
Next, I roll the whole darn backing onto the take-up roller first, making sure I have a bit of tension on both rollers, and quickly smooth out the fabric from the center-out as I go.
Lastly, I roll the backing the opposite way, loading up the quilt back roller/belly bar fully, as per the normal process. I do a more careful job of smoothing-out the backing fabric as I’m rolling onto the quilt back roller/belly bar.
I’m convinced that this extra step of rolling the backing on the take-up roller first helps the backing settle into place better and I find the quilt backings to be better behaved than by using my past methods. I do this every time now, finding the little bit of extra time spent to be totally worth it.
If you’ve ever had a problem with one end of your backing being way too tight and other other end way too loosey-goosey, you might want to try loading this way!
If you’ve never had a problem with your backings being uniformly taut and beautiful, you’re doing something right and please continue on your merry way!
If you are a beginner, I’m going to break down the whole back-loading process for you with pictures.
Let's start with the basics, shall we?
Loading the backing is an essential part of the quilting process. No one wants a crooked quilt or to have pleats and/or bunching on the back… or anywhere for that matter.
Also? Let’s define the terms because there are 4 bars and they can be referred to in different ways. When you are completely new to the process, this is super-confusing! The leveler bar is the only one that remains stationary (see photo above). All of the other bars roll. The backing and quilt top get attached to the canvas leaders (sometimes called either canvases or leaders).
You should also know that I have the center point of all of these bars/rollers marked in some way.
My leveler bar has a pink tape measure that is secured in place with clear packing tape. Linked is the 14’ center-out tape that I use. My frame is only 12’ long, so I trimmed what I didn’t need at each end. The zero is in the middle and each end goes to 60+”.
Red Snappers - a quilt loading system
I use Red Snappers as my loading method. There is a similar brand of product called Leader Grips (and probably others) that do the same thing. Other quilters may prefer using pins or zippered leaders to attach a quilt back to the frame.
The Red Snapper system uses a long, thin plastic tube that slides into a small pocket that you sew into your canvases. The tube extends the length of the frame on both the quilt back roller/belly bar and the take-up roller.
I have a knack for piercing my sweet, delicate skin on pins, so that’s my #1 reason for using Red Snappers.
I think it’s a faster system, too, compared to pinning. But, there are lots of different ways to go about the same task. Once you’re used to a way that feels comfortable, you’ll get faster and more efficient no matter your preferred method. But if you ask me? Red Snappers retail for around $70 for use with a 12’ frame like mine and are well worth the money. It looks like you can find Red Snappers on Amazon, but I found them to be significantly more expensive, so I’m not linking them here.
The photo above shows the canvas edge folded over and sewn, creating a narrow pocket to hold the Red Snapper tube. You can create the pocket initially by seaming it with your longarm.
These are the original canvases that came with my frame 9 years ago. They can warp and stretch over time and my edges had seen better days, so I trimmed a few inches from the selvage edge off my canvases to true them up again. That’s why the raw edge of my canvases are raveling a bit, the selvedge edge of your canvases are probably still in tact. Canvases are also totally replaceable should the need arise.
The tube is only half of the Red Snapper system. To clamp fabric into place, these outer pieces snap onto the tube, like shown below (shown without the fabric). Each set comes with these small placeholders, in addition to both medium and long clamp lengths.
Aligning the quilt backing
There are other ways to do this, but I like to flip both the quilt back roller canvas and the take-up roller canvas into a position that makes it easy for me to clamp the backing into place. Watch this quick video below for a demonstration because I think it will be clearer than a worded description.
Once canvases are in place, I fold both the top and bottom edge of a quilt backing in half and crease it lightly to mark the center point.
Then I place a pin in each crease.
Next, I position the bottom edge of the backing to be centered with the belly bar.
MAKE SURE THE RIGHT SIDE OF THE FABRIC IS FACING THE FLOOR AT THIS POINT. Any seams (if present) would be facing up. The batting will be laid on top of this layer in a later step.
Next, I gently pull the backing toward me enough for there to be a consistent overhang, keeping the middle pin centered with the middle of the belly bar.
If the backing is not squared off with a clean edge (photo above shows a bit of a raggedy edge), this process will take a bit of finesse. Your main consideration is to position the backing in a way that the sides will remain parallel, giving you a straight result. You can basically create your own edge by clamping the Red Snappers across the roller wherever you need to, which I find to be a great benefit over pinning. (If needing to pin in the above scenario, I might take the time to square up the back to get a good, clean pinning edge.)
I start by clamping the smallest Red Snapper piece right in the center, removing the reference pin from the fabric as I place it.
Then I take the longest Red Snapper segments to secure the left edge (from the center out). And then I do the same thing for the right side.
Next, I repeat the same process for the take-up roller at the back of the machine.
Some quilters can attach the top edge of the backing to the take-up roller by working from the front of the machine. I am not one of them. I get better results by going to the back of the machine and working from there.
I align the pin with the center of the take-up roller, pull it uniformly forward until it has a consistent overhang, use my smallest Red Snapper piece to clamp the center.
“Snap” to the left! Snap to the right! Stand-up, sit-down, fight, fight, fight! Or something of that nature.
At this stage, I flop the take-up canvas back over, exposing the leveler bar (the backing will be beneath it) and begin rolling the whole backing onto the take-up bar, smoothing as I roll. I keep a bit of tension on both rollers (quilt back and take-up) by lightly engaging the brake on each.
And that’s just how I roll. That’s a joke… keep reading!
Once I get to this stage where the backing is taut and most of it is on the take-up bar, I go to the front side of the frame and start rotating the belly bar, loading the backing onto it one revolution at a time, smoothing from the center out carefully and deliberately as I roll.
I keep rolling/loading backing around the belly bar until the top of the backing is in the correct position at the top.
For my frame and machine, the Red Snappers need to stay snugly tucked away behind that leveler bar, otherwise the carriage of my machine runs into it. You might have a different amount of clearance with your setup.
At this stage, I am in the habit of securing the backing with the elastics (these are the opposite ends of the orange clamps that came with my machine which I think works infinitely better than the clamps themselves). You do not have to secure the sides this early. Actually, some people recommend waiting until the quilt top & batting are basted to the back before the back is pulled taut, to avoid distorting the back by pulling too tightly.
Because I am careful about not pulling too hard and distorting the backing, I’m comfortable proceeding with using the elastics first. I think it makes the back sturdier for when the batting and top are placed and smoothed on its surface. Also, I get a lot of quilts by mail, which can result in wrinkling. I pretty much avoid pressing any client work at all costs. Ha! To have a little bit of help in ensuring a smooth back works well for me.
One last thing to point out if you use or are considering Red Snappers: The amount of extra backing needed to secure Red Snappers in place is more than with the pinning method. For this reason, keep the dimensions of your backing in mind as you load. If you know that you have an extra 6” on every side for example, you don’t have to worry so much about where you clamp the Red Snappers. If you only have 4” extra on all sides, I would be mindful about clamping as close to edge as is comfortable and secure. I personally ask my clients for an extra 4” minimum on all 4 four sides.
Another HOT TIP:
If your client has not provided you with enough extra length to load using Red Snappers, you can always remove the rod from the pocket and use the pinning method to secure the backing directly to the edge of the canvas. You can do this on one roller if it’s just a bit short, or on both rollers if the backing is wayyy short.
I hope this information has been helpful! Because I don't want to overwhelm you with too much hot content all at once (ha!), I'll go over the exact steps I use for loading the batting and quilt top in another article.
If you are new to the business side of longarm quilting, you may want to check out our course called Rookie Season. We cover so much information that you need to know about getting started in business! We also have a video series that breaks the loading process down into digestible chunks that provides even more detail and behind the scenes info.