The idea of quilting a queen-sized quilt without a mid- or long-arm machine and quilting frame seems daunting, but I did it… and you can, too!
I own a quilting frame and I love it. It’s the older wooden Gracie frame from The Grace Company (no longer available from them, but sometimes you can find it for sale online). Unfortunately, it’s currently in storage because it doesn’t fit in our tiny Seattle apartment. But the quilts must go on, so I’ve adapted to working with big quilts on my sit-down Juki TL-2010Q. Instead of gliding the machine over the flat quilt held still and taut on the frame, I now drape my quilt over a table, stuff it into the harp, and move it around under the needle.
It’s just as awkward as it sounds. The three layers of the quilt are very bulky, and when you’re working on the middle part, the quilt seems determined to dive off the table at every opportunity, dragging everything along behind it. But from trial and error and some determined internet searching, I’ve gleaned some tips to make it easier.
Pointers to Success
Here’s the highlight reel — see below for details and photos.
- Choose a simple, do-able quilting pattern. You won’t have a lot of range of motion, so be nice to yourself and pick something you can do while working in a small space.
- Set up your space to support the quilt to the left of the machine, behind the machine, and behind you to your left.
- Use a Supreme Slider and a pair of quilting gloves (I like Machingers).
- Stabilize the quilt before doing free-motion quilting, unless you’re doing an all-over FMQ pattern. In that case, start from the center and work your way out.
- Don’t turn the quilt while it’s in the machine, but do take it out, rotate it, and work from another direction to minimize the amount of bulk in the harp or throat of the machine.
- Work in small chunks of time — a big quilt is heavy and tiring to handle.
- Go slowly! Focus on the part of the quilt inside the triangle of your hands, and pause to reposition your hands and the quilt very often.
For those who want more info, here are the details and photos for each of those pointers.
1. Choose a feasible quilting pattern.
The sketch above is for The Color of Time (finish to be announced shortly — it’s done but not yet gifted). The quilt is 90″ x 108″, making it the largest quilt I’ve made so far. The pattern is adapted from Dimensions by Amy Ellis.
I had grand ideas about really complicated quilting patterns, but as I was piecing the top and it was getting bigger and bigger, I realized I needed to scale back to something more do-able with the equipment at hand. Originally I was thinking of putting big, sweeping feathers and swirls in the open white space, and dividing it into rivers of different fills. I thought I would quilt different geometric designs in the colored triangles using matching thread. In the end I realized that was just not going to work considering my then-current level of skill at using a sit-down machine for free-motion quilting. (Hint: it was ‘beginner.’ After doing this quilt, I’m just edging into ‘intermediate.’)
I went through several rounds of simplifying the design (on paper) while I was still doing the straight-line stabilizing (see below). In the end, I decided to leave the colored triangles alone and quilt swirls in the white background spaces. I’m happy with the result; the quilt is softer without so much detailed quilting, and it was do-able with my equipment and skill level.
2. Set up the space to support the quilt.
I moved my machine over to my cutting table for this, because my sewing table is long but very narrow and there was no room for the quilt to pile up behind it. I also set up my ironing board to the left side of my chair to support the bulk of the quilt. And I attached poles to the back of the table and hung bungee cords and grip clamps from them to hold up the weight of the quilt behind the machine. You can see one of the poles in the photo above; it’s still attached to my long, narrow sewing table in this shot. It’s got a great view of Puget Sound, doesn’t it?
The poles are designed to be used for grooming dogs, but they’re perfect for quilting because they’re easy to set up and take down and easy to reposition. The clamps are basic plastic grips with hanging holes in the handles, and the bungee cords are small ones with hooks that are thin enough to fit through the holes in the clamps. As I worked my way down the quilt, I hung the bulk of the quilt from the clamps to keep the weight from dragging on the needle. I had to stop and reposition the quilt and clamps very frequently as I worked, but it was worth it. The quilt moves much easier through the machine this way.
3. Use the right tools.
I put the feed dogs down and taped a Supreme Slider to my sewing surface so that the quilt would move easily over the machine bed without sticking. I also used an extension table (the one that came with my machine) to give me a larger surface, which helps keep the quilt flat. And my non-slip quilting gloves helped me move the quilt when I was free-motion quilting.
4. Stabilize the quilt before doing free-motion work.
Since I wanted to use free-motion quilting in the white spaces only, I needed to stabilize the quilt by stitching in the ditch to create a grid. Then I could work on any part of the quilt without forming bubbles and ripples. I pin-based the quilt first to keep it from shifting.
The gallery of diagrams above shows how I divided up the quilt for stabilizing. In each case, I sewed from the dot to the star. I quilted along the lines shown in green first, then turned the quilt and quilted the lines shown in blue to complete the grid in each sequence. The way the quilt is oriented in each diagram is the way I placed it into the machine to do that section.
I left the all-white areas in the two corners pinned but un-stabilized so that they wouldn’t be broken up by the lines of quilting. Most of my stabilizing lines quilted straight off the edge of the quilt into the batting, but a few of them required me to clip and bury the threads when the colored blocks stopped before the edge of the quilt.
Stabilizing wasn’t too hard; I used my walking foot and just paused to reposition the quilt every few inches. It took a while because I could only work with the heavy quilt for a few hours at a time. I worked from the center of the quilt out to the right, then turned it 180 degrees to do the opposite side the same way. When all the verticals were done, I rotated the quilt 90 degrees and did the horizontals, one half and then the other. Finally, I did the diagonals in each direction and the quilt was stabilized. Most of the pins were removed by this time and I was ready to start the free-motion quilting.
5. Rotate the quilt between working on sections.
I decided to FMQ six blocks at a time so that most of the quilt would not be stuffed into the harp. Since the quilt was well stabilized, I could start almost anywhere, so I chose one corner and counted six blocks toward the center of the quilt. I started there and worked my way back to the edge of the quilt (see drawings below). I picked a corner that didn’t have a lot of white space because those were the least-stabilized areas and I wanted to leave them for last. This meant I was technically starting from the bottom left corner (the quilt is upside down in diagram 1 below), but that didn’t matter.
When I got to the corner block in the top row, I moved down one row and quilted back six blocks back toward the center. Then I moved down another row and quilted six blocks back to the edge. After doing the first set of 3 rows, I started quilting one row toward the center and then up and down in two rows toward the edge, so that I could always start and stop at the edge of the quilt. One bobbin was just enough for 18 blocks, so it worked out pretty well if I quilted off the edge of the 18th block and then changed bobbins.
I worked my way down one side of the quilt this way. When I finished the last chunk of 3 rows of six blocks, I unloaded the quilt from the machine and rotated it 90 degrees so that the side I had just quilted was along the top. Starting at the seventh row (because the first six were already quilted), I continued my pattern all the way down the second side of the quilt.
When that side was finished, I realized that if I continued with my six-block pattern, I’d have a 3 block by 3 block space in the center of the quilt to do last. Instead of doing that, I decided to do six rows of nine blocks next. These six rows were the hardest to quilt because there was so much bulk in the harp of the machine, but I went slowly and got it done. Although the drawing below shows two sets of 3 rows, I ended up doing this in three sessions, as three sets of 2 rows of 9 blocks each. That kept me to my 18-blocks-per-bobbin plan, too.
Once that was done, I had a few more rows of six blocks to do down the fourth side of the quilt. I unloaded it, turned it, and loaded it again. Then I finished the last rows and the quilting was done! This pattern put my last block next to the first block I quilted, and it was interesting to me to notice the difference in my quilting. After working my way around this whole big quilt, my swirls definitely improved!
One note about rotating a quilt of this size: I never rotated it in the machine with the needle down. I planned the quilting so that I would only have to work side to side, forward and back. When I needed to rotate the quilt, I always removed it from the machine. It was just too big to rotate while loaded; it would have likely broken the needle and could have damaged the quilt.
6. Work in small chunks of time.
Each set of 18 blocks took about 90 minutes to quilt because I stopped to reposition the quilt very frequently. I also found that I was tired after 90 minutes of handling the heavy quilt, so it was a good time for a break anyway. I managed one session most days and two sessions on some days.
In all, it took 24 quilting hours to complete the free-motion work on this quilt’s 270 blocks. I didn’t keep track of the time I spent stabilizing it.
7. Go slowly!
With a quilt this size it’s important to take your time and go slowly as you quilt. You can only control the small area of the quilt that fits in the triangle made by your hands around the needle. The saying “Go slow to go fast” definitely applies here — because every time I went too fast, I made a mistake.
When you need to reposition your hands because you’ve reached the edge of that area, stop stitching and reposition them.
When you need to adjust the bulk of the quilt to the side, or the portion stuffed into the harp, or the section held up by the clamps, stop stitching and adjust it.
When your arms and shoulders are tired, stop and take a break. When your swirls start to look wonky and out-of-control, stop and take a break. Have a snack!
With patience and perseverance, eventually the quilting will be done. Even a quilt this size, and even on a sit-down machine!