These snippets were first published in Machine Quilting Unlimited magazine's ask-the-expert column 'Ask Kimmy'. Copyrights held by Kim Brunner and Meander Publishing. All rights reserved.
Getting Out of a Creative Rut from the May 2012 issue of Machine Quilting Unlimited magazine
Dear Kimmy- I’m a beginning longarmer and have a question about the clamps on my quilting machine, which are hard to squeeze and are so small that they don’t seem to grab the fabric very well. Also, I am confused about how to use the clamps. Am I supposed to clamp all three layers of the quilt, or just the backing? Please help.
Kimmy says- No problem! I have some tips, techniques and suggestions to share that will demystify the clamping process and make it much simpler for you. My personal preference is to clamp only the backing and batting and never the quilt top itself. Why? Easy; because I want to be able to quilt right up to the edges of my quilt and I can’t do that if there are clamps blocking my path. By placing my clamps on the backing and batting only, I have all the room I need to do my design work without interference. I also prefer not to use the little clamps that often come with our machines because I have found that not only are they very hard on my hands, their small size does not make them the best choice for applying even tension across the quilt.
Here’s how I do my clamping; I start with a backing that is at least 6 inches bigger than my quilt top. (for example, if my top is 50x50 my backing will be 56x56 which gives me an extra three inches of fabric all the way around the quilt) I load the quilt using the partial float method (if you are unfamiliar with this method you can find instructions in my column in the March 2011 issue of this magazine or visit my blog at afabricplayground.blogspot.com for directions) and I baste down the sides of the portion of the quilt currently in the work area before doing any quilting in the interior. (please note; I do *not* baste the sides of the entire quilt before doing the quilting. I simply baste the sides of the quilt currently in the work area, do the quilting for that pass, advance the quilt, baste the sides, do the quilting in that pass, advance the quilt, etc.)
There are two reasons for this basting; 1. I have carefully loaded the quilt at the correct width and I want to make sure that the quilt remains at this width throughout the quilting process. Basting the sides in place at the desired width is an important step in preventing the quilt from drawing in or ‘hourglassing’ along the sides. 2. By basting the sides of the top to the other two layers of the quilt, I am turning the three layers into a single unit, which eliminates the possibility that the backing and batting could shift or move under the top and also prevents the possibility of applying more side tension to the backing than to the top. This unequal tension could, in turn, lead to stretching, curling, puckers and tucks. When the sides have been basted in place, I’m ready to place my clamps. I have two favorite ways to do this and bounce back and forth between these two options depending on what sort of quilting I am doing in the borders. Neither option is better than the other; they’re just different tools for different uses.
Option #1 is to use rod and grip side clamps. These are the clamps I use when doing template work in my borders and I like them because they have a very low profile which does not interfere with my template placement. My preferred product of this type is Side Grips from Leadergrips.com (no affiliation; I just happen to like their product) which are very small and thin and do not add a lot of bulk. When buying this type of clamp, choose the size that is a couple of inches shorter than your machine’s throat length so that the clamps will hold most if not all of the quilt currently in the machine’s work area. (for example, my machine has an 18 inch throat and I use 14 inch clamps) These long, slender clamps evenly grip the backing fabric on both sides of my quilt and hold the entire unit taut and smooth as I quilt, but take up so little space that I barely notice their presence.
Option #2 is to use two wide clamps on each side of my quilt, for a total of four clamps. This is the method I use when doing anything other than template work in my borders. My preferred product of this type is Grip-Lite Side Clamps from Quiltersparadiseesc.com (again, no affiliation other than that of a satisfied user). The clamps are perfect for me because they are extremely easy to squeeze open, which is nice for aging hands, they have little strips of fine grit sandpaper just inside the mouth of the clamp, which prevents any shifting once the clamps have been placed, and the wide mouth of the clamps ensure that a nice big bite of fabric is taken by the clamp, ensuring a smooth grip with even tension.
Regardless of the type of clamping system you choose to use, remember that you need to watch the amount of tension being applied to the quilt. The clamp straps should not be tensioned so tightly that the quilt shrieks for mercy, because that’s just going to cause skipped stitches during the quilting process and side borders that curl to the back when the quilt is removed from the frame. Place your clamps carefully and only tighten the straps enough to remove the slack from the quilt, but not so much that your quilt turns into a trampoline. If you find that the clamps are getting in your way as you come to the sides of the quilt, try the yardstick trick. Simply slip a yardstick over the belly bar of the machine, under the clamp straps, and over the dead bar or takeup roller. This will lift up your clamps just enough to get them out of your way so that you aren’t banging into them with your machine as you quilt the borders.