Sunday, August 26, 2012

Armpit Quilting

Short Arm Quilting On A Three-Roller Frame
(the usual disclaimer, if you are new here:  I am not an expert at anything.  This is not THE WAY to do it.  This is how I do it.)

I have quilted by hand (king size quilt, took 5 years to quilt) and have done machine quilting by wresting quilts through a sewing machine.  Hand quilting takes too long and machine quilting is a royal pain in the neck.  And shoulders.

Several years ago I had the unbelievable good fortune to walk into a charity shop and spot a frame for machine quilting with a regular sewing machine.  This is called short-arm quilting, as opposed to mid- or long-arm, which use special sewing machines that have a wider space between needle and pillar and thus a longer "arm".

I use a post-WWII Japanese straight stitch sewing machine of the type copied from the Singer model 15, and known as 15 clones.  I love the 15 clones for piecing, too, but they require some minor modifications for the very high speed sewing that happens on the frame.  See my earlier post about adapting a cheap Japanese class 15 for free motion quilting and another post which describes an easy and so-cheap-I-can't-even-calculate-the-cost method for modifying that clone to create a more secure thread path.  How much DOES one tiny metal washer cost anyway?

There were some great responses to those posts, and it was correctly pointed out that comparing frame FMQ with stationary-machine FMQ is apples to oranges.

FMQ: free motion quilting, in which the machine does NOT use the feed dogs to push the quilt through in a straight line.  Instead, the feed dogs are disabled in some way, and the operator moves the quilt or machine, creating beautiful and graceful quilting patterns.  Or maybe not.
Stationary:  the sewing machine is not moving.  It's a normal sewing machine, preferably a lovely vintage one installed in a nice cabinet. 
Frame:  The machine sits on a platform, which the operator pushes around. 

As with everything else in life, the good news and the bad news are the same.   Good news:  I can quilt up to 108" wide.  Bad news:  You have to have space for a frame that is 10 feet long.   There are smaller systems.

There are three long rollers that hold the quilt top and back with absolutely NO BASTING.   This is why I love this system and would only give it up for a long arm.  And that's not happening unless I stumble upon one in a thrift shop.

To prepare the quilt top I add a 3 to 4 inch border of waste fabric (meaning it will be thrown away at the end) on all four sides.  This border has functions (discussed below) but will not be part of your quilt design.  Old sheets work well for this, or any fabric that you don't want.  In the photos below you will see this as an outer border of light blue.   

The quilt back is made to the same dimensions as the quilt top including the waste border.  But instead of a waste border I just make the outer border of the quilt design wider all the way around.  I absolutely do not trust myself to get the top and back to match up perfectly, so extending your quilt fabric rather than using a waste border means that when you trim everything at the end, you will have nice quilty fabric on the back all the way out to the edge.

The first task is getting the top and back onto the rollers.  Initially this involved about an hours worth of pinning the quilt to the canvas leaders on the rollers.  Then I discovered a 108" long separating zipper system made for quilting frames.  Sew one half of a zipper system to a canvas leader, and the other half to the quilt top and just zip it on.   The quilt back also zips on.

Problem is, the zippers that you sew to the quilt top and back will have to come off at the end of the process.  Solution:  a chainstitch machine.  A chainstitcher uses a single thread (no bobbin) and if you pull a loose thread at one end, each stitch pulls out easily.  A nice temporary seam.

another thrift shop find

Zip the quilt back, wrong side up, onto the front roller and the farthest back roller.

a heck of a lot easier than pinning!

quilt back zipped to front and back rollers, face down

The next step (not shown) is to draw the back up until it is not quite taut and lay the batting on it.  The batting just floats between the two quilt layers, it is not pinned except at the front edge.  The batting drapes over the back roller and hangs down in back.

Quilt top zipped to middle roller, face up.  If I had been smart I would have added the batting before doing this.
Zip the quilt top to the middle roller as shown above, and roll most of it up smoothly.  The "smoothly" part still has me stumped and I have no clue as to why this is so challenging.

All three parts of the quilt sandwich (top, batt, back) meet at that front roller.  The back is zipped to the front roller.  The batt is lying on top of it, smooth and relaxed.  Pin the front to both batt and back.  So there is some pinning, but not as much.  And pinning through quilting cotton is easier than pinning through canvas.

You can't see the batt, but it is secured under those pins
and now you are ready to quilt.

Functions of the waste border
  • At the beginning of the quilt it gives you space to quilt a practice row to check your tensions.
  • It is a place for the clamps that attach to the sides of the quilt (not shown).
  • About 3/4" of it will disappear underneath the binding, which means that your quilt design does not have to allow extra for the underneath-the-binding part.  In the quilt shown I used 2.5" strips for the sashing and outer border.
Because 3/4" of the waste border will end up underneath the binding, I quilt about 1" of it to secure it.

The quilting frame has an electric outlet on the front so that you can plug in your sewing machine.  The problem then becomes:  how do you make the machine run?  You can't use the motor controller as a foot pedal because you move along the frame as you quilt--so your feet are moving.  You can buy a hand controller for modern electronic machines that mounts to the platform, but I use a vintage machine.  

In desperation I came up with what I thought would be a temporary solution, but it has proved to work remarkably well.  I call it:

Armpit Quilting   

First, I tuck the motor controller (aka foot pedal) into a handyman's apron.  Cost $1.00.  Lowe's provides no sponsorship for this blog.  Do you think if I showed them this post they would give me my $1.00 back?

Then I tie the apron around my neck, cross-body, and tuck it up tightly into my armpit.  Sophie demonstrates it here, and since she does not have any arms you can easily see the position.

It was odd for the first 30 seconds.  Then I completely forgot about it and it just became a natural process.  Do you think about your feet while you are sewing?  I'm guessing not.

If it is tucked up tightly you have very good speed control and the ability to start and stop immediately.
The platform on which the machine rests has two sets of rollers:  we'll call them "north-south" and "east-west".  With the ability to go forward or backward and side to side at the same time, you have the ability to quilt any shape you want.  It is just another form of free motion quilting.  It takes the same 2,000 hours of practice to get good at it.

The biggest limitation of this system is the fact that you can only quilt a narrow path.  Then you roll up the part you just quilted and quilt another narrow path.  And when I say "narrow" I mean about 4 inches wide at the beginning of the quilt, when there is very little on the first roller which takes up the work that you have just quilted.  

at the beginning the quilt takes up little space on the front roller

By the time you are almost finished, the take up roller is fat with quilted quilt, and you only have about 2" left to maneuver.  Very limiting as far as quilting designs go.  But a good metaphor for life, in which we all have to learn to be creative within our limitations.

With a thin cotton batting rolled VERY tightly, the quilt still takes up most of the space in the harp by the end

The biggest advantage of this system:  Speed, speed, and more speed.  No basting:  how much time does that save?  No basting thread or pins to remove.  For me it works best when I find the right rhythm and that seems to be when I run the sewing machine flat out at its top speed.  I auditioned several machines on the frame, and some that work beautifully otherwise balk at these speeds and start spitting out shredded thread.  The $10 black clone shown above can handle the speed, and will now live on the frame.

After the quilting is completed, I unzip the middle roller and then roll it all the way back to the beginning, checking carefully for problems or areas that got overlooked.  It's easy to add more quilting now and much harder once you have it off the frame.

 Unzip the other two zippers and then find that magic thread to pull to remove the chainstitching.  Always fun.
pop pop pop pop:  the sound of chainstitches being removed

This (The Spirit of Service) is the ninth quilt I have quilted on this frame, but five of those were baby quilts.  I'm still learning, building skill, and discovering.  On this quilt I discovered two good reasons for using an obviously contrasting waste fabric as an outer border on the quilt top. (versus just extra wide borders, which is what I do on the quilt back).

Bonus #1:
follow the line
I serge the edges of my quilts before applying the binding, to trim to the correct size and secure the edges.  In the past, I marked a line on the border and followed that line with my serger.  Measuring and marking that line on the quilted quilt was never any fun.  It wasn't very accurate, either.  Have you ever tried to mark a straight line on a quilted (therefore somewhat bumpy) border three times as long as your yardstick?
trimmed and overcast in one pass:  the joy of serging
 With the waste border, you can use the seam line between top and waste to guide the serger.  Not only does this save the time you would have spent measuring, it gives a better result.

a nice edge ready for binding.

Bonus #2
The seam line on the top gives you a line to follow to sew the binding on.  Quilt facing up, binding underneath also facing up.

binding is underneath, can you see it peaking out?

stitched along the waste line, flipped around to the top
when you fold the binding over to the front, the waste all disappears.
and tucked under to completely cover the waste fabric

and stitched down
One of my favorite tools:  break a bamboo skewer in half and use the pointy end.  I recently saw something just like it at JoAnn's for $10.  Mwahahahahaha.

amazing accomplishment:  looks good from the back also
You may laugh, but for me getting the narrow zig zag stitching on the top of the quilt binding to follow the seam line on the back of the binding this perfectly is a MAJOR step up.  And it is a result of the fact that the waste fabric was a different color that HAD to be hidden.  It forced me to a higher level of performance, but it also made it very easy to see how to achieve it.  I wish that was a metaphor for my life also.  But sadly, no.


  1. What a great description--thanks Cheryl!

    D'Nise from NC

  2. I love the "armpit quilting" tip! So, a tip in trade - that old Singer gauge foot you have - if you put the gauge in correctly on the foot, it works nicely for guiding a perfectly even binding seam. (I have an old Singer 301 with one of those feet)

    1. Thanks, Sheila! I no longer have that gauge foot--I traded it to Helen Howes for some other bits and pieces.

      I did finally figure out how it worked, but I only had one gauge for it and Helen seemed very glad to get it.

      I'm sure I will see another one sooner or later at a thrift shop, and will try again!
      thanks for writing
      Cheryl Warren

  3. Now I have a good reason (excuse?) to buy a chain stitcher. I would much prefer the sweet Wilcox & Gibbs, but will probably end up with a Singer late 60's vintage.

    And THEN, I'll be expecting to fall into a quilt frame for serious playing. Can we build a new sewing room now, honey? (so I can get out of the living room) This is leaning toward the absurd, but some dreams do come true.

    I really enjoyed reading about your experiments, and love the zipper approach.

    Karen in Houston

    1. I've got another quilt on the frame now and used a Singer 603 with chainstitch fittings to attach the zippers. Used a walking foot and enjoyed the experience much more than the runaway speed of the W&G. The walking foot helped too.

      Next up for review is a recently acquired Kenmore 1915, which also has a chainstitch set.

      I'll probably sell the Willcox & Gibbs, at least I am leaning that way. Too bad you are in Houston!

      hey, a living room makes a perfectly fine studio! but good luck with all your plans and dreams---hope they come true!

      thanks for writing

  4. Wow, great Blog, I really appreciate your thought process and having it explained properly, thank you!

    Geminy Sewing Machine


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