This snippet was published in Machine Quilting Unlimted's 'Ask Kimmy' column. Copyrights held by Kim Brunner and Meander Publishing. All rights reserved.
Tensioning the Quilt from the May 2010 issue of Machine Quilting Unlimited magazine
Dear Kimmy- I keep hearing that it is important to make sure that I do not have the backing rolled too tight when quilting on my midarm machine. How do I know if it is too tight, and what will happen if it is?
Kimmy says: Good question! It is easy to tell if your backing, or your quilt top for that matter, has been stretched too tight. In either case, as soon as you start to tighten up that roller too much, you will begin to see distortion in the fabric. If you have over-tightened the top, the distortion will be quite obvious, as you will see your piecing lines beginning to warp and shift. When it comes to the backing, you may have to look a bit closer, but you will be able to see clearly that the fabric has stretched.
Here is the trick that I use to make sure that I am not stretching anything while quilting; when I am rolling the quilt, I tighten both rollers fairly equally until the quilt has been advanced almost as far as I wish to advance it. Then I let go of the backing roller and advance the quilt top only until I reach the point where I can see that it is beginning to stretch *just the tiniest bit* and then I back the tension off so that the quilt top is just a little bit loose. I then lock the quilt top roller in place and switch to the backing roller. Again, I advance the roller until I can see that the backing is beginning to stretch *just the tiniest bit* and, again, I back off the tension until the backing is just a wee bit loose and I lock it in place.
When it comes to properly tensioning the quilt for quilting, it is much better for the rollers to be a little too loose than too tight. You do not want to turn your quilt into a trampoline, you just want to hold it securely in place while you are quilting it. Fabric has ‘memory.’ You can tighten it too much and hold it in place with extra tension on the machine’s rollers while you are quilting it, but believe me; the minute you release those rollers, the fabric will immediately return to its un-stretched state, taking everything with it. The effect that this will have on your finished quilt is easy to see; if you have over-tightened the top or bottom areas of your quilt, the edges of your quilts borders will roll to the front if your quilt top was too tight, and roll to the back if your backing was too tight. If you have over-tightened the center area of your quilt, the quilt will have a rumply, drawn-in, distorted look when it’s taken off the frame and will not lie flat at all.
Remember, you do not want to make your quilt scream while it is being quilted! Apply only enough tension to keep it smooth, stable, and wrinkle-free but not so much that you can bounce quarters off of it.