I've thought about writing this blog post for years, actually I've typed up the whole thing several times and then deleted it. I didn't want to come across as a know-it-all, or at all offensive. However after being asked the same questions over and over I've decided that it's okay to write these thoughts, actually, I think that most will find it very helpful.
Before I became a long-arm quilter there were a lot of things I didn't know about the process, by writing this post today I hope that I can help anyone out there that is interested in having their quilts machine quilted by a long-arm quilter.
1. Backing Size- Quilt backings must be at least 3"-5" (or more) larger than the quilt top on all four sides of the quilt, so if your quilt is 60"x60" square, your quilt backing needs to be at least 66"x66" square.
Why does it need to be bigger? The way that quilts are attached to a long-arm machine require the backing to be larger than the quilt top, the backing is attached to leaders that are attached to a long-arm table and this takes a couple of inches at the top and bottom of the backing. Also the sides of the quilt backing the backing generally are attached to clamps, to help hold the backing out flat. Because quilt backings generally have very few seams, and quilt tops generally have a lot of seams quilt tops can grow/stretch a little bit, so making the backing larger ensures that the quilt backing will be large enough.
2. Square Up Your Backing- When machine quilting a quilt on a long-arm machine, quilt backings need to be square/straight, the top and bottom edges of the backing are attached to leaders on the long-arm machine and if the backing is not square/straight it becomes a nightmare for the long-arm quilter to try and keep your backing flat. Trim up any extra or longer pieces of fabric. Additionally, if you send material to your long-arm quilter that hasn't been pieced, just a long piece of yardage, expect to be charged for piecing and pressing the material.
3. Centering Your Backing- On a long-arm machine quilts are quilted from the top left to top right of the quilt, back and forth in the same manner as reading a book. This can be done generally in 12"-24" increments. Because the quilts are not basted the same way that a quilt to be hand-quilted or even quilted on a domestic sewing machine it's very difficult to center a quilt top on a backing on a long-arm machine.
4. Marking the Top- I highly recommend everyone mark the top of the quilt top and backing, simply write "top" on a post it note and pin it to top of the quilt top and the top of the quilt backing. Even if it's obvious to you the top of the quilt and the top of the backing, just for extra insurance it's best to always label them.
5. Pressing- Make sure that all seams are pressed flat. This will help your quilt to lay flatter as it's being machine quilted.
6. Borders- Make sure that all borders are correctly attached. Often borders are just sewn on and not measured. This will create a "wavy" border and will make it very difficult for the long-arm quilter to keep your quilt square or without "tucks". I have a tutorial here, on how to properly attach borders.
7. Cost- Make sure you have asked any questions you might have about cost before your long-arm quilter begins machine quilting your quilt. There is a difference in cost when having a quilt custom machine quilted or machine quilted with an edge to edge pattern. Often edge to edge patterns are programmed into a computer and the machine does the majority of the work. Custom machine quilting is often done completely hand-guided and requires a lot of physical labor by the long-arm quilter.
8. Thread- Most often the long-arm quilter will supply the thread that will be used on your quilt. Thread is generally included in the cost of the machine quilting, but sometimes there will be additional bobbin charges or thread color changes.
9. Batting- Many long-arm quilters will sell batting for a retail fee, generally it's a good high-quality batting that they prefer to work with. Before you purchase your own batting talk to your long-arm quilter and make sure that they are okay to use the batting that you prefer. Some "cheaper" battings can be nightmare for the long-arm quilter to work with. Also, some bagged battings can have creases in them that may show through into your quilt.
10. Design- Talk with your long-arm quilter before having your quilt quilted. If there is a particular design or design element that you like, or do not like on your quilt let them know. If there are certain ideas that you absolutely want on your quilt, sketch it out, but don't forget the more detailed and complex you become with your ideas, the more it's most likely going to cost you.