Monday, August 17, 2020

How to Tie Comforters on Antique Quilt Frames

How to Use Vintage & Antique Quilt Frames to Finish Quilt Tops

Before I go further, I need to tell you the story behind this quilt. The center blocks were given to a friend of mine by a quilter who had to move to a care center. The original quilter is now 98. The quilter who received the blocks is a young 84. She carefully sifted through the leftover fabric stash sent along with several partial tops, and finished this design. She brought it our comforter frolic, and our small group tied it. Back home for binding, and then with some luck, the original maker will have a chance to see it finished, and ready for donation to MCC (Mennonite Christian Committee). Doesn't that just warm your heart? I love this scrappy, vintage-inspired design so much I may have to remake it for one of my own!

Now let's talk about the how-to stuff you need to know! I chuckled earlier this year when I read how a family had to teach their children to use a land line phone during the early Covid days. Today we're going to investigate quilt frames from the past century or so. Think of it as another form of 'quilt technology', and much the same story!

Recently I put out a call on social media looking for free or inexpensive quilt frames to tie charity quilts. Frames have a tendency to sit in barns around here, and collect spiderwebs more than quilt tops! I got several calls, and collected 4 free ones over a week. Thank you to everyone who answered our call. It was and is appreciated!

This sturdy wooden frame was found locally in Holmes County from a quilter who said she bought it from an elderly neighbor several decades ago. I felt the historic value was well worth the little money spent. 

One of the things that I find most attractive about this frame is that it has been patched. The rails are original, and parts of the trestle, but some of the wood and locking mechanisms have been changed out. That tells me it was a functional design, well used, and worth the energy to repair. And then, again, maybe it was solely frugality. We can't know for sure.

A friend saw the old, striped ticking nailed to the frame with upholstery tacks for leaders, and mentioned that would need to be changed. I considered it at first, but then decided to take the conservative route and try it out. I'm glad I did because the ticking was super easy to pin through! The weave was loose enough to get the pins started, and that's important. I had planned to replace them with a poly/cotton that was slightly stiff, and know now it would have been a bad move.

*I want to point something interesting out in the photo above. Follow the line of tacks down the the end of the rail where there is another tack beside it at the very end. That one nail intrigued me. That nail would stabilize the bias of the whole leader keeping the backing straight, and I had not seen another leader anchored this way. I knew this was a frame from an experienced quilter.

You can see you the sliding pin lock fits into one of the holes to keep the rail from turning. It would be better if the pin was a bit longer, but it worked fairly well. I'm curious what mechanism was used before.

I used a stiff brush to give the frame and fabrics a going over, but it was fairly clean. It took a hammer to knock together the frame, and a small piece of wood used as a buffer protected the frame from denting. Lacking small dowels or pins, I zip tied the frame to keep it from separating during our frolic.

This type of loading is called 'floating the top' in longarming, and has worked best for us. The 3 layers come together well with little shifting. We are making 60" x 80" quilts or comforters, and your situation may be different.

Start by pinning the backing into one leader on either side of the rail. I used steel longarm pins, and went point to ball for good tension. In other words, pin closely together keeping the majority of the pin in the fabric. Stretch the backing across the second rail, and mark where it crosses. Start pinning the other edge of the backing at that point. When finished, roll the backing so it is taut, but not stretched too tightly.

*Note the pin going the wrong direction at the end. Switching the direction of the last pin will help keep your quilt backing from pulling out.

Position your batting on the frame close to the exposed rail. 

This batting is Frankensteined, meaning pieced from many leftovers, but will bring life to this comforter.

Next is the top. Pin the length securing the 3 layers together next to the rail. Our strips that zig zag the edge were made from a piece of the backing I ripped to square it with. Make do! Pin to at either end to create tension. You may also find it helpful to position a few pins through all the layers beside the rail where the top waterfalls down. This will maintain your tension in all directions.

Ready for the gang!

At this point, you tie until you run out of room. Then remove the pins in all areas except the row that holds the quilt top down. Roll to take up the slack that hangs. Once you've rolled enough, it's helpful to lift the top, fluff and smooth the batting, and smooth the top before once again pinning the ends. Add a few pins back along the side where the slack hangs, and keep tying. Coffee and ice cream bars help the process!

Four quilters worked at that frame, and you can see they're on their second comforter for the day.

This quilt was loaded vertically as the backing was pieced. When you piece the backing, load the seam horizontal to your bar. If you load it perpendicular to the bar, you will end up with problems!

My dad and I worked on this frame with a slightly different set up, and different tools for a quicker tying method.

As a retired veterinarian, my dad had the idea of using hemostats to make our triple tied knots. We worked together suture tying this quilt, and it was quite successful. The two of us tied two quilts in same time it took the gang of 4! But we have to tell you that it might also have been the amount of chatter at that other frame. They were certainly loud and carried on, but it was a much needed day of camaraderie and shared work. 

We can cope, we can use masks, and we can survive this period together, but we must continue to live our lives. 

Come on, Doxie girls. 
Let's go sew.


  1. What a fabulous post, Julie! Thanks for taking the time to show and explain how those traditional quilt frames work. I've never seen one in person before. I think it's great that your group was able to gather outdoors to tie quilts together, and extra special that you were working alongside your dad.

  2. What a wonderful post! I learned a lot and appreciated all the work to get the quilts going and done. Thanks!

  3. Reading this post sure brings back memories of the days when I was a kid and my mom would have the church ladies over for a quilting bee. They used two by fours and clamps and I think worked over our dining room table (but I could be mistaken on that). Sure wish I would've paid more attention, but I was too busy rolling bandages.

  4. I LOVED this post. So neat to see an well-loved and well-used frame. I wish I could have been there at your tying. Lovely to see your Dad there.

  5. This is fantastic. I also see someone who quilts on a domestic machine adapting this idea to baste a quilt. The method I am using now works well, but if I had seen this first, I would have had my brother build me a simple frame for basting.

    My first memories of quilting involve me playing under the hanging quilt frame while my Granny and her friends quilted on the front porch.

  6. Thank you so much for this wonderful detailed post.

  7. How cool to find some wonderful frames that should be in use, not barns. Isn't it fun to see how a new perspective brings new tools to a job. Love your Dad's suggestion for the tying.


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