Quilting very large quilts can be very bulky when free motion quilted on a standard sewing machine. And many times a quilter wishes to free motion quilt her own quilt rather than sending it to a professional quilter. Yet she may not want to have the weight of the entire quilt on her sewing machine and table at one time. An alternative would be to quilt very large quilts such as a king size or a queen size in two or three or even four separate sections.
Preparing the quilt for quilting in sections
First decide if your quilt top could be divided into two, three, or four fairly equal sections running lengthwise or crosswise of the quilt. For example, the left border and two rows of blocks, the center three rows of blocks, and the last portion two rows of blocks and the right border. Leave the top and bottom borders off until all the other sections are quilted and joined. Then add your top and bottom borders as separate sections.
Another possibility would be to simply divide your quilt into quarters having four equal portions. Or a medallion quilt could be divided as follows -- the center area of approximately 48" -- then add the two side portions followed by the top and bottom portions.
If you choose to divide your quilt into sections before machine quilting you would need to choose the divisions carefully according to the block setting and border layout. Each quilt would have different proportions.
You may divide your quilt in as many sections as you wish but be aware that the more portions you make the more hand work you will have on the batting and backing. The actual number of portions you divide your quilt depends on the size of your quilt and the size of the section you are willing to handle on your machine.
How to quilt in sections
When piecing the quilt, make the blocks as usual. Then, when stitching the blocks together, and adding borders, keep in mind the two, three, four or more portions of your large quilt that you wish to quilt in sections. You would need to set the blocks together leaving the quilt in your pre-planned number of sections.
Next layer and pin baste each portion separately by cutting your batting and backing at least four inches larger then the section you will be quilting. This will give you two inches extra all the way around. This method could also make your backing more economical as you might be able to use a standard width fabric rather than buying extra wide yardage.
Machine quilt each portion as desired but be sure to leave at least one inch of un-quilted area on all the edges that will be joined together. Repeat machine quilting for all sections remembering to leave at least one inch un-quilted on all the joining edges.
To join segments
Fold the batting and backing away from the top. Pin if necessary. With right sides of quilt top together, pin only the quilt top of the first section to the quilt top of the second section, matching your block and seam intersections as you would if you were piecing only the top. Machine stitch while keeping the batting and backing out of the seam. Carefully press this seam to one side or open as you prefer.
Trim batting of both sections so the batting lays flat in the joining area that is within the few inches of the un-quilted area. Be sure that the batting on one section exactly meets the other section and doesn't either overlap or leave a gap. Be sure the batting will fill all the area of your quilt top. Use a large hand sewing needle or a curved needle with double thread and whip-stitch the batting together where it meets at the seam line. Be careful that your stitches don't show through on the top of the quilt.
Trim one cut edge of the backing fabric so it overlaps the batting joining approximately one-half inch. Trim the other cut edge of the backing fabric so it overlaps the batting joining about one inch. Turn under one-half inch and press with an iron or finger press. Pin in place and hand stitch using a blind stitch or another invisible hand stitch of your choice. Repeat for other sections as needed.
Machine quilt the two-inch narrow area you left un-quilted before joining sections. You will only have to quilt this very small area with the entire quilt as bulk on your sewing machine. Remember if you leave most of the quilt bulk to the left of the machine you won't have to pack so much into the machine throat.
Be sure to machine quilt the remaining un-quilted area equally as heavy as the main part of your quilt. Do not leave this area un-quilted as all three layers have seams intersect in one place. You need to quilt it securely through all layers to strengthen your quilt.
After joining all sections as described above and machine quilting the small area where sections join, finish your quilt with binding as usual.
The advantage of this quilting method is having smaller sections of your quilt on the machine at one time making less bulk to handle. The disadvantage if this quilting method is you have a structural seam at the same place through all three layers -- the quilt top, batting, and backing.
If you quilt your quilt closely through all three layers in the joining area of the sections your quilt will be structurally strong enough to withstand regular use.
An alternate method to quilt in sections -- dividing the batting
I prefer this alternative because you don't need to divide your quilt top or backing fabric. You only divide the batting. After all the batting is what causes the bulk in the quilt.
Cut the batting into thirds
You piece the entire quilt top as usual. Cut the backing at least four inches wider and four inches longer than the quilt top. Cut your batting the usual size needed for your quilt allowing at least four inches wider and four inches longer.
Then cut your batting into thirds lengthwise on the quilt. Layer and pin baste your quilt as usual having the batting in the center third of your quilt. The outside two thirds of the quilt won't have batting yet. Be sure to cut a straight line as you are dividing the batting because you will be putting it back together later.
With this method you will only have the bulk of one third of the batting. The remaining two sides of the quilt top and backing will roll or fold into a compact package quite easily. Pin or clip the quilt top and backing that doesn't have batting so it won't interfere with the batted area you are quilting.
Quilt the batted center area of the quilt only where the batting is between the layers. Leave at least two inches around the edge of batted area un-quilted for joining the next piece of batting later.
When the center area is all quilted, open the quilt sandwich and place another piece of batting the size needed to fill that side of the quilt -- the portion that has no batting. Butt the batting against the edge of the already quilted batting. Whip stitch the two butted pieces together by hand using regular sewing thread and a large needle.
Layer and pin baste this portion of the quilt. Be sure to quilt over the area where the batting is joined inside the quilt. Continue quilting the side area with the batting. Keep the bulk of the quilt -- the area with batting -- to the left so it is not stuffed into the throat of the machine.
Add batting to the last third of the quilt with the same procedure as the second third. When quilting the last third, be sure to keep the bulk of the quilt to the left so it is not stuffed in the throat of the machine.
I prefer this method of quilting in sections because you can quilt the center without the bulk of the excess batting and the backing remains all in one piece. The hand finishing on the back is eliminated.