While some of the old-style frames are made to take up the entire size of the quilt for multiple quilters to work together, newer frames are designed for a single quilter with limited space. With the invention of modern frames, where the quilt remains rolled with only the "working" space exposed, there are challenges of matching up the top, batting and backing evenly. A leader cloth, or leader, is a simple set of fabric strips which run the length of the quilt frame and bridges the gap between the edges of the three layers of a quilt, allowing a smooth alignment for the quilt edges when the end of the quilting is near. While the width of the cloths will vary based on your frame, centering and installing them onto the frame is fairly simple.
Cut out leaders from muslin the appropriate size for your frame. You will want your leaders to extend the entire length of your frame even if the quilt you are working on right now is not that size. If unsure of how wide to cut the leaders, a loose rule of thumb is to make the leaders as wide as the frame itself (sometimes 18 to 24 inches wide), but most manufacturers supply the width measurements with each leader being custom cut for each bar.
Measure and find the exact center of each leader, and mark a line on your fabric to pinpoint it across the width of the leader. Measure the bars along your quilt frame, and mark the center point of each bar.
Line up the first leader cloth with the first bar by matching up the center point. Attach the edge of the leader to the frame. Some frames, such as those from The Grace Company, are made with a groove in the bar and rubber tubing to wedge the leader into place. If your frame is similar to this, simply line up the cloth to the ridge or groove, matching the center marks, and press the tubing into the cloth to secure the fabric to the bars of the frame.
Attach your leader cloth to a wooden frame. There are two options to do this. The first is to staple the leader cloth to the frame. While this is fine for simple frames, it is not recommended for a purchased, top-of-the-line, quilt frame. The second option is to wrap the edge of the leader cloth around the bar and pin the leader to itself, similar to a curtain rod hem, to secure the leader.
Repeat the necessary steps for attaching your leader to your style of frame to add the second and third leaders to their respective bars.
Load the quilt by finding the center line for your quilt back, batting and top. Gently mark them with a removable fabric pen or pencil along the edge. Follow these markings when loading the quilt onto the frame so it connects to the leaders at the appropriate points.
Have a friend help you when adding your leader cloth and anytime you are adding a quilt to the frame. While it can be done by yourself, the process is often frustrating unless the quilt is small. Using flower head pins when working on a frame is recommended because of their ability to lay flat when quilt is rolled, therefore reducing bumps of pin heads under the quilt. If you don't want to measure and cut your own leaders, there are pre-made leaders available with grid lines for easy loading. However, these pre-made leaders run around $100, and making your own out of muslin will cost considerably less.
All frames are made for the end result of attaching a quilt to them one way or another. Follow your manufacturer's instructions for the appropriate method of attaching your quilt and leader cloth to the frame. Each brand of frame can have a different mechanism for attaching the cloth, so use their suggested method if you have the instructions available. Not attaching your quilt correctly can result in off tension and may leave your quilt distorted and not square.