Let’s Try to Long Arm!

I really like to finish my own quilts, but I’m not so sure how much I like actually quilting.  I hate to baste, and I really don’t like fighting to get my quilt positioned under my domestic machine.  I usually come away a bit frustrated and with an aching back.  I’ve sent a few quilts out to a professional to have them quilted, and while they did a terrific job it somehow made me a bit sad.

While a long arm machine seemed like a good solution for me, there are clearly a few problems.  The cost, the space…and if I get one and I hate it, that would really be a shame.  There are also a lot of options, and without using one I really wasn’t sure what features were important to me.  Recently I discovered my local Bernina store offers long arm rental time.  For a very reasonable fee you get instruction on how to use the machine and a large block of time to work (I think it was 6 hours the first day for the instruction and quilting time, and then another block of 4 hours of quilting time).  From there you can purchase more blocks of time to do your own work.  The instructor told me to show up at 9:30am with a few quilt tops and she’d take it from there.

I had a great, if not exhausting, day!

First of all the instructor, Jan, could not have been more awesome.  She was helpful, knowledgable and very encouraging.  She set me up on a Handi Quilter Avante (18″) on a 12ft rolling frame.  This was useful because I wasn’t sure about a 16″ vs. 18″ vs. 24″ throat machine, or the clamp-only frame vs. the rolling frame, so I got some insight into those options.  Jan sat down with me and studied my quilt tops to help me choose a quilting design.  This was so great as she had lots of tools to help with the choice (books, marking tools, templates), plus a very good eye.  Interestingly, Jan said that she spends most of the time in her classes working with people on how to quilt something rather than on doing the actual quilting.  She also said many people in her long arm classes have done very little machine quilting, which I thought was really surprising.

This is the quilt I worked on the first day.  I finished this top ages ago – like probably over 15 years ago – and for one reason or another just never finished it.  It’s fine, I like it, but I didn’t really have any  attachment to it after having misplaced it for so many years.

Red and Blue star quilt

The store sells fabric, and she had only had me bring a top and no batting/backing, so we choose Warm and Natural cotton batting and a red batik back.  I used white Isacord poly blend thread as that is what she had handy.  She really recommended the Isacord in the long arms for good tension and low lint.

I’ll show you some close-ups…it did get a bit messy.

I did a four petaled flower in the stars:

Front multiple blocks

Instead of treating the chains like chains, Jan pointed out that each of the white areas were kind of like circles, so I did a free-form criss-cross on those.  Honestly that part was the easiest for me and turned out looking the best.

front one block

For the borders I did arcs in the white parts, running diagonal lines in the red border, and leaves in the blue, trying to pick up the leaves in the blue fabric.  The quilting in the red and blue areas is hard to see since the fabric is so busy.

front border

And now for some truth in quilting – the back.  White thread on red fabric can’t lie!

back star

red back one

red back with border

I’m hoping these photos are coming across ok – the back is really red!  Zooming helps if you are really interested in the details.

Let’s just say it is not the most perfect quilting job ever completed, but I was pretty happy with it as a first long arm effort.  I learned a lot:  you have to approach long arm quilting much different from domestic quilting, straight lines are hard, I probably tried to sew over previous lines to travel too much, and I am much more comfortable going in one direction rather than the other.  I was also reminded of my quilting rule that if you get tired and frustrated, you really just need to stop because it is only going to make things harder.  Jan was very generous with the time and I wound up in the shop quilting until 5:30pm.  It probably took us from 9:30am when I arrived until about 1pm to do the instruction and get the quilt ready to go (and each lunch), so I quilted for almost 5 hours straight.  It was too much, and my neck paid for it for the next week!  However since I was in a shop and renting the time, I pretty much had to finish the quilt that day to avoid having to remove it from the frame.

As I got another block of time with my class fee, I signed up for another day about 2 weeks later to keep on practicing.  This time I brought the quilt top I affectionately call ‘The Mess of a Quilt’ – love the fabrics, but the pattern I chose was way too busy for these bold prints.  Again a top I like, but I wasn’t too attached to it so using it for practice was fine by me.

I got the quilt set up to go with a little bit of help from some friendly folks in the shop.  This time Jan leant me a ruler to play with to help with the straight lines.  It took me awhile to get the hang of that.  Also, I quilted from about 1pm to 4:30pm and again was exhausted.  I finished about 3/4 of the quilt before I had to take it off as the shop was closing.  I’ll finish it on my domestic machine.

This time I wanted to outline all of the blocks (stitch in the ditch) because I didn’t do that on the first one and I didn’t like how that turned out.  I outlined all the HSTs in the sashing, did switchbacks in the outer border, outlined the zig-zags in one half of the HSTs and did swirls in the other half.  I really wanted to try swirls on the long arm as I do a lot of them in my domestic machine quilting, so I wanted to compare the process and the outcome.

Here it is on the frame, with my ruler handy.

on the long arm

A few more on the frame photos:

on the frame 2

on the frame 3

This block was early in my session – the lines are very bumpy on the yellow zig-zags.

mess front 1

This block was later – I had gotten a better handle on using the ruler.

mess front w border

Here is the back.  I just used muslin to back this one, with Warm and Natural batting and a grey Aurifil thread.

mess back 1

This is the whole Mess of a Quilt – again only the top 3/4 of it has the quilting complete.

whole mess
What a Mess!

I found that this session was also a bit long – at 3.5 hours it wasn’t terrible and I didn’t hurt my neck this time, but I did get tired and a bit frustrated at about 2.5 hours and would have liked to have quit for longer break.  I also got really stressed out about finishing it.  I kept looking at the clock and pushing myself, then telling myself it didn’t really matter because I didn’t really care that much about this quilt.  However it does raise concerns about continuing to rent.  These are both baby-sized quilts and not very big.  If I want to rent and get a quilt done in a reasonable amount of time that my body is happy with (like 3 hours), I’ll have to do pretty simple things.

So the verdict?  I don’t know!  I’m still a hung jury!

I think I’m clear that if I get a long arm I’d get the 18″ Avante and the rolling rack.  I liked doing it and am feeling a pull to go practice more, but I am a bit frustrated by how bad I am at it.  Angela Walters I am not!  I’m afraid that the gap between what I can do on my domestic machine and what I can do on a long arm is so large that I’ll get frustrated and just go back to what is comfortable. However, in fairness, I’ve now used a long arm twice, and I did get better at it both times I tried it.  I’m also still worried about HOW LARGE these things are – it will take over my sewing room!  So I have more information now, but the deliberation continues…

I had the Red and Blue Star quilt on my Q3 FAL list, so now that the binding is done I can check one off!  I’ll link up to the Q3 FAL group at the end of the quarter.

2016 button 250 best 150

Linking up with the Q3 FAL finish page.

5 thoughts on “Let’s Try to Long Arm!”
  1. I found this a really interesting read and am gobsmacked that you used rulers on your first day – it took me months!! I understand your dilemma of wanting to get it finished and quilting beyond your threshold – it does make it difficult because sometimes you just need that rest – even if it’s only an hour pottering around doing something else. I’ll be interested to hear what you decide. My purchase of an ex-demo Avante was the most expensive things I have ever bought, apart from houses, but I absolutely love it and am really please I bought it!

    1. Thanks Abigail. In fairness I used the ruler on my 2nd day, and it took most of the day to get it. Glad to get your feedback about the Avante too. I liked the one I was using, but it’s great to hear reviews from actual owners. I will keep you posted!

  2. What a brave girl you are! I’ve been thinking about learning how to longarm too but haven’t gotten to the point where I want to actually try it yet. Don’t feel pressured to purchase a longarm–you could just rent whenever you have a big quilt. At least, that’s what I’m considering. Oh I wish you weren’t so hard on yourself! Your quilting is wonderful and with practice, it will soon get better. And using rulers! Wow, that seems advanced to me. You’re right to question how long you want to stand and quilt at the machine though. I get that way too. Sometimes I just can’t do any more quilting and I just have to do something else! Of course I quilt only on my home machine so it’s probably different.

  3. Practice is the key to getting better and being relaxed – not helped by watching the clock as you say. Hope you manage to decide whether to buy a longarm or not.

    Congratulations on the finish and thanks for linking up to the FAL quarter three on behalf of your team of hosts

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