To Long Arm or Not to Long Arm…My Answer to that Question

In honor of the 1 year anniversary with my long arm, I thought I’d take a minute to reflect on buying my big machine, whether or not it was a good decision, and offer some thoughts on what I’ve learned through the year.

To cut to the chase…was it a good decision?  No doubt, absolutely YES!!

If you buy a long arm, does quilting magically become easier and will your quilts just quilt themselves?  Uh, no.  Like most things, it requires study and a lot of practice.  I love my long arm, but the year hasn’t been without it’s share of frustrations!

But let me rewind a bit and talk through my journey to buying the long arm.

I’ve been quilting for almost 20 years, and always quilt my own quilts.  I started hand quilting, then moved on to a walking foot, and then one day I was at Joann’s talking to the woman cutting fabric about free motion quilting and she said “honey, at some point you just need to drop those feed dogs and go for it”.  So I did.  I did a lot of stippling/meandering at first, and eventually got pretty good with free motion on my domestic machine (i.e. sit down, normal sewing machine).  However, while I was ok at doing it, it wasn’t really something I enjoyed, due to a few reasons:

  1. I hated – I mean hated – basting.   I did it on the floor, it took forever to do, and it killed my back.
  2. I often had puckering on the back of the quilt, no matter how well I basted or how careful I was while quilting.
  3. I felt like I needed to carve out a large amount of time for each quilting session.  It took a lot of time getting the quilt out, arranged, and ready to go, so it never seemed like I could just squeeze in a few minutes here and there.
  4. While you can quilt large quilt on a domestic machine, and I have done at least 2 king-sized quilts, I found all the arranging and rearranging hard and tiring.
Our Wedding Quilt – all quilted on my domestic machine

A long arm always seemed like a really great option, but for two problems:  the expense and the size.  They are really expensive for a hobbyist, and you pretty much have to dedicate a room to the thing.  Given these issues, I just couldn’t see taking the plunge.

I fell out of quilting for a few years due to crazy times at work, but picked it up again a few years ago.  I finished a few quilts on my domestic machine, and did a quilt along that introduced me to new patterns and techniques (Do the Math).  About that time I found that my local sewing machine shop offered lessons and rental time on their long arms.  I tried it out for two days and kind of enjoyed it, but mostly I was really frustrated and sore!  I was frustrated because there was just so much to learn and I found things I could do easily on my domestic machine looked terrible on the long arm.  I was sore because when you rent a long arm you really need to finish the quilt that same day, so I wound up standing and quilting for 7-8 hours each day.  Ouch!

Honestly after renting, I was pretty convinced I didn’t want a long arm.  Shortly after that, I sat down to quilt my Row Houses quilt.  I did it, and I’m happy with it, but it is a large quilt, puckered, needed to be ripped out and redone, and took forever, so when I was done I said ‘NEVER AGAIN’! …and I was done with domestic machine quilting.

I did a little bit of looking around at different kinds of long arms and talked to a few people.  I really wanted a 20″ throat machine, but really couldn’t find a local dealer that had one.  My local quilt shop had a sale last November where they were getting rid of demo models from Houston, as well as their own floor models, so I wound up getting a deal on the same long arm I had rented over the summer – a Handi Quilter Avante, which is an 18″ machine. I also found out that Angela Walters had an Avante, and I decided if it was good enough for Angela, it was good enough for me!

The dealer came and set it up the weekend before Thanksgiving, and suddenly I had this really big machine in my sewing room.  Honestly I was really overwhelmed.

I couldn’t even remember how to load the thing, let alone get the tension right or use the Pro-Stitcher (the computer that you can program with designs to automatically stitch).  I decided to start by just loading up some pieces of fabric to practice, then found a bunch of old unquilted tops in the closet.  At first I was worried about ruining the tops, but then I decided they had been in the closet for so long I hadn’t even remembered I had them, so what exactly did I have to lose?

Between these quilt tops and fabric pieces I just kept loading up new things to practice on.  I really made it a point to practice at least 30 minutes every day.  This is something I really love about the long arm – I can just walk up to it and start sewing, and then just turn it off and walk away.

I quilted my Sugar Block Club BOM and my Splendid Sampler in July and August.  I am so proud of how they came out, and I had a good time doing them.  I’m still learning, still need to practice, get better and more consistent, and learn more techniques, but I really happy with my progress so far.  I started my long arming business this summer, and have started working on a few client quilts.

I’m always looking for new clients!

So one year later, what tips do I have for someone who is considering buying a long arm?

  1. I would try renting first, just to get a feel for it and to see what is involved in the process.  But while it is good to take it for a spin, don’t get too frustrated too early.
  2. YouTube is your friend.  I watched a lot of videos, both ones that came with the machine as well as ones I found through Google to figure out problems I had.
  3. Commit to practicing at least 30 minutes every day.  It seemed to my from my time at my local machine shop that there were a lot of people who bought machines because they thought it was going to be very easy, but got frustrated and just stopped using it.  Practicing every day makes you use it, get comfortable, and improves your stitches.
  4. Getting the tension right is hard.  I have a few tips on this:
    • Get a bobbin tension gauge (a Towa gauge).  My machine has a readout that shows the top tension, and with the Towa you can get a read on the bottom tension.
    • Keep a log.  I started keeping a project sheet for every quilt and logged the brand of top and bottom thread and the top and bottom tension.  Eventually I started noticing trends and common settings for each type of thread.
    • The bobbin tension needs to be pretty loose – likely more loose than you think it should be.  I found a good video by Jamie Wallen of Quilter’s Apothecary.  I learned two really key things from this video:
      • When setting the tension in the bobbin, lay it in your hand and pull on the thread – the case should stand up but not leave your hand.  At first my top thread was way too tight, which was caused by the bobbin tension not being loose enough.
      • When you put the bobbin case in the machine, pull on the bobbin thread and make sure it pulls freely.  I had a problem once where I wound the bobbin with too high of a tension, and when loaded the bobbin thread would catch and snag.  Doing this test before trying to sew saves a bunch of time.
  5. Take classes and talk to people.  I was fortunate enough to take a class with Angela Walters in March, which was awesome and really helpful.  I also took ~3-4 Craftsy classes and watched a lot of YouTube videos.  I have a friend who got a long arm about the same time as I did and we have lunch and share ideas, and I joined a long arm club at my local shop.  Through all of these I’ve learned so much – the Towa gauge, how to use rulers, design ideas, thread, and how to deal with a multitude of problems.
  6. Don’t be too hard on yourself.  When you are standing with your nose to the quilt you can see all the imperfections, but once you get it off the frame you won’t see all that detail.  Also, it is true that if you surround imperfect stitches with more imperfect stitches, you won’t notice the imperfections – all you’ll see is the texture.
My new quilting space

Was it a good decision?  Absolutely.  I really love:

  1. Loading the long arm vs. basting
  2. No puckering on the back!!
  3. Playing with all the different designs.  I find this much easier to do with the work space in front of you rather than all squished to fit under a domestic machine.
  4. Rulers.  It seems now you can use rulers on a domestic machine, but that seems really hard to me!
  5. Because it is so easy to load, and so easy to just work on a bit at a time, I really finish quilts so much faster than I ever have before.  In the past, unless I was really committed to a quilt it was hard to make the effort to baste it and quilt it.  Now it is really easy for me to do, and I like doing it.

Those are my long arming thoughts – which really wound up to be more of an essay.  Hopefully you found this helpful – and if you have any questions, please comment and let me know.

Happy Quilting!

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