5 Hour Crash Course in Longarm Quilting

I just spent FIVE HOURS at one of our local quilt shops – Tiny Stitches – in Marietta, GA.

Customers can rent time by the hour/day to quilt on one of the shop’s two Handi Quilter longarm machines. But first – you have to complete a certification class on operating, loading, and caring for the machines.

Longarm quilting machines are very popular with the quilting crowd, because it is both faster and easier to quilt compared to a domestic sewing machine. If you’ve never quilted before, let me explain…

Handi Quilter longarm quilting machine empty full shot

Quilting on a home (aka “domestic) sewing machine is quite difficult due to the limited throat space between the needle and the base. The larger the quilt size, the more frustrating it is to have to cram at least half of the bulk into the throat and then try and sew evenly and accurately.

Longarm quilting machines switch up the concept by loading the back, batting, and top onto a metal frame. The machine head is attached to a chassis that rolls both horizontally and vertically – allowing it to quilt while the fabric stays stationary. Different versions run either by hand or by a computer that can quilt programmed designs automatically.

These machines are expensive! Depending on the brand and features – longarm quilting machines cost anywhere from $10,000-$30,000. And they are a one-trick pony, no other kind of sewing or functions come with them. So anyone who purchases one is likely a hardcore quilter.

Handi Quilter longarm quilting machine loaded in progress

Longarm quilters often have a business quilting tops other people have pieced together, which helps defray the cost of the machine. Many only do computerized edge-to-edge quilting, as what’s referred to as “custom quilting” is *so* time consuming.

Judi Madsen of Green Fairy Quilts is one of the most noted longarm quilters – she does incredible, amazing designs – all custom! She uses a lot of rulers and an air soluble marker in executing her quilting – you have to check her out! If you’re thinking she’s an older lady – you would be wrong! She appears to be in her early to mid-thirties. Just shows that practice, hard work, and perseverance really do pay off!

But anyways… I had previously taken one other longarm class at Quilting Live! last fall, and got to play around on Gammill machines. However – everything was already set up in the classroom setting and we did not learn much about operating the machine other than pushing buttons and pulling up the bobbin thread. The thought of loading/unloading the fabric and batting onto the frame seemed daunting to me.

So when I was out at Tiny Stitches last month, I saw that they offered a certification class and signed up. The class is $100 for five hours. This shop isn’t that close to where I live, so I don’t really know the owners/staff and didn’t know what to expect.

This morning I loaded up a composition notebook (yes, I know… I do own one of these), a pen, Diet Mountain Dew, and my iPad Air. I’m a very visual learner and wanted to take photos to serve as reminders for how things should look later on.

When I arrived, I met our instructor – Cheryl Ashley-Serafine. Not sure if this is all in my head, but every woman I’ve ever met named “Cheryl” is always a lovely, super duper nice person. I’ve known several and all are extremely calm, level-headed, easygoing people. Perhaps there are exceptions to the rule – but if there is – I’ve never encountered any.

Cheryl definitely fit the bill and as a former school teacher – I can say firsthand that she is a very effective instructor. Very peppy, originally from New England, and in a way – reminded me of a nicer version of Martha Stewart. Her teaching methods were right up my alley – handouts with pertinent information, and then she would show us how to do something and then have us do it afterward.

Cheryl Ashley Serafine pink quilt
Cheryl shows off one of her own quilts – which utilized a pantograph

Going into this, I honestly wasn’t sure if I was interested in renting time on the store’s longarm machines. I was thinking it’d be a good learning experience and would give me more of a feel if longarm quilting is something I’m interested in long term. Even renting time (compared to having a longarm quilter do it for you for 2 to 4 cents per square inch) is expensive – usually in the neighborhood of $20 per hour. Do the math – even a simple quilting design for a baby quilt takes a few hours when accounting for loading/unloading the quilt from the frame. Plus, you have to purchase thread and needles.

I had this vision in my head of renting time, and then having something go wrong on the machine and ending up super frustrated and wasting money. But during the class, it was explained that customers who rent time aren’t just there alone to figure things out. Cheryl is in the room with you most of the time and helping you through the process.

When that factored in, suddenly renting time seemed like a fantastic value considering that you’re essentially getting private lessons on a longarm quilting machine for that $20 an hour. AND you get to finish a quilt top at the same time.

"HandiHere’s Cheryl explaining how to thread the machine. Apparently most longarm machines (both stand-up and sit-down) thread similarly – which made me feel more at ease.

Handi Quilter longarm quilting machine threading cheryl close up hand

A closer view of Cheryl demonstrating tension adjustment.Handi Quilter Longarm Machine quilting threaded needle

Here’s what a properly threaded needle should look like.
Traditional bobbin winderA look at the bobbin winder available at Tiny Stitches.

Handi Quilter Longarm Machine quilting bobbin case areaUnderneath the head of the machine is the bobbin case. It was actually fairly simple to switch out bobbins since it’s front loading.Demonstrating bobbin case tension longarm quiltingUntil today, I really had no clue how to check for bobbin case tension – but I do now! You have to let the bobbin case (with bobbin inside, of course) lay flat on your palm, then wrap the end of the thread around a finger a few times and lift up. There should be some resistance when you pull the thread. If it comes up too easily, you tighten the larger screw on the Handi Quilter bobbin case to the right. Way too hard to pull the thread? The tension is too tight and you loosen the screw by turning to the left.

Handi Quilter longarm quilting machine display control panelA closer look at the head of the machine, handles, and control panel on the front.Handi Quilter longarm quilting machine loading backing onto frameFirst, Cheryl showed us how to attach the backing (spare piece of muslin) to the “leaders” on the frame. The leaders attach the quilt pieces (top, batting, backing) to the frame. Traditionally, quilters had to spend hours pinning each piece to the cloth leaders, but somebody invented this system of grips that hold fabric to the 3/4 inch frame bars. Handi Quilter longarm quilting machine loading backing red snappers leaderDuring the class we learned to find the center of each side of the backing and top and lining them up with a marking on the leaders.Handi Quilter longarm quilting machine loading backing second frameCheryl attaches the backing to the other rolling bar on the frame.Handi Quilter longarm quilting machine loading backing second frame red snappersPutting the leader grips on took only a few minutes, compared to hours with corsage pins. No thanks!Handi Quilter longarm quilting machine loading battingFloating the batting over the backing.Handi Quilter longarm quilting machine loading side clampsTo prevent the middle section of the fabric on the frame from sagging, we learned how to put a different type of clip on each side and attach it to clamps tied to the frame, which keeps the fabric/batting taut.Handi Quilter longarm quilting machine loading channel blockWhile basting the batting to the backing, rubber channel locks were put on the wheels of the machine to keep it from moving back and forth – it could only move horizontally at this point.Handi Quilter longarm quilting machine loading basting battingHandi Quilter longarm quilting machine loading topFinally, time to “float” the top to the batting by basting it in place. Cheryl suggested we do this as close to the edge as possible so later on it will be in the quarter inch seam allowance hidden by the binding.Handi Quilter longarm quilting machine pantograph backI did not know this, but there is a separate control panel on the back of these machines and a second set of handles. We learned how to set up pantographs – these long designs on paper – laid underneath an acrylic sheet. Before today I had heard the term thrown around before, but had no idea what a pantograph really was.Handi Quilter longarm quilting machine pantograph back closerThere is a red laser light (very small toward the middle of the photo above) that pinpoints where the needle is on the other side of the machine. To create a pantograph design, you just trace it with the laser and it will create the pattern on the quilt. (See photo below)Handi Quilter longarm quilting machine loading top fabric red snapperHandi Quilter longarm quilting machine loaded in progressHandi Quilter longarm quilting machine pantograph quilting in progressAbove is Cheryl’s pantograph design called “Popcorn.”Handi Quilter longarm quilting machine pantograph quilting in progress jenniferHere is the design I quilted – it doesn’t look as good as Cheryl’s but it’s not bad for my first time using the pantograph method. My stitch movement is not nearly as fluid.

Using a longarm quilting machine is very difficult for me (and many others) because you’re switching from having the fabric move and the machine stationary to the machine controlling the movement. We’re not used to drawing using all of our upper body strength, and from what I understand it takes quite a long time to develop ‘muscle memory’ to comfortably free motion quilt.Handi Quilter longarm quilting machine sit down sweet sixteen

Tiny Stitches also has a sit-down longarm machine called the Handi Quilter Sweet Sixteen. I had previously tried the same machine at Quilting Live!. This one seemed to be giving us some tension trouble even though it does have stitch regulator, which gives the result of a uniform stitch length regardless of stitch speed. The longarm machines have this also, along with modes of either “cruise” or “precision.”

If the machine is in cruise mode, once you hit the start button it will start stitching and not stop until you turn it off. While in precision mode, if you stop moving the machine also stops stitching. Personally, I felt more comfortable using precision mode as I felt like my quilting was somewhat out of control on cruise.

We had a decent amount of time to try out the pantograph function and free motion quilting on the second machine, and that was a lot of fun! My quilting still looks like a kindergarten child drew it, but Cheryl told me lots of practice is the only way to improve – even 15 minutes a day.

Taking this class was worth every penny, and I learned far more than the previous class – which focused mostly on designs. Loading the frame is still slightly intimidating as far as which direction and roller bar each piece of the quilt matches up to, but I feel like that would get easier after a few times doing it myself with Cheryl’s guidance.

The longarm quilting machines are actually quite simple to care for and operate, and if you already know how to operate a home domestic sewing machine – you would probably pick it up pretty quickly.

Right now, I’m gravitating toward purchasing the store’s frequent quilter card that includes 10 hours of studio time on the machine for $150. You can allocate the time in chunks –  like reserving two 5 hour days.

For anyone remotely interested in longarm quilting, I would highly recommend signing up for a class like this one at your local quilt shop. No matter how much material you read or YouTube videos you watch, it can’t compare with being hands on with the machine. There were quite a few aspects that I would not have grasped without physically doing or seeing them in person.

In the meantime, I have made a decision to regularly practice free motion quilting on my new Janome 7700 since it does have an 11-inch throat space and has been touted as a good machine for FMQ. Hopefully I will be able to improve my muscle memory and ability.

I also found this Quik Trainer tool tonight, it’s basically handle bars with a spot in the middle for a dry erase marker. It comes with an acrylic practice board where you can doodle designs and then erase them again and again using the same muscle memory/movements as longarm quilting. Seems somewhat appealing since you don’t have to waste thread, batting, and fabric just to practice. For $38 though, I’m not sure it’s worth a shot. We’ll see.

See you next time!


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