Learning to Quilt on a Longarm

Longarm Quilting: It’s Not for Sissies

That’s my new mantra and boy is it the truth. I rented time on the A-1 longarm at my local quilt shop last week—my first time! Before that, I’d spent only a minute here and there on some longarm machines at quilt shows, but quilting a project from start to finish is another matter entirely.

I live in a rural area of Nebraska, so it’s about 40 miles to the nearest quilt shop, Calico Cottage in Hastings. Shop owner Sue Brown regularly offers a one-session longarm class with an overview and a lot of valuable information. Once you’ve completed the class, you can schedule time on the machine to quilt your project.

Sue was my teacher and guide for the afternoon—giving me enough detail to feel informed, but not so much that I was overwhelmed.

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Sue Brown owns Calico Cottage in Hastings, Nebraska.

Not long ago I bought a big stack of solid-colored 16-patch quilt blocks at my guild’s garage sale. I set them together into the top shown below (read The Quilt Blocks that Came Full Circle). This “freebie” seemed like the perfect candidate for my first longarm adventure.

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A quilt top in solids that I recently put together from garage sale blocks was the perfect candidate for longarm learning.

I had a pretty good idea that my quilting wouldn’t be spectacular on my first attempt. I’m a reasonably okay quilter on my home sewing machine, but quilting on a longarm is different. I think your domestic machine skills help to a point, but longarming is a whole new ballgame.

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A busy print on the back of the quilt helps to hide beginner’s blunders.

I chose a length of Valori Wells FreeSpirit floral I had from long ago. Sue aptly noted that its busy-ness made it a good choice, which I had not considered, but what a lucky break.

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First things first: We loaded the backing, batting and quilt top onto the longarm.

Sue showed me how the backing, batting and quilt top are loaded onto the machine. I had expected this process to be more painful, but it wasn’t a big deal. Working together, we had it ready to go in about 25 minutes. I’m guessing that I slowed her down considerably.

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The pantograph can be seen under the roll in this photo. It’s the quilting design printed on paper.

Sue starts everyone out with a pantograph. This is a purchased quilt design that comes drawn onto a long sheet of paper. You use a little red laser light and attempt to follow the lines, working across your quilt in a series of passes. I say “attempt to follow” because let me tell you, it’s harder than it looks.

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Relaxing your arms and shoulders helps, but is easier said than done.

I quickly discovered that you need to relax your arms and shoulders. Easier said than done. Once I began quilting, I was able not to fret about how bad it looked.

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Some of my first stitches

I’d mentally prepared myself to blunder. And Sue was gracious with encouraging words: “You’re doing great” and “You’re improving!” It might not have been true but I needed to hear it and I was glad she said it.

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This was not the time to be creative.

I learned that you need to pay attention and really try to stay on the lines. At first I was a little too relaxed, thinking I could be creative. Ahem. Not the time to be creative.

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Try to stay on the lines but don’t become anxious when you can’t!

On the other hand, you can’t get all worked up when you miss the lines. Sue talked about getting into a rhythm, which I don’t think I found just yet, but I can imagine how much fun it would be! I don’t think worrying will help you find a rhythm.

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Repeat after me: Find the rhythm, find the rhythm, find the rhythm.

This was interesting: When I’m quilting on my home machine, I’m sometimes afraid to reposition my hands. In my longarm scenario, it was my feet that caused the fear. You have to walk along the machine as you progress down the pantograph. If you don’t move your feet, you’ll fall over!

I was surprised at how tiring the whole process was. Before it was over, I was physically and mentally spent. Not much stamina in the longarm area just yet!

When I compare the first pass…

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First pass

to the final pass…

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Final pass

Maybe I did improve! My shapes look less like whales than they did at first. Here’s one I’m proud of. It approaches being graceful:

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This one is pretty good!

It was incredibly grand to pull the quilt from the longarm and realize that finished is better than perfect! It took us about two hours, so at $20 an hour, it cost me $40 in machine time. Which to me is an absolute steal because I tried something new, I was stretched and challenged, and I had a great afternoon.

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Finished is better than perfect!

A few takeaways:

• A good longarm quilter is worth every penny. She has spent years learning to do this well.

• I spend a lot of time on quilt tasks that I’ve mastered. This was a good reminder of how it feels to try something new—something you’re not very good at. It was good exercise for my cognitive muscles, not to mention my hand-eye coordination.

• Remember the old joke, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?”

“Practice, practice, practice.”

I’m signed up to quilt again at the end of the month.

I can hardly wait!

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Learn about longarm quilting with our online course at Craft University: Longarm Fundamentals.

longarmfundamentals Learning to Quilt on a Longarm

Check out our online course with Angela Huffman at Craft University called Longarm Fundamentals.


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