Do you ever struggle with what you need to start longarm quilting? There are so many tools and notions on the market, all screaming for you to add them to your toolbox. But what do you really need? Expert longarmer Ebony Love shares her favorite tools and tips for successful longarm quilting.
People Ask Me all the Time
Periodically, people who are in the market for a longarm machine will ask me, “What accessories should I get for my machine when I am first starting out?” I usually answer this question with a blank stare and a series of shrugging and bashful emoji (invariably because the questions are sent to me over social media, where I have many such emoji to choose from).
Recently I was preparing to teach a series of longarm classes, which resulted in the need to pack up supplies for the trip, and it got me thinking about favorite products and supplies I like to use. I put items in my suitcase that I didn’t want to be without, and this led to an “a-ha” moment: maybe these—the tools I use myself and consider essential—are the things I should tell people about.
Just looking around my studio, I could probably come up with piles of things to shout about, but for now let’s just focus on a few of the items that I wouldn’t want to be without.
A Good Set of Stencils and Pounce Chalk
For a long time (and this is a story I tell my students a lot, so skip this if you’ve heard it), I refused to mark my quilts with anything but unwaxed, white school chalk. This led to a lot of frustrating moments—not being able to see the chalk, inconsistent marks, too-thick lines—that limited my willingness to work any patterns that needed marking.
It wasn’t until I started experimenting with different marking products that I started to feel more comfortable using them on my own (and customers’) quilts, and that’s when I came to love using flexible mesh stencils along with powdered chalk and a pounce pad.
You can get stencil designs in just about any form from simple to complex, but since I have a computerized longarm, my stencil use is usually limited to grid work. I have a collection of grids in various sizes and shapes that allow me to do long arm quilting designs such as continuous curves, clamshells, basket weave, and others.
With mesh stencils, you use a pounce pad filled with chalk, but rather than pouncing up and down, you swipe the pounce pad across the stencil several times, like a sponge wiping off a table. This leaves behind chalk only where the mesh is exposed on the stencil.
The powdered chalk is available as an iron-off product or as wash/brush away. The iron-off only comes in white, while the washable chalk is also available in blue or pink. I honestly didn’t know pink was available until very recently, but learned it shows up better on blue and lighter colored fabric—so of course I needed to buy some to try.
Pro Tip: Don’t try to pour from the plastic bag into the pounce pad. Instead, make yourself a funnel and save yourself a mess.
A Sturdy Selection of Rulers
Pointing again to my computerized longarm, using rulers doesn’t often enter my head as a choice for quilting designs. Even so, I’m willing to admit that some designs are not necessarily easier or faster using the computer than what I could do myself. Sometimes it’s worth using a ruler to guide you in and out of a tight space, repair a seam or pulled stitches, or even attach a binding while a quilt is still on the frame.
I know there are really fancy rulers on the market that do all sorts of amazing designs, but for me, I tend to gravitate to the same set of rulers. I’m one of those quilters who finds it hard to resist acquiring new tools, so I have quite a collection of fun-shaped rulers. However, the three I come back to are a small, straight ruler I can fit in my hand; a 90-degree ruler that helps me make square corners; and a special ruler from Handi Quilter called the Versa Tool.
The Versa Tool has a straight section with a notch that snugly guides the machine’s foot and enables you to easily stitch in the ditch. The angled section helps you turn corners or change direction neatly, while the clamshell on the other end helps you navigate curves (or make clamshells, obviously.) There’s also a rounded slot, shaped to fit a ruler foot, which gives you more control when guiding the machine around appliqué. It’s a handy little ruler!
I recommend using something grippy on the back of your rulers to reduce the amount of pressure and strain on your hands when holding them in place. I used to use basting spray on the back of my rulers, but the sticky surface picks up lint easily and has to be reapplied. I’ve been using a product called Handi Grip, which is sticky on one side (which you apply to the ruler) and has a serious sandpaper-like texture on the other. I have to be honest—initially I didn’t think I would like this product because I thought it would show up white on my ruler and obscure the lines, but the product is actually clear (the white part is the release paper).
Pro Tip: Always use the proper ruler base for your machine when using rulers to give you a sturdy surface to work on, and if your manufacturer has an option for a foot specifically designed for ruler work, definitely get that! It adds safety and stability, which is appreciated when your fingers are mere centimeters away from the needle.
Want more tips and tricks for longarm quilting? Ebony describes how to choose quilting thread and discusses choosing quilting designs on our blog. Check out full articles in Quilty and our other quilting titles for more expert advice.