In celebration of National Quilting Day, I gathered up three staff members who personally own a longarm quilting machine to see what we might learn from their experiences. The lesson that rang out most clearly? Once you buy a longarm, there’s no looking back. The other lessons were somewhat unexpected…
When I arrived at our session the conversation was already well underway, with Lori Baker (acquisitions editor), Brenna Riley Gates (web producer), and Annette Falvo (technical editor) swapping thread advice, troubleshooting tension issues, and comparing studio set-ups faster than I could take notes.
And take notes I certainly did—pages and pages that will find their way into articles and tips. But for this piece, I’d like to highlight a few lessons that were… unexpected.
It’s Less Expensive
Brenna Riley Gates considered renting, but it made more financial sense to buy a longarm. “If you plan to do a lot of longarming, it costs more to rent.”
While that seems like a bold claim, Brenna works it out: “You have to think—$100 for a class, and then another $100 for a follow-up class, then $30 an hour for 10 hours. And that’s just edge-to-edge, not custom or ruler work. Why not apply that money toward an actual machine?”
At a quilt per month, say, that would add up awfully quick.
Lori Baker, who has made 262 quilts in her life (and she has a spreadsheet to prove it!), says that she finally decided to invest in a longarm because it made more financial sense. “I want to finish my own quilts, and not have to send them out. And maybe it will develop into an extra source of income.”
It Doesn’t Hurt Anymore!
“Making the quilt top has always been my favorite part, but owning a longarm has made me enjoy the entire process,” says Brenna. “And it’s not as taxing on my body. With a domestic machine, I’m literally sweating, wearing my work-out clothes.”
“With a domestic machine, a quilt is just this huge animal,” says Lori, holding out her arms to indicate the unwieldiness.
“Yeah, like wrestling a tiger!” says Annette Falvo.
“Quilting a queen-sized quilt on a domestic machine ends in a lot of swearing, to be honest,” says Brenna. “And a sore neck.”
“YES! From your neck, all down your spine, to your lower back…” Lori widens her eyes and shakes her head. “And I have arthritis in my wrists and elbows, so it’s just painful. MUCH better on the longarm.”
You Gotta Make a Lotta Dog Blankets
“The best piece of advice I got,” says Annette, “was from the lady who sold me my machine. She told me, ‘She’s a tough girl; you can’t break her.’”
Having that knowledge allows you to dive right in and start quilting, fearlessly, which is how you learn.
“But oh my, don’t start on that king-sized quilt you were saving for the day you bought your longarm,” Annette warns. “Start small.”
Once she had her longarm set up, Brenna started by hitting the fabric store (always a good first step, I’d say). There, she bought several two-yard cuts of fabric and three or four packages of baby-quilt sized batting.
“I’d worked on this type of machine before, but it was good practice for loading it. Then I just prop open the machine manual, alongside a copy of Longarm Quilting Workbook, and just follow along, quilting one row of motifs, leaving one and working into the next.”
Practicing with two-yard cuts hits a chord with Lori. “That’s perfect. You gotta make a lotta of dog blankets,” Lori says, “before you work up to that king-sized showstopper.”
Be Stubborn and Write Backward
All the longarmers are in favor of taking classes, even if a teacher’s style isn’t quite your own, or the classes are taught on a different brand of machine.
“Just see what resonates,” says Annette. “There are teachers that are just really ‘out there,’ from my perspective. I learn things from them, but I also learn what my style is not.”
She also notes that, when you sign up for a class, the teachers often provide you with a ruler, which is a good way to start building your collection. Some show teachers will offer discounts at their booths, and Annette advises buying nested ruler sets there, since those get you more bang for your buck.
Even if you can’t attend every class in person, watching videos of longarmers can help you visualize how it works.
Watching Angela Huffman teach longarming on PBS’ Love of Quilting is mesmerizing, and will routinely light up the ‘Oh, that’s how it works’ light bulb.
“And Angela Walters is really great at getting into and out of motifs,” says Brenna. “Her YouTube videos are great.”
There are some teachers who just make things look effortless. That’s good, because you’ll be “tricked” into trying a new technique.
“I go into it all with a stubborn attitude, like ‘I WILL make this work.‘” says Brenna. “Sometimes it comes easily, and sometimes it doesn’t, but that’s not the point.”
Lori nods. “As with any new creative thing, there’s going to be a period where it just looks ugly. And that’s OK.”
Annette says, “I still go through reams of paper, practicing drawing feathers, just so I can develop the muscle memory. We’ve learned to read and write from left to right, but that doesn’t apply to longarming. You’re often ‘writing’ backward. So your body isn’t used to that path.”
“Right!” says Brenna. “Like with swirls! What does the path look like leading in and then back out? Because it can be up and down, or right to left.”
“And Annette touched on something there, with the paper. Drawing on paper is so important when you’re practicing,” says Lori. “And as a beginner, avoid solids. Find a busier print, something with big florals. If you go crooked for seven stitches, no one’s going to notice.”
The bonus with large florals is that you can stitch along the fabric’s motif, giving you a cohesive design, and practice with unusual shapes.
Determining True Value
Selecting the right longarm requires a good, hard look at what you value, and what your plans are.
“The ability to actually afford the machine mattered most to me,” says Brenna. “But because I planned to do a lot of freemotion, a stitch regulator was a need-to-have, not a nice-to-have.” Beyond that, she wanted the machine to be able to grow with her. Adding on a ruler base—an attachment that provides a foundation for longarm rulers—is probably her next upgrade, given how enthusiastically she was questioning Annette about rulers.
For Annette, after test-driving a variety of brands, she purchased a second-hand machine, a decision she was comfortable making because her husband is mechanically inclined. “If I didn’t have my husband, I’d have bought from someplace with a service. “
Lori says, “I preach that you’re not buying a machine, you’re buying a relationship.”
Automation is another upgrade, one that’s worth it if you start “taking in” quilts. Annette has several friends who are professional longarmers. “If you’re going to have a business, a lot of people have two machines. One that’s automated, that you set and let go, while you work on the other machine, doing custom work. So you have two machines going at once.”
Brenna laughs. “That’s my life goal, right there.”
And speaking of professional longarming, Annette says, “People need to start charging what they’re worth. Charging 3 cents per square inch is just not right. You have to invest so much in your machine to start with, and then classes and your time. I have one friend who said that even stitching in the ditch could get ridiculous, that sometimes she was making less than $5 an hour.”
“I agree with this so completely,” says Lori. “And not just for the longarming. You’re paying $200 for fabric, and then more for batting and thread, and then the time.”
“That’s the issue with valuing handwork,” says Brenna. “The love, time, and effort that goes into it, isn’t accounted for, because it’s crafty and functional.”