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Longarming for Beginners

Lately, I've had a few (actually, more than a few!) conversations with folks who are thinking about having a longarm quilter finish a quilt for them in 2022. Why? Lots of reasons.

  • UFOs get together in corners and multiply when you're not looking. Seriously. They breed. It's terrifying. Nobody has time for this much quilt finishing.

  • There's a particular quilting design that I just have to have on this particular quilt. Must. Have. It.

  • Quilt it myself? Are you for real? Do you know how big and heavy this thing is? So much nope.

  • I've tried. I like piecing the top more than I like quilting. It isn't as much fun for me.

  • And as many more reasons as there are quilters in the world ...

So I thought I'd write some Q&A on longarming for beginners (and maybe it'll also be useful for the not-so-beginners out there, too).

What is longarming, exactly?

No, it's not about the length of the quilter's arms. A longarm is a special kind of sewing machine. It's mounted on a frame, and the machine moves while the quilt stays still. It's called a longarm because these kinds of machines have more throat space--the space between the needle and the back of the machine--than a standard domestic sewing machine. Those machines have 7-11" of throat space, while a longarm machine has a lot more than that. The Aussie's machine has 26" of throat space, and it's mounted on a 14' wide frame ... which means I can quilt truly giant quilts up to 154" wide.

Are there special considerations for the quilt if you're planning on having it longarm quilted?

Yes, and they're related to 1) how the quilt is loaded on the frame and 2) how the longarm machine moves when the quilting is happening. Your quilt back needs to be a bit bigger than the front (4-6" bigger on the top, bottom, and each side), and you should make sure that you don't have 3D embellishments like buttons or charms on your quilt until after it's quilted. Hitting a 3D embellishment can seriously damage a longarm machine. That makes me have all kinds of feelings. Not good ones.

Really? 4-6" on each side? That sounds like a lot of extra fabric.

We get it. Fabric is expensive, and it doesn't sound like much fun to include fabric that's going to eventually be trimmed away, but it really is important. We have to be able to attach the quilt to the frame and then sew it without having awkward collisions that will result in bumpy, wonky stitching in your otherwise beautiful quilt. That extra fabric is there to give us space to work.

Pro-tip: If you don't have enough backing fabric to have 4-6" extra on each side, you can attach a 4-6" muslin border to accommodate loading. Muslin is really inexpensive, and it works great for this important quilt role. We can work with as little as 2" of your actual backing fabric on each side if you have that extra muslin strip attached. We can even attach muslin strips for you. Just ask us in your free quilt consultation.

Picture of quilt side fabric tolerance

OK, so how does the quilt loading happen?

The quilt backing is attached to canvas leaders that are attached to the bars of the machine. These bars (and the side clamps of the frame) work together to position and tension the layers just right. The quilt back goes on upside down, with the right side facing the floor. The batting layer is placed on top of the backing and attached with a line of stitching that will be used next as a loading line. The quilt top is placed on top of the batting, right side up, and aligned with the stitched loading line so that everything gets loaded on nice and square. The quilt top can be attached to the top bar or left to hang down freely over the batting. This is called "floating" a quilt.

Sounds like I don't need to make a quilt sandwich. Is that right?

100% right. One of the benefits of using a longarm quilting service is that you just hand over the quilt top and backing and we do the rest. No more taping your backing to the floor, struggling with pins or overspray from spray basting, or trying to figure out if you have big creases on the fabric you can't see.

So, once the quilt is loaded and basted, you just choose the pattern and press Go?

Umm, no. For digital quilting, there are a lot of considerations for scaling and placing the pattern. The Aussie will ask you about your preferences for how densely or loosely you prefer your quilting in relation to the pattern you choose. Once all that is sorted out and we've loaded in all the technical stuff, then we can press Go. And then we babysit that machine like it's performing brain surgery on our favorite person in the world. We definitely don't get to walk away and go watch a movie while the machine works. And, of course, custom quilting involves a lot more design work and is 100% hands-on!

Ooh, custom quilting. That sounds fancy!

It definitely can be. Custom quilting just means that there are different designs in different parts of the quilt instead of one all-over pattern. Sometimes you will hear the term "semi-custom" or "light custom" to refer to a quilt that has one design in the center and a second design in the border. You'll have seen custom quilted quilts in shows and magazines, but you or a friend might also have had a quilt custom quilted--it's definitely not just for show quilts. You should expect to pay more for custom quilting, as you're paying for the design expertise and additional time of the quilter. Custom quilting might involve digital designs, free motion quilting where your quilter is controlling the motion of the machine, ruler work, or a combination of all of these.

I'm looking for a particular kind of overall pattern. One that goes with the theme of the quilt. Is that possible?

Absolutely! There are thousands of digital quilt patterns out there. We already have hundreds to choose from and we're adding more all the time. (Really ... pattern shopping is an addiction. Please do not send help ;) If we don't have the pattern you're looking for, we'll make it or get it. An excuse to nab a new pattern? Weee! But don't worry if you don't have something specific in mind. We're happy to make recommendations.

Are there different kinds of edge-to-edge patterns?

In the overall concept, all E2E patterns work the same way. The same pattern is quilted from edge to edge and from top to bottom. Some patterns are considered "border to border" patterns. These patterns are essentially square or rectangular and the rows don't overlap or nest/tuck into one another. Other patterns are not square and the rows nest together. There's more about this over in this post about quilting lingo.

Can I get a picture or some sort of draft image ahead of time?

There really isn't a way to see what the quilt will look like until we quilt it, but you definitely can discuss your preferences for pattern size and density with your longarmer. Most edge-to-edge patterns can be adjusted for size and spacing. For example, if your preferred pattern has an element like a flower in it, tell me how approximately big you imagine that flower to be on the finished quilt and I can scale the pattern accordingly. If it's a geometric pattern and you want it elongated or flattened or otherwise altered, there's a lot of flexibility in that way too.

I like to experiment with my backing fabrics. Can I do that with a longarm quilter?

It depends on the longarmer. I've used flannel, minky, quilt cotton, bedsheets, baby blanket gauze or "double gauze" ... all kinds of things. Some folks prefer to stick to quilt cotton or minky. Some won't touch minky at all because they don't like the stretch (or the cleanup from the fuzzies explosion that happens when you cut minky!). It depends on the person. Just ask.

I'm a beginner quilter. I am worried that you will think my piecing is terrible.