A Few Inches More: The Benefits of a Longarm Quilting Machine

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“Am I even a quilter if I don’t enjoy the quilting?”

I remember asking myself this question a few months into my exploration of my latest hobby. I’d spent many weeks creating a king-sized Christmas quilt with my mother. It was full of appliquéd shapes and embroidered details and, as it was only the second quilt I’d ever made, I was immensely proud of it.

When the time came to quilt the project, I spent a whole afternoon painstakingly basting the layers together with safety pins. It was this method that had been suggested to me in the many quilting books I’d read. Reassured by the words of those who knew better than me, I excitedly took the quilt to my machine and began stitching straight lines with my walking foot, trying my best to wrestle the swathes of fabric under the throat. I became so enthralled in the process that I didn’t stop to check the back, figuring that my efforts at basting would hold up. After several hours, I was done.

The contentment I felt at finishing was short lived however once I looked at the back of the quilt. There were pleats everywhere. In some places along the edge of the quilt, the backing fabric had been caught and stitched into a fold. The quilt looked terrible. Not wanting to look at it, it was quickly boxed away out of sight. It was then that I realised I hated quilting!

Ok, so hate is perhaps too strong a word, but I know there are many of you reading this who have been in a similar situation. I speak to so many quilters who are quick to profess their love of patchwork, yet abhor the very idea of quilting the tops they make. Wrestling large amounts of fabric and wadding under a small sewing machine is no easy feat, and whilst there are things we can do to make the process a little easier (ensuring the quilt is well-basted being one tip) there is no denying the appeal of a dedicated quilting machine to help tackle those larger projects.

For many quilters, the word ‘longarm’ conjures up an image of a frame machine. When quilting with one of these specialised pieces of kit, the quilt top, wadding and backing are attached to leaders and rolled together simultaneously, ensuring that the quilt sandwich is kept flat and taut. The machine head is moved by the use of handles and runs along a metal track, allowing the quilter to stich from one edge of the quilt to the other. Once the visible section of fabric has been quilted, the quilt sandwich is advanced onto a take-up roller, exposing the next part of the quilt. The speed and ease with which a quilt can be quilted by using frame machine has led to a rise in the demand for longarm quilting services, with many people taking on both simple edge-to-edge and detailed custom quilting.

 

For many quilters a longarm machine is an appealing option. Yet some believe the physical size and cost of such equipment makes owning one an unrealistic option. In recent times however, the addition of more “user-friendly” versions has made the benefits of a specialist quilting machine accessible to more and more quilters.

Compact, more lightweight frame systems have been developed to accommodate smaller spaces. Bernina’s newest addition to their longarm line up, the Studio Frame, comes in at a much-more-manageable 5-foot, with the convenient option of adding a 5-foot extension should more space become available at a later date.

As well as frame machines, many manufacturers now offer sit-down longarms. These are used in much the same way as when quilting on a domestic sewing machine. Unlike frame models, which are used by moving the machine, sit-down longarms require the fabric to be moved, therefore providing a more familiar experience to the user. What is more convenient with this type of machine is the larger throat space and additional support offered by the table the machine is set into. Various table options exist to suit all budgets, from simple foldable versions that can be pushed up again a wall, to fully height adjustable models with hydraulic lift and storage drawers. Just like the tables they are set into, the machines available vary, with the most common difference being the size of the throat space. For those with the smallest amount of room, Bernina’s new Q16 is an appealing option.

Since making my Christmas quilt some nine years ago, I’ve discovered the wonder of temporary basting spray and quilting larger quilts on my sewing machine is no longer the arduous task it once was, yet as someone who is quite impatient, there can be no denying the attractiveness of a longarm quilting machine. As quilters discover that owning one may not be the unattainable dream they thought, we may see many more learning to love this part of the process.

 

Nick Ball

Bernina UK

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