Thursday, February 2, 2012

ABC of Quilting Post # 21

Today's second topic is 

Understanding Long Arming : Long Arm Quilting

And today we have a long arm quilter writing about it. Ebony Love from Lovebug Studio (such a freaking cute name!) is here to tell us about Long Arm Quilting. 

She says she's new to Long Arm Quilting, but I believe its not how much time you have spent doing something that matters, but how have you spent that time! She has quilted some amazing quilts! I do dream of buying a long arm machine some day! Maybe that day, I'll look back at this post once again!

I'm Ebony Love, and today I want to give you some information on what makes long arm quilting different from machine quilting. I'm relatively new to long arm quilting, but I've gained a lot of experience in that time & I'd like to share some of that knowledge with you. There are still lots & lots of people who have never seen a long arm quilting machine before, and don't really know what the difference is between quilting on a long arm and quilting on a regular machine. Today I'm going to take you on a tour of my long arm, and highlight the differences between a long arm and a home machine. The biggest difference you'll see right away is that when you're quilting on a regular machine, the machine stays on the table while you move the quilt. When quilting at a long arm, it's the exact opposite: the quilt stays stationary, and you move the machine! It's a very different way to quilt, and might be a little hard to picture at first, but I will explain everything as we go along. There are three categories used to describe quilting machines: 

  • Domestic sewing machine (DSM) - This is the type of machine that everyone uses! These machines typically sit on a table, and you use it for everything including general sewing, piecing, and quilting. The harp (the area to the right of the needle) is typically between 4" - 8" wide, and the speed is around 800 stitches per minute. When you quilt at this machine, you sit in front of it, with the needle on the left.
  • Mid-arm machine (MAM) - This is a bit larger than a DSM, and typically only performs a limited number of stitches, such as a straight stitch or free motion. These machines can be used at a table or on a quilting frame, and perform at speeds between 1,100 - 1,500 stitches per minute. The harp area is between 9" - 17" wide. Whenever the machine is mounted on a frame, you will be quilting with the needle directly in front of you, moving the machine. Frames can be anywhere from 4' to 12' long. If the machine is on a table, you'll quilt with the needle either in front of you, or to the left, depending on the model you get; either way, you'll move the quilt under the machine.
  • Long-arm machine (LAM) - This is even larger than the mid-arm, and is always mounted on a frame. The harp area can be anywhere between 18" - 36", although most long arm quilters will stay under 30". These machines stitch very fast, from 1,800 - 2,600 stitches per minute, and ONLY do free motion stitching because they don't have feed dogs. The needle will always be in front of you as you are quilting, and the frame itself is usually between 8' - 14' long.
I'm going to focus on the DSM and the LAM; the MAM usually are a hybrid of the two, and can be a nice compromise for those who don't want to invest in a long arm or don't have the space for one. I actually upgraded from a mid-arm to a long-arm last year, and after trying a bunch of different models, I settled on a HandiQuilter Fusion that I named Mr. Darcy. (Mr. Darcy is a character in my favorite book & movie - Pride & Prejudice. I prefer the BBC version of this movie with Colin Firth, but I hear the Bollywood version, Bride & Prejudice, is also very good.) Mr. Darcy has a 24" harp and sits on a 12' frame, and he takes up most of my basement! Let's take a tour of Mr. Darcy, and while we do, I'll point out some of the major differences between him and a DSM. 


Basting & Loading a Quilt When you are quilting at a DSM, you have to create a quilt sandwich with the quilt top, batting, and backing, and secure it with pins or thread before you can start quilting. Lots of people hate this part of quilting! You still do some of this when long arming, but it is very different from how you would do it for a DSM. When you load a quilt onto a long arm, each piece of the quilt gets loaded independently. First, the backing fabric is loaded onto the long arm with the wrong side up. It is secured to canvas fabric called leaders, and then rolled onto two rails or poles, like a scroll. 


The quilt top also has a rail that it can be rolled onto, with the right side up, but many quilters will do what's called floating - that is, they let the quilt top hang free without securing it to the rail. The quilt in the picture is being floated; I will do this for quilts that are really too small to bother rolling onto the rail, or for quilts that may have border issues which prevent it from being rolled evenly onto the rail. The batting goes between the quilt top and the backing fabric. It does have a rail underneath the machine (I didn't label it, but you can see it in the photo), but I find it easier to float the batting, so I always do that with my quilts. You can see that this forms a nice quilt sandwich, but it doesn't have any pins! At this point, the quilt will get basted, by running a straight stitch along the very top, to secure the quilt top to the batting & backing. Then, the sides will get basted between the idler rail and the quilt top rail. We don't need to baste the middle of the quilt, because we can just quilt it from here. We'll talk about the different kinds of quilting in a little bit. The backing rail that is above the idler rail is also known as the take-up rail. Once you finish quilting the first section, the finished part of the quilt is rolled onto this rail. The idler rail is actually there to keep the quilt sandwich nice & flat so that the bulk of the finished quilt is out of the way. Whenever you are quilting on a LAM, you will usually quilt from top to bottom, left to right. On a DSM, you probably start with the center of the quilt and work your way out to the sides. If I wanted to start quilting this quilt from the center, I would have to baste this quilt all the way across, then roll it onto the take-up rail, baste it, and keep doing that until I got to the center, and THEN I'd still have to go back and quilt it! It's very inefficient to quilt from the center on a LAM, but sometimes I will do it if I'm trying to get a certain effect with the design. Now, before we get to the quilting, let's talk about needles and thread. Needles, Thread, and Bobbins for the Long Arm LAM's use industrial needles. Industrial needles have the same basic parts as a DSM needle, but they are made a little differently. First, the part of the needle that gets inserted into the machine is completely round. On the DSM, it's flat on one side, so you know which way to insert it. You probably have never bothered looking at a DSM needle very closely, because you always know which way is correct. On a LAM needle, we have to look for the long groove that travels down the shaft; that's the part that goes in front. Look at your DSM needles, and you will see a long groove down the front too! Industrial needles use a different needle numbering system. You can't exchange needles between the two, although some companies will list both needle sizes. To see the difference, LAM needles range from 2.5 - 4.5MR; DSM needles are usually numbered 70/10 up to 110/18. The needle that I stitch with the most is a 3.5MR, which is roughly equivalent to a 100/16 on a DSM. On your DSM, you will choose your needle type & size based on the fabric you are stitching, where on the LAM, we will choose the needle based on the thread being used. Really! Because we are stitching at higher speeds on a LAM, we use larger needles just to cut down on the friction that the thread experiences as we are quilting. If I use the same thread from my long arm for piecing on my DSM, I would use a 75/11 needle, but that same thread on Mr. Darcy uses a 100/16 needle. That's quite a difference! If I wanted to use a smaller needle on Mr. Darcy, I would have to slow down to keep my thread from breaking.
  063011 012 

Speaking of thread, there are many, many types of threads out there, and I truly believe that ANY machine can sew with ANY thread. However, I also know that Mr. Darcy has preferences, and there is a certain type of thread that he will run with no problems and very few adjustments, but if I change him to a different thread, I will have to do some trial and error to make it work. Some threads also have to be threaded differently through the machine, or the bobbins wound looser or tighter. Most long arms run best on thread cones, although many can also be set up to run using regular spools. Most quilters find it more economical to buy cones of thread instead of spools; we go through so much thread on a long arm that having cones is much better. There are so many choices for thread - cotton, polyester, metallic, and even silk - and everything in between. Each type of thread has different requirements for threading, speed, top & bobbin tension, and the needle size. I know that Mr. Darcy will run everything, but the setup time is much less if I stick to one type of thread for the majority of projects. Our bobbins are different too; Mr. Darcy uses an M sized bobbin (you can see it in the photo above), which is about 1" in diameter and 1/2" tall. Other long arms use L size bobbins, where DSM's will use a totally different kind called Class 15/A. The major difference between the bobbins is how much thread they can hold, and because Mr. Darcy uses the largest bobbin size, I have to change it much less often than if I were quilting on a DSM. Now, let's talk about the actual quilting! Quilting Styles on a Long Arm There are 3 major categories of quilting on a long arm: Hand Guided, Pattern Assisted, and Computerized, and different types of quilting in each. Let's talk a little about each one.
    • Hand Guided - The quilter is guiding the machine on their own by driving it with the handles. Mr. Darcy has two sets of handles, one in the front & one in the back. When I am hand-guiding, I use the handles in the front, and I quilt from left to right.
      • Freehand - This type of quilting just comes out of the quilter's head, and they will just work whatever pattern they decide for that area of the quilt to get the effect that they want.
062811 007 

 This is my very favorite free-hand design, and it's the first quilt I ever did with Mr. Darcy. 

102910 011

      • Ruler Work - This is done with the use of 1/4" thick acrylic templates. These are NOT the same as quilting rulers that you use to cut out blocks. They are specially made to accommodate the foot of the machine so that we don't accidentally stitch onto the ruler, and it is the slowest type of quilting because you have to hang onto the ruler with one hand and drive the machine with the other. You also have to be very careful and methodical, and there's a lot of stopping and starting (and sometimes ripping out) associated with this type of quilting. You would also use a ruler to do stitch in the ditch work, which makes SITD very expensive & time-consuming on a long arm.
022011 001 

 I had to use 9 different rulers to do the quilting on this project! 

022011 003
      • Microquilting - This type of quilting is very intricate and tiny, and is usually done sitting down at the long arm and using special tools to get really close to the quilt so you can control the machine better. Each of the squares in this sampler are only 3"!
033011 001  
    • Pattern-Assisted - In this type of quilting, the quilter is using some sort of predetermined pattern or tool, which gives a particular effect on a quilt. Many quilters find this the easiest type of long-arm quilting to start off with, because you don't have to think too much about where you're quilting next or trying to work your way out of a tight spot.
      • Pantograph - These are pre-printed, usually on a long roll of paper, and you use a laser pointer to guide you on the lines. On Mr. Darcy, he has a special shelf on the back of the machine to hold the pattern paper & the laser, so when I use a pantograph I have to quilt from the back of the machine, from right to left! The only bad part about having to quilt from the back is that you can't see what you are doing, so you have to trust that your quilting looks ok and your stitches are forming correctly. I always stop and check on the quilt periodically so I don't have lots of stitches to rip out if something went wrong.
011611 034 

 The great thing about a pantograph is that you don't have to follow the line precisely - nobody but the quilter knows exactly what it is supposed to look like! 

101711 008
      • Stencil -This is usually a thin piece of plastic that you can trace a design through, either onto a sheet of really thin transfer paper, or onto the quilt itself with a marking pen or chalk. Once the design is transferred to the quilt, you then follow the lines with the machine. Stenciling is usually done from the front of the machine. In this quilt, the center started with stencils of feathers and different shapes, which I then embellished free-hand.
      • Board/Stylus - This is similar to a pantograph, except you use a stylus in a hard template to trace lines exactly. It's a great method for making shapes that are very precise and regular, and I like to think of it as a nice balance between a pantograph and a ruler. I use this method for patterns like spirals or circles because they can be done a little bit faster than with rulers. Here is an example of the Baptist Fan pattern on a board:
072811 028 

 And here is what it looks like stitched onto a quilt: 
072811 021
  • Computerized - I can't show you any examples of computerized quilting because Mr. Darcy is not equipped with that feature, but computerized quilting is essentially where you can load a pattern into the machine, size it, tell the machine where to start & stop, and let the machine do all the work. If you've ever seen an embroidery machine working, it is very similar to that. It can be difficult to tell computerized quilting from the other types of quilting, but after you get some experience looking at different quilts, you can start to tell them apart from hand-guided and assisted. One thing I do know: no one will ever mistake my free-hand work for a computer. :)
Quilt by Hand, Quilt by Machine, Quilt by Checkbook At the end of the day, it's up to you to decide how you want to finish your quilts, either by hand, on your own machine, or by sending it out for someone else to finish for you. Everybody has their own likes & dislikes about each stage of the process for making a quilt, and everyone has their own reasons for choosing a method of quilting. I don't hand quilt myself because I think it's too slow and I don't like my stitching, but I can appreciate the beauty of hand quilting that other people do. On the other extreme, I don't think I will ever move to a computerized long arm, because I like having that connection to the quilt and being able to express myself through my quilting. I can appreciate my imperfections here, and the fact that I can get something quilted in a couple of hours instead of weeks or months. Just like I have preferences for my own method of quilting, you will also make a choice about whether you will do the quilting yourself or have someone else do it. This could be for many reasons - maybe you send it to someone because you don't feel confident at your own quilting abilities, or you don't want to fight with a king sized quilt through a 5" harp or, maybe you just don't like the actual quilting part! Whatever your reason, don't ever let anyone make you feel like you are not a quilter if you don't do every step on every quilt. I much prefer quilts to be finished than sitting in a box on a shelf because someone didn't, couldn't, or wouldn't quilt it.

050811 017 

If you are thinking about sending your quilts out to someone else to quilt, I highly recommend that you do some research on the things you need to do to prepare your quilt for long arming. Because of the way the quilt is loaded and the differences in how we quilt, you will have to do a few extra steps to make sure your quilt is ready. On my own website, I have a guide that you can read and print that is called, "Preparing Your Quilt for Long Arm Quilting." Believe it or not, your preparation begins before you even attach your borders! In addition to long arm quilting, I am also a Designer, Teacher, and Editor-in-Chief of a digital magazine. I've gotten to be quite an expert on using fabric die cutting systems, so if you are interested in learning more about that, you can see my patterns, tutorials & videos on my Quilt Possible! website ( My magazine is also related to die cutting, and is called Blocks to Die For! It features patterns & cutting charts to help people use their cutting dies. If you want to learn more about long arm quilting or you're interested in sending me a quilt, I keep a separate site called LoveBug Studios. I maintain a blog where I post about all the quilts I work on, and there are frequently tips and lessons for those who are long arm quilting or who want to learn more about it.

Post a Comment

Thank you for your comments... I try to reply to all of them personally, but sometimes life is just too fast to do that... But I love hearing from you...