Workshop Wednesday: 5 Beginning Longarm Tips

Out of the wide variety of techniques and tools quilters use today, I would say that longarm quilting is the most intimidating and seemingly out of reach, and for good reason.

First of all, the machines themselves are big, much bigger than domestic sewing machines. Second of all, there’s the price tag, which again is much bigger than those of most domestic sewing machines.

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my first queen-size quilt top loaded on the Grace Q’nique longarm and ready to go

And then there’s having to learn a new way of sewing; with a longarm, you move the machine across the stationary quilt sandwich, and it feels like learning to drive rather than sewing at first, at least to me.

As you’ve probably read, we recently got a Grace Q’nique longarm machine set up in the sewing room here in the office for our use. Editor Lori Baker has blogged about her adventures so far using it and a smaller Handi Quilter, both her successes and her challenges, which proves that even experienced domestic machine quilters have a lot to learn when it comes to getting started on a longarm.

As I and my colleagues have been taking turns on the machines I’ve been taking mental notes on things we learned as newbie longarmers.

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Lori and Kelly pin Kelly’s quilt top in place along the top raw edge after loading the backing and batting

“But Mary Kate,” I hear you thinking, “I’m not in the market to buy a longarm. Why does this matter to me?” I get it — I’m not in the market to buy a longarm, either. But there are shops out there that rent time on their longarm machines, and with assistance and a little practice you may be able to finish your own quilts with basic quilting in a fraction of the time you’d spend at your domestic machine.

Here are a few tips, in no particular order:

1) If you’re using batting that was packaged in a bag and that didn’t come directly off a bolt, put it in the dryer on low heat to try to get the wrinkles out before you load your quilt on the machine.

When you pin baste or thread baste a quilt sandwich for domestic machine or hand quilting, you have the opportunity to make sure the batting is flat and smooth as you baste. With my first longarmed quilt, I discovered that letting the batting “relax” for a few days after taking it out of its bag wasn’t enough to really get the creases out. Because the batting isn’t pinned to anything but “floats” between the backing and top, which are pinned to rollers, it’s hard to keep it flat and smooth as you go if it isn’t already flat and smooth.

From now on, if there are any wrinkles in a batting I want to put onto a longarm, I’ll put it through a wrinkle-rid cycle in my dryer first.

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corsage pins that hold the quilt top to the backing and batting are pointed away from the center and toward the sides

2) When using corsage pins to secure the backing and top to the canvas leaders that are attached to the rolling bars, it’s best to always have them pointed away from the center and toward the sides. This way, when you smooth out the layers on the bars after rolling them to advance the quilt, you can run your hands out from the center and you won’t get pricked by the pins.

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The quilt top is pinned along its bottom raw edge to a canvas leader and then rolled taut onto a roller

3) Your quilt top and your batting both need to have top and bottom raw edges that are square and trimmed.

When I use a pieced backing for a machine-quilted quilt, I don’t generally trim the raw edges to make them even since they’re going to get cut off later anyway. However, because when you longarm you pin the backing to canvas leaders on both the top and bottom edges and use clamps along the sides to hold it taut, it’s important for the raw edges to be square.

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Kelly at work on the longarm

4) Take the depth of the working area or quiltable space available on the longarm into consideration when planning your quilting motifs, which is equivalent to the throat space of the machine.

When you load your quilt, find the upper and lower limits of the machine by passing it over the quilt without doing any quilting; feel how far you can go before it bumps into the roller bars, and plan accordingly. It’s a rather awkward feeling to be quilting some lovely, graceful curve only to hit the bar and end up with a decidedly non-lovely shape. Someone even suggested that you leave the needle down in your quilt sandwich as you advance it so that you know exactly what your upper limit will be for your next pass.

5) From associate editor Gigi Khalsa comes a tip I’m going to try the next time I’m at the longarm:

“It was tricky to get the hang of moving the handles and getting a feel for how the machine moves. Inertia played a bigger role than I had expected. One thing that helped me get better results was gently lifting up on the handles as I moved the machine, rather than just pushing/pulling. It may have been all in my head but I felt that the lifting gave me more control over the movement of the machine.”

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I’m using my Delectable Mountains quilt as my second attempt at quilting on the longarm

I’m actually in the middle of my second attempt on the longarm, a Delectable Mountains throw quilt, and I’m trying something a little more ambitious than the wavy horizontal lines I did with my first — not a lot more ambitious, just a little. I’ve run into some tension problems along the way so I’m troubleshooting that with Lori’s assistance.

If you’re looking for expert guidance on using a longarm, we have dozens of videos on QNNtv.com that you’ll want to see, in particular “Quilt It! The Longarm Quilting Show” hosted by Jodie Davis.

A few years ago I got to interview Luke Haynes for an episode of Quilters Newsletter TV, followed by an episode in which he demonstrated his improvisational longarm techniques. You can view a preview of the episode below and view the entire show on QNNtv.com.

I’m pretty certain I’m never going to win awards for beautiful longarm quilting, and I’m OK with that. But that’s not to say that I don’t want to keep trying to improve my skills; I love the idea of doing something verging on complex. For now, though, I’m just looking forward to progressing from “absolute beginner” to “confident beginner.” And the only way for that to happen is keep practicing!

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About Mary Kate Karr-Petras

Mary Kate is an associate editor at McCall's Quilting and McCall's Quick Quilts. If you ask her what type of quilter she considers herself, she'll answer, "Slow." Favorite techniques include hand quilting, both traditional and big stitch, but she also loves her walking foot and keeps meaning to get better acquainted with her open-toe embroidery foot.
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