Adventures in Quilting: Using the Long Arm

I’m not sure about other quilters, but one reason I machine quilt is to finish the quilt. I only saw tied quilts when I was growing up, and once the top was finished tying the quilt brought a quick end to the project. I remember seeing a hand quilted whole cloth quilt hanging on the wall of summer house my grandmother cleaned when I was eleven and since it was not tied I did not consider it a quilt. Later, I’m not sure when exactly but I was not eleven, I learned quilts could be both tied and stitched. I also saw much the quilting added to the finished quilt. 

Twenty-something years ago I sat with a group of ladies who met weekly to hand quilt. I learned to use the thimble and rock the needle catching four or five stitches before pulling it through all the layers. If completing a full-sized top took weeks for the group, how long would it take me working alone? When the Singer machine I had since college broke down I invested in a machine that I could also use to machine quilt. This solved my time problem but using a home machine to quilt a bed sized quilt resulted in some interesting challenges such as maneuvering the bulk of back, batting, and top in the tiny space of my machine bed. There is also the challenge of basting everything and not have it shift while moving the quilt through the machine without puckering one side or another.  Eventually, I figured out a system that worked for me, but when it was for something extra special, I’d send the top out to a quilter who had a long arm machine.

Then I had a job change and stopped quilting. This year I started back, in part because of the WPA project I’m working through, and in part because of my stepdaughter’s wedding quilt. Her September 1 wedding put me on a deadline. I decided on the quilt in February. A wedding quilt definitely qualifies as “extra special” and I wanted to have it out to a quilter in early June to have it back in time for the wedding. While researching quilters in my area I discovered a nearby quilt shop that had a long arm machine I could rent time on. Why send it out when I could do it myself?

I signed up for the introductory class in July. I went back and practiced on a crib quilt. I returned with a twin quilt and finished about 24 inches in my two-hour time slot. I signed up for a four-hour slot a month before the wedding which I postponed a week because I needed to finish piecing the top together.  Less than one month before the wedding and I took this photo of the last twelve blocks to sew together. It took another three days to complete the top.

With the top and back ironed and squared up, I headed to the quilt shop for an afternoon of quilting on the long arm. I learned a couple of big differences between quilting on my home machine and quilting on the long arm. The first is that the batting needed to be at least 5 inches larger than the top to move the needle over the quilt. The second is the quilt stays in one place while the machine moves. This means I need to think differently about the quilt design I want because I can only quilt about 18 inches at a time. There is no stitching in the ditch across the diagonal on the long arm. I suppose it is possible, but it is not continuous. The best option for me as a beginner on the long arm was an all over design and I thought I would use a pantogram, a printed design I could follow for a section, then roll the quilt on the machine and do the next section.

Getting the backing, batting, top, and pantogram all lined up on the machine took one and a half of the four hours. I sewed across the top. I basted the first 18 inches of the sides. I took my place to follow the pantogram.


I forgot to take out a pin and broke the needle…and did something to the machine. The shop owner put in a new needle. We tried again and the thread broke. We rethreaded the machine, and the thread broke again, and again.

By this point, I abandoned thoughts of the pantogram and decided on a simple all over meander.

The owner checked the alignment of bobbin casing in the machine, which I was told was a delicate procedure and not a simple fix. We rethreaded the machine and cheered it sewed evenly for a couple of inches and stopped smiling when the thread broke again. The owner kept trying to fix the machine and I mentally revised my Plan B to Plan Q, take it home and figure it out. After 45 minutes trying to figure out how to make it work right, the owner sent me home. 

I took the quilt over to the large table to fold it up to take it home when I discovered that the backing was six inches short on the bottom. My frustration of 2 1/2 hours and next to nothing done turned into a stunned sense of relief that I didn’t have to fix that mistake.

I broke it, I thought while driving home, I broke a machine that costs more than a new car! The owner called the next day saying the long arm was fixed and available if I wanted to come. I already had plans for that day and the hour drive to and from the shop winding through woods, farmland and across a covered bridge was beginning to feel like wasted time.

Here I was, now ten days until the wedding, realizing I now needed to do what I didn’t want to when I started planning this quilt; machine quilt it on my home machine. Ten days was not long enough to get it to a quilter and back, at least not comfortably. Three, or was it four, days hunched over my machine and up close and personal with this quilt meant I saw all the flaws, all the missed points, all the little puckers, and kept reminding myself that finished is better than perfect, and finished in time for the wedding is way better than perfect.

I have other tops I need to quilt and I also realize that most all of the quilts I machine quilted are just fine. It is not quite like riding a bike again after years of being away, it is about honing the skills I learned several years ago and practice, practice, practice.


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