A comment from a Craft Nectar reader prompted me to write about the pros and cons of owning a long-arm quilting machine. Initially I wrote a post and then decided that I should invite Heidi Kaisand of APQS and Gina Halladay, a Gammill dealer, to give you their points of view as well. So although this is a very long post, I think the information you’ll read about will be invaluable if you’re considering buying a machine that costs as much as some new cars.
Once I read their thoughts it was clear that much of the negative parts of our experience of owning a long-arm was the result of having been the customer of what appears to have been the worst long-arm dealer ever. Happily for you that dealer is no longer in business. For example Gina mentions “a technician” and “a service call.” We’ve owned a long-arm for 10 years and have never seen a “technician” and never experienced a “service call.” Although I think our experience was particularly awful with our dealer, we have met several people who have purchased long-arm but rarely use them because they “can’t get them to work right.” Obviously these people haven’t seen a “technician” or had a “service call” either. So as you read about FunQuilts’ experience with owning a long-arm, keep in mind that choosing a good dealer appears to be as important as choosing the right machine.
Our experience at FunQuilts with owning a long-arm:
We first bought our long-arm machine in 1999, when I was oh-so-naïve, and had been in business just two months. We went to the long-arm dealer 90 minutes away and watched the demonstration of their long-arm. It looked and sounded pretty straightforward. I was thinking that a long-arm was a large version of a sewing machine and that you’d plug it in and it would just, you know, work. Of course we had no idea that the dealer from whom we ending up buying our machine had set up our machine totally incorrectly. The thread was wrong. The threading was wrong. The needles were wrong. It was a disaster and we had no resources to help us figure it out. The dealer claimed that he had set up everything correctly and told us that it was because we wanted to use thin Quilters Dream cotton batting instead of the high-loft polyester he recommended. Over my dead body, I thought. He made it clear that he was not willing to help us use our machine with cotton batting and cotton thread.
It took us two weeks and countless ruined quilts to figure out how to correct all of the mistakes, find the right thread and needles and another week of so to become competent in the quilting. It was not the start we hoped for and our customers, which included two New York museums and an interior designer who hired us to make 21 quilts for a B&B, were waiting. Bill figured out most of the problems and corrected them in those first few months, but it took a year or two to stop being nervous about whether or not the machine would quilt consistently. In those days there were no instructional DVDs or online tutorials.
Most long-armers will tell you that it’s the tension problems that will kill you. One long-armer gave us a list of 100 things to check when you start having tension problems. That’s right. 100 possible causes of your tension problems. Start checking.
We used to rent our long-arm out to the general public but stopped when one woman ignored our instruction to stop the machine before she stopped moving the machine head. She casually stopped the machine head and looked up at the clock while the machine was still running. That one moment messed up the machine so much that Bill ended up spending a couple of days getting everything back in working order. T-shirt quilts are a particular nightmare on our machine because of the bulky seams. Then there were months and months that we’d have a different horrible tension problem that would only show up on the back of the quilt. You’d be quilting for hours and then, gasp!, you look at the back and it’s a wreck. Then we’d spend a few hours ripping out all of that stitching.
There’s also the issue of thread. We only primarily Signature cotton thread on our machine and have had problems using other brands of thread, which affects the colors you can quilt with. A friend of ours, who also owns a long-arm, finds that Signature causes problems for her machine and she can only use Aurafil threads.
It’s been several years since we’ve have a huge issue with our long-arm but I still think of it as being a totally different experience than owning a sewing machine. I always tell people that if you want to own a long-arm you need to make a commitment not just to the space it will take and the money it will cost you, you also need to make a commitment to learning how to maintain the machine and repair it. At least where we live in Chicago there is no “Long-arm quilting machine repair” listed in the Yellow Pages. The folks we’ve called at the factory for parts have been helpful but when we have tension problems, we’re on our own. People tell me that the reliability of the machines has improved and that may be true with the newer models.
Now for the good part. It’s incredible to be able to densely quilt a queen size quilt in a day. Even when I hand-quilt I first put the quilt on the long-arm and baste it together. It’s so much faster and more comfortable than bending over on the floor with 50,000 safety pins. Ugh! I also find that quilting on a long-arm is very meditative. Maybe because I’ve done hundreds of quilts on it I look forward to a day of quilting on it, as long as everything works.
People always ask me my opinion of their plan to buy a machine and pay for it by quilting quilts for other people. OK. Let’s say they’re up for the maintenance issues, then I ask them about their physical fitness. “How’s your back?” I ‘ll ask. “Good upper body stamina?” I’ll add. I exercise daily and have a strong back so I do not find it tiring to quilt for five or six hours at a time. Although it doesn’t require strength to machine quilt for hours and hours, it does require stamina. Many people who don’t regularly exercise have rented our machine have told me that they find it very tiring after two or three hours. When quilting a bed-size quilt, they prefer to start the quilt one evening and come the next day to finish it up because they get too tired trying to do it all at one time. They love using it every few months but would have a hard time physically doing it day after day.
I do, however, think there is a huge market for renting out time on long-arm machines. If you’re a people person and have mastered the mechanical part of it, I think you’d find that a lot of people have quilt tops that they’d like to finish but would prefer to save some money and do it themselves.
For people who want to start a quilt finishing business, I would advise them to start out slowly. It will take you awhile to get to know the machine and it will take some time for your body to build up the stamina it takes to quilt on a long-arm all day long. Don’t plan to go from never having spent a whole day quilting on a long-arm to using it eight hours a day.
Lastly, I’d advise you to ask for references from the dealer and talk to others who have bought long-arms from that dealer. See if they’ve ever seen a “technician” or experienced a “service call.” I can only dream about how great that would have been all these years.
From Gina Halliday, a Gammill dealer:
Hey Weeks! Thanks for the chance to reply.
Basic maintenance of a long-arm machine has been made even easier in recent months and years because of all of the maintenance, tips and techniques that have been published on video postings and on websites, and because of the interaction of long-arm users on Internet chats and forums. There is tons of valuable info out there!
Like many quilters, I personally am a visual learner and learn better by seeing and doing than by reading a manual.
But I agree with you Weeks, a long arm is not just another sewing machine! And I tell my customers that you must be willing to understand how your machine works and sounds. I encourage owners to learn as much as they can about the maintenance and care of their machine. And to watch a technician during a service call and to ask lots of questions.
Thread and bobbin tension is adjusted as you change thread weights, types of batting and fabrics used to make the quilt. A long-arm can quilt on denim or silk, cotton or polyester, but minor machine adjustments need to be made.
Racking up and preparing a quilt for the long-arm is a time consuming process as well. But with practice, you can get very efficient at it! Having a sturdy table (that has been put together properly and is level), poles and one that has straight canvas leaders which does not bow or bend is necessary for great quilting and quilt tension.
The best advice I give new long-arm owners is to be willing to put in the time to practice your quilting skills and to not stress out too much! Play with your machine, get to know it and have fun!
Buy a machine from an authorized dealer who has a staff and technicians available to answer questions and trouble shoot over the phone and/or in person. And that offers hands on training in machine usage and maintenance. Besides price, consider warranties, table stability, service, machine features, training, re-sale values, etc. And like when you buy a new car, be willing to test drive and use before buying. Most long-arm dealers are willing to let you spend some quality time on a machine before buying it. (We get lots of charity quilts quilted by those who are test driving a machine!)
Thanks Weeks! And if you would like to buy a Gammill…. I would love to help!
From Heidi Kaisand of APQS:
APQS long-arm quilting machines are made in the heart of the country–Carroll, Iowa. Each machine is hand-made and carefully tested and checked to pass high standards of stitch quality. But what happens when you purchase a machine?
With the purchase of your machine you get:
* free beginner’s class from local sales rep or Director of Education Dawn Cavanaugh in Des Moines
* CD manual–equilavant of 330 page printed manual. Includes detailed written instructions and photographs to make assemblying your machine easy, as well as instructions for loading the machine and practicing your skills.
* Maintenance CD–an hour of Dawn Cavanaugh showing you how to load a machine, thread it, oil the bobbin case, etc.
Other support available from APQS:
* Relationship with local sales rep ensures quality support and education.
* 2 full-time technical support people at our 800# between 8 and 5 p.m. Monday-Friday.
* 24/7 public forum on apqs.com that offers support for everyone
* 2-day maintenance class available at factory for $200
* 3-hour mainenance class available at major quilt shows for nominal fee
* Advanced classes available from Dawn Cavanaugh in Des Moines
A final note from Weeks:
Thanks to Gina and Heidi for sharing their perspectives. I hope you learned as much as I did. Apparently a lot more resources are available that we didn’t know about. You can be sure I’ll be looking for those maintenance tutorials and joining those internet groups. Happy Quilting!