so you think you want a long-arm quilting machine do you?

quilting

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.

thread

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.

parts

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!

tools

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

bobbins

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!

26 Comments

  1. Posted October 16, 2009 at 12:21 am | Permalink

    Thanks so much for this article! It has given me a lot to think about. Too bad I am still a long way off from being able to afford a longarm purchase! LOL

  2. Alma
    Posted October 16, 2009 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

    Great post. I have been thinking about buying a long-arm but have decided to put it off for now. Weeks, what brand machine do you have? Given your experience I can see how you might prefer not to say, but it would be helpful to those of us who are weighing which machine to purchase (someday.)

  3. Posted October 16, 2009 at 5:05 pm | Permalink

    In response to Alma’s question, I intentionally did not mention the brand name because the problems that we had would have happened on any machine if the dealer sets it up incorrectly. Tension problems are universal to long-arms and while I would never by anything from our former dealer again, I do recommend our brand to others. I also know that there have been a lot of changes to machines in the 10 years since we bought ours and wouldn’t want to misrepresent any brand. If you’re considering buying one, test drive them and see what the dealer has to offer.

  4. MiChal
    Posted October 19, 2009 at 6:10 pm | Permalink

    After my second year to the International Quilt Festival in Houston, where I read this post after I’d plopped down on the floor for a much-needed break, I made the commitment. I bought a long-arm machine! I’m hoping to do enough quilts to pay for the machine and maybe purchase a few other fun doodads. I’ll keep you posted!

  5. Mary Ann/Ca
    Posted October 20, 2009 at 9:35 pm | Permalink

    Although I don’t have a long arm I can attest to the fact that Gina is always there for her customers! Our Friendship Group meets in her shop and she and her staff are always thinking of ways to help us enjoy the time together…except for the part about always having irresistible fabric to fee the obsession!

  6. Ching Wu
    Posted October 22, 2009 at 4:43 am | Permalink

    Thank you for the great post. I am looking into buying a long arm and your post really helped. I love your work and your blog.
    Thanks.

  7. Posted October 23, 2009 at 5:45 pm | Permalink

    Wonderful post. I have been thinking about long arms ever since my Bush FIre Quilt Project. You have provided so much more to think about.

  8. TheaM
    Posted October 28, 2009 at 6:01 am | Permalink

    Thanks, Weeks, this is an excellent assessment – and I’d like to add that table/frame stability cannot be overemphasized.
    If you have uneven floors, you will have a real struggle to get ANY long arm to work properly, and it will be even more exhausting and frustrating. Setting up the frame/table is the foundation of the whole thing – don’t skimp on the frame.
    Also, I’ve had the tension change as I was quilting – check the tension every time you advance the quilt to be sure it is constant.
    I’ve been using my long arm for over a year, and I am still not confident enough to quilt for others. I do better on small quilts with my stationary machine. I was told that the ‘adjustable table’ would compensate for my uneven floor, but the table sags in the middle – I now wish I had invested in the heavy duty frame instead.

  9. Lisa
    Posted December 26, 2009 at 8:55 pm | Permalink

    I bought a new longarm a couple of months ago (after working on a friend’s similar model for almost a year) and am having major tension issues! I would love to get the “list of 100 things to check” on the tension that you referred to in your article. Can you post it?

  10. Linda Mangold
    Posted February 21, 2010 at 10:20 am | Permalink

    I am trying to buy a long arm. The rep didn’t come to the show. Does anyone have a Nolting? Which brand is the most reliable , ie. without problems?

  11. Brenda
    Posted March 22, 2010 at 7:58 pm | Permalink

    Does any one know how to oil a HQ16? The machine works great no problems, I just didn’t get any support from the dealer

  12. Brenda Garcia
    Posted March 22, 2010 at 8:00 pm | Permalink

    I need help oiling my HQ16, its not like you can take in. thanks

  13. Posted March 22, 2010 at 10:44 pm | Permalink

    Brenda–I’d call the manufacturer and ask. If the dealer isn’t supporting you the manufacturer should. My bet is that there’s a diagram they call email you. Good luck.

  14. Candy
    Posted September 1, 2012 at 8:05 pm | Permalink

    Hi there ..there is a wonderful team of people that will help you they are called Quilting Delight 503-658-1601 they are in Oregon but I live in Indiana and they have offered to even deliver my machine to me..How about that for customer service?

  15. Ginka
    Posted September 17, 2012 at 9:02 pm | Permalink

    Wow, Weeks so sorry for what sounds like a very frustrating start with Long Arm quilting. I began shopping for a longarm in early 09. My research included, reading blog posts about different machine brands and their positive and negative attributes and attending a quilt show and trying out the 5 different brands that were represented there. I went to the show 4 days in a row and spent the entire time running back and forth to the different booths trying the machines and talking to the sales people. I chose my machine brand at that show and purchased in early 2010. A few weeks after the machine arrived I attended a 3 day course at one of the dealerships. In 3 days I learned how to load a quilt, quilt a pantograph, do some cool free hand edge to edge designs and how to adjust the machine tension. Everyone in the class did well and went home ready to quilt. That was pretty much it and it has been smooth sailing for the past 2 years. I have recently bought a TOWA bobbin tension gauge and that has taken all of the guess work out of adjusting tension.
    Long Arm quilting has been very easy to learn and the machine is 100% reliable. My manufacturer has a 24/7 hotline and I have never had a problem that couldn’t be solved in a 1 hour phone conversation. The few times I called the dealer were basically user error problems and now that I have been on the machine for 2+ years I haven’t had the need to call in over a year.
    I would encourage anyone considering purchasing a longarm to spend some time on the computer reading different longarm blog posts before you choose a machine.

  16. Posted January 8, 2013 at 12:23 am | Permalink

    I have a Gracie frame, and a sewing machine with I beleive a 38 arm. I bought it from the internet, and have found that I have problems with thread. I was wondering if you take trade in if I were to find the right long arm for me at your store?

    Thank you for your help
    Lola Johansen

    • Weeks Ringle
      Posted January 8, 2013 at 11:08 am | Permalink

      Sorry, we do not operate a retail store nor do we sell sewing machines or long-arm machines.

  17. Trina
    Posted February 13, 2013 at 9:24 pm | Permalink

    Thank you so much for taking the time to educate all of us on this matter! I have been wanting to purchase a long arm for quite some time, and had my concerns, even though I didn’t know exactly what they were! I guess you could say I have been too intimidated to make the leap, the commitment! You sure gave me a lot to think about.. I have to tell you, I still have mixed feelings on the matter. There are definitely as many pros as cons it seems. Thank you, again, for the info.

    Trina

    • Trina
      Posted February 13, 2013 at 9:29 pm | Permalink

      Also, if there was one particular long arm, OR quilting machine, that you would recommend to a newbie, what would that be?? I’m not sure what the advantages, or disadvantages there are too using a quilting machine vs a long arm. I am wanting to start a business, selling baby blankets to my local boutiques, the only way to do this and make any money, is to be efficient of course.. so which one would you recommend?

  18. Kathryn Smith
    Posted April 24, 2013 at 1:22 am | Permalink

    I am going to be buying a long arm quilter and was wondering if there’s a dealer in the Austin area that will give lessons with purchase. I love putting together the quilts but its getting harder to get away with tie offs or straight lines so I need to take it up a few notches. Thank you.

  19. Rosie
    Posted September 1, 2013 at 11:10 am | Permalink

    I have been looking for a set down type of quilting machine. Personal use only, but as many of the post state, I am reluctant to ‘jump in’ on purchasing. It’s a lot of money to spend to find out it isn’t what you hoped it would be. I am new to quilting but I want more control over how the quilts are to be quilted, so I thought I would do it myself. Thanks so much for taking the time to post the ‘pro’s and con’s’. Lets me see I am not the only one holding back and for a lot of the same reasons.

  20. Max Shaver Jr.
    Posted December 1, 2013 at 9:52 am | Permalink

    My wife just bought a 18″long arm quilter and Inspira iquilt frame. She was quilting her third quilt yesterday, and the machine suddenly stopped. No power to the machine,nothing! She checked the outlet, and all the connections,allgood. Any ideas what it might be? Oh she has a Viking/orTinlizze no lable machine, she bought from a company online. She is just sick! Any thoughts on what to check.
    ?


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