As a new quilter or modern patchwork enthusiast, you might have heard people talking about a “Long Arm” and wondered what a long arm quilting machine does or even if you need to buy one yourself.
To answer this, first, I need to run through some terminology.
Strictly speaking, quilting is the stitching of several layers together, i.e. Your backing, batting and quilt top, while patchwork is the process of putting your quilt top together.
These days more often than not when someone says they have been “quilting” they are implying a much broader range starting from the entire process of making a quilt from start to finish which would normally be ok. However, in the context of a long-arm or mid-arm quilting machine, quilting is sewing the layers together, and not the process of patchwork. Now that we have that clear…
What is a Long-Arm Machine?
A long-arm machine is a specialised machine for quilting. While a domestic sewing machine is excellent for a whole host of sewing activities, such as garments, patchwork and quilting layers together, a long arm quilt machine primarily has one function – quilting.
The long arm machine is usually set up with a frame and a set of rollers which your quilt top will be mounted on. The quilt top is then stretched a little so it is flat and (which is why it is essential to ensure you have good secure seams in your quilt top) and then the quilter moves the machine over the quilt to stitch it together. This differs from quilting on a domestic sewing machine because the domestic machine you move the quilt under the needle, whereas with a long arm quilting machine the needle moves over the surface of the quilt top.
Is there a difference between a long-arm and a mid-arm?
Essentially a mid-arm is slightly smaller. While a Long Arm Machine will have a throat of 18-24 inches, a mid-arm has between 12-17 inches. This means that a mid-arm machine is able to tackle smaller projects more easily such as mug-rugs while still being able to manage larger quilts as well.
If I want to quilt, Do I need a long-arm machine?
The short answer is no – you don’t need one yet. Although you may decide to invest in one in the future. For now its perfectly ok to use your domestic sewing machine (once it is basted you can roll it using pool noodles or scrunch it to fit it into your machine).
A long arm quilting machine is large and expensive – so it’s not likely that all quilters will be able to accommodate one, afford one, or in fact even need a long arm machine. When I say that they are large, a friend of mine had to dedicate an entire spare bedroom just to her long arm machine. I know others, who have built special studios to house theirs or have taken over the garage. The cost of buying these machines can range from $4000 for a basic second-hand model through to over $40,000 for one with computerisation and built -in stitch patterns. Many of us simply do not have that kind of money to spend or the space available in our homes, and that’s OK. It is possible to do your quilting on your regular sewing machine.
If you really wanted to give a long-arm a go, there are some places that will hire their machine to private users, however more commonly, if you really think your quilt is too large for you to handle at home, you can send your patchwork top to someone who does own a long-arm (or mid-arm) machine and pay them to do it for you!
So... I can pay someone to quilt for me?
Yes! There are a lot of lovely quilters who own long-arms and have made it their business to quilt!
These quilters are often highly skilled and will do a beautiful job of quilting your patchwork creation for you. In fact a simple google search and you may even find there is someone who lives near you who does it! In the past I have had two of my quilts quilted by a long-armer here in New Zealand and I loved the resulting pattern on both. While usually I stick to straight lines on my domestic machine, these patterns were more complex and certainly beyond my own quilting capabilities!
My Lion Brave Quilt is one that I outsourced the quilting on, as I felt it was too large for me to quilt at home, and moreover that my own quilting skills would not do it justice! It was quilted by Sandra from Wise Owl Quilting in Tauranga, New Zealand. The beautiful stitch work she used compliments the patchwork pattern beautifully.
What does it cost?
The cost varies depending on a number of factors, such as the size of your quilt top, the type of machine your long-arm provider has, the type of stitch pattern you have asked for, how experienced (and in demand) they are, and if you supply the batting and backing or they do. Plus many quilting service providers will offer to bind your quilt for an additional fee too.
Usually a mid or long arm quilting service will be charged out by the square inch. But the best place to start is by asking! Most long-arm service providers will happily provide you with an estimate before you send your precious quilt top to them. They also give you some pointers on how to prepare your quilt before you send it off, such as trimming loose threads and pressing. Not all all long-arm services have the same requirements or capabilities, so having a conversation with them either over the phone or by email is always a good place to start.
I’m hoping that clears up what a long-arm quilting machine and a quilting service does for you! If you have any more questions be sure to leave a comment and I will try to answer for you!