Thoughts on Choosing a Longarm Quilting Machine

by Cindy Roth

Nearly every day, I am asked this question – “What quilting machine should I get?” I truthfully have to answer, “It depends,” and I begin to ask questions of my own.

My questions are:

What are you planning on doing with your quilting machine? (Besides the obvious answer of quilting quilts.)

Are you planning on completing a few quilts a year for yourself and family?
Are you planning on starting a machine quilting business?
If you are planning on starting a business, will it be a full time or part time business?
Do you have an idea of how many quilts per week/month/year you want to quilt for others?
The answers to these questions will influence the choices you make on the quilting machine you need to purchase.

Personally, I am a firm believer in the “big girl” quilting machine. These are the industrial style machines, which are also the more expensive quilting machines.

(Note: I am NOT affiliated with any particular quilting machine manufacturer, but I do have and use a Gammill Plus machine. This articles is NOT a sales pitch for any particular machine.)

I believe that the “big girl” quilting machines are built for the abuse that repeated, possible / probable daily, machine quilting will place on the machine. The “big girl” machines are the big 4 of the machine quilting world – Gammill, APQS, Nolting and A-1 ALL these machines are WORKHORSE machines and they will give you YEARS of service with little or no problems (once you have bonded with your machine.)

With the above being said, if you are planning on completing only a few quilts per year for yourself and family, then a smaller, home version quilting machine may be the best for you. These smaller machines usually cost less, have a smaller workspace (I’ll discuss this later) and, in my opinion, are not built for the extreme use that a full time, machine quilting business, will place upon them.

Let’s talk about some of the features of quilting machines -

Size of the Workspace

One of the most important things to think about before purchasing a quilting machine is how big is the workspace? The workspace is defined as the depth of the area, or section, that the quilting machine moves in to stitch the layers of the quilt together. (The length of the workspace is determined by the length of the table and the width of the quilt. More on that later.)

No matter the depth of the workspace, subtract about 4 inches from this. Example, an 18 inch workspace would really equal about 14 inches, a 24 inch workspace would equal about 20 inches. The 4 inches that is subtracted allows for the “roll up” of the completed quilt on the take up roller as it is being quilted. At the beginning (top) of the quilt, where there is minimal “roll up” and you may have the full space to work in. But, as the quilt is completed and more of the quilt is placed on the take up roller, your workspace begins to get limited. If you were quilting a king size quilt with a moderately fluffy batting, your workspace would be even more limited by the time you got to the bottom of the quilt. This WILL affect the patterns you will be able to stitch on a quilt and it will also affect your productivity.

Some quilting machine manufacturers offer their quilting machines in different workspace sizes. Gammill offers several different workspace sizes – the Premier with an 18 inch workspace, the Classic with a 24 inch workspace and the Optimum with a 30 inch workspace. Nolting also has several sizes of quilting machine workspaces from 18 inches to 30 inches, the APQS Millennium which has a workspace of 26 inches and the A-1 quilting machine has a 23 inch workspace.

You may begin to think that “more space is better!” but there is something else you need to think about – your height. If you are a short person, your arm length may not be able to reach the whole area of a 30 + inch workspace! If you are tall and your arms are longer, you may be able to use a 30 inch machine with no problems. (I am 6 feet tall and in the past I have had a 30 inch machine which I had no problem using. At this time I have a 24 inch machine and I love it!) You have to determine which workspace will work best for you.

Recommendation – Purchase a quilting machine that has a minimum workspace of 18 inches, but a workspace of 24 – 26 inches will give you the best results. If you are taller, you may opt for a 30 inch workspace. In my opinion, for a machine quilting business, anything less than 18 inches will reduce your productivity, limit your pattern selection, and potentially, limit your profits.

Quilting Machine Productivity

Let’s assume the following – you want to work on a quilt that is 100 inches in length and you are going to quilt an all over, free hand design, using as much of the workspace as you can. For this example, width of the machine is not important, just the size of the workspace.

Let’s assume that your quilting machine has a usable space of 14 inches. Take the length of the quilt, 100 inches, and divide it by 14 inches, the size of your workspace. This gives you the number of “roll ups” you will need to complete the quilt. A “roll up” is when you “roll up” the quilted section of the quilt onto the take up roller and create a new (un-quilted) area to work in. For this example you will have 7.14 roll ups which is rounded up to 8. To complete this quilt, you will need to roll up your quilt 8 times.

Each time you roll up a quilt, there is a procedure that you must do which includes rolling the quilt onto the take up roller, smoothing the newly exposed quilt layers, possibly changing the color of threads, adjusting patterns, adjusting side clamps, etc. Let’s assume that each roll up takes 5 minutes to complete. If you have 8 roll ups, you will need about 40 minutes to complete them all.

Let’s now assume you have the same quilt but your quilting machine has a 20 inch usable workspace. You will need only 5 roll ups to complete your quilt – 100 inches of quilt divided by 20 inch workspace = 5 roll ups. Again, let’s assume it takes 5 minutes per roll up. Now you will need only 25 minutes to complete all the roll ups!

Remember that these numbers do not include the actual quilting time of any pattern or designs.

You may think that this is not a big difference, but, believe me, in the long run, it is! This is less wear and tear on your body (legs ache when standing for a while and walking around your machine many times!) less wear and tear on your machine and it means you can get your quilting done in that much less time.

If you are quilting as a business, the less time it takes you to finish a quilt, the more $$$ you will make!

The Table or Frame of the Quilting Machine

The “big girl” quilting machines have tables that are built for the abuse that a machine quilting business will give. These tables are made from steel and other high density, heavy duty materials. Each table is a little different and each manufacturer has its own, usually proprietary, way of rolling the quilt and attaching the machine head to the table. You, as an informed consumer, have to find which table/machine works best for you. (Note: to the best of my knowledge, the tables and the machines of the big girl machines are NOT interchangeable. For example – you can’t put a Gammill machine head on an APQS table.)

When looking at the table/frame of the quilting machine, here are some things to think about:

Does the top roller (where the quilt top is rolled onto) lift up to expose the batting? Why is this important? When quilting, sometimes a “varicose thread” (a dark thread) may show up on your batting and it shows, or shadows, through the top and it shows. Of course, this never happens at the sides of the quilt, it always happens in the middle of the quilt where it is almost impossible to remove. If you can lift the top roller, you can easily remove this thread.

Sometimes when your are “rolling up” the quilt, you can get a fold or pleat in the batting. If you can easily get to the batting, you can easily smooth this out and make your batting lie flat and even. (The thinner the batting, the more this happens. Ask me how I know!)

Last, but not least, when using cotton or cotton blend batting (any kind, any brand) the cotton in the batting wants to “grip” the quilt top and bottom. When you roll up the quilt, no matter how hard you try to smooth the quilt layers, the top will will probably have slight ripples or puckers. If you can lift the top roller, or easily get to the batting, you can do a “fluff and puff” and lift the batting, fluff it up and smooth it back into place. This will eliminate, or significantly reduce the wrinkled quilt top syndrome.

Some machines have a motorized fabric advance, which is very, very nice. If your machine manufacturer does not have this option, look to see how many “ratchets” there are on the rollers. The more ratchets there are, the more control you have when rolling up the quilt.

In my opinion, this is one of the more important things to look for on the table. The less ratchets there are the more problems you will have. These ratchets control how tight or loose your quilt will be before you begin quilting. If your quilt is too tight, you can have stitching and tension issues and you can stretch the quilt, especially quilts with ”on point” settings. If your quilt is too loose, you could have problems with pleats and puckers that can be stitched into the backing fabric. (Usually you can see pleats and puckers on the top and quilt them out.) Also, sagging fabric or a sagging quilt can be a pain to work with. (Again, ask me how I know.)

Size of the rollers – this is very important. All the big girl machines have rollers that are a minimum of 1½ to 2 inches in diameter and the rollers are usually made from steel. Avoid like the plague any rollers that are made out of thin aluminum or conduit pipe. These roller are NOT strong enough to have the number of quilts rolled on them that a machine quilting business requires. The thin rollers will bend and warp! Warped rollers will cause all sorts of problems with your quilting. I would also recommend that you avoid any table that tells you to get your rollers (no matter what material) from the local hardware store. These rollers, in my opinion are not strong enough for a machine quilting business.

Note: If you are planning on quilting only a few, maybe less than 5 or 6 quilts per year, these thin rollers may work for you. But for a part or full time quilting business, in my opinion, they won’t work for long.

Remember, you are trying to be productive when you are quilting. If you are dealing with these types of problems, you will be cutting into the productivity of your business!

More to come……..