All About Longarm Quilting

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This time of year is huge for longarm quilters because toppers (the ones who piece tops together) typically have projects that they plan to give as Christmas gifts and they either A) Don’t want to quilt it themselves, B) Don’t have the capacity to quilt it themselves, or C) Don’t have the time to quilt it themselves. Before we dive into the process of longarm quilting, let’s discuss the different ways a quilt top can be made into a quilt sandwich and then into a finished quilt.


This technique is often used when the person making or receiving the quilt wants something more like a comforter. The quilt top is layered on a large frame with batting (often a high-loft batting) and a backing and basted with safety pins to keep the three layers moving together at the same time. It is then decided where the ties will fit with the pattern and the person(s) tying the quilt gets to work.

An example of a tied quilt.

Machine Quilting

The type of quilting we’re referring to here is the kind people do on their domestic sewing machines at home. Quilters often do this when they have smaller projects like wall hangings, table runners, small quilts, pot holders, etc. The most common form of machine quilting on a domestic machine is probably “stitch in the ditch” which means you assemble the top, batting and backing by stitching along the seams of the piecing. Othertimes, people will freehand simple meanders or other background fills, but it’s most often a simple design.  Depending upon the capacity of the sewing machine, quilting patterns may also be used if available and programmed into the machine.

This wall hanging, done by one of our customers, Karen, was machine quilted using the common method of "stitch in the ditch".

Hand Quilting

Hand quilting is exactly what it sounds like – assembling your quilt top, batting, and backing by stitching the three together by hand using a needle and thread. Hand quilting has a long list of challenges, but for some people those challenges are worth it in the end. It requires a very consistent and accurate stitch length and can be hard on the hands. It does, however, typically result in some of the most accurately-stitched patterns there are because there is so much control over where the needle and thread go.

Longarm Quilting

Longarm quilting is typically used to assemble the quilt sandwich for larger projects. Some people will have smaller projects longarm quilted, but it depends on what it is you want to have quilted on your project. Longarm quilting has a long list of advantages.

The first advantage is the size of the machine and the way it works. When machine quilting on a domestic machine, the entire quilt (top, batting, backing) must be moved around through the machine. With a longarm quilting machine, the quilt stays stationary and the machine head moves, making it much easier to handle and providing more accuracy (and fewer headaches).

This is one block of a star sampler quilt that Barb did full custom quilting on.

Another advantage to longarm quilting machines is that some have a computerized system, allowing for almost infinite pattern possibilities. Barb currently has between 4,000 and 5,000 quilting patterns in her library and can download new patterns in the blink of an eye if she doesn’t already have what she wants/needs. She can break down and combine patterns, resize them, and flip them. She also has the capacity to custom-design something on the computer, which she has done before. Making a quilt for your grandson who loves the Dodgers and is number 32 on his baseball team, the Eagles? She can design something using those things to create a truly unique quilting pattern.

Barb, with the help of her husband George, custom designed this pattern for a client.

Barb has the ability to do everything on her machine from edge-to-edge pantographs (all-over designs) to pantographs plus borders to custom (placing each individual block) to full custom (quilting a different pattern in each block) to heirloom (working with older tops or tops that have heavy applique or defined by the density and volume of quilting). She first talks with the client and gets to know how the quilt will be used, what it is they want to have done with the quilt top and what their vision and expectations are. She then prices the quilting and takes a deposit.

When it comes time to put the quilt on the machine, she straightens the back (ask her sometime about her views on straightening backs and wideback fabric) and puts the backing fabric on leaders that zip on and off of the machine. She then winds the backing back and forth a few times to make certain the back is winding properly. The batting is then spread on top of the backing and smoothed out. The top then gets placed on top of the batting and basted into place.

Using the computer, Barb can then program her machine to do exactly what she wants (in theory). She selects the pattern (as chosen by the client) or agonizes for awhile over what pattern would do the most for the quilt (when the client leaves the quilting to her discretion). She then “babysits” the machine as it stitches out the pattern. She checks on the thread tension to make sure there aren’t irregularities, manipulates the quilt if there are specific blockings, and generally just makes sure the machine behaves itself. After awhile, the quilt gets wound and a new row is started. Sometimes the quilt has to be taken off the leaders and turned to she can stitch out the borders in a different manner.

An example of an all-over longarm quilting pattern

Eventually, the quilting is finished and Barb takes it off the machine and removes the leaders. She checks the back to make sure she didn’t miss any threads and to make sure she didn’t miss any thread tension issues. The client is notified that their quilt is finished and ready for pick-up. I think one of Barb’s favorite parts of her job is seeing the expressions on people’s faces and hearing their reactions when they see their quilts for the first time. She’s even made a few clients cry (good tears!) before.

Many people who don’t quilt don’t understand what goes into making a quilt. From the most basic of patterns all the way up to dense applique, every quilt is unique and deserves to be finished in a beautiful way so it can be respected and loved for generations to come. That’s why Barb does what she does – so she can help reassure the toppers of the world that what they do isn’t silly and it has value and it’s beautiful.

When people walk into our store, they often see Luna (Barb’s longarm quilting machine) through the window to the classroom in back. It draws attention and questions; sometimes because of its size, sometimes because clients see the store samples and are curious as to how we quilted them the way we did, and sometimes (usually when men are around) the computerized aspect of the machine draws attention. Beginners often ask about the process of quilting because they have a quilt top, but they don’t know how to finish it. We love to take time to explain and show how Luna works to create beautifully quilted products and would be happy to share that knowledge with you the next time you’re in the shop!

Barb teaching Lynn how to longarm quilt.

Barb has been training Lynn on the longarm. Lynn came in today for training and she is learning first-hand that longarm quilting with a computer is much more than pushing a button and letting the machine do it. Ask her about her experiences some time.


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