what is a longarm?

This page is a pictoral essay for you about longarm machine quilting.  Here’s what I did.  I figured out a good top to work on over a recent extended weekend and I’ve stepped you all the way through the process.  You probably already know how to piece a top (even if you haven’t done much of it yet) so I didn’t bother to photo-document that part.  The first picture you’ll see is of the finished top.

A bit of background.  I bought a Gammill Optimum Plus longarm quilting machine.  This is their top of the line machine.  The throat space is about two feet by one and a half feet, so there really isn’t anything I can’t fit under the machine.  It has a stitch regulator mode which means that I can tell the machine to make stitches at 8 to the inch or 10 or 12 or whatever I want within reason.  If I don’t run it in stitch regulator mode the machine will just run at whatever speed I set and it would be my job to make sure that I keep it moving fast enough to have even stitches.  There are many quilters who bought their machines before stitch regulation was available and I just cannot imagine how they ever mastered the manual mode.  It makes me crazy even trying, so I run mine with the regulator on all the time.  There is an option (doubling the price of the already expensive machine) for something called the Statler Stitcher which is a computer attached to the machine.  All you do is tell it which motif you want to quilt at what size and the machine does all the work.  To me this takes ALL the fun out of quilting so I wasn’t even interested in it.  My machine also has horizontal and vertical channel locks.  These are electromagnets that can be engaged to keep the machine moving only vertically or horizontally (duh!) so you can do stuff like cross hatching and stitch in the ditch a bit easier.  I don’t use these often, but when I do I surely do enjoy them.

Here’s the plan for the quilt.  In all the colorful bits (the nine patch blocks and the triangles that make up the snowball blocks) I will quilt a meandering viney pattern with leaves on the vines.  I’ll just freehand crowd as many leaves into the space as I can.  I’ll be doing this in a neutral colored thread in hopes of tying the whole thing together a bit with the color.  Scrappy quilts are just ugly to me.  I can’t really process lots of colors and prints thrown together very well.  Just kinda gives me a headache.  Anyhow, when the vines are all finished, I will go back and select 21 different motifs that are suitable for quilting in an octagon.  Each one will go in one of the large neutral octagons on the top.  I’m taking the bulk of these designs from a book of 19th century masterworks of decorative arts, so they’ll be mostly neogothic and baroque in nature.  This should provide lots of visual interest.  It will also give me an opportunity to stretch my quilting skillset some and have fun with some background fills and such that I haven’t used much.

These next few pictures are really just to give you a feel for the room I work in and the way I keep it organized.  If I don’t keep it pretty danged clean there isn’t enough room to walk, let alone work because the table for this machine is BIG.

For those of you interested in the mechanics of this setup I’ve included several shots.  This picture shows the threading path.

It isn’t any trickier than any other machine really.  A couple more dials and hooks, but it is an industrial machine.  Here is the needle space and control box.

The large black bar across the front is a very nice light.  You can work in regular light or even black light (which is very useful for white thread on white fabric).  Next we see the super cool tracking mechanism.

You can make very smooth circular motions or any variety of straight you want.  The key is to keep those tracks clean because even one little thread in the way causes a bobble.  After each quilt I haul out a stiff bristled paint brush and wipe down the tracks (two run the length of the table, two verticals across the table).  After every few quilts I wipe down the wheels too to keep random bits of junk from marring the surface.

As an aside, my machine has a name.  After dancing across the room with her for a few hours I decided she needed to be called something better than “my therapist” which is the direction I’d been leaning until then.  So I named her after the muse of dancing and choral song, Terpsichore.

Here is the fabric I chose for the back of the quilt.

I just cut two pieces long enough for the quilt plus a couple of inches on each end so it could be pinned to the machine leaders, and seamed them together down the middle, matching the print in the fabric.  The next picture is nothing more than a gratuitous dog shot.  Gotta throw those in once in a while.

The following several pictures show setup for the quilt.  Here I’ve pieced the back and layed it out face down over the machine.

I find the center of the bottom of the back and line that up with a mark on the leader for the backing roller.  Working from the center towards the edges, I pin the back to the leader.  The pins are pretty much bonnet to boot the whole way across to prevent rippling and weakness when the whole thing is stretched tight for quilting.

The top of the back has been pinned to the take up roller’s leader in the next picture.  Same basic method – find the center, line it up with the center of the leader for the take up roller and pin.  These are pretty darned sturdy 2 1/2″ long hat pins I’m using too.  Anything less sturdy and they’d go WHINGING off the machine when the quilt is pulled tight.

Below you can see the back of the quilt tightened up on the rollers after having pinned both the top and bottom edges.

The bottom roller has been wound up so that the backing fabric is fairly tight.  In the foreground you can see the orange handles of the clips that are used to hold the sides of the quilt while you’re working.  They are attached to long strips of velcro with the mating velcro on the side bar so you can adjust the tension on the side of the quilt.  You pull these clips off before scrolling the quilt to a new location and put them back on once you have the quilt sandwich where you want it.

Next is the quilt top pinned to the leader for the top roller.  It is also a good shot of that one white front paw of Oreo’s that’s so cute.

After the top has been pinned to the leader, it gets rolled up so that only a couple of feet of it dangles in front .

Then  the batting gets cut to size and spread out across the backing fabric with the leading edges lined up.

I usually throw a few pins in at the top just while I’m working this around so I don’t get anything crooked.  Don’t even want to talk about what has made me start doing this.  Once I’m happy with where the top of the batting is I push the bulk of the batting between the feed bar and top roller so that it dangles behind the quilt top.

In the photo below the dangling bit of top has been pulled up and carefully lined up with the batting and backing.  It gets pinned in place and the whole thing gets the final tensioning before quilting begins.

Another photo of the sandwich, this time from the side so you can see how the rollers work together to build the sandwich as you go.  There’s lots of room for adjusting the tension of the back and the top as you go, but you do have to be very careful that you monitor what the batting is doing.  It is pretty easy to get it creased between the layers and then you get a nasty mess.

In the last photo you can see part of the viney stuff and the first motif already quilted.

If you have any questions about how it all works, let me know and I’ll see if I can explain it better.


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