Buying A Longarm – Five Common Mistakes

When it comes to buying a longarm, there is more to the equation that simply deciding how much to spend.  Purchasing a longarm is a big decision and often a large financial decision.  As a result, it is important to know what is important to avoid these common mistakes.

As a Nolting Longarm dealer, I have helped many quilters by providing accurate information about longarm machines and frames.  Many of these were making a longarm purchase for the first time.  Others, however, very disappointed with their first longarm purchase, were trying to make the right decision this time.  Common problems these quilters experienced were too short a throat, machine did not perform as expected, machine constantly had tension issues, company tech was not responsive, frame flimsy with rollers that distorted (bent), and more.

Mistake #1  Purchasing a “longarm” that has a throat that is too short.

More than once, I have worked with a very disappointed “longarm” owner.  They had purchased a longarm that didn’t really meet their needs.  In fact, many “longarm” owners really own a short arm machine, aka a home machine on a frame with a throat length less that 12 inches.  They had grand thoughts of quilting wonderful pantos and block patterns, but very soon after their purchase realized that they only had about 5-7 inches of quilting space.  It was far less than what is needed to quilt a standard size block or even an ordinary panto.

Every longarm system is set up the same way.  There is a roller called the take-up roller that goes through the arm of the machine and is over top of the throat (see photo below).  This roller must be placed in this location, but takes up valuable quilting space.  As a result, when considering any longarm, subtract at least 5″ from the throat length to determine the amount of quilting space actually available.  If the throat is 12″, the quilting space is only about seven inches.  If the throat is 24″ long, the quilting space is about 19 inches.

Nolting longarm Pro

Measure from needle to inside of arm. Subtract 5″ for size of quilting area.

How much space do you need?  Most quilts have twelve inch blocks.  To quilt the block as one unit without having to advance the quilt, it is necessary to have a little more than twelve inches of space.  If the twelve inch block is turned on-point, it takes at least eighteen inches of space to quilt the on-point block as one unit.

Avoid this mistake by purchasing a “longarm” with a minimum throat of at least 17″ to 18″ and is called a mid-arm machine.  The longer the throat the better to provide adequate space to quilt normal size blocks and pantographs that are 9″ to 13″ wide.  A quilting machine is called a longarm when the throat is 18′ or longer.

Mistake #2  Purchasing a frame that is not long enough for the quilt width.

Cost effective (Inexpensive) “longarm” systems are usually sold with a ten foot frame, sometimes wood, sometimes metal.  Quilts are often large.  A typical queen size quilt is around 90″ x 100″.  To quilt a queen, you need at least a ten foot long frame.  If you quilt a super queen or king, a twelve foot frame is necessary.  And, even though the frame may be ten feel long, you are not able to use all ten feet for quilting.  The machine is on a carriage which is typically ten inches wide or wider.  Taking this into consideration, you need to subtract about about one foot from the length of any frame to determine the actual quilting space.

Nolting longarm

Nolting machine and carriage on Nolting frame.

In addition, the backing and batting needs to be a total of eight to ten inches wider than the quilt top to attach the side stabilizing clamps to.  This extra space is necessary to keep the throat of the machine from bumping into the clamps during quilting.  As a result, a few more inches are lost from the actual quilting space.

Nolting longarm

Notice batting and backing extending beyond the sides of the quilt.  About 4 to 5 inches extra on each side. 

A twelve foot frame is 144 inches long (outside measurements).  Subtract four inches for the ends of the frame plus twelve inches lost due to carriage width and you only have 128 inches for loading the quilt sandwich.  King quilts are about 120 inches wide (only 8 inches to spare).  Do the same math for a ten foot frame.  120″ minus 4″ for the frame ends and 12″ for the carriage leaves 106 inches for the quilt, just enough extra space to load a queen quilt.

Avoid this mistake by knowing how long a frame you need to quilt the quilts you are making, or will be taking in if you plan on a longarm business.

Mistake #3  Buying a frame that is flimsy or poorly constructed.

I realize that others may not have the same background as I do in recognizing a well built frame.  However, there are a few little tests anyone can do, along with a few questions to ask to determine the quality and strength of any frame.

Longarm frames are not all created equal.  In fact, there are big differences in the construction of frames.  Besides the physical length of the frame, take a good look at the construction of the frame.  Is it sturdy, or does it wobble or move if you try shaking the ends or rollers?  Can you lean on it without it tipping over or caving in?  Does it need a center support or is it clear span from one end to the other (clear span is an indication of better design)?  Are the rollers sturdy, or do they bend easily?

Frame Questions to ask:

  • Is the frame height adjustable?  Find out how it is adjusted and how high or low it will go.  Remember that any frame with a center post is much more difficult to adjust to make it level or change the height.
  • Are leaders included with the purchase and what kind of material are they made of?  Thicker canvas leaders are best as they do not stretch and retain their shape for many years.
  • If you decide to trade in the machine for a newer, larger model, will it work on the current frame?
  • Will this frame work if I decide to add a computer guided system?

Avoid this mistake by purchasing a frame that is solidly build, preferably out of steel, without a center post, and one that can be used in the future as you upgrade machines or add a computer guided system.  I often tell customers, invest in a really good frame and, if necessary, buy an entry level machine with the idea of trading up later on.  A really good frame is like the “good bones” of a well built house.  Putting a top of the line machine on a poor quality frame will not produce top quality quilting.  Frames that wiggle and jiggle, have rollers that bend and bulky plastic gears will not adequately support the quilt or machine and will compromise the quilting results.

Mistake #4  Purchasing a machine that requires regular dealer or factory servicing or is hard to take care of.

Several years ago when we were looking for a longarm we attended a large quilt show where we were able to check out all of the major longarm brands.  We had a list of questions that we asked each manufacturer.  Because my husband’s career was machining, fabrication, and machine maintenance (among other things), he wanted to know how much maintenance the longarm would require.  We learned a lot about the various brands with this one question, “What kind of maintenance is required by the owner or dealer.”  We discovered that some machines required a diaper to catch oil dripping from the machine, another machine had to go back to the dealer or factory every year for service, and another had to be split in half and packed with grease every six months.  We felt that none of this had any place around my quilts and steered clear of these brands.  We selected Nolting which never needs to go to a dealer or factory for regular service, and is very simple for the owner to take care of with only four spots to place one drop of oil every eight hours of quilting.  What could be easier than this?  We did learn that the bobbin hook area on all brands does need oil every two or three bobbins.  Some bobbin areas were a little harder to access than we found on the Nolting.

Avoid this mistake by choosing a longarm brand that is easy to maintain and won’t present a problem with stray oil or grease.

Mistake #5  Purchasing a longarm system that you have to set up yourself.

A longarm system is not quite like a “plug and play” device.  Sometimes even those need more expertise to install properly.  A longarm system includes an over sized sewing machine on a carriage which is on a frame.  This is precision equipment and requires adjustments to make sure they will work best.  The frame needs to be level, the machine axles might need adjustment to make sure there is correct contact with the track as well as other adjustments to fine tune the setup for optimum quilting.  You may think you are saving money by installing your longarm system yourself, however, dealers are experienced in setup and adjustment and have learned through dealer training and experience how to fine tune a system.

Avoid this mistake by purchasing from a dealer and have the dealer install the longarm system.  I realize that some quilters live in very remote areas, or in countries where there is no dealer and may have no option except to set up the longarm system on their own.  My advice for them would be to be even more carefully to choose a longarm machine that doesn’t require regular service and does have excellent, responsive factory tech support.  My experience with Nolting is that they fit this description perfectly.

Final Decision

Although the photos are of Nolting machines, deciding on which longarm to purchase is really answering a series of questions about what you really need.  If you purchase a shorter throat machine or a shorter frame than you really need, you are compromising and may soon be disappointed with your purchase.

Other very important considerations with any longarm purchase:

  • Who will trouble shoot and help when there is a problem?
  • Who will train you to use the longarm?
  • Listen to what other longarm owners are saying about their system.  Are they happy with it?  Have they had problems and if so, how was it resolved?  Did the machine and frame perform as they had expected or were there problems?  Did they wish they had made another choice?
  • Listen to what other longarm owners are saying about their longarm company and dealer.  Positive or negative comments?

“Determine” what to purchase.

Although the cost of a longarm is a consideration, I have purposely not included that in this discussion.  Unfortunately I have seen many longarm owners spend too much on an inferior system that really didn’t meet their needs.  Instead of an emotional longarm purchase decision, they should have started with these five “determine” thoughts that could have saved them money along with the regrets of a poor purchase.

  1. Determine the throat length needed for the blocks and pantos you plan to quilt.
  2. Determine the frame length needed for the size quilts you plan to quilt.
  3. Determine to purchase a frame that is strong, sturdy, can be used if/when you upgrade the machine or add a computer guided system, and that comes with everything needed, such as high quality leaders.
  4. Determine to purchase a machine that is easy to take care of without needing regular dealer or factory services.
  5. Determine to purchase from a dealer that will set up the system and train you in how to use it.

Once you have made these determinations, know your budget and start sifting through the longarm brands to find what matches your criteria for purchase.  Start your research on line, ask other longarm owners the questions above, and go to large and small shows to try different makes and models and ask many questions (above suggestions).  Don’t compromise and settle for less than you really need.  You might be surprised to find that you decide to purchase something different than you originally thought, but your decision will be made starting with a search for what you really need and what is right for you.

Rocky Mountain Quilt Museum – Worth the Trip

Quilt museums are few and far between.  Even regular museums often do not have a quilt collection, or if they do, rarely display that collection.  Rocky Mountain Quilt Museum is a little different.  It is the mission of the Rocky Mountain Quilt Museum “to collect, preserve, exhibit, and educate the public about quilts; honor quiltmaking traditions; and embrace the evolution of the art and craft of quilting.”  This is accomplished through exhibits and special events.

Rocky Mountain Quilt Museum

Rocky Mountain Quilt Museum, Golden, CO

When we visited RMQM in September (2017) we were privileged to see two wonderful exhibits, the American Quilt Study Group (AQSG) “Civil War Era Quilts” and “Pagtinabangay: Quilts of Caohagan Island.”  Neither exhibit was so large that you couldn’t spend time reading the info plaques and posters explaining the project or display.  It was interesting that these two exhibits were on display at the same time as the quilts varied considerably from each other.  One, of course, documenting American quilts from the 1850’s and 1860’s.  The other displaying the introduction of and growth of quilting into a sustainable means of income for a small group of people on a very small island in the Phillippines.

Civil War Era Quilts

Civil War Era Quilts is the result of an American Quilt Study Group quilt study completed in 2014.  It is a collection of reproduction Civil War Quilts reduced in size to a maximum of 200″ perimeter.  The original quilts were made from 1850 to 1865. It was interesting to read how each quilt study group maker researched that particular quilt and decided how to make a reproduction of it.  Quilt reproduction received much attention to detail using fabrics very similar to original often quilted by hand.  One the makers even went to to the trouble of harvesting cotton by hand, prepared it, and used it as “batting” in the reproduction.

Pagtinabangay: Quilts of Caohagan Island

Introduced to quilting by a Japanese woman who was highly trained in the “art” of quilting, several Caohagan Island residents along with one young girl began to make quilts with fabric brought to them by the Japanese woman.  Slowly others began to take up quilting, even a few men.  When they found that their quilts could be sold, many more began quilting.

Quilters have always been industrious and resourceful people. Quilters use what is available, fabric and fabric scraps, and spend precious time cutting, piecing and quilting. Quilts often reflect the culture and life of those making them. The quilts of Caohagan Island do this, as well, as the “colors and patterns evoke the tropical environs, while the handicraft is of the highest caliber. The results are quilts that evoke a far-away place but retain a human touch to which anyone who views them can relate.”  As I looked at the many quilts on display, it reminded me of the lovely pictorial art my nine year old granddaughter enjoyed drawing.

Worth your time to visit.

If you travel to Colorado, be sure to visit Rocky Mountain Quilt Museum in Golden, Colorado.  You will not be disappointed.

Plattsburgh Quilt Show Picks

As a part of our Delightful Quilting & Sewing business we vend at several quilt shows throughout the year.  Recently we traveled across New York to the top northeast corner to Plattsburgh, NY.  Champlain Valley Quilters’ Guild, now in their 33rd year, hosted their 16th quilt show in the field house on the SUNY Plattsburgh Campus.  The theme of the show was “Treadle to Technology.”  Much has changed from the days of hand piecing, or even using the “new” treadle sewing machine to piece and quilt to today when an entire quilt block can be pieced, appliqued and even quilted on an embroidery machine.  All you need besides the embroidery machine is the purchased pattern.  There are a number of very beautiful and very complex patterns available.  when the already quilted blocks are finished, simply sew them together into the finished quilt.  Other exhibits at the show including Underground Railroad Quilt, Block of the Month Display, and Common Sense and Pin Money quilt display featuring quilts and other items from the “Material Culture and Legacy of Lula Annie Butler 1909 – 2009.”  Show attendees could spend a few minutes tying quilts for the club charity quilt donations, or attend one of the many demos presented by one of the show vendors.Plattsburgh quilt show Plattsburgh quilt show

The favorite part of any quilt show for me is the quilts.  Because we are vendors at shows in different parts of New York State, it is interesting to see how regionally there are some differences in the types quilts and form of quilting on display.  More and more, however, I am noticing fewer hand quilted and many more professionally quilted, usually with edge-to-edge patterns.  This was the case in Plattsburgh.  There were a few with some custom quilting, usually the applique quilts.  Most of the quilts displayed in Plattsburgh were not made “just for show” like you find at the large national shows, but were made to be used and enjoyed.  The makers of these quilts should be proud of their fine work and I am sure the recipients of these quilts will love them, too.

Our Vendor Ribbon Choice

At some of the quilt shows the vendors can select a quilt to receive a ribbon.  This was the case at Plattsburgh.  My criteria for selection is: (1) design – is it unusual, or a different arrangement of a common pattern, (2) workmanship – well made, nice points, binding applied well, hangs well, (3) machine quilted – either home machine or longarm, (4) quilting pattern selection, is it appropriate for the quilt, and how well it is executed, balanced tension, etc., and (5) quilt made and quilted by the same person.  I also do not give my ribbon to a quilt that has already received one or more ribbons.  I want to encourage someone else who has done an excellent job, but did not receive a ribbon.

Because I was running out of time to look closely at the quilts, I sent my husband, Ron out to scout out a quilt for our ribbon.  He used the above criteria and came back with about five possibilities (written on his hand) for us to check out together.  Our “winning” quilt was Compass Confusion by Karia Strauss (below).  We liked the color combinations, balance of color, the unusual inner border, the pop of orange, the edge-to-edge quilting with a slight contrasting thread that gave nice texture to the quilt and definitely enhanced it.  This quilt satisfied all of our criteria.

quilt by Karia Strauss


“Compass Confusion” pieced and quilted by Karia Strauss

Other Unusual and Very Nice Quilts

Most of the quilts at the Plattsburgh show were pieced, however, those below drew my attention because they were unusual in some way.  Several were hand embroidered, others were applique, and even others told a story.  Looking at quilts, for me, is a lot of fun and I enjoy seeing how quilt makers creatively and artistically bring the whole quilt design together.

Although the photos are out of order below, I am sure you can match the detail photo with the full quilt photo.   I hope you enjoy seeing these quilts as much as I did.

It’s The Little Things That Really Count

I recently taught longarm quilting and computer guided classes two days in Iowa. The thought occurred to me during one of the classes that what I was trying to get across was that successful quilting is the result of doing many little things right. Quilters often wonder why the quilt is a little askew, the blocks are not quite square, the panto isn’t quite straight, or the tension is not quite right. The results they had hoped for were not quite there.

What are the little things that count? After careful thought, here is my top 10 list of things to pay attention to for an outstanding quilt.

  1. Choose quality fabric for both top and backing. Yes, there is a difference in fabric. You do get what you pay for. I prefer to prewash my fabric tossing in a color catcher to capture any fugitive dyes. I don’t like finding dyes bleeding and even color fast fabrics may have a little color loss in the wash. The color catcher captures the dyes keeping them from migrating and attaching to the fabric in other locations.
  2. Besides careful piecing using a consistent 1/4 inch seam allowance, trim subunits and blocks to size before piecing into the next larger unit. Because I like to trim, I always cut patches slightly oversize. In fact, I use Studio 180 cutting rulers that start with a slightly oversize measurements to allow for trimming to size. The subunits and blocks come out perfectly sized, points in tact and look awesome when sewed into the quilt.

    careful piecing

    Flying Geese units trimmed with Studio 180 Design’s Wing Clipper ruler.

  3. Learn the correct way to add borders to a quilt top. Borders when properly applied will “square up” the quilt. Both top and bottom border should be cut the same length, even if the length of the top and bottom of the quilt are not quite the same measurement. Ease in any fullness, but always cut the borders the same length. The same is true for the side borders. Cut both of them the same length. Ease in any fullness. Sew top and border together with the fullest one on the bottom where the feed dogs gently pull the fullness evening it out for a perfect look.
  4. Spend the few extra minutes it takes to load the quilt correctly on the longarm frame. Always square up the top and bottom of the backing piece so that the backing is square. If you try loading backing with an uneven top and/or bottom, scoops of backing may develop on the sides of the backing, which when quilted may pleat the backing. Even with squaring the top and bottom of the backing, it is best to roll and smooth the backing onto the take up roller, then, transfer the backing from the take up roller to the belly bar roller holding onto both rollers keeping tension on the backing.  Stop rolling periodically to smooth out any little wrinkles in the backing as it rolls onto the belly bar roller.

    loading a quilt

    Transferring quilt backing from take up roller to belly bar roller keeping tension on the backing.

  5. Use quality batting. Quality batting has a consistent thickness throughout and has nice even edges that are not warped. The batting is very important in the quilt, not only as a filler between the top and backing, but it provides the place for the top and bobbin thread to meet when the knot is formed. When batting is poor quality with thick in places and thin in other places, it is impossible for the tension to be adjusted to create a perfect stitch every time.  In places where the batting is very thin, there is no hiding place for the knot to form resulting in what looks like poor tension with the top thread pulled to the bottom or the bobbin thread pulled to the top. You only cheat yourself by using poor quality batting.
  6. Open the batting and let it relax for a few hours before using it. If that is not possible, put the batting into the dryer on the no heat cycle for about 10 minutes to fluff it up and help remove the folds.
  7. Baste the batting to the backing with the vertical channel lock engaged to create a basting line that is perfectly parallel to the rollers. Use this basting line as a placement line for placing the top. Your quilt can’t possible end up square if you don’t load it square with the frame.
  8. Center the quilt top with the center of the frame.  Use a zero center tape mounted on the frame to reference when loading the quilt and each time the quilt is advanced to keep the quilt top tracking squarely centered on the frame. The quilt top should be smooth, but never distorted or pushed to one side or the other and the sides always kept at the designated measurement regardless of variances in width of the quilt.

    zero center tape

    Using a zero center tape to keep the quilt top square with the frame.

  9. Train your eyes and your fingers to recognize quality tension. You should see defined stitches, not the thread as a flat line or pokes of the bobbin thread on top or top thread on the bottom. Your fingers should feel the thread pulling into the batting on both the top and bottom. Physically check the tension by looking at the stitching, especially on the bottom if you are not sure.

    quilt sample

    Flat line thread and “pokies” where the batting is very thin.

  10. Use thread that is engineered for machine quilting.  Machine quilting thread is stronger and designed to work at the higher speeds longarm quilting machines
    quilting thread

    Quality machine quilting thread available in a wide array of colors and sizes.

    operate.  Machine quilting threads come in all weights, #, and TEX, fiber content, and a huge selection of colors.  Yes, it is a little more expensive than regular sewing thread, but the total cost per quilt would only be from a few cents to a few dollars more.  Don’t forget the machine needle.  Size the needle to the thread.  It is the groove that carries the thread below the quilt where the top thread loop can be picked up by the hook and bobbin thread.  If the groove is too small, tension problems result.

Are there more?  Yes. Each of these might seem like such a little thing.  But the sum total of the little things done right result in an all over top quality quilt.  Just think about it.  If you purchased a new car that had just a few little things not quite right would you be happy with the product?  It’s only one tire that is just a little out of round, a little scratch in the door paint, one tail light that is dim, the cup holder not quite large enough, and a little stain on the seat.

Resolve to do the little things.  You will be happy you did.

 

Not All Tension Problems Can Be Solved By Adjusting The Tension

As a Nolting Longarm dealer, I have received many calls over the years for longarm help and advice.  The calls can be broken down into two categories, (1) mechanical, such as broken needle, timing, or frame problem, and (2) stitch quality and quilting problems.  Tension issues seem to top the list over all.

This may come as a surprise to you, but there are many situations where adjusting the

bobbin and top tension will NOT solve the problem.  In other words, when there “seems” to be a tension issue, there can be one of a number of other reasons causing the tension to be unbalanced.  When you find that adjusting the bobbin and/or top tension are not helping, then you need to look further to see what the real reason is for the poor tension.  Here is a check list of some common issues that can cause poor tension.  Some of these can be corrected by adjusting the bobbin or top tension, but for most of these, the problem must be corrected.

What is good tension versus poor tension.  Good tension is when the top and bobbin

thread tension

Thread Tension

thread form the stitch in the middle creating a balanced stitch.  When quilting, this is in the batting.  Poor tension is defined as an unbalanced stitch with either the top thread or bottom thread laying on the fabric surface or railroading.  Railroading is when the top thread is pulled below the backing or the bobbin thread is pulled through to the top of the quilt.  Poor tension never looks good and can even be felt with the fingers.  The flat line thread can be felt, and railroading feels bumpy.  When the tension is balanced, both the top thread and bobbin thread will pull slightly into the batting giving the quilt texture.  The fingers feel a slight indent in the backing and top and the thread feels smooth.

Tension Check List – What To Check To Correct Poor Tension

Poor quality batting.  Regardless of what you pay for batting, if the batting is inconsistent in thickness, you are asking for problems.  Batting that is inconsistent in thickness will be thick in places and very thin in places.  In the thin areas of this type of batting, there simply is no place for the top and bottom thread to form a stitch.  As a result, the stitch is pulled to either the top or bottom of the quilt.

To prove this point, I stitched a side by side sample using Quilter’s Dream select cotton

Sample testing tension of two different battings.

next to a poly (unknown brand) that varied in thickness from very puffy to so thin you could see your finger prints.  I FMQed (free motion quilted) feathers and other designs across the sample without making any tension adjustments.  Results: The tension was perfect on the Quilter’s Dream batting top and backing, but varied from acceptable to poor to unacceptable on the inconsistent thickness poly.  In poor places the thread laid on the top of the fabric and in unacceptable places there was railroading (the top thread totally pulled to the bottom).

Purchasing the best quality, same consistent thickness batting is a small investment to make to assure quality stitching, a quality quilting job, and time spent without frustration trying to constantly make tension adjustments.

Poly batting (left) very thin, Quilter’s Dream (right) consistently same thickness.

Nice even, well defined stitching on the Quilter’s Dream consistently same thickness batting.

Poly sample with railroading (see pokes of top thread), flat line thread laying on fabric, and a few places where the stitches are sell defined. With inconsistent thickness batting, tension changes quickly from good to bad.

Needle.  The machine needle is a very important part of a successful quilting equation as poor tension can result from a number of needle issues.

  1. Using the wrong type of needle.  Have you experienced tension or inconsistent tension problems when quilting batik, especially when batik is on both the top and backing?  We now recommend using a ballpoint needle when quilting batik fabric. Because most batik fabrics have a higher thread count, it is harder for the needle to pierce the fabric to deliver the top thread to the correct spot to make a balanced stitch.  The ballpoint needle for longarm machines (different than the ballpoint for sewing knits on home machines), has a slightly rounded point that pushes the fibers apart making penetration better and placing the top thread correctly to make a stitch.  Groz-Beckert makes a needle with a “light ball” point that is suitable for woven cotton fabrics.  The Groz-Beckert ballpoint packages are labeled with

    “light ballpoint” needles from Groz-Beckert. Look for FFG on package.

    “FFG”, the needles are titanium coated, and are SAN 11.  (these work with Nolting L and M hook machines) To avoid damage to your longarm, make sure the numbers match the needles required for your machine.

  2. Needle incorrectly inserted in the machine.  For a perfect stitch to form, the hook point must pass behind the needle in the scarf (indentation) to pick up the top thread loop as the needle starts pulling up.  If the needle is inserted backwards (will likely hear clicking), or turned slightly to the left or right, the thread loop will not be in the correct spot to be picked up by the hook, or will be picked up too soon, or too late, causing the tension problem.
  3. Dull needle or damaged needle.  Needles do wear out.  In fact, the point on them wears down much faster than you would think.  I have often solved a tension problem by simply changing the needle.  The reason is that a dull needle has trouble penetrating the fabric resulting in a delay in delivering the top thread at the optimum time for a balanced stitch.  Always change the needle every 8 hours of quilting.  Remember, too, that even a new needle might be defective.  If you are experiencing problems, replace the needle.
  4. Needle too small for thread.  A needle that is too small for the thread being used does not have a deep enough groove on the front of the needle to carry the thread through the quilt sandwich.  As a result, there is a delay, or even non delivery of enough thread to make the loop.  When the thread loop is not picked up at the right moment, the thread tension will not look right.  It is always better to over size the needle rather than undersize the needle.  Yes, the slightly larger needle will leave a little larger hole, but the holes will close up.  The higher the number on the package, the larger the needle and the larger (wider and deeper) the groove.

Top thread caught.  If “all of a sudden” there is a change to terrible tension, look for a problem with the thread path or thread delivery from the bobbin.  Once in awhile the top thread will spin off the cone so fast that a loop of it will get caught some place.  Recently this happened to me.  When the tension changed and the bobbin thread was visible on the top, I started tweaking the top tension, but the tension problem did not go away.  When I checked the thread path I found the top thread looped around the three-hole thread guide above the tension assembly.  Rule of thumb, always look for something obvious when tension changes “all of a sudden.”

Quilt sandwich too tight on the frame.  Remember that the machine is constantly moving in different directions as you quilt.  It does not stop moving as each stitch is made.  As a result, the needle will flex as it is going up and down through the quilt sandwich.  If the quilt is loaded too tight on the frame, there is more needle flex displacing the position of the top thread loop, often causing what appears to be a tension problem.  Loosen the quilt roller on the frame one or two cogs.  You should be able to see the throat of the machine moving under the quilt.

Quilting too fast.  Just because we can make our longarm machines go fast doesn’t mean we should.  Do you rush your brownies baking in the oven 10 minutes instead of 25?  It takes time for the brownies to bake to the right doneness.  The same is true for quilting.  The faster you go, the more needle flex and the more likely there will be what looks like tension problems.  Slow down and enjoy the journey.

Thread quality.  Poor quality thread and thread not designed for machine quilting can be weak, inconsistent in thickness, have slubs, or even be knotted part way through the cone.  Using poor quality thread or thread not meant for machine quilting could result in thread breakage which can cause broken needles, scratches to the hook and pricks in or around the needle hole from a broken needle, and could even knock the machine out of timing.  This is in addition to the thread not performing causing what looks like a tension problem.  Always select thread that is labeled for machine or longarm quilting.  These threads are designed with extra strength for the rigors of machine movement as well as running through the machine and stitching three layers together.

Type of batting and thread.  Battings and threads are made from different types of fibers.  Some battings and threads are more abrasive than others.  This wears on the needle eye and point and can result in needle penetration problems and poor stitch quality.  Realize that every quilt is a different set of variables.  With each quilt project, start fresh with a new needle sized for the thread being used.  Sometimes a particular thread will be more difficult to use with some battings, causing the thread to “drag” creating tension problems.  If the particular thread combination (top and bobbin) is not working with the quilt sandwich, try a different thread.

The weather.  Do you have more tension problems quilting in the summer than during the winter?  It could be the humidity.  Cotton can absorb up to 40% its weight in moisture, right from the air.  The quilt top and backing is usually cotton, the batting is often cotton, as wellas the thread.  As the temperature outside and inside goes up, the air can hold more moisture and the relative humidity goes up.  The science principle of substances moving from where there is more to less holds true here.  The moisture in the higher moisture air moves to the lower moisture cotton fabric, batting and thread.  As the cotton absorbs moisture, the fibers swell.  Thread may not flow as easily through the machine or needle eye and the fabric and batting may resist the stitching, all of which may cause what looks like tension problems.

Solution: Keep batting in the package until ready to use.  Fluff it up in the dryer on no heat.  Run a dehumidifier, especially if your studio is in a basement, or run the air conditioning which typically removes moisture from the air.  If you had no problems yesterday and today everything is the same with the same quilt and same thread, but the tension is terrible, run the dehumidifier or air conditioner, wait a day or two, then try again.  When the humidity goes back down, everything will work better.  I have experienced this problem as have other quilters.  If you are feeling uncomfortable from the humidity, your quilt is, too.

Tension problems can be very frustrating.  Even becoming comfortable adjusting the bobbin and top tension can take time.  It is important to realize that there are many factors that can affect the creation of the perfect balanced stitch.  The next time you run into a tension problem and adjusting the bobbin or top tension doesn’t work, take time to go through this list and analyze what might be causing the problem.

 

Don’t Be So Hard On Yourself – We All Start At The Same Place

I was cleaning out a notebook that was turned in with a traded in longarm machine recently.  Nearly everything had something to do with the machine, maintenance, how to use it, our troubleshooting issues.  There was one paper, however, I came across that I decided to keep because it reminded me of where I was a few years ago when I first started to longarm quilt.  It was the same place that all longarm quilters start, at the beginning.  Below is the content of that page written by Carrie Dugan in 2004.

Beginning Longarm Quilter Oath and Rules

Please remember these things when you get your longarm machine and start quilting.

  1. When I was learning to tie my shoes, I made a knot.
  2. When I was learning to write, no one could read it.
  3. When I was learning to ride a bike, I fell off.
  4. When I was learning to cook, I burnt the dish.
  5. When I was learning to drive, I landed in a ditch.
  6. When I was learning to piece a quilt, my seams were not always 1/4 inch.

I will repeat the Beginners Longarm Oath Each Day for the Next 3 Months. (or longer if I need to)

  1. I am learning, so, it is OK if I make mistakes.
  2. I am learning, so, NO Longarm Quilting Police will be at my door for at least 1 year.
  3. I am learning, so, my circles may look like squares.
  4. I am learning so, my feathers may look like chicken scratch.
  5. I am learning, so, my quilts may not turn out square.
  6. I am learning, so, my threads may break, I will figure out how to adjust my tension.
  7. I am learning, so, my pantos may not line up correctly.
  8. I am learning, so, my quilt may not win an award.

I am learning!!

I will Practice!!

I will improve!!

I am having fun learning.  I will become a confident and proficient longarm quilter.  It will take practice, practice, practice and more practice.  I will be patient and not hard on myself.  I will love the process.  I will reach my goals.  I will be happy with the rewards.

!!!I will become an excellent longarm quilter!!!

Learn, practice, and you will improve.  Take classes, read books, watch videos and practice some more.  You will improve.  Perfection comes with time and experience.  None of us are born with experience, we all travel the same road to become confident and proficient.  Have fun and enjoy the journey.  Thank you Carrie for this important reminder.

Listening To The Heart Of The Quilter

If you quilt for yourself, you can do whatever you want with the quilting with a panto, your own edge to edge designs, free motion quilting or templates.  After all it is your quilt and you can do whatever you want.  If you quilt for others, however, it is not your quilt and you need to listen carefully to the quilt maker to catch their vision for the quilt.
For quilts that come to my studio for quilting, I have questions I always ask the quilt maker:
  1. Who is the quilt for?  I am not being nosy.  A quilt for a young child to use and love really doesn’t need custom quilting like a wedding quilt might.  Some quilts will be washed many times, other quilts, seldom, if ever.  Knowing the purpose of the quilt can be important in guiding the quilting decisions that include type of batting, the style of quilting and perhaps, even the selection of thread.
  2. What is the quilt maker’s vision for the quilting?  Although quilters that bring a quilt to be quilted don’t want to do the quilting, they often have a vision of what they would like to see.  They may not personally like feathers all over, they might think the recipient of the quilt would love geometric patterns, they have likes and dislikes and know the recipient best.  It is important to do what the customer wants, if at all possible.  It might not be what you would do if the quilt were yours, but remember, the quilt is not yours.

Once I have a good feel for the purpose, use and quilt maker’s vision for the quilt, I offer

quilting

6″ floral pattern compliments flowers in 1930’s print.

possible options.  For example, if they think a floral panto would be nice, I show the customer pantos I think would be the right scale for the quilt and with a pattern that would look nice with the quilt pattern and fabrics as illustrated in the photo above.  For custom quilting, we talk about possible design options for the blocks, sashing and borders and I show the customer samples of what is possible so they can see if it fits with their vision for the quilt.  Most people like options to choose from.  That is why we have shelves of cereal, soda, cookies, and everything else in our stores.

Hunter's Star blocks quilted.

Custom quilted – Hunter’s Star blocks, feathered block treatment with separate “circles” stars in the stars. Simple piano keyboard in the border, stitch in the ditch along inner border.

Finally, after deciding how the quilt will be quilted, my client helps select the thread.  We talk about the “star” of the quilt.  Is it the quilt pattern and fabrics, or the quilting, or a balance of all?  Based on that decision, I start pulling out thread color options.  Variegated, solid, poly, cotton, puddling the thread across the fabrics to see how each looks.  Some are taken off right away as they are too light, too dark, too prominent, or fade away and not even visible.  Looking at what is left the customer, sometimes with a little guidance, is able to decide which color and type of thread really looks the best.  A slightly off white thread, King Tut, was chosen for the 1930’s quilt to highlight the quilting without over powering the fabrics.  The Hunter’s Star quilt has pale blue thread.  Testing white thread first I found too much contrast, however the pale blue offered just the right amount of contrast on both the white and blue in the quilt.

As a quilter, you have that vision.  You made the quilt and you, either consciously or subconsciously, have made these same decisions.  However, if you quilt for others, or even allow friends to use your longarm, you need to remember, it is not your quilt.  I even have a couple of clients that came to me because their former longarmer did what she wanted on quilts rather than what the customer wanted.  Help your customers (or friends) make the right choices to enhance their quilt in the best way possible with quilting suitable for the use and intent of the quilt, and the vision of the quilt maker.

Yikes! Terrible Tension – What Do I Do?

Some days just don’t go as planned with Longarm quilting and you have to stop, step back and analyze what the issue is and what to do about it.

The quilt I was working on was made of excellent quality quilting cotton, 1930’s reproduction fabric.  The batting was top quality Quilters Dream Blend 70/30 (select, mid-weight) and the thread was top quality Superior Threads King Tut and So Fine 50, both designed for Longarm machine quilting.  I used the Towa Bobbin Gauge to set the bobbin tension at my normal setting of 200 for the M-hook on the Nolting Pro.  I was using IntelliQuilter computer guided system for this quilt and the machine and bobbin were correctly threaded.

The problem: Regardless of how carefully I adjusted the tension, the bobbin thread either pulled to the top or the top thread pulled to the bottom railroading, inconsistent tension.  Some places looked wonderful, others not very good.

poor quilting tension

Inconsistent poor tension.

I can say that I have not had any tension adjustment problems in several years since starting to use the Towa Gauge to adjust the bobbin tension at the same setting regardless of the thread.  So, why now?  Was it just a bad day, careless top tension adjustment, the weather, the particular computer guided pattern, one which I had never stitched out before, or some other issue.  I continued to adjust the tension on the “fly” as I stitched out two rows of the pattern.  Not having much success I decided to quit for the day.

The next day after taking a really good look at the back of the quilt, I had to make the

poor quilting tension

Inconsistent poor tension.

dreaded decision to totally take out all of the quilting.  The inconsistent tension was in too many places to even consider repairing the spots.  More importantly, I had to figure out why it was happening and fix the issue before working on the quilt again.  I talked with a friend who also had a Pro (now upgraded to the Nolting NV) and IQ to see if she had any suggestion.

I could rule out some things as they were not a factor:

  • I ruled out any mechanical issue as this machine is only a few months old.
  • I ruled out any problems with IQ as that also is only a few months old.

    terrible quilt tension

    Really terrible tension!

So, that left me with the quilt sandwich, thread, and adjustment.

Here is now I solved the problem:

  • I could not change the quilt sandwich, however, part way through quilting I realized that I had loaded the backing incorrectly with the scrim side up rather than down as it should be. I feel that this was a factor to some extent because the “fluffier” side was down toward the backing rather than up touching the back of the top.
  • The pattern was a medium density pattern with quilting less than 3” apart, sometimes 2” apart, many curves and points which probably caused a lot of needle flex as the machine moved back and forth around the pattern. I made sure I had a stronger, thicker needle in the machine and used the MR 4.5/19 for the M-hook in the machine.  Even using a size 20 needle might have helped even more.
  • Because of the denser pattern, the very inconsistent tension and trouble fine tuning the tension, I reasoned that the So Fine 50 (poly) thread in the bobbin was not a good match for the heavier #40 King Tut (cotton) on the top. I switched bobbin thread to Robison Anton 50 cotton.  And, if that had not worked, I would have used the King Tut in the bobbin also so that the threads would be evenly matched as far as strength and elasticity.
  • I slowed IQ down so that there would be less needle flex and have more time to precisely place the stitches. The settings I used were 1.3 Speed and 1.1 Detail.  These slower speeds also meant that I needed to slow the machine speed down.  If this speed had not worked, I would have slowed IQ and the machine down even more.  If I had been hand guiding this pattern and experiencing the same issues, which quite possibly could happen, I would need to slow down my hand guiding speed.  With a denser pattern, hand guiding the machine slower would probably happen anyway.
  • I warmed up my machine for at least five minutes, perhaps even more. Over the years I have discovered that if the machine’s internal parts are well warmed up, along with the bobbin case, adjusting the tension takes less time and takes fewer adjustments after starting to quilt on the quilt.  Remove the bobbin from the bobbin case and put the empty bobbin case into the machine for the warm up.  Don’t forget to remove the thread from the top and out of the take up lever.  Warm up using a medium speed.
  • Use the Towa Bobbin Gauge to set the bobbin tension. I checked the bobbin tension on every bobbin and set to 200.  Experience has taught me that this is the best setting for my Nolting Pro with the IQ.  When I use the Pro with Quiltmagine (Nolting’s computer guided system), I set the bobbin at 175.  Each computer guided system, because it so precisely moves and places stitches, places a different amount of stress on the thread.  By experimenting with different settings, I have found these setting to work for me.  Longarm machines run best with a looser bobbin tension as that gives much more flexibility in adjusting the top tension.
  • Once the bobbin tension was set correctly, I spent time adjusting the top tension. My method for that is to tighten the top tension until I see the bobbin thread starting to poke out of the top on my test sample at the side of the quilt.  Then, I start backing the top down until I can only see the tip of the bobbin thread down in the needle hole.  I feel and look at the back to make sure there are no top thread pokies.  I always test using the same setting (stitch length or motor speed) I will use on the quilt, stitch little circles, curves, straight lines and points to see how the machine tension responds as I am adjusting the top tension.  When I am satisfied, and only when satisfied, I started the pattern.
  • I decided to adjust the pattern size a little larger to give a little more gentleness to the curves of the pattern. This slight adjustment was still within the scale of the quilt top design.  With a paper pattern and hand guided, you don’t have this flexibility, so you simply have to work with what you have.
  • Once I started IQ stitching the pattern I stopped several times within the first several inches to check the tension top and bottom and made little refinements to the tension. I did not want to make any assumptions and I did not want to spend any more time ripping out machine quilting stitching.  If I had been hand guiding this pattern, I would have done the same, stop a number of times as I started stitching the pattern to check the tension top and bottom.   As the pattern continued to stitch out, I checked periodically across the row, and across every row.
  • Because I had started quilting this in the early afternoon, I kept at it until it was finished. When success presents itself, I did not want to stop until completed.

Problem Tension Solved!

You might be asking if every quilt is such a struggle.  The answer to that is, no.  My normal setup does involve sufficient machine warm up, using the Town Bobbin Gauge to set the bobbin tension, testing and adjusting the tension on a test strip at the side of the quilt, and stopping frequently when I start quilting to make fine top tension adjustments.  Normally I do not have problems and am able to work through the project without any issues.  Just why this quilt was a problem, other than the factors I mentioned before, it is hard to determine.  Perhaps each of the variables contributed something to the problem.   Situations like this are frustrating and for new Longarm quilters, almost overwhelming.  Rather than fret and stress, it is best just to step back, look at the whole quilting picture, analyze the problem and the variables involved, and even check the simple things like thread path.  Even with my experience, I am happy that I had a Longarm friend to bounce ideas off and that the problem inconsistent tension was solved.

1930's quilt

Beautiful Quilt, Beautiful Quilting – Job Well Done!

Borders Can Make or Break the Quilt – Do It Right

Quilters often take a lot of time piecing their blocks and square them up before assembly.  The body of the quilt looks wonderful, color choices are excellent, and the quilt has the potential to be beautiful.  That is, until the borders are added.  As a professional Longarm quilter, the borders are where I often see many problems.  Incorrectly applied borders often lead to puckers, pleats, wavy borders and dog-eared quilts.  All of this can be avoided.

Although you may not realize it, one of the functions of borders is to stabilize and square up a quilt.  Throughout the body of the quilt are cut (unstable) edges around the outside of each of the blocks  Even though the patches may be cut on grain, the cut edges can stretch easily.  When borders are added correctly to a quilt top, the edges of the body of the quilt are contained and restricted within the new measurement.  The key word here is, applied or added correctly to achieve this.

problem quilt

A quilt that could use borders to stabilize and square it up.  Notice distorted sides and wavy bottom on this quilt.

Incorrect method for adding borders

Cut or make a long strip, stitch to one of the sides of the quilt and cut off the extra.  Because no measuring is done with this method, you have no idea how long one side of the quilt is compared with the opposite side of the quilt.  If one side stretches out a little more when the border is stitched on, that side will be longer leading to a dog-eared quilt.  Do not use this method to add borders to any quilt.

quilt by Sally Mowers

Quilt with correctly applied borders hangs straight.
Dresden Plate, designed, made and quilted by Sally Mowers

Correct method for adding borders

Even though it takes a little longer, the correct method for adding borders involves measuring, using a little math, and perhaps easing in fullness.

  1. Measure across the area in three places, near the top and near the bottom, but never along the edge, and across the middle.
  2. Average the three measurements and use the average as the measurement to cut the length of both borders.
  3. Quarter the quilt top marking with pins. Quarter the border strip marking with pins.  Align the quarter marks and pin the border to the quilt.  Pin between the quarter marks distributing any fullness evenly.
  4. Placing the fullest side down, stitch together. When the fullest side is down, the feed dogs on the machine gently pull the bottom through a little faster than the top.  There are no puckers or pleats on the top or bottom.
  5. Press the border seam outward toward the border.
  6. Measure across the quilt and borders in three places, similar to #1, average the measurements as in #2.
  7. Follow steps #3-5 to add the other border.

For a visual of this technique, see the video below by Dee Christopher.  Video also demonstrates a bonus no math method for determining size of a pieced border.

Whether you quilt your quilts yourself or have them quilted professionally, by taking the extra time to add borders correctly, your quilts will look much better with square corners and straight sides.

Solving Longarm Backing Issues

Nothing is worse than taking the quilt off the frame and discovering problems on the back

problem quilt

Notice distorted sides and wavy bottom on this quilt.

of the quilt, such as puckers or tucks, or getting to the bottom of the quilt and find dog-ear borders.  It is very discouraging after spend a lot of time to make the quilting design look so nice.  Who at this point wants to do reverse stitching (pick out stitches)? Perhaps, even by removing the stitching, there may not be a good solution to fix the issue.

Reasons that may result in puckers, tucks, backing that drapes on the sides and dog-ear borders:

  1. The backing is loaded too loosely.
  2. Backing is pieced with a vertical seam
  3. Improper clamping
  4. incorrect technique for adding borders

Because of inexperience, new longarm quilters often have backing issues, even I did.  All of these issues are caused by incorrect methods.  Change your methods and you immediately change the outcome.

The best solution to “fixing” these issues is prevention using techniques that will eliminate the problems from the start.  In fact, prevention starts even before you start loading the backing.    Over the years I have refined a procedure that totally eliminates all of these issues.  If you follow these steps, you can eliminate these issues.  Best thing is that these same procedures and techniques work with all brands of machines and frames.

Techniques to eliminate puckers, tucks and dog-ear borders.

Method for adding borders:

Dog-ears result from the border being longer than the quilt top or being stretched during quilting.  “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”  In this case, add borders correctly.

  1. Never add a border by laying the strip on the quilt, stitching it on and trimming it off.  Because the sides of any quilt will distort easily, opposite borders will never end up being the same sewn on this way and you end up with opposite borders all different lengths distorting the outside edge of the quilt.  Borders added correctly will square up a quilt.
  2. Correct method:
    1. Measure across the quilt top in two or three places (not at the top or bottom), use the average of the measurements or the smallest, cut both top and bottom border at the same time, the same length.
    2. Pin border to quilt easing in any fullness of the border or quilt.  Best way is to quarter both the quilt top and border, pin together at the quarter marks, then ease in fullness.
    3. Always stitch with the fullest piece on the bottom where the feed dogs will evenly pull it through without creating any puckers.
    4. Using the same method, measure the other direction across the quilt, cut both border strips the same length following instructions in steps A-C.

Loading Procedure:

  1. Backing (and batting) must be 8” longer and 8” wider than the quilt top.
  2. Square the top and bottom end of the backing so that they are perpendicular to the sides. Fold backing in half lengthwise, fold again making sure there are no puckers and the folds and side lay on top of each other with no ripples or puckers.  Use a long cutting ruler and line up a cross mark along the folded edge and trim the top (and bottom) edge.  Cut will be perpendicular to the length of the backing.  Your backing will NEVER work properly without squaring with this method.  Even tearing along the grain line does not work because all fabric is distorted during the manufacturing and winding process.  You must square by cutting.
  3. Make sure the backing is pinned evenly to the canvas or zippers, or with the same amount folded over the rod if using leader grips. Any amount that is off by more than ¼ – 3/8” here can distort the backing.
  4. Always roll ALL of the backing onto the take-up roller first (roller under the machine arm). Stand at the back of the frame, roll a little, then, SMOOTH the backing from the center outward in each direction.  This does not stretch the fabric, it smooths it out to remove little puckers and ripples.  Keep rolling a little and smoothing until nearly all of the backing is rolled onto the take-up roller.
  5. Roll the backing from the take-up roller to the belly bar roller. Again, roll a little, walk
    loading quilt backing correctly

    Controlling transfer of backing from take-up roller to belly bar roller.

    over and smooth from center outward in each direction (belly bar), roll a little more, smooth more, until the backing is transferred to the front belly bar roller.  When transferring from take-up roller to front roller, keep tension on the backing by keeping a hand on each roller (see photo).  Something magical happens during this transfer – the backing straightens itself out, drapes along the side disappear.  YES, this method takes a little longer, but it eliminates the problems.

  6. What about a backing seam? Unless the backing is directional, always seam backing fabrics so that the seam is a horizontal seam and not a vertical seam.  If you must have a vertical seam see my YouTube video below on how to roll the backing.

More Loading Tips:

Once the backing has been transferred to the belly bar roller, the batting and top can now be loaded.  Do not put clamps on the quilt yet as this distorts the backing.

  1. Batting must have a straight edge at the top perpendicular to the sides. If it does not and/or is distorted, square up the top edge of the batting.
  2. Baste the batting to the backing with the horizontal channel lock engaged. This is very important as the basting line becomes the placement line for the top.
  3. Using the basting line (step 2) as the placement for the top edge of the quilt matching the center of the top to the center mark on the roller.  The quilt top will be perfectly aligned parallel to the rollers and square with the frame. Baste less than ¼ “ from the edge of the quilt top.  When basting less than 1/4″ from the quilt edge, there is no need to remove the basting as the binding will cover the stitching.
  4. Using a zero center tape installed on the frame, baste the sides of the quilt top at the same distance from the center as the top edge of the quilt. Using a zero center tape every time the quilt is advanced assures the quilt will be square at the bottom.

After the top is basted to the backing, attach the clamps only to the backing.  Backing clamps are used only to stabilize the sides of the quilt and are only attached to the backing.  Side leader grips can be used as an alternative method of stabilizing the quilt/backing sides.  These are 10-14 inches long with the ribbon on the side leader grip held by a frame side clamp.  They do a great job of stabilizing a longer area than just a narrow clamp.  DONOT pull tightly on the clamp straps as that distorts the backing.  Because of this distortion, when the clamps are released after quilting, the quilt will pucker.

One final tip.  Before starting to quilt the new area, take a quick look under at the backing.  Make sure that it is smooth with no ripples, folds, or areas of distortion.  If it looks smooth, you are good to go.