Choosing the best long arm quilting machine is usually a matter of finding a machine that meets your personal qualifications when it comes to pricing, space constraints, and additional features. Most of these tools are big investments; they tend to be really expensive and can take up most of a room. You’ll usually want to spend a bit of time researching the options and considering your needs. Some machines are fancier than others, and may be easier to use for beginners. The market in most places is driven by a few primary brands, so your choice might be necessarily limited. Talking to friends and others who already own machines can be a good idea, but it’s important to remember that “best” in this context is usually quite subjective. The option that’s best for one person isn’t necessarily also best for everyone else.
Long Arm Quilting Basics
A long arm quilting machine is a type of sewing machine mounted on a table with wheels beside a pair of bars. It’s usually designed to accommodate an entire quilt top at once. The fabric of the quilt top is mounted on one bar while the quilt bottom and batting are mounted on the other. These three pieces are stretched between the two bars to create what some people refer to as a “quilt sandwich,” probably because of the layered approach. The sewing machine is passed back and forth over the exposed portion of the quilt, typically following a pattern, until the project is complete.
The tools make machine quilting much easier than working with a quilt top on a standard sewing machine. There are usually a couple of different sizes available, but almost all are significantly larger than traditional pedal-operated sewing machines. It’s often a good idea to view the tools in person and ideally even try them out as a part of the decision-making process. They’re commonly sold in sewing machine shops and at quilt shows, which are both good places to start. Some of the most common long arm quilting manufacturers are Gammill®, American Professional Quilting Systems®, Pfaff®, and Nolting®. There is some variety based on location, but these names are generally considered to be the global leaders.
Consider the Cost
Long arm quilting machines are usually expensive, and cost is likely going to be part of your calculation. Basic models will usually quilt adequately and accurately, but may not have much flexibility in terms of stitching or patterning. More expensive models typically include additional features to ease the quilting process and create precise, even stitches. More expensive machines usually include specialized features not common on more “economy” models. These include functions like laser light guides, stitch regulators, bobbin regulators, bobbin winders, a free-motion quilting foot, and thread cutters.
One of the best ways to figure out if a higher price is justifiable is to think about how many quilts you’re likely to make on the machine. If you make quilts primarily as a part-time hobby, a high-powered machine with a huge capacity and fancy features might not be best for you.
Evaluate Assembly and Installation Options
Another factor is likely to be the ease of a given machine’s installation and set-up. It’s usually a good idea to ask the manufacturer whether installation is included in the price of the long arm quilting machine, or whether it is available to purchase separately. This equipment is generally shipped from the manufacturer to the quilter’s home. These machines commonly arrive in multiple pieces, with parts and assembly instructions included.
Some manufacturers accompany the machine and assist with its assembly. Others may allow the quilter to assemble it independently. These machines are complicated, though, and may be difficult and frustrating to put together. Poor assembly may affect the overall balance of the machine and its stitching quality, and an unbalanced machine will cause the stitching pattern to be applied in a crooked manner. It will also create problems when attempting to load the quilt onto the machine. Adequate assembly is therefore important, and should be part of your decision-making process.
Ask for Input
Finally, it’s usually a good idea to spend time talking to people who have used these tools before, or who own them currently. Find out how easy they actually are to use, and how hard it is to get them serviced or maintained. If possible, try them out before you make a commitment and get a feel for what seems right to you.