10 Tips from a Part-time Longarm Tech
I've been a HandiQuilter technician for a little over three years now, and the past two years I've been working with one of the top HQ vendors in the United States. I get to see a lot of longarms; here's a few tips to keep your machine happy!
1. Be a good beginner and learn your tool
I know this one sounds obvious, but let me add that it's usually the experienced quilter who buys a longarm. And they approach this new tool already being an expert in their craft. And while in many ways a longarm is just a really big sewing, it's also a tool that deserves being treated with awe and the eyes of a beginner. Approach this tool as if you're an excited five old trying out that new bicycle for the first time and BE PATIENT WITH YOURSELF! I say this line several times during setup and training. I think the older we get, the harder it is for us to remember to how be true beginners. Instead, our expect brains get frustrated when we forget a step or our first attempt at a new free-motion design isn't perfect. Be patient, and play. And if you're really worried about getting the stitching perfect, then contact your local guild and ask to quilt a few baby charity quilts. The guilds are always looking for help and babies don't care how it's quilt.
2. Have a relationship with your tech
Hopefully you've purchased your longarm from a reputable dealer who has great customer service. (Did I mention I work for Adirondack Quilts in South Glens Falls, NY, a top 10 HQ dealer..?) And hopefully during installation you were given a how-to lesson on your machine. And if not, find a dealer or tech that can support you in times of need, because even if you have zero problems with your longarm, it will still need yearly maintenance. Just like your car, getting your longarm in front of a tech for a "day spa treatment" will significantly increase the life of your machine and it's ease of use.
3. Let's talk tensing and thread path
I'd say 80% of the calls we get at the shop regarding longarm difficulties have to deal with tension and the thread path. Having come to quilting via apparel and costume sewing, adjusting tension was never a scary concept to me; I had to change it often between corduroy and chiffon fabrics. However, I've found most quilters not only never touch their tension knobs on their domestic machines, few truly understand how tension works. Simply put, it’s the relational pull of bobbin to top thread that creates the knot loop; the knot loop is ideally hidden in the middle, or batting of the quilt. If the top thread is too tight (too much tension) it pulls that knot loop up; if it's too loose, then the knot loop is pulled to the backing. If this concept still doesn't make sense, please spend as much time needed with your dealer or watching YouTube videos to get it. Once you understand tension, and how to manipulate, quilting on your longarm will be a breeze. The same goes for the thread path. Sewing machines, in general, have very similar thread paths, but longarms often have secondary or multiple loops, hooks, holes and levers that the thread path must go through. Skipping even one thread path step could be the difference between having stitches and not having stitches.
4. Needles and thread are cheap
I'll admit it. I'm that domestic machine sewer who doesn't change out my needle until it breaks, and I guard my thread like a hawk. But not with my longarm! I change out my needle after every king size quilt, every couple of full size quilts, every 3 baby quilts and after anytime I quilt on batiks or t-shirts. Needles are cheap; change them out frequently. Same goes for thread. Wind an extra bobbin before you begin quilt; do some extra tension checking off to the side of quilt before you get going. They are better things to worry about than playing bobbin chicken and dealing with a dull needle.
5. Watch where you're driving
Remember when you got your first car and your parents told you to keep your eyes on the road? Same message applies here. Be aware of where your backing and batting end along the sides. Know how big your quilting space is. Know where fabric clamps, buttons, bulky seams, and other quilt adornments are before you press start. Know where your leaders are to prevent quilting over them. Don't quilt over pins (this isn't your mechanical domestic machine that'll "push" the pin out of the way.) Breaking a needle on your longarm could spell disaster. I've found needle bits inside the body of the machine, stuck in the bobbin racetrack and broken on rulers. At the very least this means your timing gets thrown out, at the most …well replacing a bobbin racetrack isn't fun, easy or cheap. So keep your eyes on the quilt and needle at all times!
6. Put your clipped thread in the waste basket
I should add… NOT ON THE LONGARM TABLE to the above sentence. The quickest way to send your longarm to the tech is to ignore where you put your trimmed thread. If and when it gets on the table, the thread can get wound round the wheels preventing smooth movement. It can also gum up the track the carriage rides on, and even get inside that carriage stopping movement. I've even seen thread make it's way into the machine via the uptake lever and beyond the bobbin case sucked back into the main body of the machine. So get a trash bin and put the thread scraps in the trash right after cutting.
7. Dust and cover
This one may seem obvious, but I gotta tell you, it gets often ignored. I have seen some amazingly gross machines so let me just say. Please dust your machine. Dust before you start a new project. Dust after you finish a project. Dust before you turn on your machine, and after you turn off your machine. Dust, dust, dust! If you're not using your longarm daily, throw an old bedsheet over the machine between use. (You can find longarm cover tutorials online if you want something more fitted.) And if you have pets, even if they're not allowed in your longarm area, DUST EVEN MORE!
8. Daily oiling
As an HQ tech, we tell our clients to oil the bobbin racetrack after each bobbin. While I can't speak to other machines, I do know that every machine requires oil. Check your manual, talk to your dealer and be diligent and consistent in the use of oiling. And has a side note on this point, only use the recommended oil, do not substitute with generic sewing machine oil or gun cleaning oil. These machines are made with specific movements, gears and bearings in mind and require specific lubrication for perfect functioning. HQ machines can have up to six different lubricants during yearly cleanings; and the application of these different oils/lubes are very specific.
9. Unplug machines from the wall
As an HQ tech, I tell all my clients to unplug from the wall because it voids the warranty if there's an electric surge. But the warranty is small stuff. It's the electric surge that's really important. Clients think their surge protectors are enough. They don't realize electricity is still running to the unit even if it's switched off. Only by unplugging from the wall will the machine be completely safe from a surge. I even unplug my domestic machine after use because it's just a good habit.
10. Use your longarm!
The saddest part of visiting longarm owners is hearing how little they use their longarm. Here's a machine they've spent thousands of dollars - the equivalent of the price of a car in some cases and it sits, unused and unloved in their craft room, basement or spare bedroom. Play with your toy! And to reiterate #1, take a few classes on it. Watch YouTube videos about longarm. Love your longarm. It gets lonely when you ignore it!
I hope this inspires you to use and love your longarm! I gotta get back to the quilt lab now! I have SO many quilts to longarm! See you next time!
Head over to HandiQuilter's website for more information about their longarms, great tutorials and longarm manuals.
And if you're in the area, come visit Adirondack Quilts in South Glens Falls, NY for all our HandiQuilter needs and so much more!