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What is Long Arm Quilting?

By Terrie Brockmann
Updated May 17, 2024
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Long arm quilting is a type of machine quilting done on a sewing machine that has a very long arm and an oversized throat to accommodate large quilts. Traditionally, quilters hand stitch the quilt top, batting, and backing together, but it is very time consuming. One of the advantages of machine quilting is that it is faster. Machine quilting on a home sewing machine, though, is almost impossible because the typical sewing machine has a very small work area. Most long arm quilting machines have an arm reach of 18 inches (45.72 cm) or more. Another advantage over other sewing machines is that the long arm quilter head moves instead of the fabric, giving the operator better control.

The long arm quilting machine offers the quilter more than just speed and convenience. Generally, a long arm quilting machine can stitch intricate designs that a hand quilter cannot achieve. The machine's consistency allows for complicated designs and the uniform stitches make the quilt more durable. Normally, a long arm quilting machine has a special foot that allows stitching in a 360-degree path, unlike a typical home sewing machine that sews in a straight line. Another advantage is that the quilter places the quilt top, batting, and backing on separate rollers so all three layers move independently and simultaneously, thereby reducing the risk of creases and puckers.

Three styles of quilting are possible with most long arm quilting machines. In the "custom" quilting style, a quilter hand guides the machine head in a freehand style. Another type of quilting is the pantograph style, where the quilter moves the machine head by using a stylus attached to a pantograph. As the operator follows a paper, acrylic, or wood pattern, the needle sews the design on the quilt. Some machines use a laser to precisely follow a paper pattern, enabling a quilter to achieve very detailed designs. This is one example of how new technology has increased the versatility of some long arm quilting machines.

A third quilting style uses a computer-controlled long arm quilting machine, which uses software to stitch computer-designed quilt patterns. Computer-aided machines can produce greater precision in design placement and stitching. There are literally thousands of patterns available for computer-aided machines. Typically, a quilter tweaks the pattern on a computer so it will fit the quilt top precisely.

Generally, when a person considers having a quilt top quilted by a company, he or she should prepare the quilt properly. Some companies prefer to provide the batting and backing — for a charge — and others prefer that the customer provides it. Normally, a person should not pin or stitch the top, batting, and backing together because they each will end up on a separate roller. Other companies may have different rules about how they want the quilt prepared and usually will provide preparation requirements upon request.

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