Top Ten Tips for New Longarm Quilters

July 6, 2018


by Mary Beth Krapil


If you’re new to the world of longarm quilting, it can be overwhelming; as there is seemingly so much to learn. As a 10 year veteran Handi Quilter National Educator, I’ve been all over the world teaching longarm classes. I’ve met thousands of quilters and the vast majority of them have been newbies. I’ve heard all the dumb (not really) questions, and all the (unfounded) fears and (silly) misgivings. Hopefully I answered all those questions and gave those newbies courage and inspiration to dive into learning how to use their new machines. I thought I would share the ten best tips I have. It was really hard to narrow it down to just ten. I also got some help from my fellow Educators, Jane Hauprich and Linda Gosselin. We had several tips on our lists that overlapped, so I knew they must be the good ones.

#1 First and Foremost: Do NOT be afraid of your machine!

Jane shared with me that she was so terrified of her machine when she first got it, she didn’t even want to step into the room! She went to the door several times a day and peeked in. For two weeks she told herself she could not do it. Thankfully she found her courage! She is an amazing quilter and a great teacher today. Don’t be afraid. It is just a sewing machine. You’ve likely been around sewing machines for some time now. Ya, it’s big. But it’s just a sewing machine.

#2 Give yourself permission to PLAY (It’s really practice, but call it play. It sounds so much more fun that way!)

#3 Practice PLAY every day. It sounds like a huge time commitment, but it really is not. 15 minutes a day is all it takes. Did you notice the word “every”? That is 15 minutes every day. You cannot save it up and do an hour and a half on Saturday! The key is to do a little every day so that you will build your skills. What it takes to be able to do that is to be prepared. If you have a stand-up machine have a practice piece loaded on your frame all the time. If you have a sit-down machine have a stack of prepared quilt sandwiches sitting next to your machine, all the time. That way when you have those few 15 minutes, you can go and stitch. No excuses! Schedule that time for yourself to play, you deserve it!

#4 It’s just fabric and thread. You can always buy more. See that? I just gave you permission to go to the quilt shop. You’re welcome.

#5 Draw and doodle when you can’t be at your machine. That muscle memory thing? It’s real. You will develop your skills at creating continuous line patterns. You will train your brain to know where to go next. One rule: When you draw, you must not lift your pencil!

#6 Don’t be overly critical of your stitches. You do need to take a good look at what you are doing to figure out where you need to improve and what you need to work on, but don’t expect perfection. Even the best quilters on the show circuit are not perfect.

#7 Put your first practice piece away. Don’t throw it away. Then bring it out and look at it in 6 months time. You will be amazed at how much you will have improved! That 15 minutes a day really works!

#8 Never point out your mistakes to anyone. When someone admires your quilt, just smile and say, “Thanks! I had a lot of fun making it!”. Even if the tension is bad and the points don’t match and your quilted circles are more like squares and your straight lines are only straight-ish and you chose the wrong color thread.  If there is one thing I’ve learned over the years, those looking at your quilt (with the exception of show judges) don’t know and don’t care. They just know they like the quilt and that you worked hard to make it, so they compliment you. Soak it up.

#9 Use the same color thread in the top and in the bobbin. It can hide minor tension issues. It does not have to be the same thread, just the same color. BUT, when you are just learning how to adjust tension, use different colors top and bobbin. This will help to see how your stitches formed and help you figure out how to adjust to get it perfect. Just remember: Righty, tighty; Lefty loosey.

#10 Take classes and keep learning. Then share what you know with a newbie. It doubles the fun!

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July 6th, 2018

by Mary Beth Krapil   If you’re new to the world of longarm quilting, it can be overwhelming; as there is seemingly so much to learn. As a 10 year […]

45 responses to “Top Ten Tips for New Longarm Quilters”

  1. About #1. I’m often afraid of my machine because it breaks down or my tablet crashes just about every time I try to quilt a new quilt. By the way, I have a Handiquilter Avanti.

    • Carolyn,
      So sorry you are having difficulty. Please reach out to you local retailer who supports you and your machine. If that is not possible, call Handi Quilter at 877-697-8458. They will help you get your machine working reliably.

  2. #10 is my favorite! I live for our local HQ store to offer instructors. Even the basic classes – no matter I learn something new or different from every single one and always come home inspired and I’ve been longarm quilting off and on since 2008. You never know it all

  3. As i get older and I have diabetes, so my sight is diminishing. I am finding it difficult to see the quilting when i use matching threads? I tried quilting with only the machine lights on, but that did not help. Is there anything you can recommend? When i use contrasting threads, its AMAZING 🙂

    • Hi Zorina, Try turning your machine lights off and use a Handi Light (available at your local retailer) or a light placed at the side of your machine. This will create a shadow and you will be able to see where you have stitched. It works like a charm!

  4. I bought my simply sixteen and Little Foot frame from a woman who barely used it and decided she couldn’t. I too was afraid for a few weeks. The tension issues at first almost did me in, but I persisted and I feel I have improved a lot in the seven months I’ve had my longarm. I do fear something going wrong with my machine as I live hundreds of miles from the nearest dealer. Handi Quilter tips, and Angela Walters and Paula Jo are my heroes. I love quilting.

  5. I love to draw and doodle. It really does help with your skills on the longterm! So #5 it’s my favorite and #10. I take any and every class at my local store. There are always things to learn or to be reminded of. I love to play with my HQ Avante!!!!

  6. I got my Avante for Christmas have done a little on it but not much. I am in Canada I wish we had someone here to give a coarse on the longarm. I have to teach myself and have no clue on how to go about it and if I am doing things right or not. I am all over the place.

    • Hi Connie! Be sure to take advantage of all the educational content Handi Quilter has to offer. Handi Tips, Minute Motifs, videos on the Handi Quilter You Tube channel, monthly HQ Live. Sign up for the Handi Quilter newsletter at handiquilter.me. You will get notified about all of these things in the newsletter.

    • Hi, Connie, I just started watching the “HQ Live” videos, after owning my machine almost 2 years, and barely using it. I was never able to watch on the days they were “Live” so didn’t bother looking for all the past videos that are available on the Handiquilter website. But now that I’ve found them, I’m learning so much! Try them out! some I watch several times. Also–I asked around until I found a few people who were also long-arm quilters, some more experience than others but all more experienced than me, and we started a club. Not a guild–that’s too formal. Just a small group of us that get together once a month and gather around someone’s machine and share what we’ve learned, or what problems we’re having. We bring our “best work” but also our biggest flops. I have learned so much from these amazing quilters, and they’re my inspiration to “just keep quilting”. Hope that helps. 😉

  7. I have an Avante with the ProStitcher and love it. However, I am so afraid of ruining a quilt that I only do all-over designs. I know the ProStitcher is capable of so much more. How can I get over this fear and just try something new? I would like to try cropping, borders and corners, and how to work with some of the designs with wrapping.

    • Hi Mary! Have you tried loading a “cheater” quilt? One of the fabrics that looks like a pieced quilt but is really printed fabric? It is a great way to practice with advanced techniques in Pro-Stitcher without risking that quilt top that you just spent 100 hours piecing. Be sure to check out the videos on Handi Quilter’s YouTube channel. There are several about Pro-Stitcher techniques. They will build your skills!

  8. I love your tips, especially number one. I too am afraid of my machine, as silly as it seems. I attended two retreats in Utah (basic and prostitcher) before my machine was set up. We practiced on Avanti machines. When I started working on my Infinity I was so discouraged that I couldn’t even make a circle. They looked like rounded cornered squares and my gluteal muscles got a real workout in the process. I felt like I was fighting with the machine and I convinced myself that I didn’t deserve such a great machine if I couldn’t even make circles. I later learned that I had to turn off the gears on the prostitcher which we didn’t have to do on the machines in Utah since the Avantes had a different screen for the prostitcher. Now my circles are round and I’ll have to find another way to work out my derriere!

    • LOL! Karen! Hope that you and your Infinity are getting to know one another more now that you have solved the “mystery of the square circles”. There is always an answer for every machine quilting dilemma. Some are easy and some take a little longer to figure out. But that is part of the fun isn’t it?

  9. My HQ16 had birthday this month 10 years! I got the tool table at the same time. I love playing with my tools! I would love to upgrade to larger space, but heath issues tell me no. My 93 year old mom got Avanti 8 years ago, she wanted a new car. The family felt she may not live long enough; she is still quilting and shares her machine with my sister. I have learned from your You tubes and tips. I need a club, but not one that charges $50 a class, like the local quilt store. I also like handle or lip that is on other maker of tools. It helps in the balance and hand wrist issues. My HQ tools, 10 years old have the marking worn off and have been the ones I have gotten under the needle. I do have newer wave and do like it. Thanks for your tips.

    • Happy HQ16 birthday! And hooray for your Mom! You’re never too old to enjoy what you do. So glad you are all having fun!

      • Hi Myra, Anyone can sign up for our newsletter. If you are a quilter you will appreciate notices of all the new educational material we are providing. Please sign up!

  10. This is all VERY good advice. Question about #3 and #10. I would love to take more classes, but my local HQ dealer only offers these once or twice a year, and I’ve taken all that have been offered, with the exception of repeats. Other than big shows, where hands-on classes are available, are there other venues for classes? As for #10. How does you manage the “practice every day” logistically? Do you keep a practice piece on the machine and just keep adding to it?

    • Hi Janet! Yes, keep a practice piece on your machine any time you do not have a “real” quilt loaded. That way you are ready to play whenever you get a moment. Classes are available at your local retailer, at major shoes, at Handi Quilter University in Utah several time per year and the BIG event of the year is Handi Quilter Academy. Around 20 teachers and loads of classes to choose from and the most fun ever! Check out handiquilter.me/academy.Also look at the Handi Quilter YouTube channel. There are hundreds of videos you can learn from there. Happy Quilting!

  11. I have just recently purchased an infinity and boy oh boy! I play everyday for at least an hour and that definitely helps. Now for the pro stitcher, I find it very difficult and try to play with it everyday as well. I tried several times to download the program on my desk top but the key wouldn’t copy. I have to call handi quilter again. All in all I’m pretty happy with my new machine but very anxious to learn and remember everything and not get overwhelmed. I need to go to some classes S I think the would help. Thank you for your tips would love to read more.

    • Hi Patricia! Be sure to sign up for the HQ newsletter. handiquilter.me/register You will know when a new Handi tip or Minute Motif comes out. And be in the know about all things Handi Quilter! There will be more tips in the blog as well, so keep reading! If you are on Facebook “Like” the Handi Quilter page too. Lots of good info there too!

  12. Nice article…I like the pictures peeking in the room 😀 That describes my start with the big machine also. So glad to finally be playing along with some online challenges/classes…so much more fun than being afraid of the big machine. Thanks for the inspiration!

  13. The pictures describe me perfectly after the installer left after setting up my longarm machine. I had the thought run through my head several times, “What the heck have I done????” Luckily, I knew I needed to just dive in or I’d forget half of what he told me to do. I absolutely love playing with my longarm now.

    A tip….When I start a new project, I cut my backing a little extra wide so I have at least 8″ on each side. I also cut my batting a little wider. Then I look through my hunks and chunks of scraps and pull out a piece that is the same size as the extra backing/batting, and put it on top. Since it is not secured down, I use some basting spray to carefully tack it down enough so it doesn’t move. Then, I will still use it to test my tension or “warm up” a little before starting to sew onto the quilt. If I have a new design I am trying out, I can test it on there until I feel comfortable enough to put it on the quilt. By doing this, I can get my tension perfect, and also have some space to play before sewing onto the quilt, and it reduces the chances of me having to pick out stitches that I am unhappy with.

  14. I’ve been using prewound bobbins, while I’m getting used to the machine. I think it one less thing I have to worry about while I’m learning. When I’m more confident I’ll try playing with different threads and winding my own bobbins, but for now I’m just getting used to free motion quilting.

    I also like practicing on pre-printed cot panels. Lots of places to try different designs in and I have a ready made gift on hand when I finished the quilting.

  15. Well I have a HQ 16 and a Advante with Prostitcher. I just got it in Oct. I have done 7 clients quilts on it. The machine is freaking amazing. My clients seem to be happy. But I still need some additional classes. But I have learned alot on my own.

  16. I’m brand new to the longarm. I just purchased the infinity. Should I go to the Academy or University?

    • Congratulations Stephanie on your new machine! You will love it. Both Academy and Retreat offer great learning experiences. Academy has an optional Bootcamp, which is a full day of the basics just prpior to the start of Academy. Then you will be ready for all of the other marvelous class offerings at Academy.

  17. I got a new Moxie about a month ago. I am just learning FMQ. I joined an online class as I live about 100 miles from my dealer. My quilting stinks. I can meander fine but that’s it. I’ve been practicing. Today I was wondering if I could use the water soluble thread,, then wash it out to use the fabrics again. I’m not finding an answer to that. Only for basting.

    • Yes, you can certainly use water soluble thread for practice. It might be more cost effective to use inexpensive muslin or even sheets from a thrift store for practice. Also use up your batting scraps for those practice sandwiches. Happy quilting!

  18. I just got my new Moxie set up yesterday, I’m having trouble with curves, circles , I can do squares ok
    But for some reason after practicing fir about 12 inches my thread breaks . Then I get discouraged.
    Tension seems fine. I wish there were classes in my area. I live north of
    Memphis, TN. I got my machine ordered from shop in (Sew Many Ideas, Jackson, TN )but it’s an 1 +1/2 away , so to hard to run over there.

    • Rose, be patient with yourself. It sounds like your tension might be a bit too tight. Try loosening your bobbin slightly (turn to the left about 1-2 minutes on the clock) the loosen your top tension til you get a pretty stitch. Be sure you have the correct needle for the thread you are using. Don’t hesitate to call your retailer on the phone. They will be happy to get you going. Even use Facetime or Zoom for a video call. You will get it in time!

  19. I appreciate your tips as I have followed them all…. Except for the don’t mind your mistake one. I have a Babylock long arm and at times my quilts come out beautiful then there are times I spend hours ripping out stitches and wanting to throw the machine out the back door. How do I get the consistency of stitching? I have a stitch regulator that appears to be on her period once a month cause I can’t get it to work for nothing!!! It’s so testy I just want to strangle myself with the cord! Then other times it shows me talent I didn’t know I had. I am desperate for consistency. Do you have any advice before I hurt the machine?

    • Sounds like you might need to reach out to your Babylock dealer for help with getting your machine smoothed out.

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