Should You Buy a Long Arm Quilting Machine ?

To Buy or Not to Buy

Since I began quilting as a serious hobby I have had many people ask me if I own a long arm quilting machine. When I answer “no”, they seem surprised and often reply with comments such as, “Don’t you need a long arm to quilt?” Or. “I thought every quilter used a long arm quilting machine?”

Needless to say, this type of answer must be accompanied by an explanation and a definition. A simple “no” won’t suffice. It is interesting to see the reaction after I explain why. Their question is replaced with, “Oh… now I see.”

I Need a Definition!

The long arm quilting machine gets its name from the shape and length of the arm which is long allowing for an over sized throat to accommodate large quilts. Typically, the machine is attached to the frame (could be a large table) where the machine itself is placed on a track that allows the machine to be smoothly rolled along the length of the frame. As one section of the quilt is quilted the operator grasps the handles and slides the machine down to the next section.

On the surface this sounds like quite a deal – especially the computerized versions. All you do is load your quilt, select the program, set the needle in position and press the ‘on’ switch. The machine does all the work while you head poolside with a book and a bowl of berries!

Ahhh…” Quilting is so relaxing!”

However,…there is more to this type of long arm machine that meets the eye and the more you know the better you understand why more – actually, a great majority, of quilters do not own one.

Things To Consider:

1) They are HUGE.

The overall foot print is 3′ – 4′ wide and up to 14′ long. This image gives some perspective regarding the amount of space required if installing in your home. It my guess the quilter in this house also “wears the pants”. Not many family members would be willing to sacrifice this amount of real estate for something with such a small monitor and no remote control!

The example above is also a very high end computerized model. It not only has the capabilities of quilting very large and king-size quilts like all long arm machines, the claim to fame are the exquisite quilt designs. The speed and accuracy of this machine cannot be matched with hand quilting or even quilting on a mid-arm machine.

2) The Learning Curve

A long arm machine is not one you begin using straight out of the box. If you do purchase a machine like this, it will need to be set up by a trained professional. Next, you will need to invest time and money in your own training to learn how to use it and devote ample time to practice. After that you may need even more training and then more practice before feeling confident and comfortable using this on a daily basis or with a customer’s quilt.

3) The Price

A brand new long arm with every bell and whistle imaginable will set you back in the $14,000+ price range. Generally, those who do make this purchase are actually making a business investment (as this could be a business deduction – if that helps).

Lower priced models starting in the $3,000 – $4,000 price range are available. They have a much smaller footprint and are somewhat more affordable.

The advantages

1) A quilt loaded onto a long arm machine will have the layers rolled onto a large roller. This keeps the layers in place and provides the perfect tension on the fabric needed for consistent quilting.

2) This machine can produce quilt patterns that cannot be duplicated by hand or any other type of sewing machine.

One example of a long arm quilt pattern

And a few more examples so get a real feel for what these machines can do!

3) A large quilt with a pattern of minimal to moderate complexity can be done more quickly and efficiently = no mistakes or errors (unless a mistake was made while programming the quilt pattern).

4) A unique and eye-catching quilt is needed for display – to be considered more of a “work of art” than a pretty item that also provides warmth.

What about hiring someone to quilt for you?

If you want an elaborate and / or intricate quilting pattern or, if you are like me, it is not feasible to own one your best bet is to locate a shop or individual to do the long arm quilting for you.

Again, this service is not particularly cheap but as I always say – you are getting what you pay for. Once you fully understand the process of long arm quilting and the price is easily justified.

Middle of the road pricing is about .02 cents per square inch and if often determined by the quilter’s projected base pay. A quilter wanting to earn $25 per hour would base pricing of the quilt on this number.

For example, charging .02 cents psi for a queen sized quilt measuring 90″ x 100″ = 9,000 square inches.

9,000 x .02 = $180 which is typically for the labor only. Additional costs could include the cost of thread, batting, binding and backing, labels and / or hanging loops.

Taking this $180 and dividing it by the number of hours required to complete the quilt (say 4 hours) the net result is $40 per hour. Which sounds good until you factor in other costs: cost of the machine, electricity, time spend meeting with the client, driving to and from fabric shop, purchase price of batting and backing, cost of owning, running and marketing a small business and the top dollar amount is quickly reduced to $20 – $25 per hour.

The Verdict: Is it feasible to own and operate a long arm quilting machine of your own?

What I have presented probably appears to be more in favor of the argument against rather than for buying a long arm machine.

However, for the independent, small business quilter where this type of purchase is more of an investment the verdict is an unequivocal yes. Additionally, the return on that investment is only limited by the amount of time and energy you have to devote to the business of long arm quilting.

As far as long arm quilting for personal use goes, as long as you have the space, the skill level and the price easily fits within your budget there isn’t another reason (that I can think of) not to make this purchase. The more I am able to do for myself the better however, if owning a long arm machine allowed me to provide a needed service for others that would be a complete win – win situation!

I would love to hear stories from those who use a long arm machine either for themselves or as a service to others. What additional advantages have you observed to using this type of machine and / or what disadvantages have you encountered?

6 thoughts on “Should You Buy a Long Arm Quilting Machine ?

  1. Rachel says:

    This quilting machine might not be good in a small home or for someone that doesn’t do much quilting. Only as a hobby. My mom sews at a recreation site that has sewing machines for them. This might be good for businesses. The design of the long arm quilting machine is beautiful! This would be great for people that want to sell their quilts on Amazon, Ebay, or Etsy. This would help volunteers if they needed to make quilts for the homeless or victims of natural disasters.

    • Susan says:

      Hi Rachel,

      Actually, this machine is better suited for a business.  It seems over the past 5 or so years quilting has increased significantly in popularity and the reason I’m reading and hearing more about these long arm machines.

  2. Stew says:

    Ok, I don’t quilt, but this post was an eye opener.  I think of a sewing machine as something you an park in the corner of your room, but this thing you show is huge.  Not only huge but expensive too.

    I am shocked at the room required and the cost involved to do this.  I know some wonderful quilts are our there, but wow

    • Susan says:

      Hi Stew,

      Yes, these machines are monstrosities and it used to be the only place you would find one is in the back of a fabric or quilt shop that did long arm quilting as a side gig.  Now that quilting has gained so much in popularity, people are wanting to install these in their homes and quilt as a means of earning extra income.

      As for me, I’m happy just writing about it!

  3. Joo says:

    Oh my, I had to laugh out loud at the picture of the HUGE long arm quilting machine. And then wide-eyed at the picture of the intricate quilting pattern that can only be produced by the machine. 

    I love it that your post provides such balanced views on whether to buy a long arm quilting machine or not, and leave it to the reader to decide for herself, based on her needs and circumstances. 

    I have not done quilting in such a long long time, I guess I’d only have the chance to do it again when the kids are more grown. For me, I find it therapeutic to just work on a simple small machine, as I do it only as a past time. 

    • Susan says:

      Oh yes…go big or go home!  There are however, smaller more manageable long arm machines but they still require a considerable amount of space and money!

      I’m with you – I’ll stay with my simple, small machine (Janome) and hope Santa brings me a Juki!  🙂

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