What Tool is That? The Longarm

The last few years have brought us a generous influx of new sewists, and we’re so happy to welcome them into the Thimbles family. The more, the merrier! 

As we’ve added more educational classes and workshops to the Thimbles roster, we’ve come to realize we’re teaching to all different levels of sewists and quilters. Some of you have been quilting and sewing for decades, having learned the skill from parents and grandparents; others are only just starting to pick up the basics.

With that in mind, we decided it might be a good idea to introduce a new blog series: What Tool is That? In this series, we hope to demystify some sewing accouterments and their uses. Hopefully, it will bolster the confidence of our newer sewists and be a good refresher for practiced sewists as well.

The first entry in our series—the Long Arm—was inspired by our upcoming Bernina event, No Small Thing to Quilt on a Long Arm. The event is this Saturday, March 19, with two different show times: 9:30 am - 12:30 pm and 1:00 pm - 4:00 pm. You can still get a ticket here

Bernina Longarm Event

What is a Longarm quilting machine?

A longarm quilting machine is a sewing machine with a permanent frame in one set up. It typically consists of a sewing machine, table, rollers or rails for combining your quilt elements, and a permanent frame that runs between 5 and 15 feet long. The larger the table, the larger the quilt that can be made.

The name “longarm” comes from the literal longarm of the sewing machine, which enlarges the sewing space between needle and machine. A traditional sewing machine offers approximately 8 inches between the needle and the machine. A longarm machine, on the other hand, offers 16+ inches between the needle and the machine. This area of space is typically referred to as the “throat” space or “harp” space. You can see in the picture below the different throat space options for the Bernina Q series longarm machines—16, 20, and 24 inches respectively.

Bernina Longarm Machine

A longarm machine’s rollers or rails allow quilters to direct the backing, batting and quilt top through the separate rollers or rails, sandwiching them together. The first longarm quilting machine was invented in 1871, which means the action was originally powered by a hand crank! There are still manual longarm quilting machines, but many are now computerized.

What does a Longarm quilting machine do?

Because a longarm quilting machine provides so much more space to work, it allows quilters to sew large quilts, feeding the three different quilt elements—backing, batting, and quilt top—through the machine without worry of bunching or wrinkles. With a longarm quilting machine, the quilt elements are held stationary and secure. Longarm quilting machines offer precision and consistency, and allow quilters to work on larger quilts without constant feeding and the awkward, uncomfortable positions that quiltmaking often requires (no neck pain necessary!).

Bernina Q24 Longarm

Why would I need a Longarm quilting machine?

A longarm makes it easier to maneuver a large quilt when sewing its elements together. The larger throat space also means you’re doing much less maneuvering in general when it comes to sewing a quilt. There’s no need to continuously rearrange your quilt to accommodate its size. 

Bernina Q series longarm machines also come with a stitch regulator system that provides a perfectly regulated stitch, regardless of how slow or fast you might move the longarm. Quilters can also do ruler work on a longarm. 

Working on a longarm quilting machine is faster, more efficient, and neater. The larger motor of a longarm machine effortlessly combines the layers of your quilt, which finish perfectly aligned.

Also, with the addition of technology like Bernina’s Q-matic, you can create edge-to-edge quilt designs automatically. Pantograph designs, which are continuous line designs that run the length of a quilt, are easy on a longarm quilting machine. 

Bernina Q Series Q-Matic

Are there different options for Longarm machines?

Absolutely! Bernina’s longarm machines in particular offer a lot of customization. Not only are the machines themselves adjustable to your height and comfort levels, but—as we noted above—quilters can choose between 16, 20, and 24-inch throat space. Frames are also available in different sizes to accommodate how much space you have to work with. 

For our No Small Thing event, we will be working on Bernina's Q24 longarm machine on a 10-foot frame. This longarm can be installed in a table or used as a sit down machine. We have several Bernina longarm machines available for our sewists to try: the Q24 with the Q-Matic on the Pro-frame, the Q20 on a Studio Frame, and the Q16 Plus in a Koala cabinet.

Bernina offers a range of frame sizes—Large (13’), Classic (12’), Small (9’), Studio Frame 5-foot (5.8’), and Studio Frame 10-foot (10.9’).  You can watch the Q24 in action below:

We hope you’ve enjoyed this introduction to the longarm quilting machine! If you have any more questions, please join us this Saturday for our No Small Thing event. It’s a great opportunity to see a longarm machine up close, and we can help you discover which Bernina longarm best suits you. 


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Longarm Machine at Thimbles