People often ask me how long it takes to longarm an “average” quilt. While the actual quilting time can vary widely based on the size of the quilt, the pantograph design and density, there are many parts of the longarming process that are the similar for ANY quilt. Let me tell you all about it, because it might surprise you to learn alllll the different steps to longarming a quilt (and how long they take).
Let’s get into the details!
Picking up the quilt(s)
I live in a small town, and the mail is not delivered to our house. Instead, it’s sent directly to the main (only) post office. In order for your quilt to arrive at my home, I need to hop in the car (or walk if the weather’s nice) and visit the post office. Once there, I wait in line to pick up any parcels, and of course have a quick chat with Judy, Tricia, and the other Canada Post team members. They let me know if there have been any significant or unusual delays with the postal system (like when we didn’t receive any parcels for over a week at Christmas time 2020).
Collecting parcel: 10 mins
Organize and prioritize the parcel(s)
Once back home, I mark your package with the date that I received it. If multiple parcels arrive on one day, I check my master list of quilts to see which one was registered first. For instance, if I receive three packages on March 23rd and Suzy signed hers up on February 28th, Emily signed hers up on March 15th, and Meghan signed hers up on March 2nd, I would mark them as follows:
- Suzy: March 23 – #1
- Meghan: March 23 – #2
- Emily: March 23 – #3
I quilt projects based on the date that they arrive at my house. I finish any quilts that arrived on March 22nd (or earlier) before I start working on the March 23 quilts. And when I look at the pile of March 23 quilts, I’ll know which one to quilt first because it would be marked with a #1. When #1 is done, I move onto #2 (and so on). This helps keep me organized and ensures I prioritize quilts as best I can.
After marking the parcels, I store them on a (not cute) shelving system in my longarm studio / basement. Note: I do not open packages until I’m ready to start working on them.
Prioritizing parcels: 2 mins
One of the scariest parts of sending a quilt to a longarmer is waiting for it to arrive at its destination. Once I have your quilt safe and sound in my house, I’ll send you a quick email letting you know as much, and that I’ll keep you informed as it moves up the queue and gets loaded on the longarm frame.
This helps alleviate some of the anxiety of mailing a quilt. Plus, if you received a shipping update stating that your parcel was delivered and I haven’t told you that I have it, that might make you spiral into worry, wondering who exactly has their hands on your quilt. All of that can be resolved with a quick email.
Informing client: 3 mins
When your quilt is next in line:
Your quilt is “next in line” when the one before it is on the longarm frame being stitched up. While that’s happening, I’ll open your parcel and lay out the quilt backing and quilt top to make sure that there is sufficient backing fabric. If not, we’ll need to make a game plan to fix it (and this will cause significant delays in your quilt being longarmed….Please please PLEASE double-check or triple-check your backing fabric measurements before you pop it in the mail).
I’ll also review your intake form to see if there are any outstanding decisions to be made. Sometimes a client will tell me that they’re thinking about a specific pantograph, but would like my input before the final decision is made. If that’s the case, I’ll look at the quilt, choose a few options, and then contact the client in order to get their go-ahead.
If the top of the quilt is not marked (or not obvious), I’ll also ask about that in my email.
Note: I do NOT load a quilt until all of the decisions (panto choice, batting type, thread colour, quilt top direction, etc) are finalized. It’s happened in the past that I loaded a quilt, emailed the client for their input and then waited three days for them to reply. Never again.
Pre-load review and communication: 5 mins
Once the decisions are all sorted out and it’s clear that your quilt will be next, I’ll record the following information in my fancy quilt-tracking system (a beat-up notebook):
- the date
- your name
- the name of the quilt pattern
- the size of the quilt top
- how much (and which type of) batting is required.
- the pantograph name and density
- thread colour
If you have purchased your batting through me, I’ll measure and cut the batting at this point.
Measuring quilt, recording details, cutting batting: 5 mins
When it’s your quilt’s turn:
Now that the previous quilt is off the frame, it’s time to get the machine ready to stitch out your beautiful quilt! This means that I clean and oil the machine, change needles if needed, wipe down the rails, and vacuum the floor around / under the machine, and the area where I’ll lay out your quilt.
Cleaning the longarm machine: 10 mins
In order to load the quilt straight on the machine, I mark the centres of the top and bottom of the quilt backing, as well as the top of the quilt top. I do this by folding them in half and marking the centres with a pin.
I first load the quilt backing using my handy dandy Leader Grips, which saves me a tonne of time. When the backing is centred and happily settled on the rollers, I lay the batting on top of the backing fabric and stitch a registration line (a nice, straight, horizontal line near the top of the batting / backing). Then I’ll align your quilt top along the registration line and baste it in place across the top and down the sides.
If required (due to concerns about fullness in the quilt top or borders), I’ll also attach the bottom of your quilt top using pins. Cue the blood and tears! ?
Loading the quilt sandwich: 20 mins – 30 mins
Now I get to play with the computer! I use my IntelliQuilter system to set up a digital pantograph that will stitch a pattern that is appropriate to the size and design of your quilt top. If you’d like to learn more about my process, you can read these blog posts about choosing a pantograph design, and deciding a size for the design.
The process of setting up a panto can either be fast or slow, depending on whether I have previously stitched out this pattern and have a saved file of it, or it’s my first time using it, or if I have to purchase a panto upon a client’s request. If I have a saved file, it can take as little as 2 minutes to get it set up, but if I have to purchase a new digital file, it can take up to 15 minutes. Let’s go with an average…
Setting up pantograph: 5 mins
I just looked back and realized that I will have spent (on average) an hour with your quilt by this point. And there still isn’t even one stitch in the quilt top! But the good news is that the fun part is coming right up….
The actual stitching!!!
Maybe you think that having a computerized longarm machine means that I press “go” on the machine and walk away while it magically stitches out your entire quilt? That DOES sound lovely! Someone please tell me when that system is invented! ?
Instead, I’ll hit START on my computer and then hover over it for a while, making sure that the tension is looking <chef’s kiss>, and that I’m happy with the size of the design. This has become a much more relaxed process with my years of experience, but it wasn’t always so.
In the beginning of my longarming journey, I struggled to find the correct tension settings which was STRESSFUL. And I often second-guessed my sizing choices, which resulted in hours of ripping out stitches and re-starting. New longarmers, I see you and feel your pain. Hang in there! It will get better!
The actual stitching time of the quilt can vary widely based on the size of the quilt, the panto design, and the density, but for the following numbers, I’ll use an “average” size quilt with a not-very-complicated pantograph stitched at “medium” density.
Here’s what it would look like if I quilted a 72″x 60″ quilt using Wishbone at medium density:
If I was using Wishbone, the quilt would be oriented vertically, which would mean that with each pass, I would be stitching an area that measured approximately 60″ x 18″. While my Gammill longarm is advertised as having 26″ of throat space, I can realistically only stitch out 18″ at a time (due to the space that the take-up bar uses, etc).
For this panto, I would guess that the machine would take approximately 20 minutes to stitch out each pass. Pretty fast, right? Well, there’s more to it…
Number of passes
If you do the math, it seems like a 72″ long quilt would require four passes, right? (72 / 18 = 4)
A quilt this size will require at least five passes. Here’s why:
First, I *try* to maximize my available throat space, but I usually create files that end up slightly smaller than 18″. Since 18″ is my MAX, I try to get as close to that size without going over (Price is Right style). For instance, when I quilt Wishbone at a medium density, it requires 17.83″ of throat space. Not bad, right? Pretty close to 18″!
Second, this pantograph is designed so that each row nests into the one above it. That means that while the first pass will quilt out 17.83″ of the quilt, I’ll need to overlap the row above. The second pass might start around 15.5″ from the top of the quilt.
Have I lost you? If so, come back to me! I’m just trying to say that it often takes more passes than you might think.
Let’s see what it might look like to longarm this particular quilt.
I’d hit the START button, then stick around for a bit to make sure that it was stitching properly. Additionally, I would record a quick video of the machine in action, upload it to my Google Drive, create a link, and then email it to you. That way, you’d know that things were underway, plus… EXCITEMENT!!
Once the machine was happily stitching, I would normally walk away and leave it until it finished the first pass. This is when I would start preparing the next quilt / photographing / shipping the previous quilt.
Hands-on time: 10 mins (2 mins of supervision, 2 mins of recording video, 6 mins of uploading/emailing)
After the first pass is complete, it’s time to roll up that quilt! For each time that I advance the quilt, I need to do the following:
- tell the computer what point I’d like to realign to
- release the sides and front clamps
- roll the bars to the new location
- smooth out the batting
- remove any stray threads from the batting / quilt top
- smooth out the quilt top and square it to the quilt frame
- baste the sides of the quilt
- secure the front and sides of the quilt
- move the computer to the realignment point
- adjust the size of the quiltable area
- hit START
I’ve done this process more than a thousand times by now, and have it down to a science. If everything goes perfectly smoothly, I can get it all done in about 10 minutes. I’m efficient!
If things do not go smoothly (the quilt has fullness, requires starching or that a tuck be taken), it can more than double the amount of time needed. But I have more “smooth” than non-smooth quits, so let’s use an average of 15 minutes.
If a quilt uses a “difficult-to-realign” pantograph, this process becomes exponentially more complicated, stressful, and lengthy. As such, I charge more for those patterns. But let’s stick with averages.
Remember, this quilt will require five passes, which means that I’ll need to advance the quilt four times.
Realigning: 15 mins x 4 = 1 hr
More hovering, more observing, more adjusting if necessary.
For some reason, I often run out of bobbin thread on the second pass. I have no idea how this could be true of the hundreds of projects that I’ve quilted, but I swear it happens almost every time.
Changing the bobbin requires the following:
- cleaning the bobbin case
- adjusting the bobbin case tension
- oiling the bobbin hook area
- ripping out a few inches of stitches on the quilt top
- tying a knot between the old and new thread ends
- burying the knot
- restarting the machine
- hovering, observing, adjusting
Hands-on time: 12 mins (2 mins hovering, 10 mins changing bobbin).
Third and fourth passes:
If all goes well, these two passes would be fairly uneventful. They would (hopefully) only require the minimum amount of hovering.
Hands-on time: 4 mins (2 mins of observation for each pass)
The last pass is a bit more complicated because it requires the sides AND the bottom of the quilt to be basted. Plus, I need to tell the computer where the bottom of the quilt is, and adjust the pantograph accordingly. I’ll also reinforce the stitches along the bottom before removing the quilt from the frame.
Hands-on time: 4 mins
Huzzah! I’m done with your quilt…. right?
Not exactly… There’s still more to do!
One of the best parts of sending your quilt to me for longarming (other than the super-fast turnaround times and overall quality of work), is the fact that I’ll take a PILE of beautiful pictures of your quilt before I mail it back to you.
This gives professional photos you can post to your social media (or anywhere else you feature your work).
Want to see some of my clients’ work? Check out my Instagram feed!
If you like what you see there, then maybe you’d be interested in learning how to improve your quilt photography? If so, you should check out my Beginner Quilt Photography course. It’ll knock your socks off!
Once I’ve completed the photo shoot, I’ll send you an email to share the pictures and let you know that the quilting is finished.
Photographing, editing, uploading, emailing photos: 35 mins
Most quilts are mailed to me (I live in the middle of nowhere), which means that I need to prepare a quilt for return shipping before I can send it home.
Fun fact: in Canada, we do NOT have access to free shipping boxes from the post office. This means that I have a collection of various-sized boxes that I have hoarded in my longarm studio. When I can’t find a suitable shipping vessel in my pile, l frequently visit the Liquor Mart for their free boxes (wine cartons are a GREAT size for shipping quilts!) Don’t judge me if your quilt arrives in an Apothic box – I promise I didn’t drink the whole case!
With lots of practice, I’ve perfected the art of folding quilts in order to a) reduce stubborn wrinkles and b) fit into any shape of box. One day I’ll make a tutorial about this!
After I have a quilt in an appropriately-sized box, I need to obtain a shipping quote from Canada Post.
Note: I only charge *actual* shipping charges (rounded up to the nearest dollar). Shipping parcels is expensive enough – I don’t feel like I need to make it any more cost-prohibitive.
Folding, packaging, obtaining shipping quote: 20 minutes
When everything’s all ready to be shipped out, I prepare an invoice that details the work done, any products purchased from me (batting), and the shipping price. I’ll email it to you through my easy-to-use accounting system (Wave Accounting).
Preparing invoice: 15 mins
After the invoice is paid, I hop in the car and bring the parcel back to the post office and start the cycle for the quilts that I pick up. Since I already accounted for this time way up at the top of this post (WAY up there – this post really got away from me), I won’t count it here.
If your question was really “How long does the stitching take on a typical quilt?”, the answer would be: approximately 1.75 hrs (20 mins per pass x 5 passes).
But if you want to know how many hours of hands-on work your longarmer puts in for a typical quilt, the answer would be more like:
Setting up panto
Third and fourth pass
210 mins (3.5 hrs)
You should know that I’m fast. Like, really FAST. I run my machine very quickly, and I have oodles of systems in place to help me be as efficient as possible (email templates, saved pantograph files, a checklist for my photo shoots, etc). So how long it takes me is probably not representative of the average longarm quilter.
If someone was just starting out in their longarm journey, it could easily take them twice as long as this.
So the real answer is, it takes ME approximately 5.25 hours to complete an “average” size quilt (3.5 hours of hands-on time, and 1.75 hrs of waiting for the machine to finish stitching).
I honestly didn’t know how long it takes before writing this article!!
How about you? Were you surprised to learn how long it takes? Does it seem faster or longer than you would have expected? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!
I love this post! It is so helpful to know all the steps. Wow, all the prep/computer stuff take a long time!
Thanks for the feedback, Emily! I love my career, and it’s fun to share all these details! 🙂
I think long arm quilting is worth every penny! It’s quite the endeavor!!!
Thanks so much for saying so, Wendy!!
This post makes me REALLY appreciate all the time and care you put into long arming my quilts Shelly! It also allows me to see what is happening behind the scenes from the time I register my quilt til I get it back. I appreciate all you do and I am so glad I made the choice to send my quilts to you. ??
I hate Typos!
Oh, darn it!!
Thanks MamaP!!! It’s a pleasure to quilt for you, and it was truly a surprise for me to tally up all the time! Who knew!
Love this, Shelly! A few years ago my husband encouraged me to buy a longarm machine and I didn’t have the guts to do it. It’s fun to see you fulfill his dreams for me ? You’re killing it!
There’s still time, Suzanne!! I fully support your / your husband’s longarm dreams! 🙂
thank you for going through all of these details, Shelly! Obviously there’s a lot more to it than most of us realized 🙂 ~ Sage
Haha, it was more than I realized as well! It was a fun exercise (albeit) lengthy to list all the steps. They really add up! ?♀️
Question for you – do you ever have to iron someone’s quilt top?? They must get pretty wrinkly in those shipping boxes.
Great question, Janice! Of the hundreds of quilts that have come through my studio, I’ve only ever had to press one. I ask my clients to fold their quilt on the bias, which means that any wrinkles that occur due to shipping come right out. Sometimes clients will purchase their backing fabric online and send it directly to me. In that case, I often have to press the backing (because it has all of those manufacturer creases from the bolt). 🙂
I love this post so much! I love to piece quilt tops and sew in general. I have been researching long arms and all the skills needed to operate one on a personal level and a business level. I appreciate your perspective and detail on this topic!
Thanks so much, Kourtney! Starting and running this business has been one of the most fulfilling things I’ve ever done. I’m so glad I can share my experience with people! 🙂
Thanks for the detail Shelly. I too longarm and track timing. It’s interesting to compare steps. Most match up nicely. I do mostly local quilting so I spend a bit more time with customers at the drop off and pick ups stage. I like that. It’s one way to satisfy my social needs.
Thanks for sharing, Lin! It’s so interesting to peek into others’ processes, right??
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