Ask a Longarmer: How do you choose a pantograph size? 

In this new series called “Ask a Longarmer”, I’ll explore some common questions that I receive from clients or through Instagram. One part of the longarming process that stumps new quilters is deciding how to size a pantograph. Let’s discuss!

A bright quilt with multicoloured diamond blocks is quilted with diamonds and circles.
Hopscotch on Ivy League

As the owner of a computerized longarm machine, I am able to re-size any of the digital pantographs that I own. You can see a full list of my designs here.

Just in case you’re new to the world of longarming, a pantograph is the pattern that is stitched out by a longarm machine. I have a computerized system, so I use digital files. Longarmers with hand-guide machines (non-computerized) use pantographs that are printed on paper as a guide to follow… kind of like tracing. Neat, huh?

Can you make a panto any size?

There are two limitations that determine how big or how small I can size a pantograph: the throat space of my longarm machine, and the digital file itself.

My machine has about 18 inches of quiltable throat space. That means that on any given pass of quilting, I can stitch up to an 18″ chunk of a quilt… pretty big, right? If I wanted to, I could size a pantograph so that it was really BIG, and make it 18″ tall.

A black and white quilt is quilted with diagonal squares.
Diagaonal Plaid Bias on Buffalo Check

Whenever I open a pantograph file for the first time, I can see that the panto designer has set a “default” size for the pattern. Often (for reasons that I don’t understand), pantographs are created with a 12 inch default height. If I wanted to make it bigger, that would be no problem – I just punch in the new height I’d like (up to 18″) and the computer resizes it. Easy peasy!

However, if I wanted to make the pattern really tiny (let’s say 1″ tall), the computer might tell me that I’ve reached the size limit and would not allow me to make it that small. At a certain point, the details would start to overlap and you would no longer be able to see the pattern. For that reason, pantos have a size limit when you want to make them smaller. If I’m making a design larger, I’m only limited by the size of my throat space.

And now you know!

Clients’ preference

When a client signs up their quilt using my intake form, I ask them how dense they would like the quilting: loose, medium, or dense.

That’s where I start when I’m deciding how to size a pantograph. If a client would prefer loose quilting, I know that I’ll need to keep the panto large. If they would like more dense quilting, I’ll need to make the panto smaller. The smaller the pantograph, the more stitches per square inch (and more dense quilting).

A quilt with a pink background and white and yellow daisies is quilted with angles and curves.
Wishbone on Fresh as a Daisy

So that’s a great jumping-off point, but what do I do when I’ve got a client’s quilt loaded on my longarm machine and I’m staring at my computer screen, knowing that I can make it (almost) any size I want? How do I decide??

I use math and a popular design principle to figure out a starting point.

Use the Rule of Thirds

In design, there’s a strong use of the Rule of Thirds, and I use this in quilting all the time! The Rule of Thirds simply means that things look pleasing to our eye if one design element (the pantograph) is one or two thirds the size of another element (the quilt piecing).

I also use this in home design… In our current home, we have 9′ ceilings. When we were putting a wall treatment in our dining room, we decided to make our wainscotting 6′ tall (which was 2/3 the height of our walls).

A navy coloured wall with white wainscotting 2/3 of the height of the wall, with a ladder hung with quilts leaning against the wall.

In my last home, I put in wainscotting that was 1/3 the height of the wall.

But I would never install a wall treatment that was 1/2 the height of my walls, because that would look “off” to my eye (and probably yours, too). Our eyes prefer design elements to have a relationship of thirds.

How do I apply this to the topic of sizing a panto? Well, I consider the size of the two design elements in play (the pantograph and the quilt piecing) and I relate them to each other using the Rule of Thirds.

Considering the pantograph design

With most pantographs, there is *some* kind of repeating element that will draw your eye. With Soho (seen below), the circles are very prominent and visible.

A multicoloured quilt is quilted with swirls.
Soho on Ombre Lattice

In the 60’s Mod Butterfly pantograph (below), the “butterflies” are the dominant feature.

A multicoloured quilt is quilted with butterflies.
60s Mod Butterfly on Ironwood Point

With Modern Twist and Wishbone, I tend to look at one of the loops.

A multicoloured quilt is quilted with swoops and swirls.
Modern Twist on Patchwork
A mutlicoloured quilt is quilted with diagonal lines and curves.
Wishbone on Easy 9s

However, with Modern Loops, I consider both the top and bottom loops together as one unit. Maybe because they’re closer together? I’m not sure! But I treat Modern Loops differently than I would Modern Twist or Wishbone.

A blue and gray quilt is quilted with loops.
Modern Loops on Ruby Beatrice

In Swirly Snowflakes, the snowflakes really stand out.

A blue and white quilt is quilted with a snowflake design.
Swirly Snowflakes on Knitted Star

When I look at Hammersmith, I tend to see the entire row as one “chunk”.

A multicoloured quilt is quilted with curved lines.
Hammersmith on Meadowland

And on and on! When I’m deciding how to size a pantograph, I look for these repeating elements, and I tend to size *those elements* so that they look appropriate for the quilt piecing design.

Considering the piecing

Let’s take a Meadowland quilt as an example. I’m guessing you’ve seen this pattern before and have perhaps made one (or several) of these quilts.

When I’m deciding how big or small to size a pantograph, I’ll look at the piecing and see what elements jump out as visual cues. With the Meadowland, I can either choose to look at the block as a whole, or instead focus on the “plus” section in the middle of the blocks. See how they’re both visually prominent?

A pink and black quilt is quilted with arcs.
Baptist Clams on Meadowland block

If my client wanted loose quilting, I would size the pantograph so that its main design element was approximately 2/3 the size of the whole block. That would create a larger-sized pantograph that would still look nice on the quilt block because the two would be sized in relation to each other.

If my client wanted medium density quilting, I would size the design element so it was 1/3 the size of the entire block height. For instance, here I quilted Modern Loops on my client Colleen’s Meadowland.

A multicoloured quilt is quilted with loops.
Modern Loops on Meadowland

In my eye, the pantograph looks appropriate for this quilt pattern (because there’s a relationship between the size of the panto and the block).

If my client wanted dense quilting, I would size the panto so that it was either 1/3 or 2/3 the size of the “plus” in the middle of the block.

In this Meadowland, I sized the pantograph (Hammersmith) so that it was approximately 1/3 the height of the plus in the middle of the block. This quilting is much more dense, but it still looks appropriate because it’s sized in relation to the quilting.

A multicoloured quilt is quilted with arcs.
Hammersmith on Meadowland

Here’s an example of some very dense quilting on a scrappy Checkered Garden Quilt. I sized the loops in the Wishbone pantograph so that they would be approximately 2/3 the height of each square in the scrappy quilt. The loops are relatively tiny (they’re only 1.33″ tall), but the quilting still looks great (in my opinion), because it makes sense with the size of the piecing.

A multicoloured quilt is quilted with diagonal lines and curves.
Wishbone on Checkered Garden

Technical considerations

Did you notice that I kept saying that my pantographs were “approximately” a certain size? That’s because I’m working within the constraints of my machine’s throat space.

If I size a pantograph so that an element will be the correct size, and it turns out that the row will be 6.1″ tall, I will probably adjust it a wee bit to make it smaller. Why? Because I only have 18″ of throat space. If my rows are 6.1″ high, I’ll only be able to fit 2 rows per pass (3 x 6.1″ = 18.3″… too big for my machine). But if I size the rows *slightly* smaller so that they’re 6.0″ tall, I’ll be able to fit 3 rows per pass, which will be a much more efficient use of my time. The pantograph size change will hardly be noticeable, but I’ll be able to finish the quilt much faster. And I’m all about efficiency!

And that’s how I decide how to size a pantograph!

Were you excited about this dive into sizing thesis? Or was this something that you had not previously considered?

Let me know below!

And if you’d like to send your quilt to be longarmed by me (a nerd who will thoroughly measure your blocks and pantograph elements), you can fill out my quilt sign up here.

Have some questions about the rest of my process? You can check out allll the details on this page!

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  1. Excellent insight that I will use when quilting either by hand or on my domestic machine! I figure the principles are the same.

  2. Love this post and learning about how much thought you put into the decision making process! Thank you for sharing!

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