Quilting for Pay — The Longarm

I’ve discussed a variety of aspects of the quilting industry. A list of links is below. One part of the industry I’ve mentioned but not explored is longarm quilting.

While the longarm industry has exploded over the last few years, it is not new. In fact, quilters have used sewing machines to quilt since sewing machines were invented. (Note: “quilting” is the process of stitching through the top layer, stuffing/batting/wadding, and back layer.) Soon after, inventors were developing various methods for moving the layers under the needle, having secured the layers to a frame. As now, two different options were to move the frame with a stationary stitching machine, and to move the machine with a stationary frame.

This post from Hart Cottage Quilts is worth reading in its entirety. Within it she explains:

By the end of the Civil War, sewing machines were entering homes at the rate of 20,000 per year; in 1871 Singer sold an amazing 180,000 machines. Mrs. Augusta Hoover received the first U.S. patent for a machine quilting frame. Its description as an “improvement” suggests that it was not the first of its kind. Like most of the systems that followed, it consisted of a two-bar, ratchet-geared roller frame that held the quilt taut. (A comparable modern example would be the John Flynn system.) The frame then slid along tracks attached to the bed of the sewing machine like the carriage of a typewriter. As the user operated the sewing machine, the frame would move along the track, allowing perfectly straight, parallel lines to be quilted.

By 1877 J.J. Crall decided it should be the machine, not the frame, that moved; his system will be recognized by modern quilters as the precursor to today’s longarm quilting system. Just as today, the machine sits on a platform which moves along a track underneath the quilt.

The origins of the modern longarm quilting machine began with Fred Nolting, a tinkerer, repairman, and inventor. In the early 1960s he rebuilt his first sewing machine, increasing its throat length to 24″. After several years of rebuilding machines for various employers, he was asked to build a machine from scratch in 1972. According to Nolting, “This machine was the first long arm, similar to the ones today, without the hopping foot.” Over the next few years he continued to improve the machine, adding a hopping foot, stitch regulation, and other things. He also built the first longarm machines sold under the Gammill name, before striking out and selling machines under the Nolting brand in 1984.

When I began quilting in 2003, longarm quilting services were few and far between. I first had quilts professionally done in about 2006. That quilter also had a machine in her shop, for which quilters could rent time after taking and passing a day-long class. I did the class, and I rented time to create a couple of quilts. When my sister purchased a longarm in 2009, I visited her and her machine a number of times, before buying my own in 2010. I never intended to quilt for others as a business, and I still have no interest in doing so.

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Home ownership of longarms is much more common now, despite the price tag of the machine and frame. Depending on the size of the machine and its capabilities, as well as the frame, systems can run from about $10,000 to $30,000.

For some, quilting for others is their business and pleasure. In order to make it a business, quilters charge for their services. Depending on their offerings, quilters might use pantographs, computerized design, or custom free-motion quilting. This link and this link describe the differences in some of the possibilities.

How much do quilters charge? It depends on many factors including the style of quilting (see above,) the size of the quilt and/or the time required, the batting used if the quilter supplies it, the threads used as well as how many different colors, and if other services such as repairs are needed.

I’ve read a lot of informative posts over the years about longarm quilting. This recent post by andi of andicrafts explains her pricing. As a business owner, she is responsible for creating a high-quality product/service; paying for her own space, equipment, supplies, utilities, web access and website; paying her own salary and benefits; and advertising and performing all other administrative and marketing tasks. As a highly skilled worker, she should earn, after all those other costs, much more than minimum wage. (It’s a terrific post and I encourage you to read it, including the comments following.)

This is the same argument I’ve given before in some of the posts linked below. If a quilter is selling her quilts, she puts a lot of resources into them. Once she has created her quilts, paid for her direct and indirect costs, and paid her own wage and benefits, she should make more than the wage of a low-skilled worker. (And yes, I’m using the feminine pronoun here as a shorthand for members of a group that also includes men.)

Do you quilt for others as a business? How do you choose to charge? Do you send your tops to someone else to quilt? Do you quilt for yourself? Have you had either great or terrible experiences with customers or with longarm quilters? Tell us in comments what you think about longarm quilting. 

If you’d like to read my posts on quilting as a business, you can find them here:

Conversations with Artists
Price vs. Value of a Quilt, Part 1
Price vs. Value of a Quilt, Part 2
You Should Write Patterns
“It Feels Weird Asking for Pay”
Pay for Quilters (And other Crafters and Artists)
You Should Sell Those: A Play in Three Short Scenes, With Commentary

Cotton — Where Does Your Fabric Come From?
Cotton — What Happens After Harvest?
Cotton — Weaving Fabric
Cotton — Batik Production
Cotton — Printing Designs

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22 thoughts on “Quilting for Pay — The Longarm

  1. Lisa Yarost

    I am a longarm quilter. I enjoy the work, and I find that it is a wonderful cottage business model.
    I am, however, a bit irked that some companies who hold themselves up as supporters of small business have begun to set up cheap longarm services by mail, knowing that they are probably creating pretty tough competition for no-name longarmers who work to pay off their machines.
    While my customers love my work and remain loyal, it seems a bit disingenuous for a “mom’s success story” businesses to use its family business credentials and rather large pocketbooks to undercut other small businesses, rather than to promote them.
    After all, it’s much easier to make a profit on 2 cents/square inch quilting when that is an additional service offered to your customers, rather than your business’s sole source of income.

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    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Hi Lisa. Agreed, a company that can fit a longarm service into an existing corporate structure has a headstart on the local quilter who covers all her own freight. Since I’ve been quilting my own for so long, I don’t actually know the offers you’re talking about. I do see ads in the backs of magazines promising fast turnarounds and cheap rates. Is that it?

      I think most quilting customers would prefer to work with someone local, but that might be my own bias. I also much prefer to buy fabrics local rather than online, and some quilters might fall out of their chairs laughing at that.

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  2. katechiconi

    Another very thoughtful and interesting insight. I am not in a position to ever afford a longarm quilter, nor would I ever send a quilt out to be quilted by someone else unless the quilting was donated as part of a charity quilt; here, money is only part of the issue – quilting forms part of the design process for me and can evolve as I do it. I would love to have a midarm such as a Sweet Sixteen, lacking space for a larger machine, to enable me to explore and improve my machine quilting skills. That being said, I have no hesitation in agreeing that longarm quilting is an exacting, meticulous and skilled process require a good deal of aesthetic input on the part of the business quilter. She needs to balance all these things against the need to charge a realistic yet affordable price. She also needs to develop her own distinctive style in order to stand out from others and build a following. How can all this be achieved when the accepted rate of pay is ridiculously low?

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    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Not everyone is as involved with the design process as you or I, so perhaps for many quilters they don’t mind turning over their quilts to someone who can add a special touch. Even the few times I had it done, there was a long conversation with the quilter to agree on basic design, thread color, density of stitching, and so forth.

      As to pay, someone buying quilting service might expect cheap or good, but shouldn’t expect both. Those quilters who deliver both cheap AND good are cheating themselves.

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    2. Lisa Yarost

      I was actually thinking of when Missouri Star began offering longarm services. My first thought was of the poor longarm quilters in her area who were probably going to feel the pinch from the fleet of computerized machines that the Doans added to their showroom floor.
      I’ve personally not noticed any loss of business to Keepsake Quilting or Missouri Star, but I am local to neither company.
      As to being better or more special to stand out, that is partly true. Most longarmers know that, while custom is your reputation, edge to edge is your bread and butter. My husband jokes that my custom price should include a chiropractic surcharge. Custom quilts are actually far more physically demanding than allover quilts.

      I’ve never actually sent a quilt to a longarm quilter, either. I do make a point of discussing design and thread options with all my customers. Working with me is much more involved than choosing a design from a book and filling out a form.

      If you’re lucky, I’ll even let you meet my dogs (who are not part of the longarm room setup, FYI).

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      1. Melanie McNeil Post author

        Ah. I lead a sheltered life. I see the occasional video from Missouri Star but otherwise have no contact with them.

        Quilting regardless of the complexity is hard physically. Besides the time “above” the sandwich, there is time under the frame checking the tension, etc. Getting under and out from under is not easy, not to mention the time looking upward with neck cocked… ALL of it is hard, IMO. Could NOT do it professionally now, even if I wanted to. Or yeah maybe I could, but there would be a big cost to pay.

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      2. andicrafts

        Lisa, I found an interesting job advertisement recently. It was for a FT machine quilter for exactly the company you mention. I quote here the Requirements and Qualifications: “You will be a self-motivated individual with high standards for quality and accuracy. You will have demonstrated skills in time management and be very attentive to details. You will also have strong people skills”. Absolutely no mention of having ANY experience with quilts or quilting. (You can see the actual ad here bit.ly/1RrUZsn )

        I have to wonder how someone with no background in quilting can make a good design choice for a client’s quilt. Or know how to deal with the issues that can arise on a top that is not perfectly pieced. I think it’s probably a much different process than working one-on-one with a seasoned professional that has years of experience under their belt. I hope these clients realize this. But some people don’t really care how the finished quilt turns out, they just want it done at the cheapest price. I’m not sure I want those folks for clients anyway 😉

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        1. Melanie McNeil Post author

          That’s a great point. Who is your customer? Your product is a DIFFERENT product than a “factory” quilting job. The people who buy your work are also different, because of that. When you identify what product you want to sell, you narrow the potential market for it. Unfortunately, the top end of the market is very narrow.

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    3. Lisa Yarost

      Kate, I would highly recommend checking into one of the table-mounted longarms. There are used ones readily available for purchase, and they don’t take a lot of space. If I were only interested in quilting my own, I would most likely go in that direction. The learning curve is much easier, and the machine takes up 9 square feet, as opposed to 112 square feet for a frame. 🙂

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      1. katechiconi

        I think a used machine is probably the only way I’d ever get to own one. My problem is that my sewing space is only just over 9 square feet in total! Hence my ambition for a midarm… Sending your quilt to a longarm quilter is a lot less common here in Australia, mainly because there are fewer of them, and indeed fewer quilters in total 🙂

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  3. andicrafts

    Thank you for the shout out Melanie! I’m glad you found my post interesting. I’ve just spent a few minutes poking around your blog, but you have so much to read I’m planning on coming back and spending a LOT more time!

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  4. norma

    I have never thought of sending out a top to be quilted; I don’t really have much of a production rate so I’m happy doing my own.
    People I know who do it either prefer to do patchwork in their limited time or are elderly, have health issues and can’t manage the strenuous work needed. It is a useful service and I agree that people should get paid properly – always, whatever they do.
    Thanks for bringing up the issue.

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    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      You’re welcome. I think there are a variety of reasons people use LA services. Difficulty of managing the size of their project on the DSM is a big one. Lack of confidence that they can do it themselves is another. And a lot of people simply see piecing as fun and quilting as not-fun, so they’d rather pay someone else to do it. Even with my own longarm I often find the quilting not-fun, but generally it is easier than it would be on a DSM, and I am doing it myself, so my project is all my own. There are trade-offs for all the choices. Thanks for commenting.

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  5. snarkyquilter

    This post and the others in this series are so useful for quilters. I’ve used pros for quilting larger quilts that would tax my physical abilities on my DSM. The quilters I’ve used have grossly undercharged me, IMO. I’ll be sending a quilt out for quilting soon so I’ll find out if that quilter has raised her price to better reflect her time.

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    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Thanks for the compliment. I do think what I paid early on was probably a “fair” rate, given the time involved. It was a lot of money, and I received a lot of value. The quilters I used were very talented at that. But I expect there is pressure to charge “low enough” to attract the business, which of course just pushes others’ prices lower, too. Thanks again.

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  6. KerryCan

    Wow–you got people riled up with this post–lots to consider! I’m so naive about all this. Since I like hand quilting and really consider it my favorite part of the whole process, I’ve never paid much attention to long arm quilters and their services. I do know women who do the quilting for others in our guild–I need ask them about how they come up with the amount they charge!

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    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      The post I linked to certainly riled people, mostly in support of her stance. There were a couple who told her to settle down… The rate people charge is probably based on what other people they know charge, which is based on … and likely hasn’t changed in the last 10 years, regardless of demand or skill level or basic inflation. I’m just supposing, here, but I suppose this could be true… 😉

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  7. Tracy

    Aloha! I found your blog via @andicrafts who’s blog post was shared by the only longarm-quilter-for-hire on our island of Kauai. I have had my Statler setup for exactly one week and she (Lea Ingram) has been a wonderful supporter! I am learning my way by her sharing the guild’s charity quilts. I love your idea of the “mutual admiration society”!! I have a long way to go but I am up to the challenge of one day being called a professional quilter! I hope you’ll stop by my blog when your needle takes a rest!
    http://www.thebeachyquilter.wordpress.com

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