Longarm quilting is the process by which a longarm sewing machine is used to sew together a quilt top, quilt batting and quilt backing into a finished quilt. The longarm sewing machine frame typically ranges from 10 feet (about 3 metres) to 14 feet (about 4.25 metres) in length. A complete longarming system typically consists of an industrial length sewing machine head (19 - 30 inches,) a 10 to 14-foot frame, a table with a layer of plastic under which is placed a pantograph, and several rollers on which the fabric layers and batting are attached.
The first quilting frame and machine consisted only of two bars that allowed the user to move the quilt and the frame beneath the machine to quilt straight, parallel lines on the fabric. By roughly 1877, the design had been modified, and began to look similar to the design quilters now know as a longarm quilting machine.
While the Depression era caused a decrease in the interest in sewing machines and an increase in hand sewing, the quilting machine still managed to take on new and exciting designs. During the past 20 years the longarm sewing machine has become a popular and familiar concept to quilters.
The speed and ease with which a quilter can have a quilt top finished by a longarm quilter has caused an increase in recent years for quilting. These machines allow quilters to have their quilts finished without going through the time-consuming process associated with normal machine quilting or hand quilting. Sewers (or sewists, piecers, or quilters) can now take their finished quilt tops to professional longarm quilting businesses and pay a fee to have their quilting done by a longarm quilter. The availability of relatively quick and reasonably affordable quilting services has helped to cause a surge in the quilting business and an overall growth in interest in quilting as an art form.
The frame of the machine consists of several rolling bars onto which layers of the quilt sandwich are placed. On one side of the machine, two rollers, known as the feeder bars, are present with a muslin leader onto which the backing and the quilt top can be attached. Material is attached by sewing pins, a snap system, or sewing zippers to the muslin leaders and then the material is stretched tight over the belly bar, which ensures that the layered material is smooth and taut according to the sewers’ desires.
A pantograph is a long design that spans the length of the longarm table. The longarm quilter will take the pantograph design and place it beneath the plastic layer on the table and then trace this design using the laser or stylus found on their machine head. The design typically spans the length of the quilt and can be repeated in rows to produce an all-over design on the quilt top. This method of longarm machine quilting is popular due to the minimal amount of work required by the longarm quilter themselves.
Ten or more major companies in Northern America currently manufacture and sell longarm quilting machines. As with models of cars, longarm sewing machines come in different types and sizes, with different features and options. A true longarm machine is generally defined by their 'throat' size, meaning the distance from the back of the 'sewing harp' to the needle. A mid-arm machine is generally 15” while a traditional longarm is 16” to 30”, with, 16/18/20/21/22/24/30” options.
Business owners that have their own longarm quilting machines may choose to quilt other people’s quilts for a fee. The price to have a quilt sewn together by a longarm quilter varies depending on the type of quilting requested, the size of the quilt, the expertise of the longarm quilter, competitive pricing in the area of quilting services, and other factors. It is usually calculated by square inch or square foot. Imperial measures are still strong in the quilting world though metric, such as in Australia, is also recognised and publications generally include both.