35 Things to Consider When Purchasing a Long Arm Quilting Machine

Today I am sharing a list of things I wish I'd known before purchasing a long arm.  This list is based on my personal experience, conversations with others, classes with several nationally known teachers, reading forums, and research. 

1.  Before you go shopping, think about how you plan to use the machine.  

  • Are you looking for a sit down machine or one on a frame? 
  • Are you going to work from the front of the machine doing free hand quilting?  
  • Are you planning to use rulers?  Do you want to work from the back of the machine doing pantographs?  
  • Do you want the machine to quilt for you (using a computer program).  
  • Do you plan to quilt for others or just for yourself?  
  • How much time do you realistically have to devote to learning your machine and actually using it?
  • Will any of these things possibly change in the future? 

2.  How much space do you have?  How much space does the machine and frame require?  Remember that you need additional space to move around the machine beyond just the frame size.  Is there a chance you may move in the future?  Will the machine you select be easy to move?  

3.  Speaking of size, what size projects do you make?  If you want to make a king size quilt, you are going to need a 12 foot frame.  The actual available quilting space is less than the actual width of the frame.  The width of the machine factors in to the available quilting space on the frame.  

4. What is your budget?  How are you paying for the machine?  Does the company offer financing?  What is the cost of the financing? Most people are not ready to quilt for others right off the bat, so do not plan on experimenting/practicing on other people's quilts in order to make your payments.  Be realistic and do not spend more than you can afford to pay.

5.  Look for online forums or groups (such as on Facebook) specific to the machines you might be interested in, request membership and do a lot of reading.  Ask questions of those who already have the machines.  

6.  Once you have determined your space and budgetary needs, it's time to go try machines.  The most important thing you can do is actually try all different brands of machines.  What works for some will not work for others.  Sometimes something looks great on paper or online, but you actually really dislike it when you try it. 

The easiest way to try lots of machines at once is to visit a large quilting show or convention.  Keep in mind that often vendors will try to sell you lots of bells and whistles that you may not actually need.  I find that many of them are trying hard to sell the computer software and that is what they will be demonstrating. Don't be afraid to ask them to try the machine without the computer.  

My strategy would be to do the exact same sample stitching on every machine brand at the show, evaluate the quality of the stitches, decide which ones looked and felt the best, then go back to your favorites and go through the rest of the steps below.

Here are some things to look at when you are trying different machines:

7.  How helpful and knowledgeable is the vendor?  How long has the company been making long arm machines?  

8.  Examine the frame.  How well is it built?  Is it adjustable? Is everything smooth?  Check the joins on the rails or bars--are they smooth?  Ideally the bars and rails would be seam-free.  If the vendor does not have a full-size set up, ask if the pieces are seamed or not when the frame is set up at a larger size.  Does it change when going from 10' to 12' to larger?

9.  Does the machine use encoders for stitch regulation?  Ask to see how they work.  Some are flimsier than others.

10.  Does the machine have adjustable or customizable handlebars?  Are rear handlebars included or is there an additional fee to have them included?

11.  Check the machine for vibration while stitching.  If you're planning to stitch pantographs from the back of the machine, ask to try the rear handlebars too.  Look at how the table space is from the back.

12.  Does the machine come with channel locks (for straight line stitching) or can they be added?  Ask for more details if you're interested in this feature.

13.  Is there a low bobbin indicator?

14.  Is there a stitch count or time indicator?

15.  Check the button placement on the handlebars to see if it is intuitive for you.  Can the buttons be customized?

16.  How do you load the quilt onto the frame?

17.  Check the stitch quality by stitching a series of clamshells/half circles. Look for longer stitches coming out of the points.  You don't want longer stitches.  All stitches should be equal.

18.  Ask to see how to thread the machine. Is the bobbin easy to get to?

19.  What size bobbin does the machine use, L or M?  M is larger.  Is the bobbin winder built in or do you need a separate winder?  Is it included in the cost of the machine?

20.  How do you set the tension?  (I would recommend buying a tension gauge; Towa is a common brand.  Ask what the bobbin tension should be set at for optimal stitching.)

21.  What needles does the machine use?  How often do they need to be changed?

22.  Does the ruler base come with the machine or is it a separate charge?

23.  What feet come with the machine?  How much do additional feet cost?  At a minimum you will want a cup foot and a ruler foot.  Check to see if the ruler actually fits under the ruler foot properly.  (Juki's does not, the other machines I've used in classrooms do.)

24.  How does the machine glide across the table?  Is it heavy, smooth, does it drag?  Can you easily move it and can you reach front to back (throat space) easily?  You don't want a machine that goes back farther than you can reach.

25.  How does the stitch look when sewing over bulky seams?  Try hard to get a demo.  Most of the time the vendors are stitching on a plain length of solid yardage with no seams.  This makes everything look good.  Try hard to see how it looks stitching over seams.  Is there a way to adjust the foot in order to accommodate bulkier seams?

26.  Some frames offer the option to flip up the top in order to inspect the batting.  In hindsight, I would have looked hard for this feature.

27.  What accessories come with the machine?  What additional accessories are available and what is their cost?  What about leaders?

28.  Will the machine require upgrading in the future?  What is included and what will incur additional cost?

29.  If you're interested in computerizing the machine, does it have to be a certain software?  Can you add it later?  What is the cost difference of starting with it up front versus adding it later?  It seems that the computer costs a minimum of $5000, with most being in the $10,000+ range.  That's in addition to the cost of the machine.

30.  What service and/or maintenance is required on the machine?  How and where do you get said service? What are you expected to perform and what requires a trip to a service provider?  

31.  How often does the machine need to have the timing adjusted?

32.  What is covered under warranty and for how long?

33.  How easy is it to get help?  Having a good dealer is important.  Do they offer training?  Is it included or does it incur additional cost?  Where is the training located?  How often is it offered?

34.  How easy is it to get parts?  Common parts are extra bobbins (generally need to be brand name ones), extra bobbin case, I've heard of people requiring new tension assemblies, needles specific to the machine, sometimes people need to have the entire screen and electronics or handles replaced.

35.  Maybe purchasing a demo machine or a used machine is a good fit for you.  If buying used, I'd consider going through a dealer so that there is some recourse available in case the machine isn't as described. That being said, don't be scared to buy used from an individual, especially if you can try out the machine. Buying used is a great way to try out long arm quilting without having to spend as much money up front. It's easy to get caught up in all the bells and whistles when they may not really be all that important to you once you are using the machine.

All long arm machines have a steep learning curve.  Many times new users (even 3-4 years in sometimes) are the cause of issues, not the actual machine.  Do your research.

Is this list helpful?  What things would you add to this list?  Comment below and let me know!

1 comment

  1. This is a great list of considerations, Anne-Marie. Here are a couple more things I wish I'd known before purchasing my APQS Millennium: 1. Ergonomics of frame design for custom quilting/ruler quilting at the front of the machine. The APQS frame has the quilt top roller situated above the quilt surface, requiring me to reach over it and that puts my wrist at an awkward angle especially when my left hand is holding a ruler on the quilt surface. I was able to remove the quilt top roller from my frame, fully floating my quilt tops, but that's when I discovered that the frame design also creates a 6" "dead zone" between the back of my backing roller and the furthest my machine can quilt towards me before the throat of the machine head hits the pickup roller at the back of the frame. That means I am always bent over and reaching farther away than what is ideal ergonomically, all because of the way the frame is designed. 2. When I was shopping for a longarm, all the dealers show you that the handles "adjust," meaning they can be moved into different positions. But I wish I'd realized how important it would be for me to have handles that adjust INDEPENDENTLY -- when I'm ruler quilting, I want my right handle down near the surface of my quilt for best control, but I wish I could get my LEFT handle up and out of the way so it doesn't hit my ruler hand. With APQS, it's either both handles up or both handles down, since they are connected like the handlebars of a bicycle. Finally, 3. I really wish I had a built in basting stitch like Bernina, HandiQuilter, and some others. It is tiring to have to push the half stitch button repeatedly with my thumb, over and over again for every single stitch, just to get basting stitches that are about a quarter of an inch apart!

    One more thing: I thought I was making the smart choice, buying a used demo/rental machine from an APQS dealer rather than from a private individual. However, it turned out that I had LOTS of technical issues with the machine that made the first year and a half of trying to learn how to use it a nightmare. At first I thought it was all user error, why am I so stupid that I can't get the tension adjusted right, etc., until a fellow guild member who owns the exact same machine came to my house to help me. She's the one who told me my machine wasn't working properly -- "It's not supposed to do that!" and gave me the confidence to reach out to APQS tech support directly. I spent hundreds of dollars on parts that were not covered by the lifetime warranty for me because I was not the original owner, but they WOULD have been covered for the dealer if she had corrected all of the issues prior to selling the machine to me. Very frustrating, because I thought I'd done my homework and picked a dealer who would support me post-sale. Anyway, I've gotten all those kinks worked out now and she's finally running the way she's supposed to! But I am not sure I'd choose the same machine again if I was shopping for a longarm machine today.