How to get the Most from your Long-Arm Quilter

The customer wasn’t happy, and neither was I. This was a devastating moment in my career as a long-arm quilter. I had never had anyone unhappy with my quilting jobs before.

The whole thing could have been avoided if she and I had both understood what to expect when getting a top quilted, and had communicated better. But I was still stuck with a dilemma. A few simple steps can help you when taking your quilt top to a long-arm quilter.

First of all, analyze what you want in the way of quilting. Not that you have to decide the pattern, if you aren’t comfortable with that, but decide if you want to have a custom job, or if something overall will be okay for this quilt. Sometimes it comes down to how much you really want to spend on this particular quilt. If you have something you’ve hand appliquéd that took you a year, you might want to pay more to have custom quilting on it.

Long-arm quilting

Some of my custom quilting.


Knowing what kind of quilting you are interested in will help you in selecting a long-arm quilter. For instance, if you want heavy, show quilting I wouldn’t be your quilter! But there are many talented people that can do that for you. Ask your quilting friends or quilt shops for suggestions on quilters.


A quilt on a long-arm machine.

A quilt on a long-arm machine.

When you deliver your quilt to the quilter, you may want to ask some questions. You may want to see samples of their work, or patterns they use for over-all quilting, or ask for references. You should ask when the quilt will be done, and how long is the quilter’s waiting list. Does the quilter use her own batting, and if so, what kinds does she provide? Or can you provide your own batting? You may want to ask if she provides other services, such as binding or labeling, if you need those services. How does the long-armer want to be paid? Does she smoke or have pets that might affect your choice? (Most quilters wouldn’t dream of letting their pet near your quilt, but if you have allergies it’s important to ask.)

Long-Arm quilting

Beautiful machine quilting by Lori Kennedy of

After you’ve gone through those things, make sure you do your part! Have the quilt to the quilter when she asks so that she doesn’t have to rush to try and meet your deadline. With the story of Unhappy Customer, my family was scheduled for a vacation and were leaving on Friday morning. She was supposed to have the quilt to me by Monday, and I still hadn’t gotten it by Wednesday. At this point, I should have told her I couldn’t do a custom job, but I held my tongue when she showed up Wednesday afternoon and she described a VERY custom job.

Make sure the quilt is prepared in the manner I’ll share with you next. The first thing is that your quilt back and top need to be perfectly straight. Often, the back pieces don’t line up, and then the quilter has to take the time to trim them. Also, if it hasn’t been squared up, it is hard to tell until you have already attached it to the leaders, and your results on the back won’t be as good as you’d like. Make sure back and top are well pressed, and that you have clipped all threads on the top. It needs to be ready to go on the machine.

It is also essential that your quilt back is at least 4″ larger than the top. (2″ each side.) This is really the minimum amount it needs to be! I ask my clients to make it 6″ larger, but this is another question you should ask. Whether the long-armer attaches the back with pins, zippers, or a clip system like I do, they need that extra to get everything to fit. Sometimes I have the 4″ one way, but not the other, and I can put it on the machine that way, but the results aren’t as nice because I’ll hit my clamps with the machine on the sides and get a funky spot.

Long arm quilting

Beautiful custom quilting by Judi Madsen of Green Fairy Quilts.

If you have a pieced backing, realize it is very difficult to center a quilt back both directions. One way is simple, but the other takes measuring, and doesn’t usually end up exactly centered. This was the other problem with Unhappy Customer. She had constructed the back in such a way that it needed to be centered both directions. I should have done a better job of measuring, but because I had been in a hurry I thought the measurements must be wrong because of the large amount of fabric left at the top. So I just went down a little bit to pin. As a result, the back was not centered top-to-bottom.

Make sure to mention to the long-armer if you have a directional back that needs to go a certain direction, also.

long-arm quilting

Quilt on a long-arm machine.

Finally, refer to this post about borders. The main problem I see as a long-arm quilter is that when borders are just “slapped on”, as I like to say, they will be wavy and hard to quilt. The machine is square, and when the top isn’t I have to ease in as much fabric as I can. This can result in a “ruffled” look, or even tucks. I’m pretty proud of the fact that I can ease in a lot of fabric, but at some point there is no avoiding tucks. The results of the quilt top are so much better when the borders are nice and flat!

I hope these suggestions will help you in preparing to use a long-arm quilter! We wouldn’t make it without our dear customers, and we want to make you happy!

When Unhappy Customer picked up the quilt, she had her husband come to the door, get the quilt, and write a check. Later, she called and told me that she loved the quilting, but was very disappointed that the back wasn’t centered. She had stopped the check she had written, but then felt guilty about it. I finally sent her a “sorry” note and enclosed the check she had written me. She got a beautiful, custom quilting job for free. And yet, I still never heard from her again! I guess I’m not too surprised.

Let’s all avoid the devastation of not being happy with your quilter (or customer) by taking the time to communicate more effectively about our expectations.


  1. MJ Ibarguen October 26, 2016
  2. Rebecca Grace May 2, 2017
  3. Cheryl May 2, 2017

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