What do you do now? If the machine was purchased new, you probably were offered free lessons. Take advantage of those. No matter how much you learn, once you’re alone with the machine, it’s a scary place to be! I can remember wishing there was some way to get rid of that first machine. One day I sat on the stairs going to the basement and cried. I thought . . if I could dismantle that rascal, I could get it out to the curb before the trash man gets here. If I could’ve done just that, I would’ve. It would have been gone by the time Vince got home! I’m very glad I couldn’t dismantle it and I’m glad I stuck with it but most longarmers do have this “what was I thinking” moment (or day or week) after seeing how big and intimidating the machine looks and realizing that it takes lots of practice to be a good longarmer.
A word about practicing – Many longarmers will offer to practice on donation quilts or give hefty discounts when they’re first starting out. This is not something I would recommend because not everyone who sees those quilts will know that you were just beginning and that those quilts were done for free or for little cost. Imagine I am just starting out and I do a quilt for practice. It’s for our guild’s charity project. I quilt the top and donate it. Someone is going to see that quilt and ask who quilted it. No one is going to say “oh, she was just practicing when she first got her machine!” They’re going to say “Judy did it. She’s a new longarmer in town.” Those who see it will see that the work probably isn’t perfect and that reputation may never be overcome.
Be very careful with the quilting you let out of your control. Make sure it is representative of your work.
One of the first hurdles each new longarmer faces is determining pricing. Some charge by the square inch, the square foot or yard and probably other methods. I prefer square inch because that seems the easiest to me. Width (in inches) x length (in inches) = square inches. There are very wide price variances in different parts of the country. I recently saw a quilt that had been quilted locally. It was a fairly large quilt with a fairly panto; larger than anything I do, but not so large as to be ugly or seem too sparsely quilted. The lady told me she paid $45, including the batting. There’s a lot of talk on the longarm groups about charging what you’re worth; different formulas used. Some say they will not quilt for less than $20/hour; some say they will not quilt for less than $30/hour, etc. The bottom line is . . you can charge anything you want. It’s your business. But, the customers don’t have to use your services. If quilters in your area are accustomed to paying $45 to get a queen size top quilted, including batting and you would charge $80 for that same quilt, not including batting, chances are slim you’re going to get much business.
Know your market! If your area isn’t going to pay what you think you can get, there’s always the internet or the next town over.
Other things you will need to experiment with:
- Batting – We all have our favorites. Mine currently is Mountain Mist Rose. Some battings tear easily when tugged to straighten on the longarm. Some battings get quite stiff when heavily quilted. Learn which battings work for you and your clients. You may want to start with a few packaged batts before ordering batting on the roll. A roll of batting is a lot to have to use if you find you don’t like it. Many quilt shops carry batting. If you do not want to compete with the quilt shop (and my guess is you do not — they can send business your way or they can make sure they steer customers to other longarmers), you may want to check with the LQS owner. See if she minds if you carry batting. Does she seem to feel that would be competing with her . . even if you carry a brand she doesn’t carry? Whatever you do, do not charge less for your batting than does the quilt shop. Forget JoAnn’s, forget Hobby Lobby, forget coupons .. do NOT charge less for your batting than does the LQS unless you will never, ever hope for any promotion from that shop.
- Thread – There are so many thread choices and again, you’ll have to figure out what works for you and your clients. I mostly use 100% cotton thread. Signature Cotton is a good, fairly inexpensive choice. Superior’s King Tut is an excellent thread but it’s a bit pricey. I do not use Superior Masterpiece for quilting except when I’m doing a ton of micro stippling or really dense background fill. My personal feeling is that it isn’t strong enough to be used solely for the quilting. Another thread that is poly/cotton that has been discussed negatively in the longarm community is Maxi-Lock thread. This thread is typically considered a surger thread but there was a quilter in Kentucky who used it exclusively. One of my customers used this lady for quite a bit of her quilting and I asked her how the Maxi-Lock thread held up. She told me that this particular quilter had used it on quilts that had been used by her grandkids and washed and used for 10+ years and the thread had not worn through the fabric, nor had the thread broken. I rarely use it but I don’t think it deserves the bad rap it’s gotten.
- Marking Quilts – You probably will not be quilting long when you have the need to mark a quilt. Before using the blue markers I (1) make sure the client has washed all the fabrics so I don’t get any runs when I spritz the marks with water and (2) get the customer to read a list of possible problems and then have them sign my “Blue Marker Waiver”.
There’s so much more and I could go on and and but my bet is . . you’ve all gone off to quilt and no one is with me any more!
Whatever you do, practice, practice, practice before letting those quilts be viewed by potential customers.