Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Starting a Long Arm Quilting Business

Hi there!

What do you need to know before starting a long arm business?

I have been thinking about a post like this for years. I get so many questions about starting a long arm quilting business and I am almost always happy to answer your questions. But it would be nice if it was in an easy to find spot wouldn't it?

First off, I quilt with Gammill long arms. I LOVE them. Wholeheartedly and utterly, I LOVE my machines. The machine is so well built and the software is the very best on the market in my opinion.  I have quilted and taught on other machines, but I am coming at you from a Gammill perspective. I don't sell the machines, but I know who does. With that said this will not be a Gammill Commercial. Although I would love nothing more that doing Gammill commercials because I love the company, support and the fantastic machines they build.

This post is for those who want to start a business. It is for those of you who want to make money quilting for other people. If you just want to buy a long arm and quilt your own quilts that is fine, awesome. Do it! Stick around some of this may apply to you. 

Please ask questions. I am happy to answer them. Many of these topics are probably great for their own post, but I am just trying to be quick here. If I get questions I will address them in individual blog posts.

I am not a business advisor. I am a small business owner and I love what I do. I enjoy my work and I like to quilt for others. I truly LOVE to quilt.

In my opinion you need to like quilts and quilting before you begin this endeavor. People won't want you to work for them if you hate your job, or if you don't know how to do your job. Do some quilting for yourself first, get comfortable with your machine and your abilities and then start quilting! 

Wait a minute...maybe there is more to it that that.

  1. Love to quilt.
  2. You need space.
  3. Purchase the best machine you can afford that can do digital Edge to Edge quilting
  4. Take Classes on how to use your machine
  5. Buy a machine that you can get support with.
  6. Join Quilt Guilds
  7. Be nice, organized and professional.

A long arm is a sewing machine on wheels that is on a big table. The ones I quilt with are massive. One table is 14 feet long the other is 12 feet long. Does your table need to be that big? No. I have only used all the space on the 14 foot rollers twice, but I like having the extra space so I can access my bobbin area and get to my machine easily. You will need a REALLY long room. I know it is hard to find a big space like that so you can fill it with and enormous machine. I looked at many houses in San Antonio (during our mock move this summer) and very few had the space that I required. When we bought this house in Kansas, a big open space was almost first on the list.

I have one machine set up in our lovely sun room. I love that room. It is so nice to be up in the light. my eyes like it too. it is easy to see what I am doing. My other machine is in the basement. I love that room too. It is dark and basmenty though. 

Purchase the best machine you can afford. Seriously. You are investing in yourself and your business. If you are quilting for others you need to be able to quilt digital edge to edge designs. That is where the money is. The money is absolutely NOT in custom work. You need to be able to quilt quality work consistently. You are basically buying an employee. A robot if that is easier to wrap your head around. Hand guided machines are great, but you will wear yourself out pushing a sewing machine around peoples quilts over time. Machines with computers can do free hand work too. Some folks are under the impression that custom quilters are raking in cash. I sure am not with my custom work. Do you want to spend 3 weeks on one quilt and get paid $700 or do you want to quilt 21 quilts in that same three week period (with a very reasonable 1 quilt a day) and get paid over $2100. The answer is clear. I am just estimating each quilt will cost about $100. Clearly you can quilt more than one quilt a day but don't go into this thinking you will be able to quilt 8 quilts a day. Maybe I will get there someday, but I want to do good work, and I am still raising kids, going to football games, cooking, cleaning and all the others things that come with being a mom. You will have other obligations too. I make my best money with digital E2E quilting and traveling to teach quilting. My passion is custom quilting, but that doesn't pay for new carpet and plumbing. The digital E2E quilting does.

A computerized machine is expensive. I hear you saying that to yourself. I know that. Believe me I know that. It is probably not the answer you want to hear. But I have already done the research for you. I have quilted on my domestic Bernina sewing machine for years. Heck my first business was built with quilting from my Bernina sewing machines. When that got too hard I bought A Bernina 820 with its bigger throat space and a nice sewing table it made quilting even easier. Well, that came with its own basket of issues so I went on Craigslist and bought a used Gammill Supreme. These are pretty rare these days. It was a 36 inch no frills beast. I LOVED it. I started my quilting business with that machine and I did great work with it, but the Edge to Edge service I was providing was all hand guided, but I had to charge what the other E2E quilters were charging to compete. Crazy right? I was doing what is really custom work but only getting a fraction of what my time and skill were worth. I finally bought a second hand Gammill with a Statler Stitcher. It was my first computerized quilting machine. It came already loaded with a zillion digital designs and was in phenomenal condition. I was able to do so much with that machine and it could keep up with me. Everything I could think of that machine could do. Now I have two computerized machines and I keep them running. One for custom work and one for Edge to Edge quilting.

Take classes on how to use and operate your machine. When you purchase a machine it should include several classes. TAKE them! You can learn heaps on youtube and instagram, but you need to take classes to learn the minutia. The software can do SO much, you just need to learn how to make it do what you want it to. Learn how to do free hand quilting, I can't tell you how easy it is for me to whip out some pretty background quilting to make a quilt sing then make the machine do what I consider complicated or boring.

Go to shows and try out all the long arms. You will be able to feel the difference between them. Push them around, Get your hands on them. See how they work and what features you like. you don't need all the bells and whistles, but some things are important ( you want a stitch regulator at the very minimum). Ask about support. Who will be able to come out and fix your machine if something horrible happens to it? Are there videos somewhere guiding you through your own maintenance? Is there a support network available somewhere or are they going to take your money, drop off a massive machine and later out of your house so fast and never hear from them again? You are making a big investment you need a support network.

Join Quilt guilds! Quilting an be a rather lonely business. You spend your days alone quilting and listening to true crime podcasts (maybe that is just me???) you need to get out. Quilt guilds are my free time. I get to talk to friends, meet new folks and see beautiful quilts. I am currently a member of two guilds and both are awesome. Besides friends quilt guilds also provide business opportunities. All you have to do is bring a show and tell quilt and stand in line when the time comes. You hold up your work and say "I quilted this on my Long Arm" that is all you have to do! After that people will come up to you and ask if you quilt for others. Say "Yes" and the rest will be history. You will have plenty of quilts to quilt. You can also ask your local quilt shop if you can offer your business cards there. All local quilts shops work differently and have rules, ask and see if you will be a good fit.

You will need an intake form of some sort. I have a digital form I email to clients. It asks all the pertinent questions I have when I get ready to quilt a quilt. I want to know how they want their quilt quilted, what batting they want, what thread color they desire. I also have a little math problem for them to do so there are no surprises when they get their final invoice. They find the square inches of their quilt and multiply it by the price of the service they want. That gives them a good estimate of what it will cost. I might charge too much for some and that is fine. I like my customer base just fine. I always want new customers, but I will not work for free and I don't like quilting for folks who always "want a deal". I am a professional and I expect/deserve to be treated as one ( so do you ). There must be quilters out there who do not value their time or skill so the deal seekers can go find them. When I contract out work to a fellow professional (doctor, lawyer, dentist, plumber, auto mechanic, photographer) I anticipate that I will be paying them for their work and skill so I research and find who meets my needs and go from there. I assume quilt makers do the same when they come to me.  I have bills the same as everyone else and kids who want to have food to eat and clothing to wear. I have met quilters who only charge $50 a quilt no matter the size and I don't understand why they would do that. I am probably going off on a soapbox rant. I will get back on track.

With all that said you may be asked to do charity quilting. Have a policy for this. You WILL be asked to quilt charity quilts. That is fine. We quilters LOVE a charity. You can do some, but choose which ones you want to do. Charity quilts are actually good to try new things on but be careful because after you let a couple in you might find yourself overwhelmed with how many pour in behind them.

Be friendly and professional. I like most people and I like their quilts. You are opening a business and you are the face of your business just like me. You need to keep a tidy studio. Mine is messy sometimes when I am in the midst of creating quilts or designs, and folks understand that. Most actually like it. They like seeing what I am working on at any given time and I am normally happy to show. If they are dropping off a quilt have them make an appointment. I have drop off times and drop off days. If people drop in anytime it makes it hard to get back to work. I get distracted especially when it comes to talking about quilts.

My last thing is social media. In this day and age we need to have some sort of social media presence. I am not a big fan of Facebook, but lots of folks love it so I am there. I really like Instagram and I have a website. The people need to be able to find you. It is best if you try to remain professional. Don't post your nude pictures, drunken rants or political stance. What is it they say not to talk about at a good dinner party? Don't talk about religion, sex or politics. I try to stick to that with my social media. You do you of course, I am just offering my advice.

OK...does that help a little? I hope so. Long Arm quilting is a great gig. I get to work from home and be around when my family needs me. I am my own boss and get to do what I love. I hope you do too! Please let me know if you want me to deep dive on any of these topics. I am sure money will be one and I am working on a blog post specifically about that. don't worry.

Tia Curtis


  1. Fantastic post Tia. Very helpful. Thank you.

    1. I'm so happy you liked it. Thank you for commenting.

  2. fantastic post! I'm sure those who are considering getting into the business will find this post very helpful. I didn't know you started out quilting on a Bernina for others......so did I, but boy oh boy was I happy to have my Gammill! :-)

  3. This is great information. Thank you so much for sharing.

  4. Thank you for this post! I’m almost ready to get a long arm and every bit of advice I find so helpful! Do you have a method you like to track your upcoming jobs and provide turn around time?

    1. I keep a calendar. I get backed up with custom work, but the e2e quilting is so quick I am almost never more than a week or so out.

  5. Great post! Thanks again for answering my questions the other day as well. <3

  6. Great post! One question, do you have batting or do they bring their own?

    1. Hi Lana! I do have batting available, but it's fine if clients want me to use theirs.

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  8. Thanks so much for writing this! It’s got a lot of useful information.

    I started reading your blog when I found you were a fellow military wife and I was wondering if I was crazy to want a longarm (nobody wants to bust weight on a PCS!), and have continued reading because your material is so interesting! :)

    1. Yay for our sisterhood! You are not crazy at all! We did our last PCS move with one of the machines. It is not heavy really, but the poles are really long and they were confusing for the movers. So confusing in fact that they left them behind in the storage facility. They assumed that no normal home would need them so they must belong to someone else. Needless to say they hustled back to retrieve them when they encountered my wrath. The only issue would be having space to set it up. We used our garage in Texas and it worked out fine. Here in Kansas I have a massive finished basement and a big sun room.

  9. You mention that you got two of your long arms second-hand. But then you also suggest to buy a long arm that comes with support. Will dealers support a long arm that is bought second-hand or are we on our own to set up, figure out and maintain the long arm? What are your thoughts on buying a second-hand long arm if we’ve never owned one.

    1. My dealers support my second hand machines. I have not had any trouble at all! The first machine was well over 30 years old and Gammill helped me out with the few problems I encountered and then I found a dealer and they happily took over. I am not sure if it is the same with all brands, but I don't see why it wouldn't be. The Toyota dealership will still service your car if you didn't buy it from them.

  10. Nice presentation! I like it very much! Beautiful colours. It looks great. I really like the colors you've chosen. And of course I am looking forward to next projects. Great job!


Thanks for commenting! I read each one. I will either respond via email or here in the comments. xo - Tia