Longarm Quilting is the use of a specialized sewing machine to sew together your quilt top, batting and quilt back. Once the quilting process is complete, the borders are finished by sewing a binding strip all around the perimeter of the quilt.
The Longarm Quilting Machine
There are at least 10 manufacturers of Longarm Quilting machines, they all share most of the major components and are most notable for their large size. A typical Longarm Quilting machine has a work surface that is 10 feet long but they can go as large as 14 feet.
Some machines use computerized control whereby a computer program actually guides the machine to accurately place the quilting patterns. Other machines, known as "free motion quilters" (FMQ), use a large "pantograph" template that the operator follows to replicate the design on the quilt. A free motion machine is completely under motion control of the human operator.
The Four Basic Components of the Quilt
Quilt Top - The quilt top is the the front of the quilt that you have spent so much time in getting to look just the way you want. The quilt top needs to be 100% pieced together.
Batting - Batting is the fibrous filling material that gives your finished quilt it's loft. It goes between the front and back of the quilt pieces.
Quilt back - The quilt backing is usually comprised of similar fabric as the quilt top and is usually a solid piece, but it is possible to have a back that has some pieces, although this makes the quilting process more difficult.
Binding - Once the three major components are stitched together, the raw edges are hidden by sewing a strip of material around the perimeter to "finish" the quilt.
The Longarm Quilting Process
The quilt top, batting and quilt back are placed on large rollers that are configured to feed the three items together resulting in a quilt sandwich that is then stitched together by the Long Arm sewing unit. Care must be taken to ensure the even placement and tension of the rollers.
Edge to Edge (E2E) - There are thousands of E2E patterns that can be used. With a computerized Longarm Quilting machine, the patterns are applied to the quilt using computer guidance. Free motion quilting machines can use a template to accomplish the same result or they can perform a "meander" whereby the operator basically makes up the pattern as it is being quilted.
Semi-Custom - The computerized Longarm Quilting machine can also create little blocks of patterns that can be interspersed throughout the quilt and combined with the E2E quilting. The computer is smart enough to make sure that the E2E quilting does not intrude into the little pattern blocks. Using the computer control, these pattern blocks can be placed precisely where needed on the quilt.
Custom - Occasionally, a quilter my want to have all quilting be done with custom patterns. This is a lengthy process due to the amount of time spent in placing the patterns to ensure that the entire quilt is sewn together properly.
The Binding Process
Machine Finishing - In most cases, the binding is attached to the top of the quilt using machine stitching. The back of the quilt is also stitched with the machine, but the stitching done on the back will be visible from the top of the quilt.
Hand Finishing - As above, the binding is attached to the top of the quilt using machine stitching. However, in order to hide the back stitching from being visible from the top, the stitching that is performed on the back side is done by hand. Hand finishing is a lengthy process, but it results in a higher quality finished piece.