April 23, 2015

Diving Into the Deep End (Longarm Quilting)

One week ago today I attended the Australasian Quilt Convention in Melbourne. I've been aware of this annual event for a couple of years, but somehow managed to miss it each time.

This year, however, was different. I made a point of going. I wouldn't have missed it for the world. That's because earlier this year I decided the time has come for me to dive into the "deep end of the pool" and get a longarm quilting machine.

Longarms aren't exactly as scarce as hen's teeth, but you won't find one at Spotlight or most other places that sell sewing machines. No, they are something of a specialty item.  I searched and searched online for dealers - found a couple of them here in Melbourne, but that's about all. I was sure there are dealers, if I could just find them. And, well, here comes the AQC, just in time! I knew that there would be a few manufacturers there demonstrating their systems - how perfect! So I went.

(I took my camera, with every intention of adding photos to this post, but was foolish enough not to check the battery - when I arrived at the quilt show, I discovered the battery was DOA.  Sorry...)

I found several different manufacturers represented: Grace, Nolting, Bernina, Gammill, Juki, and Handi Quilter.  I visited them all and "test drove" all the different models. Before going, I watched hours of YouTube vidoes on longarm quilting, so I had at least a bit of an idea of what is involved, and had a baseline understanding of the components.

At the end of the day, I decided on a Handi Quilter - and here's why (not in any particular order):
  • There's a local dealer - one not far from my suburb, actually - and several dealers around Melbourne. This is good from the standpoint of possible maintenance/repair assistance. If I get into trouble, there are different dealers I can turn to for assistance. Not that I expect trouble - but if I have problems, much better to be able to get help via a local call, rather than trying to arrange for support from, say, Singapore.
  • variable frame size.  All the systems I looked had had 10-12' frames, except for Gammill, which was displayed with a 6' (or maybe 8? - I didn't actually measure it) and a 12'. Well - I want the capacity for 12' (needed for king-sized bedspreads), but most of my projects in future are likely to be a lot smaller. Handi Quilter's frame poles are in 4' segments (and you can buy a 2' extension), so you can have 8', 10', and 12'. I don't want a 12' frame - about the only place that will fit in my house is the loungeroom. An 8' frame will fit in my spare bedroom (if I take the bed out, of course). In all honesty, I'm VERY surprised the other manufacturers don't offer flexible frame sizes. 
  • I liked the control panel and buttons. So, you ask, what's up with that?  Well - the buttons and controls are marked well, are somewhat intuitive. Other models I saw that day had pretty strange markings (in some cases, control buttons not labeled at all...?). One model was hilarious in that when the control screen said "off" - that meant the machine was ready to sew, and when it said "ready", that meant the sewing function was switched off. No - I'm not making this up, folks.
  • 5 year warranty.  The other manufacturers were offering 2-3 year warranties.
  • I liked the feel of the machine - very smooth, easy to maneuver. No noticeable vibration, quiet.
  • I liked the look of the machine.  OK.  This is silly, but true. Several of the other machines there looked very "cold" and impersonal.  Grey metal, angular, industrial. The Handi Quilter's case is a nice clean-looking white with soft edges. Yes. I know it's silly.
  • The price was moderate - at least as these things go. Grace had the least expensive model, selling for just under $10,000 (with the "special discount" for buying at the convention). But over the years, I've learned that it's better to pay more for tools. I'd gone into the convention with a price in mind, and the Handi Quilter was just a bit below what I'd expected to be paying.
  • Computer upgrade option. I'm not prepared to spend the extra money right now for the computerized version of the machine I'm getting - but the option is there and I can add it later if I want it. Nice! The computerized functions really are magic - but I don't want to spend that money until I am sure that I'll be using the machine enough to make it worthwhile.
  • Price again - the manufacturer dealer offered me a "lightly used" system at a significant discount. As it turned out, the week before the quilting convention, Handi Quilt had a quilters' seminar in New South Wales - and as part of that they had new machines set up for the students to use. The seminar was only 2 days - and the machines would have been lightly used. So - I was offered the chance to buy one of those "out of the box" systems at a significant discount (like... $4,000 off!). Well, that works for me. Lowers the price and also some-what guarantees that the machine has been used and found to be "in perfect working condition".
  • Gadgets. The Handi Quilter booth had lots of little extra "gadgets" on display. Things like a tool tray which lays on top of the support frame, casters for the frame - allowing you to shift it easily, other bits and pieces. Maybe I'll want those gadgets and maybe I won't - but it all just gave me the impression that they were pitching to experienced longarm quilters. They were showing more than the machines and frames; they seemed to have their act together.
So there you go. I've put down a deposit, a machine has been reserved for me, and the local dealer tells me I'll have it in early May. Perfect. Now to piece together some projects to use as "learning projects". And, of course, I'll need to get that guest bedroom cleared out.

(Oh... and did I buy any fabric at that convention?  Uh, yeah... I'll tell you about that later...)

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