October 14, 2017

Comparing the Bernina and Handi Quilter Longarms

Very few people have the opportunity to work with more than one brand of longarm - but that's exactly what I've got with my two machines.  I've finished my first two projects on "Bernie", and I'm learning a lot, and am finding that are good (and less so) about Bernina and HQ.

Time to report what I've learned.


The price of a basic Handi Quilter (machine and frame) is very similar to Bernina of the same size, but when you get past the basics and want accessories, the prices start popping at you.  For example, HQ's pantograph kit runs about $200 (AUD) - whereas Bernina's kit is $1,400.  Ouch.

One thing that puzzles me is that both machines use a standard "M" class bobbin.  It doesn't take long before you realize you want to have more than just a couple of these on hand.  HQ's bobbins sell for $5.00 each.  Bernina's are $8.00.  What's the difference?  Bernina's bobbins are read and have the company name printed on them.  Is that worth an extra $3.00?  Uh... no...

The Frame

  • The HQ frame is actually in 3 segments and you can install it with one, two, or all 3 segments in place.  This is great for me because the room I have mine in won't accommodate a 12 foot frame, but an 8 foot frame fits in nicely.  Bernina has different frame sizes available, but they don't have a frame with an adjustable width (yet).
  • The HQ frame weighs a TON.  The Bernina frame, on the other hand, is amazingly lightweight.  It's so light that I can roll the machine around in my room (I have casters on the frame to allow this) and there are no marks on my hardwood floor.  


Both offer things like the pantograph kit, micro-handles, echo feet, ruler kits and so on.  However...
  • Pantograph kit - I've already mentioned the astonishing difference in price - but there's more.  The way the stylus for pattern boards is set up is quite different between the 2 systems.  On HQ, the stylus attachment is set up so that you can adjust the position of the stylus after advancing the quilt.  This makes it easy to keep the next row the right distance from the previous row.  With Bernina, you have to adjust the quilt - which is more demanding, fiddly and prone to alignment errors.  Perhaps there's some kind of "trick" to this on the Bernina that I just don't know about.  At the moment, however, I'm finding it very difficult to align correctly after advancing the quilt.
  • The styluses are quite different.  The Bernina stylus is metal and sits very firmly in the holder - nice!  The HQ stylus is plastic and has a bit of "wiggle" to it - which creates awkward irregularities in the stitching if you aren't careful.
  • A "ruler base" is available for both machines.  The Bernina ruler base is much easier to put on and take off because of it's design.  The HQ is a bit problematic because you have to bend the lucite base in order to slide it into position; I can't help but wonder if the base will become brittle over time and eventually snap in half when I'm trying to get it on or off the machine.  Have a look at videos from each manufacturer on how to install the bases and you'll see exactly what I mean:    BERNINA TUTORIAL         HQ TUTORIAL
  • Echo feet - Bernina offers only one size of echo foot, where Handi Quilter offers a set with 3 different size feet.  
  • Bernina offers a hydraulic lift to raise and lower the frame.  This is a fantastic accessory, although rather expensive ($5,000).  HQ doesn't offer a similar accessory.
  • Bobbin Winding - On the Bernina this is a breeze - the winding mechanism is on the side of the machine and you can wind bobbins while you are quilting (you don't have to stop the machine).  It's quick, quiet, and easy to work with.  HQ has a separate bobbin winder - which is clunky, loud, and temperamental.  
  • Testing bobbin tension - Bernina offers a bobbin tension gauge - which tells you exactly how much tension is on the bobbin (very small device, easy to use).  HQ doesn't have this.  Instead their owners manual gives instructions for testing bobbin tension by simply loading the bobbin into the bobbin case and pulling on the thread.  It's early days, yet, so I'm not sure if the gauge is really worth the extra money.  I've had issues with tension at times with the HQ over the 3+ years I've had it, and it's possible that a bobbin tension gauge might have helped me resolve them faster.  Time will tell.
  • Bernina offers casters for the frame (HQ does not).  These are simply essential for me because the room I have my machine in is small enough that I need to be able to shift the machine around from time to time.  Casters make that easy.  However, I will mention that my dealer told me that casters aren't compatible with their Q-Matic computerized automated quilting system.

Working With The Machine

  • The manual "needle up/down" wheel is on the back of the HQ machine and on the right side on the front of the Bernina.  It's much better up front.  When you have to re-thread the needle or replace the bobbin, you want to be able to position the needle immediately over the line of stitching - so having that nob within reach on the front makes all the difference in the world!  You can lower the needle (as you would on an ordinary sewing machine) and know exactly where the needle will be going.
  • The Bernina has an automatic needle threader.  The HQ doesn't - which puzzles me to no end.  
  • Both machines have a facility to estimate the remaining thread on the bobbin and alert you when it's getting low.  In my early days with the HQ machine I found it too confusing/fiddly to mess with and so never used it.  The Bernina estimator is much easier to use, but I don't really use it much, as having the bobbin run out of thread doesn't really cause me a lot of headaches.  I think if I had purchased the computer automated quilting upgrade it would be more important to me.
  • Both machines have a "precision" stitch mode (on Bernina it's called "BSR2").  With this mode, the idea is that the machine stitches when you move it; when you stop moving the machine, the stitching stops.  It works that way with HQ; you press the "on" button and the machine waits for you to move it before it starts stitching.  But with the Bernina, the machine takes a couple of "startup" stitches even before you move the machine.  When you stop, the Bernina takes a couple extra "tie off" stitches.  The HQ doesn't.  You can't turn off those extra stitches on the Bernina, all you can do is change the number of extra stitches it takes.  I don't necessarily want those extra stitches, so I make sure I start moving the machine immediately when turn on B2 mode, and when I want to stop, I turn it off a couple of stitches before I stop moving the machine.
  • Changing feet on the Bernina is a lot easier - there's just a little lever on the back holding the foot in position; you just flip it and the foot comes off.  With HQ you have to remove a screw (and hope you don't drop it in the process).
  • Oiling HQ is faster than the Bernina because you just have to reach down and drop the oil into the front of the bobbin mechanism.  But the spot where you put the oil is hard to see into, just a little awkward.  With the Bernina, you have to remove the foot and then the needle plate, which seems like more work at first, but when you do that you get a really good look at the bobbin mechanism and it's easier to spot lint you might not have brushed away.
  • My HQ came with a little bottle of machine oil.  I don't know if this is actually an HQ bottle or just one the dealer included.  The bottle has a long metal "straw" coming out of it with a little screw-on cap.  It's fiddly, gets oil all over whatever it touches, and not easy to just get that one little drop.  Bernina has a GREAT oil pen that stays clean and delivers just what you want exactly where you want it - 1000 times easier to use.  You can buy one for under $8.00.

    Have a look:

  • Both machines have a bit of vibration when they are in use, but the Bernina is much, much smoother.  It makes a big difference when you are doing fine work.
  • The flat power/control cables on the back and bottom of the HQ sometimes get pushed up against the cart wheels, causing a sudden jerk/dragging motion that is very annoying.  I haven't experienced this with the Bernina, at least not yet.
  • Leader cloths.  OK.  This may be a bit picky, but I find the HQ leader cloths easier to work with because they aren't as thick/stiff as Bernina's.  Pinning the quilt to them is much easier on the HQ.
  • Changing needles is a bit fiddly with the HQ because the needles it uses are round.  It's too easy to have the needle twisted to one side or the other instead of perfectly in position.  With Bernina, the needles have a flat edge on one side, so you actually can't put them in crooked.
The final thing to say is that the Bernina feels "faster" than the HQ.  This is odd, because the advertised max speed for Bernie is 2,200 spm (stitches per minute) where the HQ is advertised at 2,600 spm.  But I've set off the speed alarm on Bernie several times, and I don't remember ever doing that on the HQ (hm... now that I think about it... I'm not sure there even IS a speed alarm).

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