I’ve had an internal debate for weeks about whether or not to do this post. But it’s my blog for sharing my project and thoughts and this is something that I’ve been thinking about a lot. I’m not affiliated with any of the longarm machine companies so everything here is based on my own experience.
Ever since I bought my APQS Millennium in 2005 I have noticed that there is a unspoken rule to not speak negatively about the different brands of machines. They are all considered great and owners always advise shoppers to “try them all out and find the one that fits you”. The underlying message is that they all stitch great because they are all top-of-the-line machines. Purchasing decisions should be based on how the machine “fits” you and the kind of support you can get.
That’s exactly how I bought my Millennium in 2005. I went to show after show and tried them all out….for fit. They all stitched fine and I didn't know enough to test the stitching anyway. I bought the machine that felt would be most comfortable for me and I think that’s exactly what I got. Willie “fit” me. The handles were the most comfortable and I used the hydraulic lift a lot to keep strain off my back.
I quilted 217 quilts on Willie. That’s not a lot for someone quilting for business but it was a lot for me. I loved Willie because he saved me tons of time but I never felt that my skills were good enough to even consider making show-worthy quilts (whether I’d enter them in a show or not).
I got pretty good at quilting on Willie but if you could see those feathers up close you would see the bobble and twitches. I never had total control over the machine. It was difficult to stitch exactly over previous stitches and I would get frequent bumps in lines.
I also never had perfect tension. Tension was good but never perfect and Willie hated King Tut thread. I would have to pay very close attention to my speed to avoid railroad tracks in curves. When I asked for help I was always told to slow down and quilt from left to right.. I learned to live with it.
After talking to a lot of people I was convinced that I could improve my quilting by upgrading the rails to the Bliss system. At the same time I sent the machine back to the factory for a spa treatment.
Honestly, that was a huge $4000 mistake.
I had all kinds if issues with the head when it was returned starting with the circuit boards blowing 5 minutes after I first turned it on. There were several other issues as well. None of that bothered me. Stuff happens. What bothered me was the service. Getting APQS to respond was painful. It would take multiple emails to get one question answered and things promised in 2 days would take 2 weeks. It took about 4 months everything resolved so that I could really experience the Bliss drive system.
Holy crap on a cracker.
What a nightmare. To be honest, it worked as advertised. It has to be the smoothest rail system made. In fact it’s so smooth that if I had the stitch regulator on and breathed on the machine it stitched. I do ruler work. I need control over my machine and need to be able to move the ruler without the machine taking lots of extra stitches.
Spinning Stars is the quilt that did me in.
It has lots of ruler work and every time I tried the move the ruler the machine would stitch in place 5 or 10 times and usually break the thread. It drove me insane. I would lay in bed at night trying to figure out how to put more friction on the rail to make it less sensitive. I contacted APQS for advice and they told me that I “just” needed to pause the stitch regulator every time I needed to move the ruler. Do you have any idea how much extra time that takes? I couldn’t believe it.
I suddenly hated quilting and I was majorly annoyed with APQS and the support.
I needed to try some other machines to see if they were really all alike.
They are not.
I had tried an Innova at a show and remembered that I liked it so I looked for a place to try one out. I was surprised to find that the Mid-Atlantic dealer was only 18 miles from my house.
The good thing about trying a machine after you have owned one is that you know how you quilt so you know what to test. I took my rulers and my threads and played for a couple of hours. I went back another time with my Mom and we tested some more.
WHAT A DIFFERENCE. I bought it right then. It was not an easy decision. When I bought Willie I expected that I would own that machine until I died. I could not imagine ever buying another machine. But we trade in our cars when they no longer work for us. I can do the same for a machine that no longer works for me. It was better for me to cut my losses and upgrade to something that I’d use than to have a machine that I would avoid using for anything other than pantos.
FloMo arrived October 8 and I knew immediately that I had made a good decision and that it’s not just about having a machine that “fits”, it’s also about having the BEST MACHINE.
I have so much control that I can put every stitch exactly where I want it. It’s easy to stitch over previous lines.
My stitching lines are SMOOTH. No bumps, no jags.
The stitches are amazing. They don’t lay on top of the fabric. They meld into the fabric. This may not seem like something you need to test but there really is a difference.
Tension is easy to set and stays set. I test my tension on a scrap on the side and I don’t have to check it again. I use TOWA and set the bobbin at 150 and I’m good to go. This is the back of one of the quilts I shared yesterday. The top thread is a dark variegated thread and there’s not one speck of the top thread on the back or of the back thread on the top. I could never mix dark and light threads reliably on Willie.
But the best thing is the ruler work! I can stop the machine in regulated mode and it stays where I put it. I have so much control with this machine that by the time I was at the end of the DWR that I could do the SID on the curves without a ruler.
Did you catch that? SID WITOUT A RULER! I have my right hand on the handle and my left hand on the post above the needle with my pinkie finger gliding on the quilt.
It was a big day when I realized that my problems weren’t me after all. I am a good quilter. I just needed a better tool. With the right tool I can see that I am getting better with every quilt I quilt. Because now I’m working on building my skills and not working on compensating for the machine.
I’ve since had the opportunity to quilt on a HandiQuilter for about 3 hours and I know that I have the best MACHINE for me.
Here’s what I think has happened in the longarm industry. I think the manufacturers have focused primarily on making the machines smoother and lighter. While that’s fine it’s done at the cost of control. The HQ, for example, was a really nice machine but I did not have the control with it that I have with the Innova. Because the machine moves so easily all of the control has to be in your arms and back. I don't want that kind of stress on my arms and back. None of them have the stitch quality of the Innova. Seriously, I have no idea what the difference could be but there is a difference.
Now, I’m not advising everyone to buy Innova. I’m advising you to test every machine that you can but don’t just do what they show you in the booth at a show. Do all of these things:
- Look at the stitches and how they lay on the fabric. Get samples from every machine you test and compare them.
- Try some ruler work – draw a block and do some pretend SID, test out diagonal straight lines, cross hatching and any other ruler work that you think you might do.
- Try some micro stippling without the stitch regulator. See how much control you have to get small pebbles and to trace over them. Check the tension on these tiny stitches.
- Try your threads (heavy cottons to silk). Use different colors in the bobbin and top so that you can adjust tension and see how it works. When I tested I took King Tut, Rainbows, Silk, So Fine and a few funky (not designed for the longarm) threads that I was never able to run on Willie.
- Try some free motion fills like fans. See how easy it is to stitch over previous motifs to travel and see how easy it is to get consistent echoed lines like in my yellow example above.
- See what happens when you are in regulated mode and you stop the machine. Does it stop stitching to give you time to move a ruler or adjust your posture?
- If you are going to stitch pantographs, try one out to make sure the machine is comfortable for you from the back.
- Find experienced owners of each of the machines and ask them privately to share their service experiences. People will be hesitant to do that publicly but will share with you privately. You want to find some people who have owned their machines for a while and have had a need for technical support.
- Find out what kind of maintenance the machines need.
If you do these things you will be much more confident about making such a large financial decision. I hope you find a machine that you love as much as I love my Innova.