When I got my first longarm, I was quite daunted at the prospect of quilting pantographs on a longarm. There wasn't a lot of information on-line that I found helpful, especially the details of how to line everything up, how to start, how to end, etc. While quilting the sample quilt for my pattern Cascading Charms, I decided to photograph the process and create a tutorial for new and aspiring longarm users. Please note: I use the manual method (moving the machine from the rear), as opposed to using a computerized, automated system. The basic set-up, loading and aligning and advancing the quilt are the same for both types of longarm systems, however.
Basic Set Up
Before we get into the nitty-gritty details, let's look at the basic set-up and products I use to help the process. In the picture above, you will notice the red bars on the right side of the photo. This is the Red Snappers Quilt Loading System. The system consists of round, flexible rods that you slide inside the pockets or casing of your longarm's canvas for both the top and bottom of the quilt backing. You can then quickly load or unload a quilt by snapping the clamp over the rod. This eliminates the need to use pins. I have used pins before, but I absolutely love the Red Snappers. They come in many different lengths to accommodate any brand or size of longarm.
The next product that makes my longarm quilting life easier is the Pattern Grid. See the photo below:
The Pattern Grid is a thick, 10ml roll of plastic that has a 1" grid marked on it, along with a 1/4" dotted-line grid. You lay this plastic on top of your longarm table and slide the pantograph under it. The Pattern Grid comes in two sizes - The regular Pattern Grid, which is 18" X 12' and the Pattern Grid Jr. which is 9" X 12'. If your longarm table is shorter, you can simply cut the plastic to fit your table. While certainly not necessary, I really love the Pattern Grid as it helps keep everything lined up nicely and keeps the pantographs laying flat on the table.
Lastly, you will notice I have my alignment lines marked with blue painters tape. Painters tape is perfect for this purpose because it is easy to remove, easy to move around and adjust, and doesn't leave any residue. I prefer the 1" width, but it comes in several widths and roll sizes.
Note - The pantograph I'm using in this example is Valentine Feather by Dave Hudson. My favorite place to buy pantographs is Urban Elementz. They have a great selection and I've always received excellent customer service from them.
Tips for Comfort and Accuracy
Before we get into loading the quilt and aligning the pantograph, I wanted to provide some tips that I found helpful when I began quilting pantographs. It can take hours to quilt a large quilt. Standing in the same position for so long can cause discomfort and stress related injuries. Taking time to be properly aligned and comfortable will mean you can stand at your machine, quilting for longer periods of time, thus being more productive. Take the time to take care of yourself, its worth it!
Relax and breath - If you are tense, your muscles will tighten and your shoulders will rise. This, will in turn cause tension in your arms and hands and your accuracy will suffer. Always take several deep breaths and relax before you begin.
Lighten your grip - You don't need a death grip on the handles in order to get an accurate quilting line. Relax your hands. You want a light grip that allows your work to flow as you move along with the machine.
Be flexible - Stand in an erect but relaxed posture with your knees slightly bent. This goes along with the whole "allow your work to flow" process mentioned above.
Relax your focus - When we were learning to drive, we were often told to look ahead to where the car is going. Quilting a pantograph is the same process. You want to focus on the line ahead of your laser pointer, not exactly on it.
Starting and Stopping - If you need to stop as you are quilting as you move along the back of the machine (or for any reason), choose a corner or a point to stop with your needle down. Never stop on a curve or straight line if you can help it. Any slight stitching misalignment that may happen from stopping and starting will be greatly minimized or hidden if you stop on a corner or point.
Take breaks - If you are going to be quilting for long periods of time, take breaks often (at least every 30 minutes) to stretch your muscles, release tension and give your eyes a break.
Comfort for your feet and back - I find it exhausting to stand at the back of the machine and quilt for hours at a time. I usually try to stretch out my quilting over several days while working to finish a quilt. At the very least, wear comfortable shoes, preferably with support. I use a cushioned mat that goes along the entire length of my frame that helps a lot. The one I use is from Uline and is called a Cadillac Mat. These mats come in many sizes and thicknesses. Some longarmers use them along the front of the longarm as well.
Loading and Aligning
I float all my tops. What this means is that I roll the quilt backing (right side down) onto the frame's rollers (using the Red Snappers) at the top and bottom of the backing. I then lay the batting over the backing and lay the quilt top (right side up) over the batting. I don't roll the quilt top onto rollers. This is just a matter of preference. Some longarmers like to roll the top, others use the float method.
Once the quilt top is lying on the batting you are ready to begin securing the edges. Many quilters use a plumb line. This is a row of stitching that is stitched through the batting and backing only (before the quilt top is placed on top of the batting). It is a straight line of stitching, from left to right, that you use to align the quilt top to when you lay it over the batting. Sometimes, I will use a plumb line, other times, I will just stand to the end of my frame and eyeball the quilt top to see if it appears straight across the top edge. The photo below shows a sewn plumb line.
Once you have your backing, batting and quilt top loaded and lined up, you need to baste along the top and down each side, as far as your machine will reach. In the photo below, the quilt has been basted and is ready for quilting to begin. In this photo, on the left side, you will see the quilt top is folded up and over, lying on top of the roller. I do this when I begin to quilt - to keep the quilt off the floor, to keep it from wrinkling and so I don't step on it. If the quilt top were rolled on its own roller, instead of being floated, this would not be necessary.
Align the Pantograph to the Quilt Top
From the back of the machine, move the machine until the needle is along the left edge of the quilt (the left edge as it would be if standing at the front of the frame). This is where you will begin each row of quilting. While your needle is aligned above the left edge of the quilt, look at where your laser light is shining on the pantograph. Place a piece of painters tape vertically along that line. At this point, you can slide the pantograph left or right as needed so your design will begin along the edge as you want it to.
Do the same thing on the other side - move the machine to the other edge of the quilt. Look to see where your laser light is on the pantograph and place a strip of painter's tape vertically along that edge.
It can be helpful to mark where you will begin your stitching line. Some pantograph designs are more complex than others and sometimes its easy to get mixed up! I mark the starting point by placing a note on the painter's tape to show where to begin. If any areas will move off the edge, I fill in the design along the painter's tape as well:
Align the First Row
To align the first row, you will need to align the top edge of the quilt top with the bottom edge of the pantograph. To do this, move your machine until the needle is above the top edge of the quilt top. Then, look at where the laser light is shining. It should be resting on the bottom edge of the pantograph (the edge closest to you as you stand at the back of the frame).
Most the time, you will need to roll the quilt forward or backwards to get the top edge to align to where the laser light is shining.
The above steps may sound cumbersome, but the actual process takes only a few minutes once you get the hang of it.
The first row of a pantograph is a partial row. This is so the design will appear to go "off the edge" of the quilt. This is the reason pantographs are referred to as edge-to-edge designs. You will stitch the first, partial row, then the first full row before needing to advance the quilt. Note - Some pantographs have one full row (such as the pantograph I'm using in this tutorial) and some have two full rows.
From the back of the machine, align the laser light over the spot along the bottom edge of the pantograph where you will begin stitching your partial row. The partial row usually begins around the bottom right corner of the pantograph. Go to the front of the machine and drop your needle in this spot and secure your threads. Go to the back of the machine and stitch this partial row. The photo below shows the first partial row stitched out:
Now you will stitch your first complete row. Place the laser light over the spot on the right edge of the pantograph where you want to start stitching. Go to the front of the machine, drop the needle and secure your threads. Go to the back of the machine and stitch the first complete row. (If your pantograph has a 2nd complete row, stitch that as well before you advance the quilt.)
Advance the Quilt
After you have quilted your first (or 2nd) complete row, its time to advance the quilt. To do this, drop the needle down into the quilt precisely on the lowest point of stitching in the row you just stitched. This can be anywhere along the row, but I like to do it near the right side of the quilt (as you are standing at the front) so I can easily see through to where the laser light is by looking between the bars or around the side of the quilt.
Now, look at your laser light and pantograph. Slowly, roll the quilt up (keeping the needle down into the quilt), thus making the whole machine, needle and all, move backwards until the laser light is aligned over the exact spot on the design that matches where your needle is. This will be a spot on the partial row that matches the spot on the row you just stitched.
At this point, I check the alignment at several points along the stitching line (left edge, right edge and center). To do this, align the laser light with the lowest point of the design along the partial design line on the pantograph and compare it to where the needle is pointing on the quilt. If they do not align, roll the quilt backwards or forward until they line up.
Now you are ready to stitch the next row. Baste down both sides (just as your did at the beginning). Place the laser light over the spot on the right edge of the pantograph where you want to start stitching. Go to the front of the machine, drop the needle and secure your threads. Go to the back of the machine and stitch the next row. (If your pantograph has a 2nd row, stitch that as well before you advance the quilt again.)
Repeat the process until you have reached the bottom of the quilt and can no longer fit a complete row on the quilt.
Ending the Quilting
After you have stitched the last full row that will fit on your quilt, advance the quilt one more time as stated above. Baste along the sides and bottom of the quilt:
Place your needle over the bottom edge of the quilt, anywhere along the bottom edge will do. Go to the back of the machine and see where your laser light is shining. Mark a vertical line across your pantograph (shown marked with the blue painters tape along the left side of the photo below). This is the line you will stitch up to as you stitch your last partial line to finish the quilt.
Stitch the last partial line by stitching only the part of the design that is within your marked line. The marked line is the edge of the quilt.
You are done! Remove the quilt from the frame.
I hope this tutorial has been helpful to you in quilting pantographs on a longarm.
Until next time, happy sewing!