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Long-arm Quilting Adventures

It has always been a long term plan for Stacey Sansom Designs to provide long-arm quilting services to the public, but it has been one that has largely been put on the back burner for a variety of reasons. Let me just say that “life happens” and we cannot always do everything that we dream of – right away.

Now that I have finished the projects that have been ongoing at Stacey Sansom Designs, I have decided that it is time to focus on some of those bigger and longer term goals since business will not be returning to the normal I have grown to accept. I am fortunate that I do not have to accept closure of the business I have spent years building, but if I want to grown the business in these times of COVID-19 uncertainties, I know that I have to focus on something different than what I am doing now.

There are a lot of things that I feel I should do, but for now I am going to focus on one of the things that I can do with just a little motivation and patience with myself. I have always wanted to provide long-arm services to others, but it is something that I have put off. Initially, it was because I didn’t have the equipment. Then it was time and lack of experience. Now it is more laziness than anything.

This week, I decided that it was time to put away some of the fears, hesitations, and laziness and put the long-arm machine that I have acquired to use. I decided that it is time to learn how to use it. It is time that I started preparing myself for providing a service.

With a bit of work, I was able to clean off the machine. I was able to finish the quilt that had been draped over the top of the machine for over a year. And I finally got the quilt loaded onto the machine. That was the easy part in retrospect. I was not prepared for what would come next.

Removing messed up stitching from the practice quilt I created.

A while back, I had signed up for a free “quilt along” sponsored by Natalia Bonner. It was the 365 Block a Day Stitch Along where she was showing how machine quilt a new block each day for a year. I started the quilt to stitch along with her and learn to use rulers on the long-arm machine. The year approached an end. My quilt sat – incomplete. It just needed borders. I needed time to focus. She consolidated the designs into a book. I purchased the book. Life happened. COVID happened. And it sat. And sat.

This past week I finished that quilt. I got those projects done so that I could finish that quilt. It really has been mocking me. It was an emotional burden. It felt so good to finish it.

It felt even better once I got it loaded on the machine. Then the fear and anxiety of messing it up set in. The quilt is beautiful. Perfectly matched corners throughout. It is a work of excellent quality. I was consumed by the fear that it would simply get messed up.

I sat about watching and rewatching the videos that went with each design in the book. I watched and rewatched videos on how to quilt borders. I watched and rewatched videos on how to do different things. Perhaps I was just stalling. I doubted my ability to do it.

And then I took the first stitches. What a mess! How the heck do you hold the rulers and move the machine and keep your eye on everything at the same time? This skilled seamstress and talented quilter had just met her match. It was an awful sinking feeling. Not cool! Self-doubt set in. I was not sure what to do. Even the simple designs of following a curved ruler appeared to be too much for someone even with a little long-arm experience (meandering).

I could not keep the rulers straight.

I could not keep the rulers from moving.

I clipped the edge of my new ruler.

I broke a needle.

I had a mess and I was only 4 scallops into the top left border of the quilt. How was I going to finish this?

I was frozen. Completely critical of myself and my abilities. I was full of doubt. Fear that I’d never get it figured out set in. I was mad. I was frustrated. I was everything. I truly wanted to cry.

What now?

Facebook has a feature in some of its groups that allows you to hook up with a “mentor” in the group. I remembered that there was one in the long-arm group that I was in. I immediately went and located the mentor section in the group and searched for one. I needed someone to hold my hand and talk me back down off the ledge I was on. I didn’t need someone to teach me, I needed someone to assure me that I COULD DO IT!

My new mentor taught me a valuable lesson Christmas night. She reminded me just how beautiful the quilt was. Many rolled their eyes when I declared publicly on Facebook that this was a practice quilt. They did not understand how this quilt was “practice.” It is. It’s sole purpose is to help me learn how to do ruler work on the long-arm. She reminded me why I made the quilt. Then she reminded me that I needed to allow myself to make mistakes. It is practice! She reminded me that I needed to allow myself to make ALL THE MISTAKES. Not just one mistake, but all of them. The more mistakes that I made, the faster I would learn how to do this.

It seems counter intuitive, but it is the truth.

This morning I removed the four wonky scallops from my previous disaster and started over. I rethread the machine. I put the “grippy dots” on the back of a couple of rulers. It went a little smoother.

It is hard!

I can do hard things. I did not expect it to be this hard.

The top left corner of the quilt after my efforts this morning. Not perfect. Not amazingly beautiful.

Lessons I have learned today

I have learned a few things from my efforts today.

  1. Do not trust that what you have been shown by another individual is 100% accurate. Often we miss things. Even more often the individual does not explain something fully, etc. If you have problems, it is best to trust they gave you a good starting foundation but verify the validity of the steps.

    I had been threading the machine incorrectly. I was doing it how I was taught for years by my mother. Perhaps this is why she’s had so many problems over the years. Who knows. I just know that even though I had watched her and done it like that for years, it was missing a couple of vital things. Even after reading the manual, I found it was incorrect.

    After watching the individuals at the Gammill dealer in multiple videos thread the machine, I tried it that way and immediately found some of my problems went away. Not all of them, but some of them.
  2. Long-arm quilting “precision work” is way harder than it looks. It is a lot harder than any YouTube video or personal demonstration makes it appear. It appears pretty easy. I had some experience meandering on the machine. This should be fairly easy, right? NOPE! I feel like a toddler learning to walk. Those very first steps are hard.
  3. If in doubt, research more!
Top right of quilt. It isn’t perfect, but it was improved over the top left. In just a short distance.

Practice is required! Repetition does make it easier. I am not 100% certain that this will be any easier by the time that I get to the end of the next row, but I am trying. I am doing this. I am doing hard things. Why? I want to learn how to do this. I do have the first entire row of blocks quilted. They aren’t perfect, but they are quilted. I still need to do the second border and sashing. The first attempt was a complete disaster. I am accepting it as a mistake and will learn to make it smooth and pretty by the time I get to the end of the quilt.

Make sure you check back as I report every few days about my progress on learning how to do precision machine quilting on my Gammill long-arm over the next few weeks. We can learn together.

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