Your Quilting Machine Buying Guide: Everything You Need to Know

Buying a quilting machine can be more complicated than it sounds. Our quilting machine buying guide can help.

Your Guide to Buying a First Quilting Machine

So you’ve put your sewing machine through its paces and you want to try your hand at quilting. The question is, do you need a new machine?

Well, duh. The answer to that question is always yes. Well, almost always.

But rushing out to buy the first model that catches your eye can be a costly mistake. It’s important to know what’s out there, and, most importantly, what you need.

Can You Use a Regular Sewing Machine?

Can you use a regular sewing machine for quilting?

Short answer: yes.

Longer answer: yes, of course.

There are several types of quilting machines, and most of them double as regular sewing machines.

Lockstitch machines and longarm quilting machines are two entirely different kettles of fish, though, and we’ll discuss them in a bit.

Most hobby-level quilters can do just fine with even a simple mechanical sewing machine.

After a certain point, however, you may find that you want a machine with some specific features just for quilters.

Quilting Materials
Photo by Dinh Pham on Unsplash

What Do You Need for Machine Quilting?

That depends on the type of quilting that you anticipate doing. Straight-line quilting and free motion quilting both require a few specific things.

And crazy quilting? We’ll talk about that, too.

Types of machine quilting

Quilting means stitching together a sandwich of fabric and batting. Historically, quilters assembled the sandwich by hand. But today many people use their sewing machine.

Three types of machine quilting are straight line quilting, free motion quilting, and crazy quilting.

Recommended Read: Cheap Sewing Machines to Check Out

Straight-line quilting

Straight line quilting means securing the layers of fabric and batting together using straight lines of stitching. Straight line quilting is fast, easy, and makes an attractive quilt.

You might stitch parallel lines over the entire quilt. Or you might “stitch in the ditch.” That is, you might sew along the seams of your quilt design.

Either way, this is how it’s done.

Free motion quilting

Free motion quilting uses decorative patterns to sew your layers together. It’s similar to free motion embroidery, but you don’t have to have an embroidery machine.

Here’s how to do free motion quilting on your regular sewing machine.

Crazy quilting

Crazy quilting developed in the United States in the late 1800s.

Rather than fabric pieces arranged in geometric designs, crazy quilts are a collection of irregularly shaped fabric pieces connected by decorative stitching.

The original crazy quilts were proper quilts, with a face, a backing, and batting in the middle. Today, some crazy quilts consist of the quilt face only.

Some quilters will use fabrics with different textures and weights. Others may even add beads, ribbons, and other embellishments.

It’s a decorative, expressive, free-form style. To make the most of this style, you’ll want a sewing machine with lots and lots of decorative stitches.

Quilting accessories

There are a few accessories that can help you with these three types of quilting. Fortunately, most are inexpensive and easy to find.

You might already have some of them, in fact, as manufacturers often include them in the accessories packs that come with their machines.

If you buy them separately, always make sure to buy the part that goes with your exact machine brand and model number.

Walking foot

Your feed dogs move the fabric through the machine as you sew. But fabric layers may move around, causing all sorts of chaos.

A walking foot is a special kind of presser foot that helps to keep your layers together while you sew.

Free-motion foot

A free-motion foot is a different type of presser foot. A free-motion foot is spring-loaded and moves up and down with your needle.

This helps you to avoid skipping stitches while free motion quilting.

Quilting guide

A quilting guide is a small, L-shaped piece of metal that attaches to your walking foot. It helps you to keep your quilting lines parallel during straight line quilting.

Quilting Machine Buying Guide

When it comes to quilting, you have a variety of options. Which one do you think would best fit your needs?

Sewing machine with quilting features

As we said, for most hobby-level quilting, a regular sewing machine will do just fine. But some machines come with specific features that make quilting easier.

If you’re interested in a sewing machine that can help you on your quilting journey, here are a few things to look for.

Heavy-duty frame

All sewing machines used to be made from metal. But bit by bit, manufacturers have started substituting plastic parts for metal ones.

On one hand, this makes sewing machines lighter and more portable. On the other hand, it makes them less stable and less fit for heavy work.

Some sewing machine models come with a heavy-duty metal frame. This provides additional stability. It also makes a machine better able to handle heavy work like multiple layers of fabric and batting.

Singer and Brother frequently equip their machines with a heavy-duty metal frame.

Extra high presser foot lift

The presser foot holds the fabric down so that the feed dogs can move it through the machine. Most machines allow you to lift the presser foot only so far.

But sometimes you may need to lift that presser foot higher to accommodate thick stacks of fabric and batting.

Many Janome machines come with an extra high presser foot lift.

Extension table

An extension table helps to support larger pieces of work. Also, it helps you to see your stitching in the context of a larger part of your project.

Because quilting stitches are decorative as well as functional, this is a very helpful feature. Some manufacturers, like Brother,  will include an extension table with certain models in order to attract quilters.

You can also buy extension tables separately. You can even make your own, quickly and cheaply, like in this video.

Decorative stitches

Do you actually need decorative stitches for quilting?

Not really. In fact, for straight line quilting and free-motion quilting, your old friend the straight stitch is still the best.

But crazy quilting is all about the decorative stitches. So if you want to try your hand at crazy quilting, then look for a machine with a good selection.

The Singer Quantum Stylist 9960 has 600 built-in stitches, for example. And an extension table, too!

High-speed stitching

The average speed of a home sewing machine is around 850 stitches per minute. However, some machines can go faster.

A higher stitching speed can help you to make quick work of straight line quilting.

Higher-end quilting features

At some point, you may want to upgrade to a machine with specific quilting features. These features generally only come with premium machines. For the right user, however, the bump in price may be worth it.

Knee lifter

A knee lifter is a metal bar that attaches to a special port in some sewing machines. It allows you to lift and lower the presser foot by moving your knee.

This is a very useful thing to have if you do a lot of free-motion quilting. Why? Because free-motion quilting involves a lot of turning and moving of your project.

A knee lifter allows you to move and turn your work without having to constantly stop to lift the presser foot with the hand lever.

Here’s how it works.

Not every sewing machine comes with a knee lifter. And you shouldn’t buy one separately unless you’re certain that your sewing machine has a port for it to attach to.

Extra throat space

Most home sewing machines have a throat space (or harp space) of nine inches or less.

When you’re working with larger quilts, however, this makes it difficult to maneuver your work.

Mid-arm sewing machines have between 12 and 18 inches of throat space. This can be a happy medium between a cramped short-arm machine and an extremely expensive longarm quilter.

Cone thread stand

Quilting uses a lot of thread.

Many quilters prefer cone thread to spool thread, as giant cones of thread are more cost-efficient than tiny spools.

You can use cone thread with a regular sewing machine if you buy a separate cone thread stand.

However, it’s very convenient if your sewing machine comes already equipped to deal with both cones and spools.

Lockstitch quilting machines

Lockstitch quilting machines like the Juki TL-2010qi are a semi-professional level quilting machine.

Their quilting features often include:

  • Extended throat space
  • High-speed stitching
  • A knee lifter
  • An extension table
  • Heavy-duty construction
  • Special thread stands for cone thread

And more.

The downside of a lockstitch machine is that it generally only does one stitch: the straight stitch.

Lockstitch quilting machines can make fast and efficient work of straight-line quilting.

You can also use them for garments, housewares, and other regular sewing tasks. Though general sewists may find a straight stitch only machine limiting.

Lockstitch machines also tend to be expensive. But if you’re doing a lot of quilting, this could be a good option.

Longarm quilting machines

Unless you’re quilting professionally or competitively, you probably won’t need a longarm quilting machine.

These machines are prohibitively expensive. They also take up a lot of space.

But when you’re making lots and lots of large quilts, there’s nothing like it.

Have a look.

Quilting Machine Buying Guide: Choosing the Best

So, how can you choose the quilting machine that best fits your needs?

First, ask yourself if you really need a new machine

It’s always fun to go shopping for a new piece of tech. But most of us have a limited amount of money to spend on hobbies.

Ask yourself the following:

  • Are my current machine’s limitations holding me back?
  • Is my present machine nearing retirement age?
  • Will I use a new machine enough to justify the purchase?

If you’ve answered “yes” to any of these questions, you might be due for an upgrade!

Next, calculate your budget

We’d all love to say that money is no object. But for most of us, that’s not the case.

One quick way to figure out a reasonable equipment budget is to do a bit of quick math.

How many hours per month do you spend with your sewing machine? 10? 20? Let’s say 20.

At the time of this writing, sewing machine rentals average around $20 per hour.

So if you were to purchase a $400 sewing machine — and $400 could get you a very decent one — it will pay for itself in a month’s time.

Recommended Read: The Best Heavy Duty Sewing Machine Models in the Market

Now, choose your machine type

To review, aspiring quilters have several options when it comes to equipment.

First, you could jazz up your current sewing machine with quilting accessories like different presser feet, a quilting guide, and an extension table.

Also, you could  upgrade to a sewing machine with built-in quilting features, like:

  • A knee lifter
  • Heavy-duty construction
  • An extra-high presser foot lift
  • Extended throat space
  • High-speed stitching
  • A cone thread stand

Finally, certain buyers may want to go all the way and buy either a lockstitch quilting machine or a longarm quilter.

Now, go shopping!

Now that you’ve examined your needs, you know which features are your must-haves.

And now that you understand the market, you probably have an idea of what type of machine will make your quilting dreams come true.

Finally, you should also have a realistic picture of your budget.

Now, all that’s left is the fun part.

Photo by Jeff Wade on Unsplash

Quilting Machine Buying Guide: Final Thoughts

Do you want to buy a quilting machine? Is that even a question?

Do you need one? That’s an entirely different question.

If the answer to that question is yes, you have quite a few options, ranging from inexpensive accessories to top-of-the-range professional equipment.

And now you have the knowledge to make the best decision.

Did you enjoy our quilting machine buying guide? Do you have any other advice for our readers?

We’d love to hear about it in the comments!

Featured Image by Nathan Bang on Unsplash

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