The First Juan

There is this friend in my life who has been a great cheerleader to me. She comes to just about every event I host. She has sat through programs at the studio when no one showed but her. She sends me ideas, asks me what I’m doing next and reminds me to follow up.

She also dropped off a quilt to me for Juan. The first customer quilt. Before I even knew what questions to ask. Or how much to charge.

“Sometime by December.”  “However you want to quilt it.”  “Just let me know at the end.”  Totally trusting me with her work. Wow.

So, Juan and I discussed the possibilities. Everything about this quilt seemed to say “snow,” so we dug through Juan’s brain. Not snowflakes- too obvious. Not meander- too boring. How about swirls?  And oh yes, there are plenty of those to choose from. We settled on “Swirls Two” by Lone Pine Quilting, and loaded the quilt into Juan’s arms.

Now, I could, in the interest of promoting my business, and protecting Juan’s reputation, skip the gory details of what happened next. But, I can’t do it. I thought about it, but in the end I just can’t dress it up in an unrealistic outfit. It is what it is, and I’m glad it happened because I learned from it. (And the quilt turned out great in the end- don’t worry-)

This is the reality of quilting. This is the reason quilters cuss. After ripping out stitching THREE times, I finally made a call for help.

It turns out that if you don’t thread the bobbin winder correctly, it screws with your bobbin, which in turn screws with your tension, which in turn screws with your sanity.  It also turns out that there’s this really helpful thing on the Internet called YouTube that shows you how to do stuff. Like use the equipment in your studio.

Once I got that figured out, the rest was a breeze. Until I had to try to create an invoice. Hello. Took longer than quilting the quilt.

I was pleased with Juan’s work, and we had a good discussion on the importance of understanding the mechanics of thread tension. According to Juan, this was just the beginning, and there are many more lessons to come. But he also seems to think that I can be taught.

Makes me wanna put on a big, wooly sweater and drink a cuppa hot cocoa in front of a fire.

Except I live in Georgia. And it’s 68 degrees outside.


This Juan Week


This is where I was while Juan was waiting for me.

This last week I’ve been out of town with my family for a few days, which means I’ve left Juan home alone.  I am quite sure he is terribly bored and lonely, so to make up for it, I have spent every free moment reading everything from his instruction manual to multiple books on machine quilting.  All so we can spend some quality time together once I am back on the ground again.  I am actually considering writing my own book titled “Juan for Dummies.”  Or maybe “What to Expect When You are Juaning.”  Still working on that one.

Lesson 1:  Read the sewing machine manual.

Juan is a Gammill Statler, and yes, I did actually read the instruction manual.  On the plane.  The guy in the seat behind me was totally reading over my shoulder, as it was a real thriller.  Surprisingly, I’m glad I read it.  There were a number of things that were mentioned in the manual that Pat from Pat’s Calico Cottage had told me during training, but I had totally forgotten.  I actually think I may read it again.  It’s a powerful machine, but only as powerful as the user’s knowledge of how it runs.  Pretty sure that’s true of most sewing machines.

Lesson 2:  Just because the pics make it look a bit outdated doesn’t mean that it is.

In addition to Juan’s instruction manual, I took four machine quilting books with me on my trip, and pretty much read all of them cover to cover.  Or at least looked at all of the pictures.  I dove right into the two books I thought would be the most interesting because they were more recent publications, with a modern, clean style to both the book itself and the featured projects.  Once I stopped dragging my feet to open the last two books, I was pleasantly surprised with how much helpful information they actually contained, and realized that with different photos I may have just jumped right into both.  One was a book called Hari Walner’s Continuous-Line Quilting Designs.  The quilting designs definitely lean pretty hard towards a more traditional style, but the continuous-line techniques that Hari teaches in the book can easily be transferred to any style that suits the quilter.  I was especially interested in the section Design Your Quilt for Quilting, and her thoughts on having a plan for how the quilt will be quilted before actually making the quilt top were provoking.  Plus, I loved her illustration and discussion on fabric, thread and batting selection, as well as instructions on how to make triangle border corners, which was a new one on me.

Lesson 3:  No matter what they say, not all machine quilting books are suitable for both domestic and longarm machines. 

Well, okay, maybe that is not an entirely fair statement.  There are definitely things to be learned from most machine quilting books that can be applied to both domestic and longarm machines, but the reality is that often the books are written with a lean towards one or the other, based on the author’s experience and use.  For instance, The Complete Guide to Machine Quilting:  How to use your home sewing machine to achieve hand-quilting effects by Joanie Zeier Poole says plainly in the title that it is intended for the domestic machine quilter.  Joanie gives a thorough description of the workings of a sewing machine, how to set up a sewing station, the preparation process before quilting and techniques for actually quilting the quilt.  The book itself has somewhat dated photos, which is unavoidable when showing examples of sewing machines, and while Joanie dedicates a section to longarm quilting, she also makes it clear that her purpose is to support machine quilters on a domestic machine.  I felt that it was a well-written book, and was surprised that while the machines shown are not the newest models available, the information really is timeless.  I also found the information on batting, thread and needles very helpful, regardless of what kind of machine being used.  I plan on making more quilt minis in the future, and am glad to have this one in my library for reference.

Lesson 4:  Begin with the end in mind.

I attended a lecture by famed longarm quilter Angela Walters earlier this year at QuiltCon 2015 in Austin, Texas.  I had been aware of her in the quilting world for some time, but it wasn’t until her lecture that I got a real feel for who she is, what she stands for and why it is important to listen to her.  So, I recently picked up her book In the Studio with Angela Walters: Machine-Quilting Design Concepts Add Movement, Contrast, Depth & More, and it was perfect inspiration for getting home and getting Juan up and running with my own custom quilting.  While I’m no prima donna, I am pretty excited about the prospects of learning and developing custom quilting skills.  Angela does a beautiful job in the book of breaking down those exact skills with 10 different projects that begin with the end in mind.  Similarly to Hari in Hari Walner’s Continuous-Line Quilting book, Angela teaches that making quilting decisions before the project even begins leads to less guessing along the way, as well as a more comprehensive finished work.  And speaking of finishing, deciding on quilting at the beginning of the quilt potentially shortens the time between planning and binding, leaving one with fewer quilt tops and more completed quilts.

Lesson 5:  Practice, practice, practice.

This last lesson was actually learned first.  I was immediately drawn to the book Step-By-Step Free-Motion Quilting by Christina Cameli when my rep from Checker Distributors first brought it to me.  I am, like a lot of quilters, visual by nature, and I don’t normally love reading a lot of technical wish-wash.  All you have to do is look at the outer edge of this book to know that it has a lot less talking and a lot more action.  I love that Christina does a fairly simple introduction to free-motion quilting at the beginning of the book, then jumps to over 80 hand-drawn quilting designs intended for practice both by drawing on paper as well as quilting a project.  Both Christina and Angela Walters have a no-fear, dive-in-and-do-it attitude, which I appreciate on more than one level.  I often find myself champing at the bit, as they say, anxious to bolt out of the gate before I am actually fully prepped for a successful race.  But the difference between winning and losing the race has a lot to do with one simple concept- practice.  No matter how courageous, or even how talented the horse may be, it won’t win if it doesn’t know what to do when it leaves the gate.  Thankfully both Christina and Angela are able to convey the excitement of the race, but tempered with the right amount of preparation.


That’s me in the middle on the plane writing this post.

Well, that’s it for this week.  Even as I write I am headed back home to wash the airport off of me, run laundry from an adventurous camping weekend at the Gubler Ranch and catch up with Juan first thing in the morning.  I only have a day with my quilting cohort in crime, but I’m pretty sure it’s enough to stir up some trouble to talk about next week.

The only Juan for me.


Juan is a Statler 26 longarm quilting machine from Gammill, Inc. This is our first day together.

This is Juan and I on the first day we met.  My husband said I couldn’t name him, but I couldn’t resist.  There is an awful lot of machismo packed in this thing, in all the right ways.  Plus for some reason I keep thinking of a radio commercial from several years ago where one of the voices said something like, “Hello.  My name is Juan, and today I will be your cabana boy.”  It made me giggle.  Every. Single. Time.

So, what have Juan and I been up to during this first week of our relationship?  Well, you may start humming “Getting to know you, getting to know all about you…”

First of all, there are a lot of bars on this thing.  And while I have actually loaded a number of quilts in my time, and Pat from Pat’s Calico Cottage did a great job of training me, I still had a little trouble the first time I loaded by myself.  Thankfully I followed Regina Carter’s advice and got zipper leaders, which meant when I had the quilt back wrapped around the wrong bar, I just unzipped the leader and moved it around the bar rather than having to pin it all over again.  This was especially helpful when I loaded it wrong twice.

I know it is really hard to see what’s going on in these pics, but bear with me and I will explain.  I wanted to try floating the quilt top rather than loading it in all the way, as a number of longarmers I know do it this way.  I got towards the end of the quilt and everything was so loosey-goosey that I thought I must not be ready for floating a quilt top.  Then I went to advance the quilt and realized that maybe it was actually because I forgot to lock down the bar holding the quilt backing.  Yup.  That’ll do it.


And then there was this.  Yes, there is a reason that longarmers require that backing is a full 4″ larger than the quilt top- all the way around.  At least it was just in the basting seam.

It’s been about a year and a half since I was last on a longarm machine, and I have never used a computerized program before.  This made me a little cautious about the first quilt I loaded on Juan.  I decided to do what was familiar just to get a feel for how the machine moves, and to build my confidence back up again.  I just did an allover loopy pattern, which for me is the easiest hand-guided way to quilt.  Overall it went well, and it was very much like riding a bike after a long hiatus.  Not perfectly smooth, but certainly a reminder that it is totally doable.

Since I have a pretty serious stack of quilt tops that need to be finished, it wasn’t too difficult to find my next project to load on the machine.  I decided this time that I’d better practice using the computer before I forgot everything that Pat taught me.  I chose variegated thread, a busy quilt top, and a busy quilting pattern.  All so that my mistakes might not be so obvious.  I didn’t have a lot of trouble with it, and even managed through a couple of thread breaks in the middle of the pattern without a lot of issues.  It’s about 46″x60″, and it took right about 3 1/2 hours from load to unload, which I felt like was pretty good considering I had never done it before.  Guessing that number will improve over time.

I am really excited about the prospect of manipulating the computer program for more custom quilting, as well as becoming more proficient at hand-guided work.  I have been reading several machine quilting books lately, which is unusual for me as I don’t actually read instructions unless forced!  Kind of like putting a bike together on Christmas day- who needs to read the instructions?  I do.  But only after one of the bike pedals is installed where the seat is supposed to be.  But not this time.  I want to read machine quilting books and manuals the same way I wanted to read every single Anne of Green Gables book when I was a kid.  Over and over again.