Extended Arm Sewing Machines - May/June 2006

EXTENDED ARM
Sewing Machines
BY Eve Mahr
SPACER
SPACER
If you are a machine quilter and are frustrated by the small sewing area on your standard size sewing machine, an extended arm machine may be the solution for you.
SPACER
I used to daydream about the perfect sewing machine for quilting. It would have more space between the needle and the upright to make maneuvering a quilt under the walking or free-motion foot easier. Fancy stitches would not be necessary because I only make quilts. A needle up/down button and a knee lift would be helpful.
Several sewing machine companies are making my dream come true. I had the chance to test the latest models. Your perfect machine may be as close as a local dealer or quilt shop.
Extended arm or large harp machines are easily recognized. They are taller than standard sewing machines and have a wider space to the right of the needle. Extended arm machines have about a 9" x 5" interior working area compared to standard full-size machines that are 7" x 4" or less. This extra space makes manipulating a rolled quilt under the foot much easier.
A free-motion foot is standard on every machine; a walking foot is included with most. These heavy-duty feet have metal claws that attach to the needle shank. They are stronger than the nylon ones on some domestic sewing machines.
Although each machine has only a few buttons and levers, they include the most important features for machine quilting. Extended arm machines have a needle up/down button which allows you to stop with the needle in the selected position. In the needle down mode, it’s simple to pivot, and my quilt doesn’t shift when I reposition my hands in the midst of free-motion quilting. I use this needle stop down feature to make neat corners on binding. Two pushes of the needle up/down button form the “one more stitch” I often need to get to just the right stopping place.
All these machines have a built-in carrying handle, but they are heavy at 25 to 30 pounds. The weight is due to the heavier motor needed for high speed stitching.

Quilting
Extended arm machines have top speeds of 1500–1600 stitches per minute—double the maximum speed of a conventional sewing machine. I found the fabric moved more smoothly under the needle and my stitches were more even when quilting on these faster machines. If high speed sounds intimidating, several machines are equipped with speed regulators.
Extended arm machines are also gaining in popularity for use with special machine quilting frames. The larger throat allows more area to be quilted before you have to move the quilt on the frame’s rollers. Some manufacturers also market companion quilting frames for their machines.

Piecing
Because extended arm machines were adapted from commercial sewing machine technology, they come with a built-in thread trimmer, a longtime staple on industrial machines. The thread trimmer totally changed my chain piecing technique. To sew a stack of patches together in pairs, I simply feed the first pair through. With the push of a button, I cut both the needle and bobbin thread, eliminating the step of snipping the “chain” later. One machine offers an additional foot-controlled button.
Chain piecing goes even faster with a knee bar to raise and lower the presser foot. With practice, I developed a rhythm: sew two patches together, cut threads by pushing the thread trimmer button, and lift presser foot to slide next pair of patches up to the needle.
Most of the machines have a quarter-inch foot that adds precision to piecing. It is standard on some machines and optional on others.
Unlike the majority of sewing machines manufactured since 1960, most extended arm machines will only straight stitch. This results in outstanding tension for piecing and quilting. Only a few extended arm models incorporate stitches other than the straight stitch.
The lack of decorative stitches has a downside for those who want to do more than piecing and quilting. The biggest issue for quilters is the absence of stitches used for machine appliqué.

Dream Machines
Choose your dream machine from the chart on page 98. If you already own a standard-size machine, an extended arm machine could be great as a second machine dedicated to piecing and machine quilting.
SPACER
To view the Adobe PDF of our 6 picks of Dream Machines, please click here
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