Running a longarm quilting business: Q&A with Carrie Behlke
Carrie Behlke is an Ohio native who now lives in Canada. She started her longarm quilting business three years ago, and has never looked back since. We sat down with her to learn more about how she started her business, what challenges she has faced and what tips she has for others who are ready to begin quilting for others.
How did you being quilting for other people?
My first paying customer was a friend’s mom who I talked into letting me quilt one of her quilts on my domestic sewing machine (DSM). More people started seeing my work on Facebook and bringing me their quilt tops. The biggest spike in my clientele started when I purchased my APQS Lenni longarm in 2015.
I knew there would be a learning curve, converting from a DSM to a standup machine. So, I reached out to the members of our church. I explained that I needed quilt tops to practice with my new longarm, and I offered to quilt one top for anyone in our church, as well as one for any of their friends, for FREE. I made no guarantees about the quilting, but promised to do my best. I probably quilted 20 practice pieces that way, and those ladies are STILL some of my most loyal and productive clients.
What types of quilting do you most often do for your customers?
I usually quilt a really nice mix of custom and edge-to-edge (E2E). I find that I need the variety. I’d get burnt out if every project was really detailed, high-end custom. But I’d get bored if all I did was E2E. I’ve never used a panto or computerized pattern. I do everything (including E2E) from the front of my machine.
What longarm machine do you use in your business and why did you choose it?
I use a APQS Lenni with Bliss on a 12’ table. When shopping for a longarm, I limited myself to models that I could test drive in person and who had reps in Alberta, where I live.
APQS machines have a really great reputation as being high-quality workhorses. I was worried about longevity with one of the cheaper brands, and truthfully, I just didn’t like the visual design of the third brand. I know this doesn’t matter – the priority should be that the machine works well and does beautifully stitching (which APQS did, according to my research). But I figured, if I just didn’t LIKE looking at the machine every day when I went to it, I wouldn’t feel good about working on it.
The other thing that I really liked (and I mean REALLY liked) was the personal attention I received from the APQS reps in my area. They patiently answered my questions, they remembered me when I showed up at their booth at a quilt show, they replied back to my emails at all hours of the day and night. They really gave me the impression that I was joining a family. So, I chose APQS. I’ve grown to love my Lenni, and we’ve gotten along just fine through hundreds of quilts. I still sometimes yearn for more throat-space, but not enough to upgrade, as yet.
What is your favorite batting?
I will accept any batting clients want to bring, and have had no problems. I do stock a few varieties for those who don’t want to bring their own. The bulk of my clients prefer Hobbs 80/20. I also stock Hobbs washable wool. If someone wants more of a show piece with lots of definition, I’ll encourage them to use 80/20 on bottom and wool on top. I have also had good luck layering Quilters Dream Select Poly under a layer of wool. I will also recommend QD Select for customers who want a very drapey, floppy, cuddly quilt. It seems to have less structure than Hobbs 80/20 and resists stiffness, even when quilted more heavily, nice for wrapping yourself up in.
What is your favorite ruler or gadget at the moment?
Side clamps from Fred’s Creative Woodworking – seriously, people! Do yourself a favor and get a set. I swapped the Velcro with elastic on mine, and with that slight modification THEY ARE AWESOME.
Another favorite is a 12×4” rectangular ruler from Linda’s Electric Quilters. It’s so huge that I can do a pretty long distance of dot-to-dot connecting without marking. Also, nested circle rulers from Quilter’s Rule. I used painter’s tape to attach a few different sizes of these rulers to give my hand something more to hold onto.
What percentage of your customers are local and what percentage of folks mail you quilts? Which do you prefer?
Approximately 90 percent are local and 10 percent ship their quilts. I don’t really have a huge preference, but local transactions are simpler, since I don’t have to package anything up for shipping. Plus, I have more of a chance of running into the local clients at a store or festival and being able to give them a big quilter’s hug.
Describe your studio for us.
If it was completely up to me, the whole thing would probably be a hot mess. But I share the space with the rest of our family, and my husband is a neat freak. Plus, when I got my longarm, my daughters were two and one, and anything that wasn’t up off the floor and out of their reach went missing (or got chewed on) quickly. They’re older now, but I try to be mindful of everyone’s sanity, and I do recognize that orderliness can allow me to be more efficient with my time. My quilting and sewing space is very much temporary, at the moment. We will soon be adding a designated quilting studio space onto our house, and I’m fantasizing about how I’m going to organizing everything!
Do you use an accounting software of some sort to keep track of your invoices?
I use Quickbooks Online (QBO). I used to just do each invoice manually, but it got too complicated to remember who had paid and who hadn’t, especially as I got more and more customers. I’m very happy with QBO. Math is automatic, tax is calculated, and I can also choose to bill in CAD or USD, which is good for my cross-border clientele.
What is the best thing about quilting for others?
I love being able to explore quilts much faster than if I took time to piece them all myself. I swear, I don’t even LIKE piecing anymore. I also get to earn an income for my family, while still having the flexibility to RAISE my family. I can work a full-time job, in bits and pieces here and there as my daily schedule allows. Finally, getting to bond with other quilters and make people smile. I LOVE when clients tell me how much the quilting topped off their piece!
What is a downside to quilting for others?
I’ve YET to find a downside! Occasionally, I’ll get a piece that doesn’t really inspire me. I guess the hardest thing would be NOT getting to keep these quilts for myself. But even with my most favorite projects for clients, I don’t have a hard time giving them back, because I can’t wait to see the client’s reaction, and I know there will be another awesome one coming up in my queue at some point soon. I love quilting for others!
What advice would you give to someone who is thinking of starting a longarm quilting business?
If you’re on Facebook, join some of the longarm quilting groups (Beginner Longarm Quilters is WONDERFUL!). They are FULL of people with a wide range of experience, machines, and skills who are awake at all hours of the day and willing to chime in with their advice about your questions/problems.
Also, enroll quilts in local quilt shows. See if you can rent a booth space in the show. I have participated in a local “quilt stroll” for the last couple of years, and I’ll take pop-up tents and borrow quilts back from my customers to have them on display. I’ll set up my DSM and demonstrate free-motion quilting on it, while I have video playing on my laptop of me working on my longarm at home. Having something for people to WATCH really opens a conversation nicely. And then I can direct them to the video to show them what it is that I NORMALLY quilt on.
Finally, remember to under-promise and over-deliver. If someone asks how long it will be to complete a quilt, and you think it’ll be about four weeks, tell them four to six weeks. If you get it done early, they’ll be ecstatic. If you don’t, they won’t be disappointed.
What do you wish you knew now about running your business that you didn’t know before?
I wish I had known I was going to be able to generate the amount of business that I have. I wouldn’t have agonized about making the investment, and might have actually spent money to travel and explore more machines/brands. I just didn’t even know if I would ever be able to get people to pay me! The running of the business has not been complicated for me. It’s pretty common-sense, practical stuff. I don’t even mind billing.
Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know about your business or about the machine quilting business in general?
I guess the thing I like to remind people is that I like ALL types of quilting jobs. When clients bashfully say stuff like, “I’m not a prize quilter,” or “this isn’t a show piece, by any means,” I always try to reassure them that I have never met a quilt I didn’t like.
If I were talking to other machine quilters, I would also want them to remember that we’re all in this together. You will at some point hear a client’s complaint about a different longarm quilter they went to in the past, and in those cases, I will never badmouth them. You don’t know what the specifics of that project were. There are two sides to every story, and I wouldn’t want someone else trashing me.