Running a longarm quilting business: Q&A with Kathy Schwartz
Kathy Schwartz has owned her own longarm quilting business, Tamarack Shack Longarm Quilting, for more than nine years. She lives in Ontario, Canada and has a loyal following on the internet who enjoy seeing her signature style of quilting. We recently asked her a few questions about how she got started and what advice she might have for those considering starting their own small business.
How did you get into quilting for other people?
My first time quilting for others was in 2004 when I was asked by my guild to quilt their Quilt Show Raffle Quilt. I never intended it to be a paid job; I considered it my contribution as a guild member to the show. I quilted it on my domestic machine, took 24 hours and the guild executive insisted on paying me once it was done. Next thing I knew I had other members asking me to quilt their projects. By 2008 I was ready to make the switch to a larger machine so took the plunge and bought a longarm machine.
What types of quilting do you most often do for your customers?
For the first eight years of my longarm business I had a good 50/50 split on Pantographs and custom work. But in the last year or two I have been getting more requests for custom quilting. I consider my style light custom and traditional but have enjoyed being stretched out of my comfort zone a few times and tried some more modern designs when presented with a modern quilt top.
What longarm machine do you use in your business and why did you choose it?
I purchased a new APQS Millennium in 2008 and upgraded with the Bliss rail system in 2012. I had test driven a Gammill and Nolting before trying the Millie and knew right away when that it was the right choice for me. I loved how light and smooth is was to move making it easy to quilt out my favorite free hand designs with it right away. The stitch quality and sturdy table were other deciding factors in my purchase.
What is your favorite batting?
Quilters Dream brand batting, especially the 70/30 Blend. I find it is strong, has an even loft across the batt and drapes beautifully once quilted.
What is your favorite thread?
My favorite threads are Superior Threads So Fine in top and Bottom Line in the bobbin. This combination of thread provided a well-defined stitch in many fabric/batting combinations as well as creates very little lint build up in my hook assembly.
What is your favorite ruler or gadget right now?
I have ALL the Quilted Pineapple Longarm rulers (curved and straight) and would highly recommend them to anyone that that enjoys custom quilting.
What are the top three pantograph patterns that you use for your customers?
My three favorite pantographs are Bora Bora, Tickle and Bayside.
What percentage of your customers are local and what percentage of folks mail you quilts? Which do you prefer?
This dynamic recently changed for me as I moved eight months ago. Before the move it was 50 percent local and 50 percent mail, now it is 75 percent mail and 25 percent local. But as I look to my future bookings the local percentage is almost 50 percent again. I have joined a few quilting groups in the area and the word is spreading that I am here. My blog and Facebook page helped connect me with a few quilters in my new town before I even moved here. It was nice to know I had local clients waiting for me to get my Longarm set up after the move.
I don’t have a preference, but do enjoy meeting my clients in person and have been lucky to meet a few of my long distant clients over the years as well.
Describe your studio and how you organize your longarm studio.
One of my prerequisites when we were shopping for a new home was a large room for my quilt studio. We were very lucky to find a new house with two rec rooms! My new studio is 14” x 21” and fits my 12” Millie, my domestic sewing cabinet, two book shelves, a fabric stash cabinet, two batting stands and a moveable ironing station. I also have a few IKEA ALEX storage cabinets that fit under my Millie which store all my threads and pantographs. We added custom cabinets to one area that serves as my cutting station and storage for my clients quilt tops, packaged batting and notions. I do miss my old “Tamarack Shack” studio that was a 12” x 15” guest house, but having all my quilting supplies and machines in one room is really nice.
What is the best thing about quilting for others?
That’s easy…helping quilters finish their projects. I am one of those quilters who like to piece and quilt a project before starting a new one. Rare, I know! As a result, it makes me very happy to help quilters turn their quilt tops into quilts so they can be used and loved.
What is a downside to quilting for others?
I wouldn’t say there is a downside but I do think it is important to make sure if you’re running a longarm business you make time to quilt some of your own quilts as well. I try to piece and quilt at least one quilt a month for myself. I also book off a month in the summer and one in the winter to give myself a break. I have found that to be very helpful in avoiding creative burn out.
What advice would you give to someone who is thinking of starting a longarm quilting business?
When I first started shopping for a longarm I knew it was going to be for a business so wanted one that would be very reliable and had great customer support. I joined the APQS quilting forum where I could ask questions in a friendly and sharing environment.
Once I purchased my Millie I spent a good three months practicing on it before taking customers as I wanted to make sure I could transfer all the skills I had developed free motion quilting on my domestic machine to the longarm. I practiced pantographs and learned to follow the laser light (look ahead, not at the light on the paper!). I made those typical first mistakes on my own quilts, like not tightening the laser light well enough and having my pantograph rows over lapping!
Once I had those lessons under my belt I had the knowledge and confidence to start taking clients. I started with local quilt guild members who I knew very well and would easily forgive any mistakes. You must remember quilters love to show their quilts to other quilters so be sure to do your very best and treat their quilts like they are your own. Happy clients are your best form of advertising so make sure to look over the quilt so you can fix any issues like tension problems or a missed designs in that one block before giving it back to the client.
Communication is so important so if there is a bigger issue with a quilt call your client right away and discuss options/solutions. I am now in my ninth year in business and have clients mailing me quilts from across Canada, the United States and even Germany thanks to my reputation and my blog.
My business has grown beyond what I could have possibly envisioned and I am so grateful to all those quilters that have trusted me with their quilts.